As I’m prepping for my seventh move of the project, everybody seems to have an opinion on my destination city, Seattle.
But, as enjoyable as it is looking forward to a new city, my thoughts are also trailing back to a road trip years ago, my first and only attempt to visit Seattle and the Pacific Northwest.
This was my sophomore year of college, I was still living in on-campus housing and I was half-anticipating, half-dreading the end of the school year and a summer internship I was pretty sure I didn’t want to do.
A road trip to clear my head and escape the looming feelings of displacement seemed in order. My original destination was Idaho. Childhood friends who had lived there for awhile claimed it was a pretty place, and I figured that was about as far as I could hope to get in a few days.
Late on a chilly Monday morning, I packed a smattering of clothes in my car along with a nylon case of CDs and my portable CD player (with accompanying tape-deck converter; ballin’), a six-pack of Sprite and a box of granola bars and set off north from my mother’s apartment in Kansas City. In my wallet sat less than $200 cash.
With classes starting back up the next Monday, I had seven days to drive, which meant essentially three days there and three days back and one day to explore my destination.
By afternoon of my first day on the road, I-29 had led me deep into the wilds of Iowa, past the border city of Omaha and into a warm, brilliant spring day. My windows were down, I had slipped out of my sweatshirt to just my t-shirt, and music blasted out of my speakers as I hung my arm out into the wind. This was just what I needed.
After a full day of driving with minimal stops, I pulled off the road in South Dakota to sleep for the night.
Lessons of the Road: The best place to sleep when taking a break from driving is about 10 to 15 meters into an on-ramp. The reasons for this are many. For one, cars coming onto an on-ramp are accelerating, not decelerating (as on an off-ramp), so if for some reason they lost control and hit your car, they won’t have gained much momentum. Secondly, cops are a lot less likely to bother you there than if you pull off on the shoulder of the highway. Also, sleeping in a rest area parking lot is not allowed and will almost certainly get you harassed and shooed-on, if not worse.
If you’re driving the highways late at night, take notice, you’ll see semis littering the on-ramps.
After a furtive evening’s sleep, I was awoken around six in the morning by sunlight pouring through my dew covered windshield. I started my day with a hardy breakfast of warm Sprite and two granola bars and took off again.
As I drove, I realized I was making better time than I had planned on (even back then, I had the mindset to always budget for a worst case scenario). My mental calculation suggested I could make Idaho by evening and be all the way to Seattle by the next day. Seattle would be a much cooler final destination. My new goal had been set.
Feeling free and with time on my side, I decided to take a detour off of I-90 to take in the majestic touristy views of Mt. Rushmore. This involved steering my two-door Ford Escort onto the mountainous roads of Black Hills National Forest.
If this were a horror movie, right about now is when the ominous music would start playing.
My first failure (of many) was believing that a National Monument in the middle of the mountains would be free to view. Oh, so naïve. Currently, the website lists the parking fee as $11, though I remember it being more.
Either way, though, I wasn’t about to pay money to see Mt. Rushmore. When I say I had less than $200, I mean in total, not just on me. A few chiseled faces weren’t worth 5% of my net worth.
I continued on, disappointed, but overall in good spirits.
Then it started to snow. Now, I was in the mountains in March, so even a relatively un-worldly fellow such as my 19-year-old self recognized that this was to be expected. That didn’t make it any less stressful trying to maneuver my little hatchback over the slick, undulating roads of America’s grand hills. It also didn’t help that large trucks with all-weather tires were impatiently riding my ass, screaming, “Move!” with their headlights
I slid, I skidded, I sweated, I drove 20 miles in 2 hours until I finally saw the most glorious view I could have asked for: Flat land. As if there was an invisible wall, the moment I drove back onto the plains, the snow disappeared. Ahead of me spread miles of gray, dry open road. I’d lost some time, but I was still determined to make it to Seattle by the next evening.
Into Wyoming I drove, intent on meeting back up with I-90 to cut through the Northeast corner of the state, into Montana and onto Idaho by evening, hopefully. By the time the snow inevitably began to fall again, it was early afternoon.
I’m from Kansas, so a little snow on an open road doesn’t faze me much. In the mountains it was unnerving, sure, but across this straight patch of highway I felt pretty confident that I could handle a, surely, piddly little early-spring snow flurry.
Again with that ominous music.
It was snowing pretty heavily by the time I passed the point-of-no-return. By that, I mean, an open gate and a sign explaining that when the road was impassable, the gate would be down. The gate was open, so I drove on. Let the camera linger ten minutes longer to witness that very gate closing.
Patches of snow and ice littered the highway, but I drove on valiantly, my eyes focused miles ahead. Which is not the best place to be staring when the road you drive on is a skating rink.
I recall it like a scene from a movie. An ice patch in front of me, directly in the path of my tire. I didn’t try to avoid it, I didn’t swerve, I just hit it straight on. Did I maybe flinch at the last second, twist my wheel an inch? Maybe, I can’t really say, but I do know that my car was suddenly perpendicular to the road.
I landed in a bluff of two-feet snow in the median between the two sides of the highway. If it hadn’t already been snowing for a few hours to create that cushion, my car undoubtedly would have flipped and rolled. As it was, I settled into a pit of snow, 90° to the road.
No other cars were behind me. It was fifteen or twenty minutes before any cars drove by me going the opposite direction, including a family in a van who stopped and allowed me to use their cell phone to call the police. In the hour and a half that I waited for help, I tried in vigorous vain to dislodge myself from the icy grasp of Wyoming nature. Since all I had for a tool was the ice-scraper for my windshield, I wasn’t going anywhere.
When the police finally arrived, the officer made a few perfunctory attempts to push me out, to no avail. Together, we waited for the tow truck that pulled me out without much effort. And all it cost me was $50. If you’re doing the math, that was a hefty portion of my budget.
The cop advised me to go back the way I came from and find a motel in a nearby town to spend the night. It was already dusk and the storm was gearing up to be something massive.
I took his advice to follow the highway back, but I had no intention of paying for a place to sleep. I’d already lost a quarter of my cash getting towed out and a room for the night would certainly have depleted my funds to an unmanageable level.
I took a road that broke off from the highway and went south. My logic was that the further north I went, the worse the storm had gotten, so if I went south I could navigate around it, go through Colorado, into Utah and up into Idaho. I’d be behind my new schedule, but if I drove straight through I could probably still make it to at least Utah before I had to sleep.
Initially, the road seemed to support this logic. There was no snow on this back road and traveling was considerably easier and faster than it had been on the main highway. I was a bit frazzled from my recent roadside excursion, but generally I felt like I was on firm ground.
Then it started snowing again.
To Be Continued…