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