roadtrip, part 1
Every major journey I have gone on begins with the same thing: the night before, everything finally packed, I’m lying on the couch, watching TV or listening to music, ensconced in the deeply and warmly home-like and familiar. All I can think at that moment is – why am I going? Why don’t I just stay here?
But in the end, I always go. Whether it was off to Europe or Egypt or India or Thailand, or this trip, driving coast-to-coast, Seattle to New Jersey, and then back, in the end, I just go. Once I’m underway, I can never understand why I ever thought about not going, and all I wonder is why I don’t go more often.
I can’t tell you, exactly, what spawned this particular trip. Originally, I was going to London to see the Stones (and London, a city I love dearly and have not been back to for 10 years now), and then stop in New Jersey on the way back to see Springsteen at Giants Stadium. I cancelled the London plans in July; they just didn’t make sense to me any longer. But, I wasn’t going to miss Bruce – mostly because one show was my only show with my sister. But — why not just fly to New Jersey for the long weekend, seen the Springsteen shows, and flown back? It probably would have cost me the same amount of money, and would have certainly taken less time. Maybe it was the first time I owned a car that actually could have survived the journey. Maybe it was realizing that I was almost 40 and I still had never driven cross-country. I love to drive and I’m good at it, and I don’t mind my own company. Plus, it was probably the only way I was ever truly going to be disconnected from the world for any major period of time. A friend (who is usually an excellent sounding board dissuading me from some of my more idiotic plans) said in July that he thought it 1) was a good idea and 2) that it would likely be cathartic. I hoped he was right – I’ve had one bitch of a year, and needed a little catharsis.
So I visited AAA and became an expert at Streets & Trips and Googled the Black Hills and Mount Rushmore and the Corn Palace, thought about trying to go to Minneapolis or Memphis, and in the end came up with what I thought was a reasonable itinerary. I’d go down through Idaho and Utah and the lower parts of Wyoming and Nebraska, dropping down to I-70 in Missouri so I could visit old friends in the middle of that state, and then take 70 to 76 and on up to North Jersey. Coming back, the traditional 80 to 90 home. Enough time to sightsee a bit, but not as much as I really would have liked to. But it was better to do what I could than not do it at all…
It’s Friday morning when I set off on I-90 Eastbound, up through Snoqualmie Pass and then, instead of continuing East on 90 like I have always done, I take the right turnoff towards Yakima for the first time. Eastern Washington is grey and misty and rainy, almost a blessing. I’m waiting for the moment when everything turns unfamiliar for the first time, just past Yakima. Desolation past the Tri-Cities. You look at these dwellings in the middle of nowhere, at the point where Seattle is a 5 hour drive, and I’m seized with a feeling of desperate loneliness for the people who live there. Whether it’s a dilapidated trailer or a distant brick mansion on the hill, it just saddens me deeply, and scares me. Maybe because that could have been me? And is it even fair? Maybe the people who live there are completely happy with their lives and wouldn’t live anywhere else. I guess I’m rooting for the ones who aren’t.
Eastern Oregon is dry but grey and bland, some interesting mountain scenery briefly, and then deserted dry brown valleys the highway winds through. Crossing into Idaho and then I’m met with rush hour traffic into Boise. Boise reminds me of Missoula, slightly; and funnily enough, I find an interesting place for dinner (after asking for “non-chain, somewhere local and cool,” and being given directions to the Red Robin) because I saw the Boise Center on my right hand side, and immediately think, “Oh, Pearl Jam played here,” but I didn’t go because I thought the drive from Portland to Boise and then on to Seattle would have been insane. (Not that insane in the end, but still, it was the end of the tour and I was tired.)
6am comes and goes and I manage to wake up and shower and repack the car in predawn dew-laden darkness. The sunrise over the rolling prairie as I drive east out of town is heartbreakingly, astonishingly beautiful. The highway winds through surprisingly Western, covered-wagon, Oregon-train type scenery, rolling hills and rivers, mesas, and it seems like there’s always a train along a track next to the highway, adding to the scene.
Sudden mountains and then dry brown flatness between them. Signs that tell you DO NOT STOP, SEVERE WIND WARNING. I come around a hill and climb out of a valley, and find myself descending into Utah desert. It’s stunning, until civilization (in the form of Saturday morning Salt Lake suburb shopping traffic) hits. I glimpse the Great Salt Lake briefly, quick views of distant white-salt-rimmed shores reminding me of the Dead Sea. I listen to Darkness On The Edge of Town (the Utah desert line in “The Promised Land” providing me with that cue) and Blood On The Tracks.
Finally, my turnoff sends me onto a gentler, un-traffic-choked two-lane highway that winds through a valley. This is ski country in the winter (judging by the signs) and rafting country now, as I watch people clamber out of rubber rafts on a shore as I drive by.
The highway forks east and south; as I come around the corner and I know Wyoming is imminent, the rocks above the road suddenly turn bright Roadrunner cartoon red and I feel like I’m truly in the West.
Wyoming was amazingly, jaw-droppingly beautiful and varied. Flat prairie lands that make me think of In Cold Blood. Rolling green hills with mountains at their edge. Continual reminders that this is a hard land – there are gates that can be used to close off the highway every 50 miles or so, the signs ordering you back to the closest town if they are down. A highway patrolman I’d run into at a rest stop would tell me that the main reason they closed the roads was visibility (or lack thereof) due to blowing snow. It is constantly changing and I am just continually fascinated with the landscape. I stop at the border for gas and Mountain Dew, and wistfully regard the signs informing me that the turnoff to Yellowstone up north is just ahead. I allow myself one stop at Little America; after the years of loving the R.E.M. song, how could I not? I buy postcards and get at 35 cent ice cream cone, and continue driving.
Still not hot. Brief rain showers are not distracting and in fact welcome. That smell of rain, of storms – with all the rain we have in the Pacific Northwest, that distinctive smell I remember from childhood, of approaching Midwestern storms, is absent. The Western smell has more of a tang to it. The country is more desolate now. I cross the Continental Divide, and there’s yet another train running on the track next to the highway. Every so often there will be these non-chain gas station/convenience stores along the road, usually with motorcycles parked out front. One I pass has a 4-room motel attached and for some reason I look particularly hard at the cars parked out front. Who would choose to stay here and why? I could sit there for hours and make up stories about the occupants, but I can’t. I wish I had a traveling companion who would enable me to explore these kinds of places and the people that inhabit them.
Cheyenne does not disappoint. Progress has come to one strip that I stumble onto because I’m looking for the “Western Mall” – it’s not a mall of western stores, just your standard WalMart-Red Lobster-K Mart strip, from which I flee. The downtown is quaint and original but sadly unpopulated. I gaze longingly at Western clothing stores and dive bars alternately; the stores are just closing and the bars are something I have to omit due to my solo travel status. A just-closing Goodwill almost breaks my heart, but I’d feel guilty shopping there when I could afford not to – that doesn’t stop me from dreaming of the treasures I’d likely find within.
There’s a train yard on the opposite side of the access road the motels are on, and the sounds of the trains shuttling back and forth in the middle of the night are almost magical to me. The funny thing is, I live 1/2 a mile above a very active train yard now, and all the noises do is annoy me and scare my cat. But in my hotel room that night, I remember the sense of potential and adventure I once felt when I lived back east and every once in a while, around 4am, I’d hear a lone train whistle in the distance.
The sun is already up even though I left at the same time today as yesterday. The hotel has waffle irons out for their free breakfast; I couldn’t resist and walked out to my car with a toasty warm Belgian waffle on a paper plate. Today meant Nebraska and I have been warned of boring flat endless corn fields. I’m actually disappointed when it’s far less desolate than my imagination led me to believe. I listen to Nebraska as soon as I cross the border, and it’s actually quite lovely until around 11:30, when it’s all highway and truckstops and I can’t actually see anything in the distance.
Just west of Lincoln my directions shuttle me off onto a smaller local highway, causing me to get lost the first time (when it says “Turn left” and you can’t, what do you do? You drive right and then realize that you’re going the wrong way, so you turn around and go back). When I finally get onto the correct road and get out of the city limits, it’s beautiful and quiet. These are the kinds of roads I’d really like to be driving.
Highway 2 hits 29 and I head south towards Kansas City. I’m in Iowa for all of five minutes (literally) and then I’m in the northern corner of Missouri. I decide it’s time for the Uncle Tupelo catalog, and, well, it fits. It finally begins to be unbearably hot; I have to stop and dig bottles of Gatorade out of the cooler in the trunk and move them into the cooler inside the car because I am getting dehydrated. As I enter the vicinity of Kansas City, I am greeted with an accident, a car fire, and backed up traffic due to a Wal-Mart and a truck stop at the same exit. Finally, 70 opens up and I make decent time to Columbia, where I stay the next two nights with old friends. This would later prove to be a tactical error, but at the time, it was just nice to hang out with people I rarely get to see.
Tuesday is idiot day. Idiot in that I completely did not realize how much driving I was setting myself up for. I thought it was 13 or 14 hours; it was more like 17 or 18. I drove through half of Missouri, all of Illinois, Indiana and Ohio, the corner of West Virginia, and then all, repeat, ALL of Pennsylvania. I should have left Monday night and driven 6 hours or so, stopping somewhere in Ohio. It’s hot, too, and as beautiful as I find the farmlands in the south of Illinois or Indiana, that doesn’t last long. Ohio is just plain boring. And I’m liking Pennsylvania until it just never seems to end, and I don’t want to stop (nor is there anywhere to stop) to look at a map. I keep thinking the turnoff must be soon, right? I’d called my sister around 5pm to announce that I was on schedule, and the fact is that I was only 45 minutes behind schedule – but it was still 17 hours. That’s Seattle to LA if you drive straight through (and preferably have two drivers!)
Around 8pm, once it was pitch black and I started to worry about breaking down, or being lost, I called my sister and gave her the last landmarks I’d seen (70 turning into 76, and I’d look on the map later and realize that at that point I was actually closer to Baltimore and DC than I was North Jersey). She figured out where I was told me it was only three more hours. I wasn’t tired – flying on adrenaline more than anything – and I didn’t mention that my brakes felt a little squishy. I’d only had the dealer check the brakes three times before I left Seattle, it had to be exaggerated car paranoia as the result of driving so many hours.
At Hershey, I turn onto 87 towards Jersey, and I start calling friends to help keep me awake. Everyone tells me later it sounded like I had drunk a gallon or two of coffee – it was more like the red Mountain Dew I’d started drinking on day two of the trip (hey, it worked like a charm). When I was younger, and we would roadtrip to Cleveland or Pittsburgh to see bands, we would always, without fail, underestimate how big Pennsylvania was, and I’ve done it once again. Finally, the Delaware Water Gap, and I’m rolling into New Jersey just as “Jungleland” comes up on the iPod. I didn’t plan it but nothing could have sounded better at that moment. Of course, I’m still not home free yet; I am raving to a friend in LA as I wait for the turnoff to 287 to finally present itself. I even get stuck in an 11:30pm traffic jam caused by line painting crews, an excruciating 15 minutes.
Then, the Morristown/Mahwah turn off – I forgot about this and laugh hard, thinking of the lyrics to “Johnny 99” – then there’s the exit, finally. I drift to the end of the exit ramp and rest my head briefly on the steering wheel in abject relief. I creep through the local streets with the dome light on, reading and re-reading directions to my sister’s street. Finally, Adams Drive. I crawl down the street, pull into the driveway, turn off the motor, open the door and literally fall out of the car. My sister comes out in her pajamas to help me grab the minimum out of the car – I’ll get the rest tomorrow. My right leg still twitching, I pass out on the couch around 1am. Somehow, I have to be rested enough by tomorrow night to go see the Stooges at Roseland.