Updated: Jun 10, 2021
“Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.”
– Jack Kerouac
Starting with the first road trip I made in 1987 to Alaska, up to the year 2013, I had embarked on dozens of road trips, at a rate of about one per year, always under the unyielding constraint of time away from work. For 26 years, I had to settle for road trips crammed into a single week, or, if I was lucky, two-week blocks of time on the road, but never more than that. Though exciting and fulfilling in many ways, they always seemed to come up short of one really significant and frustratingly unattainable goal: a bona fide cross-country road trip that starts on one coast and ends on the other. The furthest point on any continental tour I was ever able to achieve from Seattle was Hammond, Indiana, before having to turn around and head back home.
The principal constraint was less about financial resources and more about the PTO policies of the various employers I worked for. It wasn't until I had been with my current employer long enough to advance through the various PTO reward tiers, based on years of service, that an extended period of time away became possible. At three years in, I began accumulating PTO at a faster rate, and therefore, was able to swing a three-week absence from work -- with my supervisor's blessing of course. My cross-country road trip was long overdue and so, having the green light to move forward, I began assembling all the critical resources available to me at the time -- travel guides, discount lodgings coupon books, a detailed road atlas and a new Garmin GPS device that suctioned perfectly on the inside of my car's windshield. And I already had my East Coast destination selected: New York City. Once I got approval to take a three-week absence from work, I began working out the route, loosely enough to accommodate spontaneous adjustments, but with enough overall structure to maximize scenery, parks and monuments, roadside attractions, and generic geographic novelty. Though capturing new counties was not the primary goal of this trip, I still made an attempt to engineer a route that would pass through as many new ones as possible.
For two or three months leading up to my scheduled departure, my linear perception of time began to mutate and stretch out like taffy, owing undoubtedly to my implacable anticipation and excitement about the experience and adventures that surely would accompany this first-time trans-continental tour. I had originally planned to make it a solo journey. And then, to my surprise, I got a welcome invitation from a member of my family. My step-mother, Lola, with whom I had never been on an extended road trip before, offered to join me on my adventure -- and I couldn't have been more pleased with the idea.
May 31, 2013 - Granite Falls, Washington
At the time, my partner Matthew and I were living in a cavernous mountain lodge on the South Fork of the Stillaguamish River. It was an A-frame-style house on three acres we bought on the cheap in 2007 and had spent four years fixing up. We ended up moving from Edmonds, Washington to the small town of Granite Falls, gateway to the Mountain Loop Highway, to take up residence in this oversized, yet welcoming house. It soon became visitor central for family, friends and even some travelers we had met online or through friends. There was plenty of room for everyone under our roof. We have since sold that place and moved to a smaller and newer house 15 minutes away, but what is tied up in my memory of that grand residence are the experiences of the nearly obstacle-free, long-haul road trips and travels I made while living there and the sweet remembrances of good times shared on the road with Lola.
In preparation for the road trip, I invested in a higher-end SLR camera with a detachable zoom lens. I really wanted to get the best quality photos possible as keepsakes for what would surely be one of the most significant road adventures of my life. By the time Lola and I started our journey, I had mastered the use of the camera -- or so I thought.
On Friday, May 31st, Lola made the 90-minute drive up to Granite Falls from where she and Dad live in Buckley, Washington. We had planned to set out the next morning, June 1st. When she arrived, it was clear to both of us that we were far too fired up and giddy with anticipation to wait until the morning -- we wanted to leave right away and get a head start. At 5 p.m. that day, with my silver 2011 Hyundai Elantra fully loaded, we slowly rolled out along the winding gravel driveway from my house. Halfway along the driveway, Lola turned to me and said, "Tracy, I hope we remain friends after this trip." I was acutely aware of the possibility that three weeks in the car together could bring out the worst in us and reveal parts of our personalities that we had not seen, or worse, that might create tensions that could potentially ruin the experience for us both. We were already very close, but our friendship had never been put to the test like this before. Though her comment made real the very deep concern we were obviously both feeling, I was glad she acknowledged it upfront. And with that, I felt an immediate wave of relief. I knew in my heart that we were naturally simpatico. We have similar temperaments and life philosophies. We share a lot of the same interests. We also have very similar senses of humor that are quirky and sometimes downright crude. My response to Lola's candor was something like this, "I hope we remain friends too, but something tells me we're going to get along just fine."
And we did. The three weeks on the road together strengthened the already powerful bond we had with one another, and took our friendship to a new level. It also led to a series of annual road trips together that continue to this day.
There's nothing like the beginning of a lengthy road trip. Everything is still out in front of you. Time seems abundant and boundless, and your mind races with the anticipation of all the places and things you will see. The mood in the car that evening was one of high spirits and absolute exuberance. Our pathway eastward was along U.S. 2. By the time we had crossed the Cascades, and had entered the arid, sparsely populated, desert-like landscape of Eastern Washington, the sun was setting and the scenery was reduced to just those parts of the highway that could be seen under the illumination of the car's headlights. Our goal was to get to Spokane that evening, which is about a five-hour drive from where I lived. Once there, we checked into a Travelodge across the street from the Spokane Convention Center. We had brought a fifth of vodka and a bottle of cranberry juice with us so that we could make road-trip Cape Cods. Drinking from the disposable plastic cups found in every room, and filled with ice from the machines down the hall, it became a nightly indulgence for us and a welcome refreshment at the end of each day. We usually drank our Cape Cods over games of cards like Phase 10, Nines, Uno or gin-rummy. And we always, always made crude jokes during play and laughed ourselves to the point of abdominal pain.
June 1, 2013
Our first full day of driving started with a quick trip out of Spokane, across the state line into Idaho and a visit to the Coeur d'Alene Casino. Neither of us had been to that casino before and we really only planned to spend an hour at most at the slots. We ended up staying just 30 minutes, but I walked away with an extra $260 in my wallet. In my own personal experience, walking away from a casino with a surplus of cash is definitely the exception, not the rule.
We continued north on U.S. 95 to Coeur d'Alene, hopped onto I-90 eastbound, and within an hour, we had crossed Lookout Pass into Montana and into the Mountain Time Zone. Not far from Lookout Pass, just off Exit 16, is the small town of Haugan, Montana. If you get off the freeway there, you can visit the famous 50,000 Silver Dollar complex. It is a unique roadside attraction with a restaurant, a bar, and a gift shop, all festooned with thousands of Morgan, Peace, Eisenhower and even Susan B. Anthony silver dollars embedded under thick acrylic sheets on the establishment's walls, tables, countertops, and sometimes, even in the floor. You can buy some of the silver dollars in their gift shop, but I wouldn't recommend it. As an avid coin collector myself, I can tell you that the markup on those silver dollars was, at the time, about 300% of their actual value. If you really want one at a fair price, get one from eBay instead. Adjacent to the main building is a separate structure that houses the motel.
Shortly thereafter, we got back on I-90 and stopped in Missoula for gas and a little lunch. Missoula is one of my favorite cities in Montana. It is blessed with abundant natural beauty surrounding it. Soon enough, we were back on the road, passing through Butte and landing in Bozeman, where we found a nice hotel for the night. Bozeman is one of the many gateways to Yellowstone National Park. In the summertime, the town is swarming with tourists preparing to visit the park. Hotel prices are a little higher during this time of year, so if you're planning a stay in Bozeman in the late spring or in the summertime, be prepared to pay a little more for your room. Lola and I lucked out in this regard. We picked up a free copy of Hotel Coupons and found a deal for a room at a Super 8 for just $69. You can find copies at nearly all Denny's, IHOPs, visitors centers, tourist attractions, and sometimes gas stations. There's even an app for your phone! It's the easiest way to save money while you're on the road, especially if you're unable to plan your overnight stays in advance and would prefer to wing it instead.
Now 700 miles into our trip, we decided to skip the fast-food routine for dinner and sit down at an Appleby's. We knew that a steady diet of burgers and tacos would not be healthy for us over the next three weeks, so we made an attempt to order healthier meals at sit-down restaurants like this one whenever possible.
June 2, 2013
The next morning, we headed east on I-90 as far as Big Timber, then north toward Harlowton along U.S. 191. The drive passed through some of the most beautiful country I have ever seen. Even my new high-tech SLR camera could not capture photos that were as impactful as the views we fed on with our own eyes. At one point, we pulled over to the shoulder and just stood along the highway, gazing out at the expansive horizon, and marveling at nature's perfection. The placement of trees, streams, hills, mountains, and rocks, the cool green hues of the tall grasses and the cerulean sea of sky above us all worked in perfect synchronicity to create the most breathtaking tableau of idyllic beauty one could imagine. Everywhere we rested our eyes, we encountered a postcard-perfect vista.
The antelope were plentiful in the grassy hillsides along the highway. In fact, we saw a lot of wildlife out on the road. There were two memorable stories that came out of this particular segment of our drive:
The first one tapped into one of Lola's phobias. She was behind the wheel on this very rural stretch of highway when suddenly, a rattlesnake appeared on the asphalt ahead of us. We could see that it was moving, almost rearing itself for a strike as we approached. We were moving too fast to avoid it, so when Lola rolled over it with the driver’s side tire, her immediate reaction was an agitated display of the willies.
Later we saw a man walking his dog — while he was driving. It was outside of Bozeman along a frontage road. He was in his car behind the wheel, driver's side door open, holding a leash that was tethered to a dog. Granted, he was driving at the same pace that the dog was walking, but the image of it and the very idea that someone would drive-walk their pet, was too preposterous not to find amusing.
We turned east at Harlowton and made our way to Billings, Montana's largest city, where we stopped for lunch. At Billings, the interstate splits in two. You can continue on a more-or-less southeasterly orientation along I-90 toward Wyoming, or you can stay to the left and start your journey along I-94 toward Miles City and, eventually, North Dakota. We continued on I-90 and stopped at the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. Best known as the place of Custer's Last Stand, it is a tribute to the fallen of the 1876 battle between the U.S. Army and the Sioux and Cheyenne tribes who were under the political and spiritual leadership of Sitting Bull. In recent years, a Native American interpretative monument was erected adjacent to the battle site itself and is very much worth exploring.
Back on the interstate, we soon crossed into Wyoming and passed through the coal-mining towns of Gillette and Wyodak where enormous veins of coal, cracked open to the sky and surrounded by sagebrush-covered hills, could be seen from the freeway -- where waves of freight cars lined up to be filled with the sooty black rock before making their long journey to the Pacific Coast, and ultimately, China. At Moorcroft, Wyoming, Lola and I got off the freeway and made the 30-minute drive to Devil's Tower.
We lingered just long enough at the visitor's center to feel satisfied that we had seen the tower up close, snap our photos and leave. One of the places where our personalities intersected perfectly was at the moment we arrived at a monument or scenic vista or some other notable roadside curiosity: neither of us needed to have a drawn-out experience of it -- we were satisfied just to see it, get a picture or two and then move on. The rest of our family referred to us as drive-by tourists, barely slowing the car down long enough to see the sights yet with just enough time to get a quick photo. It became our thing, and it saved us loads of time in the long run.
We crossed into South Dakota on I-90 at around 6:30 that evening. Deadwood was just 20 miles away and turned out to be the perfect place to settle down for the evening. Using our hotel coupon booklet, we got a great deal on a room at Cadillac Jack's Gaming Resort right in town. It was just $69 for the night. It turned out to be one of our favorite places on our road trip as it was the perfect combination of hotel room and casino, all in one place. Casinos, specifically slot play, is yet another interest Lola and I share. We stayed up until midnight playing, breaking even at the end.
June 3, 2013
Breakfast in the hotel restaurant was buffet style and loaded with dozens of choices, including pizza and an omelet bar. It was also an amazing bargain since we were given a two-for-one coupon when we checked in. After breakfast, we explored the town a little, then made our way along the serpentine highways through the Black Hills to Mt. Rushmore National Memorial. I had been there twice before back in the '90s, but this was Lola's first visit. It was a popular place that day, teeming with tourists. We picked up a few items at the gift shop -- Lola collects lapel pins as souvenirs and snatches them up whenever she can.
Soon we got back on the highway, headed down the mountain and out of the Black Hills. This area of South Dakota is really worth spending more time in. There's a lot to see and do there and the roadside scenery is arrestingly beautiful.
Soon, we were descending into Rapid City where we reconnected with I-90 moving eastward. We stopped at Wall Drug, only because after 400 miles of Burma-Shave-style advertising along the freeway, you really have no choice. I mean, how can you resist the promise printed in bold type on wave upon wave of placards along the interstate of the free, rejuvenating ice water, the 5¢ coffee or freshly-baked doughnuts? Located in Wall, South Dakota, Wall Drug is a sprawling network of restaurants, gift shops, touristy curiosities, and yes, even a drug store, all set against the backdrop of Wild West-style buildings and wood-plank sidewalks.
Just outside of Wall, we left I-90 and took U.S. 14 to South Dakota's capital city, Pierre (pron. PEER). Crossing the Missouri River at Pierre, you lose an hour as you enter the Central Time Zone. The drive was beautiful, but long and through some of the loneliest country in the Prairies. From Pierre, we headed north on U.S. 83 which turned out to be even more monotonous and desolate than U.S. 14. You can't help but feel small in these mostly evacuated and incredibly vast swaths of open land in the middle of the country. Each time you come to the crest of a hill along the highway, you can see out toward the horizon for a dozen miles or more, but hardly a single vehicle passes you on the way.
Just a few miles before Selby, we hooked to the right and headed east along U.S. 12, hoping to get to the Minnesota state line before it got to be too dark. As nighttime slowly descended, and the realization crept over us that there were too many miles left before our goal, we started looking for a hotel -- any hotel -- that looked clean and reasonably priced. It wasn’t until we got to Milbank, South Dakota -- ten miles short of the Minnesota state line -- that we found a Super 8 that appeared suitable. We were surprised that, out in the middle of nowhere, in a town of just over 3,000, on a highway with little traffic -- on a Monday night -- rooms at this roadside hotel were going for $81/night. When we invoked the universally recognized AAA membership, the rate came down to $74. The room had an unpleasant odor, one of the bedside lamps didn't work, and the bathroom fan was non-functioning, but it was a godsend to us. We were road-weary travelers in desperate need of a bed and a roof over our heads.
June 4, 2013
The next morning, we crossed into Minnesota to find the state is stitched together with one bad road after another. We also entered into a fierce storm system that seemed to obscure the skies and wring the moisture from every raincloud in a single action. Even at the highest speed, the wipers of my car could not keep up with the violent assault on my windshield. It slowed our travel just a bit until the unmitigated downpour relented enough for us to see the road ahead. In a twist of irony, we soon passed through the town of Granite Falls -- the same name of my hometown back in Washington State and where our great adventure began. There was a casino just on the other side of town where we stopped to play. An hour later, we left just a bit poorer than we were going in.
By two that afternoon, we were pulling into Minneapolis. We drove into the downtown core for more pictures. Here's where the camera story goes sideways. I hadn't noticed it, but the camera somehow got set on timer mode. We pulled over to the side of one of the downtown streets so that I could inspect it and figure out how to disable the timer. That’s when I did something that makes me cringe even to this day -- I accidentally reformatted the memory stick inside the camera, wiping out all of the pictures we had taken up to that point of the road trip. My heart sunk. There was no way to recover them. It was a stupid thing, really. It's also the reason why I have so few personal photos of our journey up to this point in my blog. Those that I do have are from Lola's personal camera -- mercifully she was taking her own set all along.
Next Stop, Wisconsin
We didn't spend a lot of time exploring the Twin Cities. We got back on the highway heading north on I-35 and then east on U.S. 8. Before long, we were crossing into Wisconsin at St. Croix Falls. We found a fun casino outside of town where we played for an hour or so, then grabbed a quick meal at a McDonald’s across the street before continuing eastward. We drove for a few more hours until we arrived in Rhinelander, Wisconsin where we settled for the night at America's Best Value hotel, and at $67 for the room, it truly was a "best" value.
June 5, 2013
Before leaving Rhinelander, and realizing we would be leaving Wisconsin altogether very soon, Lola wanted to see if she could find a souvenir Wisconsin lapel pin. We looked just about everywhere that morning and came up empty-handed. The town is noteworthy for one thing in particular -- the mythical hodag creature. It looks like a giant, snarling lizard with horns on its back. There's even a festival in July bearing its name, and because of that, all of the souvenirs bear its likeness, including the lapel pins.
We crossed into Michigan at around 11 a.m. and stopped in Iron Mountain for a genuine pasty (pron. PASS tee) -- a delight that is sold nearly everywhere in Michigan, and Michigan only, or so it appears. A pasty is a lot like a chicken pot pie. It is a round piece of dough that is filled with potatoes, carrots, celery and meats, then folded over in half and cinched all along the edges. We ordered two chicken pasties for the road which turned out to be hotter than lava on the inside, but quite delicious and worth the wait while it cooled down.
Shortly after leaving Iron Mountain, we crossed into the Eastern Time Zone, losing another hour. We were officially in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Only 11% of Michigan's total population lives in this remote, northern part of the state. We learned that the people living there are called Yoopers, and that they refer to the rest of Michiganders as “trolls” because those people live “below the bridge," referring of course to the Mackinac Bridge separating Upper from Lower Michigan. On our way to Mackinac, we passed vistas of the ocean-like Lake Michigan and several scenic turnouts where we could view the water.
We stopped in St. Ignace at a souvenir barn and picked up the obligatory t-shirts, lapel pins and refrigerator magnets. It was there where I got some amazing photos of the Mackinac Bridge. Incidentally, the toll on the bridge at the time was just $4.
We began our lower peninsula journey on Highway 23 along the shore of Lake Huron. By the time we arrived in Alpena, daylight was leaving us. Though we searched for a suitable place to stay, we couldn’t find any -- at least, none that were open. There were scores of resorts all along the highway, each with their own quaint, individual cabins for rent, but it appeared they were waiting for the summer season to start -- no one was there, and so on we drove into the night, hoping our search would end quickly. We eventually arrived in Oscoda and AuSable (pron. “ah SAHBL”), in Iosco County. There’s where we found the Rest-All Inn. It was practically empty, but open. It had a heated indoor pool, a hot tub, a continental breakfast. We slept very well that night after a dip in the pool and a soak in the hot tub. It really helped to melt the stress of car travel away. And the room rate was very reasonable at $76.
The Adventures Continue ... In the Next Installment
At this point, we had traveled 2,567 miles from our starting point in Granite Falls, Washington. To keep these posts short and easily digestible, I'll pause here for now and pick up the thread next week. Until then, dear travelers, may all your journeys be safe and rich in experience!