Beyond the continental divide, our intrepid adventurers find themselves at a cozy inn in an isolated farming village on a warm, sunny Monday morning. Now in unknown lands, their journey has brought them from the lands of the Great Lakes, across the Great Prairies and over the Rocky Mountains. California beckons, but what lies between here and there? Find out here in the epic conclusion to the tale…
Idaho is a lovely state. Just lovely. Ashton is an even more charming settlement in the daylight, with grain silos looming over railroad tracks just beyond our humble lodging. And humble it was. The bathroom had a counter made of what amounted to a wooden workbench with a sink in it, and the shower alcove was more or less a nook in the wall with a curtain in front of it. It was unique, but by no means dirty. The floors were a shiny tile and the wooden shower was finished to a nice shine. Out the back window though there were rusty tanks, beat up structures, and overgrown grass. The Anglers Inn served its purpose adequately, and before long we were up and on US-20 heading south toward Utah.
Having not had breakfast at the motel, we began to scan for a place to stop for some rations. Similar to South Dakota, there were only occasional small towns in the vast grasslands of northeastern Idaho. In the distance were mountains, which was made for a more scenic drive than South Dakota but I digress. Before long we arrived at the city of Idaho Falls, a comparatively large city featuring a fairly large Mormon Temple in its skyline. Welcome to Idaho, I guess. We drove along the banks of the Snake River, eventually crossing it on a bridge near a relatively large waterfall.
Idaho Falls! Just across the bridge was a nice looking restaurant, so we pulled in to grab breakfast. My french toast was fantastic, and as I ate I played around with my GPS to get a feel for the route I’d be driving that day. After breakfast we took a short walk over to the Snake River where there was a park area and a pedestrian bridge. I stopped to take pictures of the waterfall when I realized my GPS was not on my person. That’s not good. Whenever I lose something I’m overcome with a nervous sick feeling and I find it hard to focus on anything else. I managed to continue snapping away with my camera, but every fiber of my being wanted to look for my poor GPS. We made our way back to the restaurant and I anxiously ran inside to our table to find a new patron ordering breakfast from our waitress. She directed me to the host station where they just happened to be keeping my GPS. Hallelujah, order is restored to my universe.
Relaxed and ready to go, we headed onto I-15 south toward Utah and cruised onward. What can I say about this part? I was driving so I took few photos and the landscape was much the same at it had been throughout Idaho so I paid no mind. The farms began to narrow and short round mountains began to spring up as we approached Pocatello. The highway pulled over next to a Union Pacific railroad and mom snapped a nice picture of an approaching freight train. Just beyond Pocatello, I-15 turns sharply left through a narrow green and golden valley, turning sharply right to emerge on the east side of a wider valley. In the center of the valley were green farmlands, while gently sloped mountains rose up on both sides. This valley appeared to go on for hundred of miles to the south and a short way into it we stopped for gas. A woman at the pump glanced at my New York plates and remarked that I was a long from home. We sure were. Not long after that stop came the border of Utah. I was driving so my picture of the sign didn’t turn out, but mom got a good one (thanks mom!).
Soon the mountains across the valley turned became flat, while those on our side grew larger. Out toward the western horizon I could see brown mountains in the distance reaching down into a mirage-like haze. Except the mirage was actually water; Great Salt Lake.
The Great Salt Lake is huge, and on a hazy summer day such as that day, there was no seeing the end of it. I-15 approached the shores of the lake, covered in white sand, salt and shrubs. The combination of blue sky, blue lake, golden shores, and green vegetation never fails to make me happy. For the first time since Illinois, suburban towns began to spring up, the highway widened, and traffic began to increase. Another freight train rolled on alongside us as we entered Salt Lake City. I’m not sure what I thought SLC looked like, but it didn’t look like I expected it to. The city and its skyline lay to the east of I-15 with green mountains behind, the Great Salt Lake on the west side extending off to the horizon. We bypassed downtown on I-215 and scooted on past SLC International Airport as a plane landed over I-80 (Hey, remember I-80? I haven’t seen you since Chicago!). Around this time we began to look for lunch. Unfortunately, with the Great Salt Lake on our right and mountains on our left, it seemed like there was going to be nowhere to stop for some time. Fortunately, just minutes later we found a travel plaza and stopped to dine at a shiny new Del Taco. How they stay in business out there I have no idea.
As I-80 went on its way west along the Great Salt Lake, salt mines began to appear regularly. Giant piles of the white stuff on the shores of the lake, being conveyered into a plant for processing or something. My tongue shriveled at the sight of them. Once again we were joined by a freight train heading west with us, and through rugged hills we followed it before leaving it behind as the terrain flattened out again. At this point, the highway becomes straight for almost 50 miles. I mean, perfectly straight. So straight, Elliott Smith would take a nap during this stretch and wake up fine at the end. (I wonder if anyone will get that reference…) The flat land suddenly becomes distinctly more desert-like. The ground is brown and shrubby, but in the distance appears to be white. And so it is, white land envelops the highway on all sides as we go onward. Snow you say? Not in a desert in August. No, it’s all salt as far as the eye can see.
The Great Salt Desert is one of the last detours on the journey. I could have gone straight from Idaho to Nevada, but that would have been infinitely more boring. A normal person may not find flat white salty land exciting, but it was just that: flat salty land. Salt flats, if you will. Have you ever seen any car commercial ever? You know, the kind where the black car is fishtailing around in a perfectly flat white outdoor scene with mountains in the distance? That’s here! We took the exit toward the Bonneville Salt Flats and I drove down a road to nowhere. At the end of the road was a circle where some RVs had set up residence and where there was marked the entrance to the Bonneville Speedway. I couldn’t contain my excitement as I parked the car, got out and ran into flat white salty oblivion. The first thing that struck me was the crunch of the ground and how the salt stuck to my shoes. I was expecting something more solid, but those were in fact large salt crystals I was pulverizing. In places the salt arranged itself into vague hexagonal ridges, the kind one can see more clearly at Badwater Basin in Death Valley. Of course, I tasted it. It was salt, nothing more. I walked for a few hundred feet out toward a cone and a fence covered in wind socks. I wanted to keep going, but I suppose there’s only so much I can take of 100 degree heat with absolutely nothing around. We returned to the car, narrowly avoiding an awkward interview with yellow-haired redneck Santa, and made our way to a nearby gas station. I grabbed a Gatorade to chug and watched as the train we passed earlier caught up across the highway and rode into Nevada. We followed suit and as the Great Salt Lake Desert ended, so too did Utah.
And immediately upon entering Nevada we were greeted by the basin and range geography that would occupy the entirety of our Nevada experience. In short, basin and range means there’s a ridge, and then a valley, and then another ridge, another valley and so on. Up and down, up and down, ad infinitum. The land itself was incredibly unvaried; brown rocky terrain adorned with green-brown shrubs as far as the eye could see. I kept from getting bored by looking for hillside letters over the towns we would pass. A giant W on a mountain for Wells, an E for Elko. There honestly wasn’t anything else to look at. Pacific Standard Time arrived soon, though it came a surprising distance from the state line. We drove as far as Elko, not wanting to take a chance at driving hundred of miles to the next town, and booked a room at a Holiday Inn Express. Craving Chinese food yet again, we wandered across the street to a nearby takeout place, but decided it was lacking in variety. We took a short stroll down the street and found Chef Cheng’s, a nice looking sit-down place. After a day in the desert eating salt, I figured I was hungrier than I actually was and ended up stuffed to the brim unable to finish. We returned to the hotel, I gathered what I needed from the car, and headed up where once again I collapsed into bed and had vivid dreams from eating too much.
Elko, Nevada is a small gold mining city, one of about seven “cities” on I-80 across the whole state. It served as the setting for part of one of my favorite episode of The X-Files. Fun fact: that episode “Drive” was written by Vince Gilligan and featured Bryan Cranston, who gave a performance that inspired Gilligan to cast him as Walter White in Breaking Bad. The morning in Elko was hot and we watched the sun rise from the breakfast room at the hotel while Fox News played on TVs all around. The street that the hotel is on was under construction, adding annoyance as we tried to leave town. Before long we were once again going up and down the ranges and basins of Nevada. We passed through an old looking pair of concrete tunnels, joined alongside by a railroad tunnel of similar design. That railway more or less followed us the whole way across the state.
I have to say out of all of the states we crossed, Nevada was easily the most boring. It just went on forever with very little variation, almost no interesting towns, basically no water, and even the sky was a cloudless blue the whole time. At Battle Mountain, we pulled into town to get a map or something to see what there was in the area. Turns out, nothing. And on we went into this arid hellscape for hours and hours. The highway curved north toward Winnemucca, then back south where it would stay until we finally got off. Before then though we stopped at the charming little town of Lovelock and grabbed a pizza for lunch. Lovelock is an oasis in the middle of nowhere, a nice place with a decently settled town center and a lot of trees and farms. And they make a delicious pizza too. Did I mention they have a casino? Of course, they do; every town in Nevada does.
Beyond the same old Nevada terrain, we finally arrived at the Reno/Sparks metro area. Reno’s not a particularly attractive city, as has been the case with many we’d seen on the trip, but that was no matter as we planned to bypass it entirely. Exiting I-80 just before downtown Reno, we drove south toward Lake Tahoe. I’d never been to Tahoe before but I heard it was absolutely beautiful from a number of people.
Ascending the mountains from dust and dirt of Nevada into the fresh air and forests of Tahoe was a magical experience. The hairpin turns and rocky mountain faces brought back memories of Wyoming from two days before. Upon clearing the ridge top we were treated to a stunning view overlooking Lake Tahoe and the snow-capped peaks surrounding it.
We descended the gentle slopes of the mountain and found ourselves in Incline Village. It was decided that we should head west toward California rather than traverse the eastern perimeter of the lake toward South Lake Tahoe, and so we headed around Crystal Bay and across the border of our final state, California. Stopping one last time for gas, I hopped out of the car and ran across the street to Kings Beach where I captured some more photos of the beautiful summer lake. Unlike Yellowstone, there were nice clean manicured beaches, people frolicking in the water, and watercraft speeding around on the surface. If I had too much money, this is one place I could easily see myself spending a lot of time. There’s just something so perfect to me about deep blue water, evergreen forests, sandy beaches, and snow-capped peaks. There really isn’t anything else like it in the world.
Growing weary of each other and exhausted after almost six days on the road, mom and I headed back up the mountains toward the Sierra town of Truckee. Hopping back on I-80 west, we passed through forests and across mountain ridges. At one point I’m confident that just beyond the north side of the freeway was a sheer drop and I could see more mountains far across the void. In the Sierras there are few towns and we were getting desperate for a stop. We looked around Colfax for food and lodging to no avail, pressing on farther toward the Sacramento metropolitan area. Finally we came across a well developed area just north of Auburn, California, and stopped at the first hotel we saw, another Comfort Inn. After the usual checking in and unloading, we crossed the freeway to get to a close-by shopping plaza which to our great fortune, had a Chinese restaurant. The sun set in our eyes as we ate dinner quietly, both of us very much sick of each other. Once again I decided it would be best to stay in the hotel that night, so I hopped in the shower, watched some local news for a time, and went off to sleep for the first time in the state I would be living in.
The last day had arrived, finally. I was packed and ready to go in minutes, not wanting to delay any longer. For the last time we grabbed a continental breakfast at the hotel cafeteria (that’s what it looked like anyway) and rolled on down I-80. Since the suburbs began just before our stop the night before, they grew more and dense and the freeway grew wide. On both side were houses and buildings as far as I could see with walls and trees acting as barriers from the road. It was longer than I expected before the skyline of Sacramento came into view. Sacramento is a nice looking city, full of trees and on the banks of the Sacramento River. Situated in the Central Valley (my place of residence), everything around it is quite flat.
The traffic early on Wednesday morning was light and we passed through Sacramento without a problem. Connecting to I-5 south, we headed down the Central Valley, through numerous farms and orchards, and across a multitude of sloughs, the swampy tendrils of the Sacramento-San Joaquin river delta. I’ve since made the drive up and down this part of I-5 several times and each time I like it less and less. The land is flat as I mentioned before and there’s not much to see but farmland and the occasional poor looking town. Even the developed cities in this part of the Valley are known for their high crime rates, cities like Stockton and Modesto. Stockton has its nice parts though, and from the freeway it looks downright habitable. The delta connects San Francisco Bay right to the center of Stockton, thereby making it a port city even though it’s almost 80 miles inland. As we crossed the San Joaquin river channel, I could see tall ships, freighters, and storage silos along the river, a unique sight and one I was not expecting to see being landlocked for so long.
Just 20 minutes from Stockton and we were in Tracy, our destination and my current home. Exiting I-205 at Tracy Boulevard, we headed south through the center of town a few miles to my apartment complex, looking quite the same as it did when I was last there four weeks prior. After stopping at the office and completing our requisite paperwork, we maneuvered our trailer into a parking spot near my apartment and began to unload. Unloading the trailer was far more enjoyable than loading it had been, and being energized from our trip finally being over, we were done in less than an hour. We celebrated our success by stopping at a local Chinese buffet, grabbing some food, and heading back to the apartment to savor our accomplishment. That was August 10th, 2011.
What else is there to say? It was an awesome trip, seven days well spent. There were a number of unfortunate moments, but they were far overshadowed by the great ones. I would absolutely do a similar trip in the future, though not for some time and definitely not to all of the same places. Rose-colored glasses aside, moving cross-country is neither cheap nor easy and I’d rather not do it for at least another year or two. Thanks to everyone who made my move a possibility, and for all the help you’ve given me. The last year has been… interesting, but I see a lot of good stuff on the horizon. Thanks for reading!
Stats at the end of Part Three:
- Days: 3
- Total days: 7
- Miles traveled: 1,017
- Total miles traveled: 3,238
- Total time on the road: 51 hours 22 minutes
- State count: 4 (ID, UT, NV, CA)
- Total state count: 16 (NY, PA, OH, IN, MI, IL, WI, MN, IA, SD, WY, MT, ID, UT, NV, CA)
- Time zone count: 2 (MST, PST)
- Total time zone count: 4 (EST, CST, MST, PST)
- Notable license plates in this part: Hawaii!
- Total times eaten Chinese food: 6
- Total continental breakfasts: 5
- Amount of corn seen: none, it all turned into salt
- Motorcyclist density: they’re all in Sturgis, remember?
- Notable cities: Idaho Falls, ID; Salt Lake City, UT; Reno, NV; Sacramento, CA
State Welcome Sign gallery: