Six Days of Bliss and Chaos

30 March 2011

I appologize for the length, but hope you enjoy the adventure.

It was just supposed to be a long weekend away camping in the southwest. At least, that is what I told myself when I started planning my spring road trip the night before I left. It was not the smoothest of plans, I admit. But I have left trip planning to the last minute before, and always with excellent results. So I went to bed on Monday night, knowing very well that in 24 hours I was going somewhere, and that I better figure out where that somewhere is sooner or later.

Tuesday was chaos. First it was off to my bi-weekly coffee meetup before running into the office for the day. I had a laundry list of projects I had to finish up before 3pm, and that did not count things to get ready for the trip. Finally 3pm rolled around, way too early, and it was time to get the car prepped for the trip. However, that came to a standstill when I noticed that one of the tires was flat. After a quick drive over to the nearest tire store, the news was bad. The tires were too old to fix and new ones needed to be purchased. A bit of bribing, 45 minutes and 700 dollars later new tires were on the car and it was time to quickly get everything packed. With multiple road trips under our belt together, Erin and I had the car packed in less than an hour and we hit the road.

After making our way through the end of rush-hour traffic, it was onto the highway to head through the Rocky Mountains. However, not even an hour into the trip I realized that I had forgotten something very important, something I never road trip without, my paper atlas. I have never forgotten it  before and we had to make an emergency stop in the next large town (Dillon, CO) to find a somewhat suitable replacement. Back on the road, we drove through the night trying to make as much progress as possible towards a goal we had not even set yet. So not even five hours into our journey and after a short gas stop in Grand Junction, Colorado we crossed over into Utah around 10pm and decided to make camp somewhere soon.  An hour later we stumbled into Green River State Park, set up the tent, and got to sleep about half past midnight with an alarm set for bright and early the next morning.

The next day on the road we started out in the beautiful red rock country of Utah, but that was not our goal, at least we did not think so. With hundreds of miles of road in front of us, we set the cruise control and turned up the music for the drive ahead. We discussed all the places we could head for the rest of the trip. The shores of Lake Mead, the deserts of Arizona and California, Mammoth Lakes up in the Sierras; there were so many places that we could make before dark. However, we decided to go with the longest and most rewarding drive. We decided to attempt the Pacific coast before sundown.

There are a few drives that make my list of the most annoyingly boring and long drives to do, and this day happened to take place on a 500-mile segment of one of them, Interstate 15 between Salt Lake City and Los Angeles. For those that have never driven it, it a mix of desert and high plains that stretches for 700 miles with Las Vegas and the Virgin River Gorge being the only breaks the entire way. Thankfully I had stayed up until 2am the prior night burning CDs for just this occasion; where there is nothing better to do but jam out to the best music you can find and try to keep focused on the unchanging road and scenery. There was some excitement however, when I remembered that a 20-mile segment of this drive was the test 80mph speed limit segment. Which pretty much meant that I just set my cruise control at 85mph instead and ruined my fuel economy.

After hours of nothing but rolling hills and grass, we hit Las Vegas, a break in the monotony of the drive which was made even more exciting by the giant sand storm that skirted the south edge of the city. For at least for 20 miles I had to fight to keep the car on the road in the lowering visibilities and swirling winds. Nonetheless, it was only a short time before we were back in the clear skies on the other side and entering the Mojave Desert, plowing ahead towards Los Angeles as afternoon kicked into high gear. And as I did the mental math in my head, I realized the royal mistake that I had just stumbled upon; we would be hitting the LA basin right around 4pm, LA rush hour.

With a little bit of luck and possibly going 90mph down the Cajon Pass (and not even being the fastest car on the road), we made it through about 2/3rds of the LA basin before we got tied up in bummer-to-bumper traffic. We impatiently crawled along, hoping this delay would not allow the sun to beat us to the Pacific Coast Highway. And finally, with only an hour to spare, we merged onto Highway 101 and headed full speed towards Santa Barbara and the Pacific coast. Only 25 minutes later, the highway made a turn just north of Ventura and we pulled alongside the glistening ocean. We had made our goal.

It was no time to rest yet, we still had to make it to the state park that we hastily picked out on the map a few hours earlier and make camp before nightfall. As we watched the road signs fly-by in the setting sun, we could not figure out where the state park was we were planning to camp at for the night. We even managed to stumble upon another state park that was not even on the map 20 miles further down the road than we thought we should be, just to find that its campground was already full. Nervously, watching the sun set from our vantage point on the highway, we finally found the state park and campground we were looking for. Eleven and a half hours of driving later, we set up our tent, started a campfire, and listened to the waves of the ocean crash in the background, only making our destination a few minutes late as dusk settled in.

The next morning we took our time, we could drive no further west and it was time to enjoy the trip. After a quick walk on the beach we started the meandering drive up the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH). We decided that our goal for the day would be just to make it up the coast as far as we wanted, and then go from there. So we drove along, more relaxed than the long, almost 12-hour haul of the previous day. Stopping in Monterey, we went to the aquarium (my favourite one by far) and were able to pet stingrays and watch penguins eat fish. Then it was up to Santa Cruz for a walk on the boardwalk and relax in the sea breeze. However, sitting at the end of the pier, I check my forecast for the next few days, our plans were going to have to change.

While it was sunny and in the mid-60s at the time, it looked as if the weather was finally going to take a turn for the worst. Most everyone was predicting downpours starting around 2am in the following morning, something that you don’t want to happen while sleeping in a tent. So we made the decision to pass up camping on the beach another night and instead try and find a reasonably priced hotel in the Bay Area. After a bit of searching, we booked the Marriott at the SFO airport and continued our leisurely drive up the PCH. We even got to go through the now closing segment of the highway just north of Half Moon Bay because it has starting to fall off the cliffs and into the ocean. Looking at the bypass being drilled into the mountains far back away from the cliffs and the magnificent view, it was sad knowing that nobody else will soon be able to this part of extraordinary drive.

We pulled into the hotel just around 6pm, a pretty reasonable time for being just outside Santa Barbara to start the morning off. After taking our first shower in three days, we decided to hike over to the train station and take the train into downtown San Francisco for some dinner and St. Patrick’s Day celebrations. In town, we ended up settling on some Indian food because it was already too late to order food at most of the pubs. Then, by the time we were done with dinner we decided to look for a different kind of bar since most of the Irish pubs had queues out the door and around the block. We ended up at a post-modern coffeeshop/trendy bar, just the kind of place I would open myself. Sitting back we put our feet up for a second and relaxed, seeing how far we had actually come in just 48 hours and how many things we had already seen. Heading back to the hotel, we wandered through the neighbourhood built underneath the freeway, not knowing if we should have been there or not, but then again that is what adventures are for. I then looked to the sky and begged it to rain before going inside for the night, a decision I would regret.

The following morning, the rain was coming down in sheets, and I smiled knowing that spending the few extra dollars for a roof over my head was a good investment. We loaded up the car and made it back into downtown SF to run a few errands that we had to pass up the night before since it was so late. We ended up having to buy a umbrella at H&M just to keep ourselves from getting soaked, which happened anyway. We then hiked Russian hill to stop at our favourite restaurant for some lunch, only to find it was closed, an omen it seemed for things to come during the day. Finally after one last stop at the Ferry Terminal for some balsamic vinaigrette, we got in the car and started to head towards Nevada.

The rain kept coming and coming, pooling on the roadways and making traffic miserable. We trudged our way out of the Bay Area and then slowly through Sacramento. Today was going to be the shortest drive of the trip, and all that was left was the short hop over Donner’s Summit in the Sierras, but it seemed to be taking forever. Starting to wind our way up into the mountains the rain quickly turned to large, wet snowflakes coming down at nearly the same rate. That is when I realized what this meant for the rest of the drive, and my fears quickly became a reality when the freeway ahead became solid brake lights. This day, was clearly going to be much longer than I planned.

The crawling along in traffic was made even more painful by the fact that by this point I really had to pee. So I merged onto the shoulder and attempted to shortcut my way to the next exit less than a mile ahead, with at least 100 other people having the same idea. Nearly an hour later, the reason for the backup was made clear, the interstate had been shutdown at the very exit that I was attempt to find a bathroom at. Pulling into the McDonalds parking lot (because the gas station and Starbucks was already full), I quickly ran to the bathroom before assessing the situation. Once we had the laptop out, the true severity quickly set in.

For those that don’t know, the Sierras are a mountain range that span the entire eastern side of the state of California, all 1500-plus miles. Between the months of October and May, there are only four “open” routes over them: our current way (which was now closed), one about 50 miles south, one about 300 miles north, and finally another one 600 miles south. We noticed that all the other ones said they were still open, so we started working on alternatives. Our issue was not what we were going to do for that night, but more the fact that we needed to be 1200 miles east at home, in just about 48 hours. Going through our options I immediately canceled out the route to the south. With our way closed, the entire state of California would be attempting that way instead and with the snow it would most certainly be gridlock and/or closed itself. So we sat there, and waited, having no clue what we were going to do to get out of this predicament.

Going in to use the restroom again at the nearby gas station, I joked with the attendant about how the closure must be great for business. That is when she informed me that it a huge 50+ fatal car accident that had happened up the road that had stranded hundreds of drivers, and that we actually were the lucky ones that they were able to turn around before the road went high into the mountains. My pain of being stuck west of the Sierras quickly became a bit of relief realizing that at least I had been left with other options, and a bathroom. Sitting down with the map again, I decided to call my father since we had lived in our attempted destination for the night of Reno, just on the other side of the mountains. This insight was all we needed, as we discovered that there was another way over the mountains that was not “open” but since small towns dotted the crossing, it was not officially “closed” either. So topping up on gas, we headed north toward the road on my map that was nothing more than a light gray light, so unimportant the map makers printed names over the top of it.

At first the drive was pretty smooth and uneventful. I was able to keep a bit above the speed limit as we began the climb once again into the mountains, following a small line of cars that must have had the same idea. However, as each mile passed the snow got heavier and the pavement began to disappear under a layer of white. Less than 20 miles into our 120-mile detour, the road was nothing more than a flattened sheet of ice and snow, and most of the smaller cars had already turned back. We continued to climb higher into the mountains and blowing snow, as my speed dropped below 30mph, and then below 20mph. Night began to settle in as the road grew steeper and windier, its edge either dropping off into a ditch or a thousand-foot cliff, I had no idea. Occasionally we would come along a car, either crawling along or spinning its tires, which I would have to pass it to keep from having to use my brakes or drive their style. The whiteout worsened as we passed through another town of two houses and a snow crusted sign reading 7000feet of elevation. Thoughts had already started to cross my mind, was this a good idea? Was the road even going to be open all the way?

Finally the snow began to taper off, and through the ice now covering the windshield I could now see stars begin to peek through the clouds. Not more than twenty minutes later, the road finally crested at a pass sign that was frozen thick with snow, hiding the truth of what we actually accomplished. However, after not even making our first turn on the downhill, the hillside was aglow with flashing lights. I caught my breath, a sheriff was sitting in the middle of the road.

After getting out my car to not only ask what was going on, but to also attempt to kick and scrape the thick coating of ice and snow off my car, we found out it was simply some idiot in a small little two-wheel drive car had slid off the road in the first downhill corner. So after a short delay and some friendly chatter with others drivers stopped with us on the icy summit (a couple from the UK attempting to get away on their ski holiday, a local trying to get home, and a man who was wearing a giant neon yellow rain suit) we were back on our way downhill.

After passing a few other slow cars and some slippery moments through corners, the road began to level out into a broad high alpine meadow which glistened in the frigid moonlight. It was breathtaking as we picked up pace towards the final turn off that would take us the rest of the way around the closed freeway. By this time we then realized that it had been almost four hours without cell service, and most everyone probably though we had gone missing. Nonetheless, heading into the next small town, we were once again slowed by flashing lights. This time we were not so lucky, the second half of the short cut was closed.

Turning back was no longer an option, so we turned town the other fork, knowingly headed toward the closed highway and a town high up in the Sierras. With the road flatter and less cars around I was finally able to get up some speed and enjoy the drive a bit. I managed to slide through a few corners without worrying too much about getting stuck or disappearing high up in the mountains. Less than an hour later, we slowly made our way into the town of Truckee, listening to the radio only to hear that the highway was still closed. It was useless, but we continued forward towards the closed highway. Approaching the eastbound on-ramp for the highway, my heart jumped. There was no gate, no cop car, nothing to prevent me from getting onto the highway. So with a deep breath I headed onto the barren, unplowed freeway, no idea what to expect.

Over the next few miles, I waited to be stopped by a snowplow, line of traffic or even the crash that had closed the freeway, but it never came. Using all four, empty lanes so I did not have to turn sharply, I made my way down the road and into the state of Nevada. I drove past the line of thousands of cars waiting to head over the pass the other direction, almost letting out a cheer. We had made it. Somehow. Calling our friend six-hours after we started off, we got directions to his house, and celebrated our arrival with a quick beer before collapsing onto the futon for some much needed rest.

The next morning we grabbed a delicious breakfast at my favorite omelet place in Reno before repacking the car another time to continue eastward. This was to be the longest and most boring part of the trip, covering 1100 miles of the most boring freeway in the western United States to make it home before work on Monday. Even more boring than the drive we did on day two. Setting the cruise control once again, we attempted to pass the time with anything from MadLibs to random discussions about cows. Eight hours passed before the first segment was over just after 7pm as we stopped for the night at Erin’s brother’s house in Salt Lake City, Utah. We once again grabbed a beer at a local pub and I met up with a friend for coffee before I settled in for another nights rest ready to finish the drive home the next day.

It was up and off again the next morning, out of the city I left for many of reasons , and only a short hour before we entered the sixth state of our trip, Wyoming. The next seven hours, sucked. With the exception of 50 cent ice cream cones in the middle of nowhere, there is no upside to the drive on Interstate 80 through Wyoming. Counting the miles, I just tried to keep my mind focused on getting home that night. Then finally, after 600 more miles, a few turns and one more stop for gas, we passed the city limits for Boulder, my home.

2965 miles had passed since we left late Tuesday afternoon as I pulled into our parking spot in the alley behind our house. It took all the motivation I had left to unload all the camping gear and clothing bags into the house. Collapsing on the couch I thought back through everything that happened; all of the adventures, mishaps and hours spent sitting behind the wheel. I thought about why I road trip, all of the different sites and amazing things you can see driving the thousands of miles to get to a place rather than just jumping on a airplane. The abandoned ranches in the middle of the Mojave desert, the twisting curves of the PCH up the California coast, the small pub high in the Sierras with the couple sitting outside watching the line of cars make their way on the ‘short cut’ – all of the random and beautiful and unique corners of the country that have long been bypassed. This is why I spend 6 days in a car with nothing but a map, some camping gear, my best friend and the craving to see something amazing.

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