I’ve been a passenger on a lot of long flights over the past few years. Usually they are cramped and tiring and they can be expensive and sometimes there is a loud crying baby behind me. But when you think about it, it’s really quite amazing to be able to blast off to another part of the world in just a few hours and for a few hundred bucks.
But while gazing out a window from the air, it’s only natural to question – “What is going on down below?” Each road was surveyed and constructed and is maintained and utilized. And of the millions of dots of light, at some point each was installed by someone, and nightly each one helps someone see their way.
To me, the amazing thing is that each of those roads are connected to another road… and a highway… and another road and eventually it all connects to the small piece of asphalt under the car parked outside your front door. That’s the wonder of the modern age, America’s infrastructure and the Eisenhower Interstate System.
So while it would have been possible to fly across the United States at the end of February, when I decided to move from Connecticut to Southern California I decided to drive.
Sure, I could support the decision with all the clichés. I could say I’m doing my part to uphold the larger American narrative of being drawn west like Kerouac, or western expansion, or American’s love for the freedom of the open road. But I also wanted to see more of the country I love so dearly despite its flaws. I wanted to visit family and friends I don’t often get to see. Finally I wanted to give myself a greater sense of scale of the nation’s size, which by the way, is monstrous.
Okay yeah there were some parts of the drive that were boring. Gas was expensive and I probably put a lot of wear on my car. But it was totally worth it. I recommend everyone has the chance at least once. And if you’re thinking about doing it, let me know and I’ll do my best to come along for the adventure.
After departing Bristol Connecticut around 5 PM, cutting through New York, New Jersey and part of Pennsylvania, my first stop is my cousin Rebecca’s place in West Chester. Becca is about my age and someone I’ve been close with since we were little. She eagerly took a vacation week from her often stressful and demanding job as an in-home family therapist to join me on the drive, flying home from Denver a week later. After making some plans late at night over some glasses of wine and iPad maps, we plot our course to the Rockies.
Together our first day was a long one. We leave her place before 7 AM, departed PA and skirt across the northern edge of Maryland. From there it was across West Virginia to our destination in central Kentucky. The landscape was grey as we winded through the Appalachian mountains on I-68 and later I-79.
In Morgantown we stopped for lunch at Tailpipes, a vintage car themed diner specializing in crazy burgers. Becca was brave and got “The Charger.”
We listen to all kinds of things, including an album by the band Fun, a few TED talks and some random bluegrass covers I have on my iPod from the Pickin’ On Series. Realizing we’re low on gas we exit at Framesville, WV, but have to drive up the road a bit to the tiny town of Gassaway to fill up. The area is hilly and a bit run down looking, although after we fill up we take some photos along the old rail yard. From there it’s back to the road, and we make it to Mark and Cole’s place as the sun is setting.
Mark was my team leader in AmeriCorps*NCCC and I was at the bourbon drinking festival that doubled as his wedding to Cole a few years ago. Both lawyers, Mark’s the kind of guy that looks out for everyone else before himself and Cole is the kind of rockstar that runs in cancer research races and donates her hair for wigs for kids on her wedding day! We visit together then get some BBQ, share some stories and laughs. We polish off a bottle of Basil Hayden’s with the Oscars on TV in the background before calling it a night.
The next morning Becca and I visit Ale 8, Winchester Kentucky’s soda bottling plant and gift shop, enjoying a morning soda and picking up some gifts that will come in handy down the road. After we take a peek around Keeneland, the beautiful horse racing track and grounds.
At noon we toured the Buffalo Trace Distillery. Our tour guide Freddie was really funny, engaging and thorough. (We aren’t the only ones who think so). Freddie’s family has been involved in the distillery for three generations and you could tell by the way he spoke that he was passionate about the products, the company and the people.
At the end of the tour, and just before before the samples, Freddie demonstrated how to “Wake the Dog” – an interesting and fun way to test the alcohol level and ingredients in an unaged whiskey that involves splashing it all over your hands, rubbing them together and identifying the different smells during the evaporation process. Very cool.
On a pit stop in at the historic Brown Hotel in downtown Louisville we grab a salad try their famous Hot Brown which was very delicious and filling.
We shoot up I-65 and make it to Amanda’s place in the Broad Ripple neighborhood of Indanapolis right around 6 PM local time. An AmeriCorps teammate, Amanda is another road trip aficionado, has been to more than half of the national parks and is a huge fan of ranch dressing. After her fiance Brian gets home from work we walk to a local pub for a wine flight, bring a few pizzas home and have a nice late dinner around the table listening to a classic playlist from 2005.
After dinner Brian does play-by-play for an rowdy game of Farkle (the game of guts and luck!). Amanda somehow comes back from behind for an intense overtime victory as we enjoy more red wine and beer before a hilarious fashion show with her dog Manny.
On our way to Chicago the next day all we see is highway, wide plains and huge windmills through the windshield. Becca and I pull off the highway as rain turns to slush for a pit stop at the Fair Oaks Dairy Farm. It’s a huge working dairy farm and agro-tourism attraction and a good break to stretch our legs. We take a bus tour, walk around some exhibits, and attempt to climb the magnetic climbing wall.
We learn about feeding and caring for the cows, milking them and distributing milk. It’s hard to tell if we’re witnessing some good clean American farming or some big business’ propaganda machine. But the most memorable thing we saw was in the birthing barn.
With over 32,000 cows in the farm, they have births all day everyday. When tourists like us come in, they can retrieve one of the mothers who’s about ready to go.
Becca and I are the only two people in a big amphitheater type room and we stare at the calf’s nose and front hooves poking out on the other side of the plexiglass. About a half hour later the rest arrives – snout, head, front half and back half in a wet, messy, miracle of birth. From about 10 feet away we see the calf take its first breath of air.
For a suburban guy like me who has never worked on a farm it was pretty wild. It was also interesting because I enjoy about a half gallon of skim milk each week and I grill the occasional burger or steak. All those tasty yogurts and cheeses and ice creams and t-bones have got to come from somewhere, and I suppose it’s better to be informed about the source rather than just blindly consuming.
Arriving in Chicago just in time for some early rush hour traffic and snow flurries, we navigate to the two-flat apartment of Liz and Matt. Liz is another AmeriCorps friend and the organizer of an annual memorial volunteer trip, which is pretty much my favorite weekend of the year and her brother Matt is a firefighter in Chicago.
Ironically we help pack Liz’s car. She’s starting her own road trip in the morning, as she moves back to Connecticut for a second season of work at an organic farm. After visiting for a bit we ride over to their parent’s house and have dinner with them and their little sister. It’s a nice home on the corner of a quiet street and the snow is falling quietly as it should in late February in Chicago. A delicious homemade family dinner is eaten around the dining room table. Irish soda bread, corned beef, boiled potato and cabbage. Becca and I laugh as the siblings pick on each other.
Later Matt drives us around for a late night tour downtown. We see the lake shore, the pier, Millennium park and the bean. We check out the Tribune building and it’s collection of stones. The night is snowy and wet and cold, the kind of cold set that sticks to your ears and dampens your toes, so we make it back to the apartment for some wine and music and visiting before blowing up the air mattress and calling it a night.
Day five starts with breakfast at a funky joint called LuLu’s where Becca and I go halfsies on a great breakfast burrito and some griddle cakes. We climb into our overstuffed cars and Liz goes east, and we continue west. We make good time dispute the flurries, I take a nap as Becca drives listening to a few nice albums by the Great Lake Swimmers. Waking up to a pale white sky, white snow, huge flat country I put on my shades even though there’s no direct sunshine. On Illinois’ western edge we see a bald eagle preserve on the map and take a detour. Above our car we see one soaring, identified by its white head and tail, just before we cross the Mississippi river.
We stop at the world’s largest truck stop to buy snacks and climb into the cab of a big rig. In Iowa City we see students bustling between classes on the campus of the University and we spend a little while at a self proclaimed “haunted” bookstore with a sleeping cat. I buy a book about California’s impending earthquake problem.
On an unpaved, unplowed road in Swisher, Iowa my car gets stuck when I attempt a u-turn. It’s usually pretty good on the snow but we were getting terrible traction in the wet, slimy snow. Suze and JoJo come to help, as does a neighbor. After I struggle to find a decent place to latch the straps under my car we are able to get back on track and park in front of their house.
Suze, who neither Becca or I have met before, is a first cousin of both of our Moms and works at the local VA. Her husband JoJo is a finish carpenter and can make incredible things with wood.
Their house welcomes us with a huge cactus Christmas tree and roaring fire. We catch up and enjoy cocktails at the table before a hearty dinner of grilled steaks, squash, fresh bread and homemade peach pie. Suze also made cookies for us to take on the road.
We tour JoJo’s woodshop and are impressed by his work. Using a variety of woods and finishes he creates beautiful furniture, walking sticks and birdhouses.
We talk about family, pets, road trip stories. They tell us about their first date which started at 2 AM when her shift was over and ended with them being engaged. 21 years later they’re still going strong. In the evening we are accompanied by their three big dogs and a few cats, and in the morning by dozens of brightly colored birds outside their back door including a cardinal who is particularly photogenic. After breakfast we depart, with JoJo following us to the plowed road to assure we don’t get stuck again.
In the snow along the interstate we see about 10 tractor trailers stuck and abandoned along the median and shoulder, and about the same number of cars. It makes me feel a little better that I wasn’t the only one who had trouble, but also confused as to where the drivers went and how they were going to get their vehicles out.
But the roads are clear and we make good time, keeping it at about 80 mph on the 75 limit road. The snow clears from the ground as we enter Nebraska. We listen to the Black Keys, ZZ Top, Moe. We take turns driving, resting and napping. It’s a long haul across the heartland, but mile after mile we’re getting closer to the Rockies. In Lincoln Nebraska we get salads at Grateful Greens, which is a good change of pace from all the heavy food we’ve been eating.
For dinner I chose an old time lodge called Ole’s Steakhouse. Eating a prime rib sandwich surrounded by gigantic mounted big game animals, including some that are endangered, isn’t as cool as I thought. The waitress tells me Ole’s holds the oldest liquor licence in Nebraska, selling the first drink at 12:01 AM after prohibition ended.
As the sun gets low in the sky our driving music volume goes up. Miles fly below us at 80 mph as we listen to Outkast, Lady Gaga and various high energy songs from the 80s and 90s to keep our energy until we arrive at Liza and Tony’s house in Golden, Colorado.
Liza is a great friend and former coworker of Becca’s and also a founding member of Mexican Thanksgiving – a holiday Becca and I invented a few years ago that’s turned into an annual family tradition. Along with her boyfriend Tony, her dog and cat she moved to Colorado late last summer. A bottle of wine or so later I’m beat and fall asleep, but Becca and Liza stay up and chat.
The next morning I catch up on email, do some laundry and have lunch with my former ESPN colleague Dave who now works at Root Sports in Denver. We talk about graphics and sports and family and side projects. Later Tony, Becca and I turn an errand at the post office into an excuse to tour around the quaint town of Golden, home of the Coors brewery and a cool little downtown area among the mountains.
The four of us sit among the date night crowd at a Greek restaurant at dinner. Some couples dressed fancy, some women pregnant, another is nursing her newborn.
At the Three Dog Cafe we meet up with a high school friend of mine Laura whom I haven’t seen in seven or eight years. We talk about memories of middle and high school… almond perfumes, monster truck rallies, high school boyfriends and girlfriends who are married and have babies now. She tells us about the seeing-eye dogs she has helped train and life in the mile high city.
Day eight starts with a visit to the Red Rocks amphitheatre then the tiny town of Morrison for brunch. After a breakfast burrito smothered in green chili sauce it’s time to say goodbye to Becca – she’s flying home the next day and it’s time for me to continue west.
Route 285 west into the mountains is a spectacular drive. From winding forests, tall climbs and tight turn to wide open prairies and absolutely massive mountains along the horizon. Listening to Gov’t Mule and Neil Young it feels like I’m driving through a Bob Ross painting. It’s such a clear blue day that I can’t help but jump out of the car and take photos every once in awhile.
But it’s good to stretch my legs and have a beer when I arrive at Mike and Lori’s house in the small, beautiful town of Crested Butte, Colorado. My cousin Mike is writer, small business partner and certified Stokolgist and his wife Lori might just be the most active person I’ve ever met.
We chat before getting a delicious vegetarian dinner at Ryce. We catch up and talk about books, documentaries, travel, life. We bundle up and walk their dog Kaya, and it doesn’t take me long to realize I’m the only one in the entire ski town who wears a pea coat instead of a real snow jacket. The next day we take various walks around town as the snow starts to pile up. Trips to breakfast, to take photos, for coffee and to run errands.
In the evening we go to a community fundraising event, bid on a few raffle prizes and drink a few beers outside in the snow. Lori makes some great sweet potato enchiladas and we watch some of Ernest Goes to Jail on YouTube.
By morning my car is covered in a foot of snow, but we trek past it to the mountain for a fun morning of snowboarding. The people on the bus up to the resort are eager, almost giddy to get up the chairlift and get first tracks. The snow looks and feels great and I learn the difference between riding on top of snow and riding inside the powder. Getting down the long trails is hard work and my thighs burn.
After lunch we make a few more runs including some challenging glades and some ultra steep faces through deep snow, then we enjoy a few cocktails at the ice bar.After getting home and taking a shower I’m beat and take a nap. Later I get a gift for Kristen, walk the dog, shovel out my car and eat leftovers.
My car groans and I turn the keys the next morning. The dashboard thermometer reads -11°. (Three days later it’ll read 81° in Los Angeles). Continuing west I drive along the Blue Mesa, meet up with the interstate and leave the Rockies in my rear view. Again, the scenery is unbelievable.
I get to Arches National Park in the early afternoon and I’m immediately impressed. Red walls of stone reaching to the blue sky and it’s very, very quiet. I hike the Park Avenue trail and all I hear are my footsteps below and the occasional raven call from above. Fantastic.
I spend all afternoon bouncing around different sites and trails, but I don’t get close to any of the iconic arches. As day turns to night I get out the tripod for some long exposure photography. I chat with a few guys by Balanced Rock who had the same idea, and one of them has some good tips for me.
Returning to the park in the morning my first stop is Delicate Arch, the most famous and quintessential of them all. Passing two people leaving as I hike in around 9 AM I’m pleasantly surprised to find the arch all to myself at the end of the trail. I feel like there isn’t another person for miles and miles. I feel really fortunate to be there in such clear, perfect weather. It’s refreshing and energizing and I take photos and tape a few video messages for friends and family. I set up the self timer on my camera and jump around like a little kid.
Almost an hour later a couple arrives and I take a few photos for them before taking off. I wanted to let them have the space alone for a while. I drive to the Devils Garden and Fiery Furnace parts of the park briefly and do one more short hike before hitting the highway one last time.
On the road I again see wonderful scenery of southern Utah, the photographs I snap hardly seem to capture the scale and beauty of the landscape. As I continue blasting west at 80 mph but time and land seems to pass slowly, it’s a long drive to LA. After I cut through the magnificent veterans memorial highway along the Virgin River I have a close call with running out of gas in the desert of southeast Nevada, but make it on fumes to a small town gas station.
I write a thank you note on the dust of my car before continuing on to Vegas as the sun sets. Having never been to Vegas I wanted to see the strip, but after about 3 minutes of traffic and crowds and distracting lights I was more than ready to get back to the highway.
I sing aloud to some Audioslave to stay awake like I used to when I drove from Boston to Charleston, SC back in college. I peal myself out of the car and enter my new apartment and Kristen’s arms around 10:30 PM local time.
3,648 miles in 12 days. 11 tanks of gas and passing through 16 states. It was exhausting but I’m glad I made the drive. I saw so many people and things, and I hope to keep these memories for a very long time.
What’s hard to capture all the senses from the trip. The sounds of grown adults laughing and shouting with glee while skiing fresh snow in Colorado. The smell of Bourbon barrel aging in Kentucky. The sight of a calf taking its first breath in Indiana. The feel of the cold wet snow in Chicago and the taste of fresh baked cookies in Iowa.
But it’s even harder to capture are the moments you don’t sense, but rather just feel inside. Like the feeling I got while gazing at the crisp stars above in western Nebraska. Or being astonished by things as vast as the great plains and Rockies. Small things too, like a bald eagle soaring near the Mississippi and stumbling upon someone playing the piano in the back of the haunted bookstore in Iowa.
There are a lot of stories along that long, paved road. I’m glad I was able to see some of them, and to take the time to make one of my own.