Road Trip Day 8: Winter Views and Winter Roads

When I was originally planning this trip, one reason I wanted to leave by mid-October was so I could travel across the north of the country while it was still free of snow. In particular, I wanted to drive through Yellowstone National Park, and the roads in Yellowstone are very much seasonal: many are closed by early November, and those that remain usually require snow tires in order to safely traverse.

So it was with worry, a few days ago, that I noted the forecast for Yellowstone National Park was snow… snow… and more snow. I had originally wanted to approach Yellowstone from the south, so I could see the Grand Tetons, but the south was where the worst snow was due to hit, so I decided to cut through the north of the park instead.

Even so, as I prepared to embark from the little town of Cody, just to the east of Yellowstone, I wasn’t sure how far I would get. The National Weather Service had issued a Winter Weather Advisory urging against travel, and containing dire warnings of snow 10 to 20 inches deep in places. (For a North Carolinian, that much snow falls under the “apocalyptic” category.)

So in the morning, I stopped at the Cody Visitors Center on the way out of town to inquire about the actual conditions on the roads I wanted to traverse. If there really was a lot of snow on the roads, I could always bypass Yellowstone entirely. As disappointing as it would be, I had a hunch there was plenty of great scenery even outside the park to console myself with.

I hunched over the map with the lady at the information desk. There were two nearby entrances to Yellowstone: the east entrance, located just a few miles outside of Cody, and the northeast entrance, which would require a longer route that passed to the north, traversing a section of road called the Chief Joseph Scenic Highway, before entering Yellowstone. The east entrance was closed, but the northeast route, she assured me, was still very much open and passable.

With my concerns assuaged, I headed out. Almost immediately upon leaving Cody, the mountains began to rise up around me, snow-tipped at the top, but no sign of snow either on or near the roads. Above, the sky was a beautiful Wyoming blue, and the brown grass of the prairie stretched out around me. Soon I came upon the turn-off for the Chief Joseph Scenic Highway, and I took it.

The road began to rise up from the valley into the mountains, passing dramatic cliffs that loomed over the roadside. Around me, the mountains grew taller, dark green pine forests giving way to looming gray-and-white mountains which drew nearer with every curve of the road. Above the mountains, the blue sky was no longer quite so blue: snow clouds began to peek over their tops from the other side of the ridge.

Rising higher, the snow line began to drift closer, until finally the road was passing right through the snow-covered landscape. For a while, the road stayed clear of snow, but eventually it crept onto the road surface, and soon I was inching along carefully, keeping my tires within the same snow-free lines that previous cars had cleared. The snow had barely accumulated on the road (maybe half an inch, if that), but on the winding mountain roads I was particularly nervous. The snow got thicker as the road switchbacked around hairpin curves down into the valley, and I skidded briefly a few times. After each, I lifted silent prayers to the inventors of ABS and traction control.

Despite the snow, the scenic highway lived up to its name: the views were spectacular. There was wildlife along the way, too: I spotted a deer up the mountainside not far from the roadway, and I got the impression that it was feeling as put out by the snow as I was.

But the views, despite their grandeur, gave the promise of worse winter weather to come. The blue Wyoming sky was no longer anywhere to be seen.

Sure enough, as I approached the actual gate to Yellowstone, the roads got worse, and there were no longer so many pre-worn grooves in the snow left by previous cars. The snow was actually falling now, and getting harder, but I only had two ways to go, forward or backward, and I had no desire to go back up and over the Scenic Highway. The snow had been bad enough coming down; I did not want to try to go back up. Grimly, I pressed on toward the northeast Yellowstone Gate, wondering if it would even be open when I got there. If it wasn’t, what would I do? I had visions of ending up stranded in the wilds of Wyoming for several days, and I mentally inventoried my food and water. The situation was not pretty: the homemade cookies had given out back around Chicago.

I passed through two nearly-deserted towns: Cooke City and Silver Gate. A few places were open, but snow was starting accumulate quite a bit in the unplowed parking lots, and I didn’t stop, for fear I wouldn’t be able to get going again. There was nowhere to go but forward.

At last, I reached the gate to Yellowstone. I paid the entrance fee, eyed the road nervously, and asked the ranger if the roads got worse ahead. He reassured me that the roads were almost certainly better inside the park; the snow was lighter in the west. I remembered how reassuring the woman had been in the Cody Visitor Center, and was no longer quite so trusting of his word.

The first few miles did nothing to assuage my concerns. I was feeling more confident about my snow-driving abilities, though, and was no longer quite so worried about sliding off the road, especially since the road stayed mostly level and no longer tried to climb any high mountain passes.

As it turned out, the ranger had been right, and after several miles the snow began to lessen and the road began to clear. The cloud ceiling even rose a little, and I began to get some views of the classic Yellowstone landscape… not to mention classic Yellowstone wildlife, which unhurriedly crossed the road in front of me, seemingly quite aware that a puny little Hyundai was no match for a full-grown bison.

When I reached Mammoth Hot Springs, in the Northeast corner of Yellowstone, the roads were completely clear, and the snow was no longer falling. The conditions were good enough that I considered going south along the western edge of Yellowstone to see Old Faithful, but it was 51 miles out of the way. And at the Visitor Center, the stretch of road to Old Faithful was marked on the map with an ominous “Snow Tires Required.” The stretch I had successfully navigated earlier was merely marked “Snow Tires Advised.”

So I headed North out of the park, back toward the Interstate, and civilization, such as it is out here in the wilds of Montana. Tonight I’m staying in the town of Butte… I would have tried to push farther, but snowflakes were beginning to fall, and ominous clouds were looming to the west. Tomorrow is going to be a serious mileage day, but if all goes well, I’ll be in Washington state by the end of it.

The end is in sight.

Road Trip Day 7: From Plains to Prairie

After only about ten minutes of driving this morning, I crossed into the state of Wyoming. Whereas most of the road in South Dakota passed through flat, unchanging farmland, the scenery in Wyoming was much more interesting– Wyoming doesn’t have farmland, it has pasture, and the difference is significant. Farmland is flat and tame; pasture is rolling hills, and wild prairies, and rock formations jutting from the scrub brush landscape. Pasture also means that on occasion, your drive will be interrupted by cowboys and cowgirls (cowpersons?) driving herds of steer down the road:

Maybe it was just the novelty of the prairie, but I haven’t been this enthralled with a landscape since the first time I saw the Alps. Every single view was unique, with dozens of different things to draw the eye: a herd of cows appearing as brown or black specks in the distance; a dark green pine forest stretching over the distant hills; massive sandstone cliffs near the roadside; a winding river carving its way across the prairie; or even just the clouds, which seem so much more dramatic over wide-open grasslands than they do back home.

If that’s not enough, then occasionally Wyoming steps it up a notch. Exhibit A: Devils Tower.

Okay, so here’s the story: fifty million years ago, this landscape wasn’t on the surface of the Earth at all– it was over a mile underground. At some point, maybe as part of a volcano, or maybe as part of an upwelling that didn’t reach the surface, magma from the Earth’s mantle thrust upward and cooled, forming a massive lump of igneous rock. When the surrounding sedimentary rock eroded away over the course of millions of years, the harder igneous rock was left: Devils Tower. And it’s still being exposed: rain, wind, and the nearby Belle Fourche River are still doing their work on the surrounding rock. In another million years, it could be even more impressive.

Below, you can see Devils Tower in the distance, behind some of the softer sandstone cliffs that were/are being eroded away:

Later in the day, I drove through the Bighorn Mountains. At one pass, I reached 9966 feet elevation, which may be the highest elevation I’ve reached outside of an airplane in about twenty years. Even in the Alps, I didn’t climb any mountains higher than 8000 feet. On the way back down, we drove along the bottom of Bighorn Canyon, and eventually back out onto the prairie.

My destination for the night was Cody, Wyoming– tomorrow, if the roads are clear of snow, I’ll be driving through Yellowstone National Park. For dinner, I did the obvious, after seeing so many cows both along and on the road: I went to a local saloon and had a giant slab of authentic Wyoming steak.

The meal cost almost as much as my motel room. It was totally worth it.

Road Trip Day 6: The Road to Rushmore

Today was my longest-mileage day yet: I drove just over 400 miles. But it’s also the first day in which my starting and ending points were both in the same state. Such is the nature of the Great Plains states: large and flat.

My rate of travel was helped by the 75 mph speed limit, and the lack of any major cities to slow it back down. By and large, all I had to do was set the cruise control, listen to my audiobook (the South Dakota plains are no match for the long-windedness of Robert Jordan), and let the miles fly by.

I was in a hurry for another reason: I wanted to get to the Black Hills as early as possible, almost 300 miles down the road. The Black Hills are where the South Dakota landscape starts to get particularly interesting; they also hold Mt. Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Memorial.

I gained some time by crossing from Central to Mountain Time in the middle of the state, and was in the Black Hills by early afternoon. The day was overcast and the dark gray clouds hung low over the landscape, but I drove on, hoping Mt. Rushmore wouldn’t be fogged in.

As I drove deeper into the Black Hills, I passed a seemingly never-ending string of colorful billboards, advertising all manner of resorts, casinos, hotels, and kitschy tourist attractions. The commercialization took me by surprise, although I suppose I should have expected it. It felt like what was otherwise a beautiful natural landscape had been invaded by some outcropping of Disney World. Certainly, the few towns I drove through were no more authentic than Main Street of the Magic Kingdom.

It was made worse by the fact that tourist season is over, which lent an air of bleak desperation to all the attractions. Many were closed for the season, although the overdone facades and garish billboards were still very much on display. I hated it.

Then again, I had to admit, I wasn’t exactly here to see nature, or authenticity: I was here to see sixty-foot faces of dead presidents carved into the cliffside. Would Mt. Rushmore itself be the ultimate kitschy tourist attraction?

To my relief, it didn’t feel that way. The monument itself had an air of gravity to it, the sort of gravity that can really only be attained by sixty-foot tall, stern-looking granite sculptures. When I first got there, the monument was socked in by fog, so I did a lap around the walking trail while waiting for the clouds to clear. Along the way, I happened upon a guided tour, where a park ranger was animatedly describing the history of each president on the monument. There’s little doubt that all four were great presidents, although Thomas Jefferson is probably my favorite of the group. He wrote the Declaration of Independence, after all, and it was a document powerful enough to change the world– I think any writer would love to write something even one-thousandth as powerful and enduring as he did.

After Rushmore, I headed a bit further south to the Crazy Horse Memorial, which I highly recommend you read about (link) because the story of it is fascinating… and its size absolutely dwarfs Mt. Rushmore. It should be quite impressive when it’s completed in forty years or so.

Tomorrow I have another empty, flat state, and once again, most of the interesting stuff is on the west side of the state. Will I make it to Yellowstone National Park tomorrow? We shall see.

Road Trip Day 5: Crossing the Plains

I’m typing this up from a hotel room in a small town called Canistota, somewhere west of Sioux Falls in South Dakota. And by small, I mean really small– there are no chain restaurants, just two local cafes, a gas station, and not much else on the main drag.

Having dinner at a cafe, one of about five people in the dining area, I contemplated on what a change it was from lunch. At lunch, you see, I was in Minneapolis, dining in the South Food Court of the Mall of America, overlooking a giant indoor amusement park and surrounded by more people within a hundred yards than are within five miles right now.

But things have changed now that I’m west of Minneapolis. Up until this afternoon, I was passing through a long line of major cities: Charleston, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Chicago, Milwaukee, and Minneapolis were no more than a few hours apart each. Every day I was stopping in at least one notable metropolis, strolling around, seeing the sights, sampling the food, gazing up at the tall skyscrapers– or in the case of today, watching the indoor roller coasters. (There’s also a log flume ride.)

But for the next few days, things are very, very empty. Oh, sure, there’ll be interesting places along the way… Mount Rushmore and Yellowstone National Park, just to name two. But the driving? Well, if today was any indication, there will be a lot of flat, empty grasslands, interrupted only by the occasional farmhouse or wind turbine. My plan for staying sane? Audiobooks.

A few words about yesterday, since I didn’t post a blog entry:

-Milwaukee is a beautiful city. The lakefront is green, the riverfront is bustling, and there’s a large, walkable urban center. But unlike Chicago, it’s not so big as to be intimidating, and driving through it does not leave permanent finger marks in your steering wheel. I’d definitely consider living there if it weren’t located in Wisconsin, which is known for the quality and duration of its winters.

-Towards the end of the day I drove along the Mississippi River for a few hours, tracing the curves of the banks as I followed a winding highway north to Minneapolis. It was some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve seen so far, with high bluffs and rocky cliff faces scattered along either side of the wide blue river. It was the sort of scenery which was in short supply today, and I fear will be tomorrow as well.

On the plus side, I think I’m about at the geographic halfway point of my drive. (In case you weren’t aware, the United States is a dang big place.)

Westward ho!

Road Trip Day 3: Chicago!

When I was a little kid, Chicago held a certain allure in my mind. I’m not sure why; maybe it was the Sears Tower, maybe it was the mystique of Wrigley Field, maybe it was just the sound of the name. But whatever it was, for several years, if anyone asked me where I would go if I could go anywhere in the world, I would have said “Chicago.”

Today, for the first time, on a warm fall day in October, I finally got to see it. After a white-knuckled approach that alternated between “oh my god this road is terrifying” and “oh my god another tollbooth?”, I arrived in the heart of downtown Chicago. Naturally, the first thing I did was walk to the Sears (now Willis) Tower and ride the elevator to the top of the observation deck.

After walking onto the glass-bottomed observation platform, being appropriately terrified, and snapping two dozen pictures of the Chicago skyline and Lake Michigan, I headed back down and did what I always do in strange cities: go for a walk.

My feet took me out to the shore of Lake Michigan and North, walking along the lake until I reached the Navy Pier, which appears to be Chicago’s upscale answer to Coney Island. After that, I walked back into the city with a goal of finding pizza. I mean, it’s Chicago, right? Gotta have pizza, right?

Thus I found myself eating chorizo-and-egg pizza at a little place called Pompei Bakery. It wasn’t quite the deep dish style that Chicago is famous for, but it was nevertheless delicious. After finishing I still wasn’t sure what “chorizo” was, except that it was some sort of meat. (Answer found out later: it’s Mexican pork sausage.)

After dinner, I took another meandering route back to the car, and headed out of town. I’m trying to avoid staying in any big cities, in order to keep down hotel costs. Last night I drove around 45 minutes out of Cincinnati to Batesville, Indiana; tonight I’m driving about 45 minutes to Waukegan, Illinois.

My evenings have become a routine of downloading photos from the camera, catching up on e-mail, and searching for Seattle apartments. Last night I didn’t even blog, although that was partly because there wasn’t much to blog about, except for raving how awesome Cincinnati-style chili is or doing a dissertation on the mining industry in West Virginia.

So I’ll leave it at this: if you ever get a chance to drive along the New River Gorge in West Virginia, do it. It takes you through the heart of the West Virginia coal industry, and the way of life that’s grown up around it. It also takes you through some of the most breathtaking natural scenery in Appalachia. It’s an odd yet fascinating mix of heavy industry and isolated nature.

And if you ever find yourself in or near Cincinnati, eat at Skyline chili. Wear a bib.

Good night!

Road Trip Day 1: On the Move At Last

The first day of my epic drive to Seattle got off to a slow start, despite waking up about 7 to say good-bye to Mom. It took about three hours of last-minute packing, double checking, and fidgeting with said packing before everything was either in or strapped to the car and I could see out the rear-view mirror. Then on my way out of town, I bought new glasses (to take advantage of the insurance plan I’ll lose at the end of the month), new shoes (to take advantage of a hefty gift card discovered during packing), and ran a few other last minute errands, so it was about 1:30 by the time I hit the open road.

I’m considering starting a stupid-driver index. It would measure the driving ability of each state by counting the number of drivers being idiotic (for example, doing 55 in the left lane), then dividing by the number of miles I travel in each state to get the stupid-driver index. Of the three states I’ve traveled so far (NC, VA, WV), so far NC is losing. (Gorramit, shift to the right if you’re going under the speed limit, people!)

I had planned to follow a 6-pm-hard-stop rule: each night, by 6 pm I need to a motel for the evening. However, today, shortly before 6, I found myself just inside the West Virginia border, in a town called Princeton. Princeton’s sole purpose, apparently, is to be an Interstate tourist trap: it’s a collection of chain hotels and restaurants, most if not all overpriced, sitting right on the Interstate exit. So I decided to keep going. I had visions of finding a friendly small town, with a nice little inexpensive mom-and-pop motel, and maybe a local diner where I could get some decent food and country-style Southern hospitality.

But small Appalachian towns exist on a broad spectrum, ranging between “Gaudy Tourist Trap” and “Get Me Out of Here I Hear Banjos.” I know there are plenty of towns between the two extremes; I stayed in many of them while hiking the Appalachian Trail. In West Virginia, however, I had trouble finding such places: I stopped in a little town called Ghent, but there wasn’t much there. The only motel had just two cars in front of it, and shared a parking lot with an adult video store, where several rednecks stood around a pickup truck talking. Cue the “Deliverance” music… time to hit the road again.

I was beginning to despair when I reached the town of Beckley; the number of billboards near the Interstate suggested I was back on the tourist-trap side of things. But I had a booklet of hotel coupons I had picked up at a Visitor Center, and there was one for Microtel Inn here, so I took the exit ramp.

I’m actually using a few different tools to find places to stay: in additions to booklets at Visitor Centers, I’m also using Google Maps on my phone and the Kayak Hotel-Finder application. (West Virginia has had remarkably solid cell connections so far). So I pulled up Kayak, found the Microtel, and let my GPS lead the way. It led me on a windy route through the center of town– which was odd, since I thought the hotel was right by the interstate. Still, the place had a nice vibe to it… it’s the home of MSU (Mountain State University), so it’s very much a college town. At last, I thought, an authentic West Virginia town that is neither a tourist-bilking operation nor a living demonstration of everything that’s wrong with Appalachia.

Unfortunately, what I found out about fifteen minutes of driving through narrow semi-urban streets was that there are two Microtel Inns in Beckley, and the one I wanted was back on the other side of town. Price difference between the two: thirty bucks (eighty versus fifty). So, I got in the car and drove back across town to the other Microtel, where upon entering I was greeted by a sign at the desk saying: “Coupon Rooms Sold Out”.

Fine. Whatever. It’s seventy bucks, but still cheaper than anywhere else, and now it’s 7:30. Give me the freaking room.

Despite the fact that I had given in, the clerk took pity on me and gave me the coupon rate anyway. Score one for southern hospitality. Score two for southern hospitality at the Cracker Barrel next door, where the waitress practically oozed southern charm and friendliness. Such a nice change from the West Virginia Visitor Center at Princeton, where I had the following exchange earlier that evening:

Me: “Hi, I’m driving up I-77, but would like to find a more scenic route that gets me to the same place, even if it takes longer. Any suggestions?”
Lady at the Desk: “No.”

But all in all, it’s been a good trip so far– I forgot to check the mileage before I came in, but I think I did a little over 300 miles today (though, admittedly, some of that was driving back and forth through Buckley). Looking at the map, big cities will be coming fast over the next day or two (Charleston, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Chicago, and Milwaukee are only 2-3 hours apart each). Should be interesting, although like all my other previous trips, I may not do daily blog entries. Or I may write a few blog entries unrelated to travel. We shall see.

One last ironic note: I left Raleigh this morning and ended the day in Beckley, which is in Raleigh County.

All that travel, only to find myself back in Raleigh…