Sunday, December 2 2007 9:15 p.m.
Leaving Minneapolis early on Friday, November 9th watching the sun rise. Weather is a bit cold in town but I don't care very much since weather.com is predicting nice weather in the Black Hills. We drive through I-90 as quickly as we can without getting caught by The Man and exited Minnesota into South Dakota. A flat landscape changes into a few hills here and there then into gently rolling hills and finally into some serious hills. We detour into Badlands National Park. If you ever need to get away and disappear from it all, this is the place to do it. The hills seem to go on forever. After, we visit the wonderful tourist trap known as Wall Drug and eat dinner there. We reach our modest first day goal of getting as far as possible from Minneapolis. We spend the night in Rapid City.
We start early on the second day to make sure we can get some nice morning light pictures of Mount Rushmore. Off to Yellowstone! Quick travel is no longer a priority so I pick a route off the interstate. State road 89 seems good. This takes us through Custer in South Dakota. Custer is the oldest city in the region, founded in 1874. This is a full two years before Rapid City and most anything else in the area. It was an early encampment for the gold rush. Yes, Colonel Custer camped here.
On through Highway 16 and a railroad town called Edgemont where about 15 miles later we enter Wyoming and meet up with Highway 85. All along this route we've slowly been climbing. I don't notice it, but we're above 3,000 feet now. The first town in Wyoming we encounter is Lusk. This is notable because the highway turns right. Overuse of that old-West Print Shop font pervades many of the road-side signs now. I pull over to take a picture of the high plateau we're driving on. Visibility is at least 20 miles and it was dead quiet. The breeze brought in the faint sound of a train that even with the use of binoculars I can't spot. There's no one here.
The highway now meets up with I-25. The interstate is good to us for 50 miles when we exit in Casper, Wyoming and continue on Highway 20. Through Shoshoni, which hosts the old-time Fiddle Championship and the Flywheelers Antique Engine and Tractor Show once per year. We missed it this year. On to Thermopolis (pop 3,200). As if the name alone weren't cool enough, this town is the gateway to all things dinosauric in the area. There's a museum with over 12 complete dinosaur skeletons. Including a T-Rex, Pterodactyl and a very, very large Brontosaurus. The national museum in D.C. has nothing on Thermopolis! We follow the Big Horn river north past 4,500 feet of elevation towards Cody where we are spending the night.
We wake up early to find the weather beginning to grow sour. Snow clouds are visible out towards the southwest and it's much colder than yesterday. It's the first seriously cool air of the season and no one seems too upset about it. We're still traveling our old friend, Highway 20, and we turn west towards Yellowstone. We enter a long tunnel and emerge on the other side to see the Buffalo Bill Reservoir and Absaroka Mountains behind it. The road follows the north fork of the Shoshoni west through 50 miles of what Teddy Roosevelt described as 50 miles of the most scenic land in America. This is bear country and the gun is loaded and pocketed every time we leave the vehicle, just in case. We find a buffalo grazing on the side of the road. Mountain goats chasing each other up and down the side of cliffs to show off. Deer everywhere.
It begins to snow as we approach the eastern entrance to Yellowstone when we notice... it's closed. Yes folks, nature is closed for the winter. We make a U-Turn and realize that the road into Yellowstone is also the road out of Wyoming and we have no choice but to go around. That's a 150 mile detour back through Cody, north on State Road 120 to Montona where it turns into State Road 72 and we meet Highway 310 near Bridger. We meetup with I-90 in Laurel which is about 25 miles west of Billings. Interstate 90 flies past countless western small towns and we continue on the road until we get to Missoula, a small college town with 3 sex shops and more bars than churches. We spend the night at the Thunderbird.
We get up a little later than usual, but realize it's a little earlier than usual since we're in Mountain time. We ditch the interstate again in favor of Highway 12. We heard back in Missoula that a storm was expected sometime that night and coming from the north. We are heading Southwest now and so we should have a little more time before it hits us. Hopefully, enough time to cross the Blue Mountains.
We pass Lolo and enter Idaho. This part of Highway 12 is exactly the route Lewis and Clark followed west along the Clearwater river. It was called the Lolo Trail back then and was the most difficult part of the trail for the Corps of Discovery. After enough Idaho puns and word play to make any native Idahoan squirm we start to cross the first range of mountains and the road gets quite a few more bends in it. We're surrounded by evergreen forests now and we see the clouds menacing a few hundred feet above us. We leave the state highway at Kooskia and travel on County Road 13 through Nez Perce National Historical Park. We stop at a mountain cafe near Stites where we have a late breakfast. They just woke up there because that's how they roll out in the mountains. At the restaurant we notice a very interesting fire map that shows the burn areas over the last 50 years. The most recent fires are the largest fires by far. The restaurant we're at missed them all.
Highway 95 welcomes us and we head south towards Lucile, Idaho. We're now just east of Oregon and bordering Hells Canyon. As remote as some of these mountain towns are, they are still not as remote as they used to be when the first pioneers roamed the area. Some pioneers disappeared into the forests and never made it back to civilization. Some of them named creeks and mountains and lived to tell others the names we still use today.
The road gets very windy now. The sky isn't much darker than before but it has a much more menacing feel to it. The air is not happy. We stop in Grangeville to fuel up and have to hold on to the nozzle to keep from blowing away on the oil slick floor. Inside the service station you can feel the wind creaking at the old wooden building. We're more than half way through this mountain range now and almost to the interstate where the weather is less important so I quickly jump back in the car to continue down the road. Two miles from the service station we see a turned over big wheeler on its side. A highway patrol flies past us to the scene and an ambulance follows close behind. About another 5 miles down the road, an RV is on its side. Everyone is standing around outside, unhurt, accessing the damage. Still no precipitation at all. The wind picks up even more. Even with the car at 50 mph you can feel her occasionally heaving to one side or the other as the wind abruptly changes directions. The few large oncoming vehicles that haven't pulled over to the side of the road make the road more interesting as you prepare to dodge them in case they flip over. The road suddenly turns and starts to go up higher into the mountains. On one turn we're the 3rd car in a traffic jam caused by a huge tree that fell on the road, blocking all access. I get out of the car, as one of the drivers from the opposing lane also gets out and we access the problem. Neither one of us wants to get stuck out here in this weather so we quickly come up with a plan to use a chain in his truck on the bumper of a Ford F-150 that is a few vehicles behind me. We talk to that driver to get him to pull his vehicle around and send the women to clear out the small branches and tire shredding debris that is on the ground. The tree is pulled over to the mountain side of the road and the women finish clearing the branches. Everyone has the same sense of urgency and jumps back in their vehicles and we move through.
About 10 miles further down the highway it starts to snow, heavily. And it looks like it had been snowing on this side of the mountain for quite some time. Four to 5 inches of snow are already on the ground. Going up hill is difficult without snow tires and I manage to slow down on the side of the road and wait for a large convoy of vehicles to catch up to me. Almost not able to get back on the road from the shoulder I manage to catch up to the convoy and follow their trail and pace down the highway. Every turn becomes wider than it should be with the wind blowing the car around on the slick road. The sun is getting low in the sky and it's already rather dark. The snow between the lanes is now making a bit of a barrier between opposite directions of traffic making things easier. The snow ruts help, as long as you stay on them. This particular stretch of the road-trip is rather dicey and the 2 hours it took to drive the 55 miles back out of the mountains was quite difficult.
We arrive at Council, the mountains are behind us now. There is absolutely no snow on the ground here. We continue on Highway 95 and it's now very dark. We take a shortcut through County Road 201. I have fond memories of taking short cuts through rural county roads at night. The sky is extra black, and you're more alone than you would be even on a highway. Not completely alone. Sometimes you can even feel the history of what happened on that road as if it were happening every night waiting for a passing vehicle so that they could tell the story of what happened there. So many nights alone the road is eager to tell these stories if someone would only listen.
We cross into Oregon and enter a new time zone.
Arriving at Interstate 84 we travel west for another 70 miles before spending the night in Baker City. Baker City is a very small town consisting of two gas stations, a large department store, 3 motels a diner and a few shops. We stay at one of the motels where the clerk notices our Minnesota plates. She proceeds to tell me, at length, about all her family members living in Minneapolis. The thought crosses my mind as to why she is still in Baker City and as if she can read my face, the conversation abruptly ends and I get the room key and directions to the room.
Waking up, I see the car has a thin layer of frost on it. She hasn't had frost on it this entire trip so it must be extra cold this morning. A bit wary of ice on the road from the drive the day before, I drive carefully to the gas station watching for hidden ice hazards. When I get to the gas station, the very nice attendant is already waiting at the pump asking what kind of gas I want. I walk around the car and as if he knew what I was going to say, he states, "Oregon law requires that we pump your gas. Where are you heading?"
Simple enough question. I know my final destination but that's not really where I'm going today. I haven't figured that part out yet. I was going to wait until after gas and breakfast. I coyly reply, "I'm going to San Francisco".
He changes the subject, "Did you hear that ambulance this morning? It was heading west on the interstate. Must have been someone driving too fast this morning… the road still had ice on it."
As to reassure my paranoia of the road conditions, he smiles gives me the receipt I sign it and drive off. I forgot to tip.
Continuing on Interstate 84 for another 200 miles, we briefly cross into Washington and follow the Columbia River for 50 miles and part of the Columbia River Gorge. Even though the Columbia is still over 200 miles away from the Pacific Ocean, it's a huge river. We can see ocean bound ships this far up. Interestingly, before the river was civilized, the Columbia used to plunge over cliffs and rapids through this area. Now it's almost sea level, so much so that the tide actually affects the river.
We find Highway 97 and make our way south through central Oregon. Stopping in Shaniko (pop 26) for fuel and moon pies. We get our fuel served to us again. This time, I'm ready for the usual question and answer "We're heading south to Klamath Falls and on to the Mt. Shasta area."
Impressed by where we've been, the attendant finishes pumping the only type of non-diesel fuel he carries and I notice a few people looking around the corner to see what's happening at the gas station. We pay in cash, I'm sure silver would have been accepted too. Many places in the west have Indian names, but this Indian name is a bit unique. It's actually the English translation, of the Indian translation of Sherneckau. August Sherneckau settled the area after the Civil War and bought a farm in the area. What was once the "Wool Capital of the World", is now pretty much a ghost town. From this town's elevation of 3,344 feet you can see all the way north to Mount Ranier and south to Mount Hood with several other high peaks along the way.
We continue on Highway 97 to Klamath Falls. This is high semi-arid cattle country. Over the Crooker River, through Madras and Bend. Through La Pine. Pass through Crater Lake National Park. While at Crater Lake, we get some free ice-cream because the freezer broke the day before. They should be OK we're told. We enter California as the sun starts to set. We can see the sunset turning Mount Shasta's peak a mandarin color as we drive by. Teddy Roosevelt never rode through here.
Highway 97 ends at Weed. Yes, there really is a town in California called Weed. Named after Abner Weed who in 1897 bought a lumber mill in the area and 280 acres. The family is still involved in managing the city.
We make the decision to continue and get as close to San Francisco as possible and head south on Interstate 5. We stop and pull off the road to observe the stars and the mountains. The Milky Way is the first thing you lose in the city and it's the most obvious feature in the sky above us. We spot the Adromeda galaxy, Orion Nebula, Pleides, 2 satellites and a shooting star. You can feel this area is much closer to civilization than other places even though you can't see anything around you with the lights out and no moonlight. The forest serves an unhappy vibe and we leave. After a few more hours on the interstate, we enter civilization and spend the night in Vacaville between Sacramento and San Francisco.
We briefly drive on I-80 and quickly go through Napa Valley exposing how repulsively yuppie and snobby that area is. How could I expect more from a place the produces boat loads of "unique" wines? State Road 12 to D Street to Sir Francis Drake Boulevard takes us to the Point Reyes National Seashore.
Driving through this area we see very lush forests before breaking into very green farmland. We drive up several hundred feet until we reach the Point Reyes Lighthouse. Point Reyes is the windiest and foggiest point on the Pacific Coast. Good place for a lighthouse since 1870. Nearby we can see Drake's Bay which is considered the most likely landing point for Sir Francis Drake during his circumnavigation of the world in 1579. We spend the night at the Pelican Inn at nearby Muir Beach. The coastal area north of San Francisco is probably among the most beautiful I've ever seen.
We spend the day in San Francisco and head south on I-5 to Los Angeles. Five hours of driving through boring farm country and we arrive in Los Angeles. Hollywood looks just as I remember it. Spend a few nights at Le Montrose in West Hollywood.
Travel through the maze of Los Angeles freeways until I finally reach the 15. I travel down this familiar interstate to Las Vegas. It was somewhere around Barstow when the trip began to get very long. Never been on the road to Vegas by myself. As I approach Vegas, I realize there is a seat at a poker table at the MGM with my name on it. A few hours later and a few hundred lighter the road trip continues. I can still see the twilight behind me as Vegas sets on the horizon in the rear-view. On through Arizona and into Utah. I meet up with I-70 and spend the night in Aurora, Utah.
The entire I-70 route from I-15 to Vail has got to be the most under rated interstate in the country. No one ever talks about it but the view is great. Four national parks along the way. Great canyons. Cool tunnels. Road goes up to 11k feet past Vail. Denver itself is not that much fun. Don't recommend it. Traffic is horrible. Nothing original about the place. Sea of franchises. Stay away. The people I know here at least keep it interesting for me. Spend the night here watching the Broncos play Monday Night Football with friends.
The next morning we go downtown and look around. We see a big snow storm coming and rush out of the city as the noon sky gets very dark. We continue on I-76 to I-80, stopping at North Platte, Nebraska to pickup the game Rock Star. We fly past Lincoln and Omaha before we reach Des Moines where we meet up with I-35. We make the decision to press on to Minneapolis and reach the city by 2am.
It wasn't winter when I left but it is now.
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