Updated: 3 days ago
June 17, 2013 - Kansas City Here I Come
By the time we crossed the Mississippi River the night before, Lola and I had logged 4,837 miles on the road, passed through 19 states, visited a dozen or more monuments, parks and tourist attractions, overnighted in 12 different hotels and motels, snapped more than 700 photos, gambled in nine casinos, counted 30 or more Cracker Barrel billboards along the way, and spent hours upon hours in the car together, discovering that not only were we super-compatible road-trip partners, we have a lot more in common than we realized. Extended road trips like this one can imperil even the hardiest friendships, so you can imagine the joyful reaction I experienced in the utter serendipity of finding the perfect road trip partner within my own family.
After a quick breakfast in the hotel lobby, we got back on the Interstate and headed south to New Madrid and the bootheel of Missouri. New Madrid is probably most noteworthy as being the epicenter of a series of powerful and violent earthquakes that occurred between December 1811 and February 1812. The area was only sparsely populated at the time, so no casualties were reported, but it is believed that the quakes resulted in permanent changes in the flow of the Mississippi River.
Once in the bootheel, we turned westward on Highway 62 toward the northeast corner of Arkansas and into the wild and picturesque regions of the Ozarks.
Our first and only stop in Arkansas that morning was the quaint town of Piggott. We got out of the car to wander the town square and do a little window shopping.
On our way back to Missouri, just before crossing the state line, we stopped at the Arkansas visitor center where they were handing out free souvenir lapel pins, and Lola was able to add a new one to her collection.
Crossing back into Missouri, we made our way up to Poplar Bluff where we reconnected with U.S. 60 heading west through the Ozarks. The countryside in southern Missouri along our route was absolutely stunning. I made a mental footnote that this was a part of the country I would love to return to and take my time driving around in. I would eventually get that opportunity in 2018.
The weather got pretty stormy as we pushed further west through the Ozarks. Finally we arrived in Springfield where we picked up the N. Kansas Expressway (Route 13) and headed northwest toward Kansas City.
We finally arrived in Kansas City at around 6 or 7 where we planned to settle in for the night. The rooms at Harrah’s Casino in North Kansas City were extremely reasonable at $69/night. To put the cherry on the sundae, our room had a magnificent view of downtown Kansas City.
June 18, 2013 - Passage Through the Heartland
That morning, we bid good-bye to Kansas City and headed northwest along I-29 to St. Joseph, Missouri. From there, we got onto U.S. 36 westbound and crossed the Missouri River into Kansas.
The drive along U.S. 36 was one of my favorite stretches of highway on our trip. It passes through the lush, grass-carpeted, gently undulating terrain of northeastern Kansas where the roads look like dancing ribbons in front of you and the drive is a soothing lullaby.
About halfway across the northern tier of the state, we took a jog north on U.S. 281 to visit the Geographic Center of the Lower 48 States. It's about a four-mile drive north of the turnoff from U.S. 36, just north of the town of Lebanon. I was able to add one more geographical extremity to my growing list. (See my post on "Going to Extremes" for more.)
After a short visit and a few quick photos, we returned to U.S. 36 and continued west, passing through Smith Center, Phillipsburg and Norton. Somewhere between Norton and Oberlin, we saw a formidable storm front approaching from the southwest. It looked like a black wall of doom come to swallow us up. We knew that, in a few short miles, we would be arriving in Oberlin and turning right onto U.S. 83 to travel north into Nebraska, and away from the advancing storm front. The question was, could we outrun it?
Whether we actually outran the storm front is unclear, but we did manage to avoid it. The further north we traveled, the more mileage we seemed to put between ourselves and the advancing wall of doom. Soon, we crossed into Nebraska.
After passing through the small town of McCook, we were tailed by a state patrol car. One of the most unnerving experiences of highway travel is having a police car follow you. Even though you know you have been obeying all of the traffic laws, it's still unsettling while they're behind you, possibly observing your driving habits with exacting standards, waiting for an excuse to pull you over and issue you a citation. At least, that's what goes through my mind. In this case, he followed us for almost 70 miles -- all the way to North Platte, Nebraska. And then he was gone.
Lola and I found a Fairfield Inn & Suites just off the freeway and checked in. The room rate was surprisingly high, especially for a Tuesday night in the middle of Nebraska. We paid nearly twice what we had come to expect for a room rate: $130 for the night. We looked for clues that might suggest we were getting our money's worth, like exquisitely appointed furnishings, plush amenities, maybe a wine and cheese hour, or a sumptuous breakfast in the morning. There was none of that. In fact, we didn't even get a suite -- I shudder to think what the rate is on those rooms. Bottom line is, we should have shopped around a little before settling on a hotel.
That night, we went to an Applebee's to get dinner -- actually we ordered it to go and had a drink at the bar while we were waiting for our food to come out. Seemingly out of nowhere, a slightly inebriated middle-aged woman approached me, stumbling a little, and started flirting pretty heavily. Lola was sitting next to me, on the opposite side, observing the spectacle with a slight grin on her face. I was trying to be polite and keep the conversation neutral. When the woman leaned into me, I turned to Lola with a look of panic that pleaded, "Help me!" Just at that moment, our food arrived and we were out of there like a shot.
June 19, 2013 - Driving Across the High Rocky Mountain Plateau
Back on the road that morning, after a rather lackluster and disappointing breakfast in the hotel lobby, we headed west on I-80, zooming over the plains at 80+ mph. At the junction with I-76, we took the exit leading toward Denver.
We only traveled as far as Julesburg, just to say we had visited Colorado.
After a quick detour into the city, and a stop at the welcome center to have a mid-morning snack, we found a small highway north out of town, back across the border into western Nebraska. In short order, we reconnected with I-80 heading west through the badlands toward Wyoming.
If you've ever traveled across Wyoming on I-80, then you're probably familiar with the ever-present wind and mostly treeless landscapes of the high Rocky Mountain Plateau. The interstate moves very quickly in this part of the country. Even though the distance across the state is more than 400 miles, it seems to take no time at all to close the distance. Our first stop was at Sherman Summit about 25 miles east of Laramie. At 8,640 feet, it is the highest point along the entire transcontinental stretch of I-80.
It also happens to be the location of the Abraham Lincoln Memorial Monument, erected in 1959 overlooking Sherman Hill and then moved to its current location in 1969 with the construction of I-80. The monument was built to commemorate the Lincoln Highway which was the first American coast-to-coast automobile roadway, dedicated in 1913. (See my post on "The Lincoln Highway" for more information.)
Further west, beyond Laramie, Elk Mountain and Rawlins, we crossed the Continental Divide. Technically, we crossed the divide into the Great Divide Basin, a vast area in the interior of Wyoming where water doesn't flow east or west on its way to empty out into an ocean. It merely flows into an endorheic basin which retains water with no outflow to other bodies of water. The rain collected here simply evaporates. Fifty-eight miles or so later, we crossed the Continental Divide a second time, and thus, out of the Great Divide Basin.
I don't recall exactly where in Wyoming Lola and I stopped for a bathroom break and refreshments. It was at a truck stop just off the interstate with lots of people going in and out of the store. One of those people going in really caught my attention. As I was exiting the store, I noticed an elderly man storming up the walkway toward the door, wearing nothing but a pretty floral print sundress and flip flops. You could tell from his knitted brow and heavy, disgruntled gait that he was pissed and on a mission. He was like that scary storm front Lola and I escaped the day before, and I just wanted to get out of his way. I held the door open for him and he charged right through without acknowledging the courtesy -- and frankly, given his tempestuous demeanor, I wasn't expecting anything more. I sat there in the car, still processing the interaction and waiting for Lola who was still inside the store. When she emerged, she had a smile on her face and, as soon as she got inside the car, she burst out laughing. I knew exactly what she was laughing about -- she had seen the same man. She said she was standing in line at the register when he came in. She and another customer in line exchanged humorous looks trying to avoid the temptation to laugh out loud. We didn't stick around the truck stop to see if there was more to the story. We got back on the interstate and sped away.
The incident created more than just a funny story for us to tell friends and family later. It spawned an entirely new road trip game that turned out to be as improper as it was entertaining. It doesn't have an official name, but you could call it the "inventing comical backstories for people in weird situations" highway game. We did this whenever we felt we only had part of someone's story and needed to fill in the missing details. Our first subject was Angry Old Man in a Sundress. We came up with at least a dozen backstories for him to explain the deviant behavior. Maybe he got rolled by a hooker at a nearby motel, stole her clothes and marched himself to the nearest payphone to call for a ride. Maybe he lost a bet to a friend and, as penance, had to don a pretty sundress, hike to the nearest truck stop and buy a six-pack of beer. Maybe his wife caught him in the act of cheating, chased him out of the house stark naked, but then took a small amount of pity on him and tossed him an old sundress and a pair of flip flops. It's a game with endless possibilities.
By the time we got to Evanston, Wyoming, it was time to find a hotel and settle in for the night. There was a coupon in our Hotel Coupons booklet for a room at the Days Inn by Wyndham offering a rate of $69 for the night. We weren't expecting much for that rate, so we were pleasantly surprised when the room turned out to be more than comfortable. We took advantage of their heated indoor pool and hot tub -- so relaxing at the end of a long day of driving. And there was a great restaurant just next door where we had a satisfying, delicious dinner.
June 20, 2013 - Wendover or Bust!
Lola and I didn't have a long day of driving ahead of us. We had already agreed to take it easier that day and drive as far as West Wendover, Nevada -- a town that starts right at the state line and exists largely to lure people from the Salt Lake area into its casinos. Though it is in Nevada, the local time there is set to Mountain Time. The total number of miles from Evanston to West Wendover is just 200 -- a distance we covered in about three hours. Lola got us a room at the Montego Bay Casino Resort for almost nothing. The town of West Wendover, Nevada is separated from Wendover, Utah by the state line. The hotel/casino parking lot, in fact, is in Utah. In the space between our parked car and the front door of the casino, we crossed into Nevada. The front doors literally open up onto the state line.
In order to get to Wendover, you have to traverse the Bonneville Salt Flats. It is an other-worldly landscape dominated by a vast, hard-packed, bone-dry, ancient lake bed turned white by salt deposits, surrounded by distant mountains that rise suddenly at the salt flat’s perimeter. I-80 cuts a straight-as-an-arrow path westward across the salt flats. As you start your journey at the eastern edge and stare down the interstate toward the mountains in the distance, you can almost see the curvature of the earth. At the western edge of the salt flats is where Nevada begins.
June 21, 2013 - Destination: Pendleton, Oregon
Lola and I had been playing at the slots pretty much all night, so we were a little slower than usual getting our morning started. We had a long way to go before stopping for the night. Lola agreed to be our driver for the first part of the day. We got back on I-80 westbound, penetrating deeper into Nevada and the arid, sagebrush covered valleys bordering the interstate. I fell asleep in the car and missed an hour or so of the drive, but when Lola got off the freeway at Wells, and started north on U.S. 93, I awoke in time to enjoy the scenery ahead. The drive is through desolate, dry land that is beautiful in its own right, passing through valleys and cresting hills, always providing unique vistas for the casual motorist.
Before long, you arrive at the border town of Jackpot, Nevada, which marches up to but not over the state line with Idaho. It is a smaller gambling center than Wendover, pulling people down from Twin Falls or perhaps as far as away as Boise. Like Wendover, Jackpot observes Mountain Time, even though it is in Nevada which is a Pacific Time Zone state. The decision to join Mountain Time was undoubtedly made to draw in people from neighboring Idaho without forcing them to adjust their watches.
Lola and I stopped for some very quick slot play, and as I recall, we walked away with more cash in our pockets than when we walked in. Continuing north on U.S. 93, we passed through Twin Falls, Idaho and then connected with I-84. The interstate provided us with a safe, high-speed experience on our continuing migration westward across the state. At 80 mph, it didn't take long to get to Boise and then to the border with Oregon in Ontario.
The drive along I-84 through the northeast corner of Oregon is quite beautiful. The interstate follows the Snake River for the first portion of this segment, providing the driver with spectacular views.
Oregon is in Pacific Time -- except for one county in the southeast corner of the state -- Malheur County. When you enter the state at Ontario, you are in Malheur County. Once you exit the county along I-84, you see a sign announcing that you are re-entering Pacific Time. Pendleton is about two-and-a-half hours away from Ontario. To get there, you pass through spectacular scenery in the Blue Mountains choked with evergreens and alpine vegetation, and then, just before descending the escarpment above Pendleton, you enter a completely different climatic zone where the land is stark, dry and brown -- the characteristics of the semi-arid regions of eastern Oregon and Washington where rainfall is diminished due to the towering Cascade Mountains to the west.
Pendleton is best known as the home of the annual Round Up that takes place each year. The 2021 event schedule runs from September 11th to the 18th. Lola and I found a great hotel (Best Western Pendleton Inn) up on a hill near the center of town, again using our Hotel Coupons booklet to get a great rate. Just a short drive away is the Wildhorse Casino and Resort. Naturally, that's where we spent the last few hours of our last night on the road. Only 10 minutes into our slot play, Lola hit a $1,000 payline. It was the largest payout she received in all the casinos we visited on this road trip. An hour or so later, I won $500 on a machine and then $300 on an adjacent machine, ultimately leaving the casino with $800 extra in my wallet. For both of us, it couldn't have been a more perfect experience to cap an already amazing, epic three-week journey across the country and back. It goes without saying that none of us has complete control over our performance at a casino, so having such a positive outcome on our last night, as you can imagine, was a providential gift that left us on a high note. It joins the gallery of happy memories that all but guarantee that with each reminiscence of our shared experience, we will reconnect with those feelings of freedom and anticipation, of joy and camaraderie, of discovery and excitement, and of a bittersweet, nostalgic longing to re-experience it all.
June 22, 2013
Our last day on the road, just hours away from home, we crossed the Columbia River at Umatilla back into Washington State and followed I-82 all the way to Yakima. From there, we decided to take U.S. 12 toward Chinook Pass and drop Lola off at her home in Buckley just on the other side of the Cascades, in the shadow of Mount Rainier. Here is a shot of U.S. 12 heading west on its approach into the Cascades.
The drive up to Chinook Pass is breathtaking. I highly recommend that, if you are in the area during the summer months, make a point of visiting Mt. Rainier National Park and perhaps even take the Chinook Pass highway (S.R. 410) over to Yakima. Here are some of the shots we captured at the summit:
From the summit to Buckley is about an hour and a half drive. When we arrived, my father had organized a lovely summer barbecue and made this welcome sign for Lola and me:
My father wasn't used to being away from Lola for such a long period of time. It was difficult for him, so you can imagine the joy he experienced when they were finally reunited:
By the time we rolled into Buckley, we had been on the road together for 23 days, added more than 6,700 miles to the odometer, passed through 27 states along the way, and snapped nearly 1,000 photos. I lost track of how many road kill, Cracker Barrel billboards and pro-life placards we counted in our running tally. And anyway, the numbers weren't ultimately as important as the activity itself which was always about active participation and entertainment.
After dropping Lola off, I made the 90-minute drive up to Granite Falls to be reunited with my partner, Matthew. It was good to be home, again with my partner, and sleep in our own bed. The time out on the road with Lola was one of the most precious and memorable experiences of my life. It is a sweeping set of images and memories and feelings and impressions that I call my "happy place" when I need a safe harbor to retreat to in my mind. And, it was so well researched and executed that it has become the gold standard for all other road trips. My only regret is that we cannot do this every year and recreate that fun and uninhibited sense of anything goes, randomly choosing new destinations at the start of each day and not knowing what we'll find around every bend in the road.
Travel is not just a physical journey; it is also an emotional and psychological one. The road trip can be a great substitute for therapy. Whether you are seeking it out or not, you are inevitably confronted with your own demons, specifically those questions and feelings about yourself you may have been avoiding. As you interact with the fresh, new world around you on the road, away from the comforts and familiarity of your home, detached from your daily dynamics, you find yourself immersed in a distraction-free void of free-ranging thought. Questions you would otherwise wrestle with and sublimate at home tend to surface in this environment. The hypnotic and rhythmic sounds and motions on the highway, along with the protracted periods of uninterrupted time in the car, open your mind to a deeper examination of yourself. Plus, doing something nice for yourself is always good therapy, in my opinion. What better way to treat yourself to a happy experience than to embark on a great adventure out on the road.
. . . Until next time, dear travelers, may all your journeys be safe and rich in experience!