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  1. Default East to west in winter. Our first US road trip

    Many people here have been very kind in offering advice and tips about driving cross-country in winter. All I can offer as repayment are my impressions as a first-timer driving across this great country of yours. And boy, is it great - but enormous would be much more apt. Vast nails it even better. Only now do I fully understand why cruise control was invented.

    Our route took us from Toronto, Ontario across the border at Sarnia into Michigan and thence to Battle Creek (you’re in cornflake country now) on past Chicago (hello, wow, goodbye) and then endlessly west on the I-90 until we reached Washington State. Just past Spokane we left the interstate, turned north, past the Grand Coulee dam and wiggled our way up to Osooyos where we crossed back into Canada for the last leg up the Okanagan Valley to Vernon, British Columbia.

    See, it takes ages just to describe the route let alone drive it.

    I know many of you here are keen roadtrippers and have probably driven the equivalent of going to the moon and back so the highways and by-ways of America must be very familiar to you. Not so for me. I come from the tartan end of a small island off the coast of Europe. Drive for nine hours there and you fall into the sea or France. Additionally many of the lesser roads in the UK follow the ancient routes of cattle drovers or rivers so they wind and bend like crazy knitting. Additionally there are roads in Yorkshire for instance that have 33% grades. Consequently your interstate system just boggled my mind, it’s relentlessly efficient and direct by comparison.

    In the depths of winter, the interstate was surprisingly quiet too. We saw little traffic other than trucks and travelers all keen to be elsewhere. Those too keen to be elsewhere found themselves in ditches or upside down with their wheels in the air. All of the vehicles we saw off-road, but not in the good way, were SUV’s or trucks kitted out with big tires, AWD and more confidence than ability. Patently a little humility in the face of bad conditions takes you much further than knobblies and a rollbar.

    The weather was our biggest worry. We’d seen the pictures of prairie storms and we were anxious not be in one. That’s why we chose Super 8’s as our stopping points. Not because of their looks obviously but because they offered free wireless internet. Many motel chains now offer the same and it’s invaluable. We would access weather reports online from the NOAA that were much more accurate than the local TV weather and with national coverage we could see what we would be driving into 300 miles away. That’s how we made it out of Sioux Falls just before the blizzard hit. If we’d taken the TV weatherman’s advice we’d probably be snowed in yet.

    So it was a mixture of good management and good luck that kept us out of trouble but we had prepared for it. We’d made up a car kit with cellphone, blankets, candles, sleeping bags, jumper cables, tow rope, washer fluid by the gallon, munchies and flashlights just in case. Hoping for the best, we prepared for the worst.

    After driving for nine hours across the Prairies in winter it feels as if the scenery is scrolling by in slow motion and the car is stationary. In places the only thing that indicated that we were in fact, moving were the billboards flashing by. Boy, what a visual blight they are. (And I’m saying nothing more about the bumper sticker we saw along that stretch that stated that guns save lives.)

    I’ll tell you what takes lives; roadside food. There’s more ultra-saturated grease served along the route than in the vehicles driving it. If you have no option but the usual supersizing suspects, your diet will go down the toilet in every sense imaginable. Sitting inert for hours isn’t good for the digestion so we found ourselves hankering for something light and simple and preferably high in fibre. Fat chance.

    And will someone please tell Ronald bloody McDonald that you put milk, not cream, in tea and that it’s very poor show to charge extra for a drop or two of cow juice. Another minor gripe is the sameness of places – despite the names changing, each town we passed looked like any other town we passed solely because the logos emblazoned on sticks and poles were the same everywhere. I’m sure these places have a feel all of their own hidden somewhere but you certainly don’t get a sense of a town’s identity from the interstate; it’s been submerged by marketing.

    The weather lifted as we went west so we would catch fleeting glimpses of the Dakota Badlands to the south. That is one of the most surreal sights I’ve seen; a fractured, almost lunar landscape amidst a sea of smoothly rolling grass and snow. The Badlands were only trumped for weirdness at Anaconda, Montana where we turned a corner and saw the Tower of Sauron from Lord of the Rings nestling in the hills. It’s actually the world’s tallest brick chimney and you can see it clearly from above on Google Earth. Startled this little hobbit I can tell you.

    Montana served up some fabulous scenery and dramatic winter skies. The road still had ice and snow patches so were forced to slow down to enjoy the view. It’s amazing how much more horizon there is out there in the once wild west, it wraps right round your head and I swear it expands your peripheral vision way behind your ears. We were startled back to reality on a snowy patch of road when a big rig hauling livestock went blowing past at over 80mph. This led me to one conclusion; truckers have either balls of steel or brains of shit. Perhaps both.

    The most frustrating part of a road trip with a destination is what you have to drive past. I saw so many names and places that resonated for all kinds of reasons. We crossed the Mississippi and Huckleberry Finn came to mind. We crossed another mighty river, the Missouri that looked as cold and colourless as steel. Mount Rushmore, Yellowstone National Park, the Badlands, Little Big Horn; all places I’ve heard about since I was young but now didn’t have the time to visit. All in all, there’s a very compelling case for not having a destination at all. But simply staying observant let us catch sight of an eagle catching thermals above the blacktop, coyotes scaring the horses and what looked like a wolf limping across a field.

    Staggeringly impressive roadkill along the way too, I’ve never seen so many tenderized species. We made a point of not driving after dark lest a dim-witted deer decide it wanted to join us in the car. Someone told us it’s not the impact that does the damage but the flailing hooves inside the car. But that might be elk.

    The high mountain passes were more or less free of serious snow cover. Mind you, we had checked the road reports, satellite imagery and the local news before we set off. Again luck played a huge part in our safe passage, we were right in between two weather systems so the skies were fabulously blue and clear.

    Once across the Continental Divide, we finally left the interstate just past Spokane and it was all downhill and little roads to the next big river, the Columbia at the Grand Coulee Dam. The transition from almost unfettered driving on the interstate to the constraints of the smaller roads was definitely a lurch – after hours at 80 mph (all speeds approximate, officer) to be suddenly driving through a small town, speed limit 25 mph, means you really have to be paying attention.

    We drove from sun up to sun down most days with no particular destination in mind, just a few possibilities of Super 8’s that we might reach along the way before it got dark. We were very conscious of not getting Press-on-itis which engenders impatience and rash decisions but we still managed five or six hundred miles a day without too much anguish. Again though we took a conscious decision to enjoy our roadtrip rather than endure it.

    Despite our best intentions, the last day dragged. After four days, it seemed to take as long to drive the last 200 klicks (we’re back in Canada now) as it did the previous 4000. The roads shrank, the traffic dawdled and the scenery seemed less interesting even though we were driving up the lovely Okanagan Valley. Kelowna’s strip mall looked like every other strip mall and the novelty of the road trip had finally worn off. The last stretch to Vernon was just driving.

    Our Saab 92x (a Subaru Impreza in Swedish fancy dress) performed flawlessly for 2700 miles with absolutely no hair-raising moments and I’m grateful for that. There was a skeptical wee lassie in Sheridan who looked at our very un-trucklike Saab and asked “Are you going in that little car?” Yes, dear we are, and we did. Now all we have to do is drive back in the Spring. Happy trails and thanks to all who encouraged us.

    Mike and Freda
    Last edited by Midwest Michael; 01-11-2007 at 06:48 PM. Reason: Added Link to Pre-Trip Thread

  2. #2
    Join Date
    May 2003
    Location
    Green County, Wisconsin
    Posts
    13,063

    Default Great Read

    Thanks for sharing your experiences!

    and thence to Battle Creek (you’re in cornflake country now)
    I have to chuckle at this one a little. Exactly 3 days after I told you I rarely stay at Super 8's, I found myself staying at the Super 8 in Battle Creek. It was unremarkable, but it was cheap and had a semi-edible breakfast in the morning, just my kind of place!

    That’s how we made it out of Sioux Falls just before the blizzard hit. If we’d taken the TV weatherman’s advice we’d probably be snowed in yet.
    I had a nice laugh at this one too. I actually know several of the TV Weathermen in Sioux Falls.

    But its quite true, TV weather people really only focus on what is going to happen in that particular city. The Internet is a much better way to find out what conditions are like a few hundred miles down the road.

    All of the vehicles we saw off-road, but not in the good way, were SUV’s or trucks kitted out with big tires, AWD and more confidence than ability. Patently a little humility in the face of bad conditions takes you much further than knobblies and a rollbar.
    Exactly. 4 Wheel Drive is probably the single biggest cause of overconfidence on a questionable roadway. Way too many people don't understand that 4 wheel Drive doesn't mean squat when you need those 4 Wheels to stop.

    If you have no option but the usual supersizing suspects, your diet will go down the toilet in every sense imaginable.
    Fast Food certainly can be one of the poison apples of the roadtrip. That's why you'll read lots of advice on here about using a cooler to eat healthier. I also try to hit the local restaurants as often as possible. Its not nearly as fast, and you may have to drive a little farther off the freeway, but you can find some real gems if you can get past the bright flashing Drive-Thru signs.

    We drove from sun up to sun down most days with no particular destination in mind, just a few possibilities of Super 8’s that we might reach along the way before it got dark.
    My favorite trips are the ones where I don't know exactly where I'll be when its time to stop for the night.

    I hope you enjoy the rest of your winter in Canada. Do you have any plans yet for your return trip this spring?

  3. #3
    Join Date
    Mar 2005
    Location
    Washington state coast/Olympic Peninsula
    Posts
    3,318

    Default I think we've found the next Bill Bryson!

    Seriously, I laughed all the way through. :-)

    I hope you can make it back to places like the Little Bighorn someday. It IS a shame to have to whizz past such places.

    I know exactly what you mean about roadfood. Like Michael said, that's why we always encourage people to eat out of their cooler. Cheaper AND healthier.

    But your comment about how marketing of corporate chains has created the impression that every town is the same. And, in some ways, they are. A strip mall is a strip mall is a strip mall. I live in Washington state and was in the other Washington (DC) in December. When we went past a strip mall I saw the same stores we have here. Discouraging.

    But once you get past the strip malls and go into the downtown and the residential areas of the different towns, you do see that each town is unique. You probably just didn't have time to find it all this trip. That's one reason why Michael's suggestion of looking for locally-owned restaurants that are not a part of chains is a good way to enjoy good local cuisine, even if it's a burger, and to get a better idea of what the local people are like.

    It’s amazing how much more horizon there is out there in the once wild west, it wraps right round your head and I swear it expands your peripheral vision way behind your ears.
    This is the most creative and most correct way of expressing this phenomenon I've ever read or heard. Perfect! Many other phrases jumped out as well but this was my favorite. Like I said...Bill Bryson, watch out!

    I can't wait to hear more about your future adventures!

    I

  4. #4
    Join Date
    Mar 2005
    Location
    Western/Central Massachusetts
    Posts
    1,703

    Default Good times

    Quote Originally Posted by standrew59 View Post
    We saw little traffic other than trucks and travelers all keen to be elsewhere.
    This time of year can be a blessing as well as a curse for the long-distance traveler. The roadways open up a bit, but the weather is always waiting to do its thing.

    We would access weather reports online from the NOAA that were much more accurate than the local TV weather and with national coverage we could see what we would be driving into 300 miles away.
    So true! Most of the weather reports in my area come from the larger airports in the region - Worcester airport, which is on top of one of the highest hills in the city, sees much different weather than even two miles away.

    So it was a mixture of good management and good luck that kept us out of trouble but we had prepared for it. We’d made up a car kit with cellphone, blankets, candles, sleeping bags, jumper cables, tow rope, washer fluid by the gallon, munchies and flashlights just in case. Hoping for the best, we prepared for the worst.
    And we are glad that you did so you're able to write this trip report now!

    In places the only thing that indicated that we were in fact, moving were the billboards flashing by. Boy, what a visual blight they are.
    Vermont does not allow billboards - and it makes a difference.

    I’ll tell you what takes lives; roadside food. There’s more ultra-saturated grease served along the route than in the vehicles driving it
    As has been mentioned, this is why most of us try to bring along a cooler, and we try to stop in the towns. The Interstate offerings generally tend toward the homogeneous, but they're also the easiest to find. You have learned a valuable lesson - be sure to share it with everyone.

    This led me to one conclusion; truckers have either balls of steel or brains of shit. Perhaps both.
    It takes all kinds in any career!

    The transition from almost unfettered driving on the interstate to the constraints of the smaller roads was definitely a lurch – after hours at 80 mph (all speeds approximate, officer) to be suddenly driving through a small town, speed limit 25 mph, means you really have to be paying attention.
    That effect is even more pronounced on a trip such as yours - where there are literally days of Interstate driving. Sometimes on those kind of trips, I drive through the night (if only in my dreams), and start getting the white-line fever.

    Thank you for sharing your trip with us. I had a good laugh while reading it, and it's nice to see someone new gaining the knowledge of long-distance trips the best way - by experiencing on firsthand.

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