Transnational Movement, Part Three: From Gems to Gold

(Continued from Part Two)

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…

Morning in nowhere

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, named for a fake 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.

Typical southern Idaho

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.

Drinking this lake is hazardous to your health

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.

Welcome to Earf!

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.

Day five: Ashton, ID –> Elko, NV. 502 miles.

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.

That’s pretty much it.

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.

A little slice of heaven on Earth.

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.

Even better than Wyoming.

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.

Day six: Elko, NV –> Auburn, CA. 409 miles.

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.

The end

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.

Day seven: Auburn, CA –> Tracy, CA. 106 miles.

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!

THE END

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:

UtahNevadaCalifornia

Just a bit far from the Pacific Ocean
Welcome!
‘Murica
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Transnational Movement, Part Two: Poorly-Behaved Earth and Xanthic Rocks

(Continued from Part One)

When we last left our heroes they were exhausted after two days of driving, searching for a place to stay in Mitchell, South Dakota, and full of delicious Chinese food.  This is the continuation of their story…

On the morning of the third day of the trip, I rose from my bed and opened the drapes of the motel room window, shocked to find everything covered in heavy droplets of water, the rising sun gloriously reflecting off.  While we slept, the land and sky of Mitchell got a nice wash from a passing rainstorm;  the air was fresh (thank heavens, that smell was gone) and the car was clean.  We spent some time getting prepped for the day, headed over to the motel office for a complimentary continental breakfast of bagels and waffles (that’s #2 if you’re keeping track) and got underway again.

Bob Ross was here

South Dakota continued on much the same way as it started.  It was covered in grass and in some spots wildflowers, with light hills on the north side of I-90.  The rainstorm from the night before had brought some nice looking clouds to the sky, and their shapes sparsely dotted the sky allowing for plenty of sun to get through.  It was around this point in the trip that I realized just what the term “big sky” meant.  The flat land gave us a horizon in nearly every direction, sky filling up just about half of our world.  Wind energy developments were notably sparser here than Minnesota, though occasionally one would be visible off in the distance.

When we reached the Missouri River, just about halfway across the state, things began to change immediately (déjà vu).  The land instantly became more rocky and rugged and shortly after that, so did the time zone.  Mountain Standard Time seemed a bit odd considering we were still in the prairies, but it’s not really named for that part of the zone now is it?  We stopped for gas at a station just off the highway, near a town with grain elevators and farms.  The towns here were becoming smaller and more spread out, and those famous signs for Wall Drug started popping up every ten miles or so.  I swore I didn’t want to spend any time at that tourist trap; so far so good.  In the distance I spied larger rock formations approaching.  This meant some excitement was in order.  We were coming to one of the larger detours I planned into the trip;  a trek through the Badlands.

That’s some bad land.

The Badlands are certainly an interesting sight.  In a nutshell, there’s a prairie to the north covered in grass, and a prairie on the south, also covered in grass but about 250 feet lower.  In the middle is some of the gnarliest, most unforgiving terrain I’ve ever seen.  There are cliffs, thousands of tiny canyons, buttes, and giant pointy rocks covering the land, at some points with lookout points and trails.  Obviously we were on a bit of a schedule so we didn’t spend hours hiking or exploring, but we did stop at a number of those lookouts.  The day was wonderfully clear and I could see for miles across the green prairies below the Badlands.  The air was dry and the wind was warm as it blew across the grasses.  The view to the north was reminiscent of “Bliss,” the Windows XP wallpaper.  The rocks to the south there were striped with water marks; red,  grey and occasionally yellow rings at varying heights, smoothed by years of erosion.  (If you’re lucky, a stylized photo of these is the image at the top of the blog! If not, it’s right here)  We spent maybe an hour and a half driving the route through the state park.  We stopped briefly at the visitors center to do something (I can’t recall what) before we decided to stop somewhere for lunch.

What can I say, it’s Wall Drug.

The nearest town on the road back to I-90 was Wall, South Dakota.  I guess that means we’re heading to Wall Drug after all.  Damn.  It really wasn’t that bad.  Wall Drug is more than just a store, it’s basically annexed an entire block on both sides and contains restaurants, stores, and gift shops.  The road between and its central parking spots were filled with motorcycles (of course) and there must have been hundreds of people walking around the storefronts.  Wall is a very small town, and this seems to be the only place anyone ever goes there.  It wasn’t bad though;  the buildings are stylized to be old-western, but the insides of the newer ones were charming and rustic with stone and unevenly cut wood architecture.  As with any tourist trap there was a lot of kitsch and I wasn’t buying any of it (literally).  Still, I found that place interesting in its own way, just not quite as enthralling as the rocks I’d seen an hour earlier.  We got lunch at the nearby Dairy Queen along with what must have been twenty or so other non-Wall-natives and once again headed off toward California.

The grasslands came and went, the Badlands and their rocky relatives stayed on the south, motorcycles continued to pass at an ever increasing frequency and the road went ever on.  A surprisingly short time later, we came to an exit that we decided we would be foolish to not take advantage of:  Mt. Rushmore.  It was about 20 miles off of the highway through the Black Hills past Rapid City.  The Black Hills were incredibly fun to drive through.  I think I was the one powering through this part of the trip, and with my Saturn ION tugging a loaded trailer, we averaged about 20 mph heading up the hills on a 65 mph road.  The poor car toughed it out though, and we cruised down the other side of every hill like a runner taking a victory lap after a full sprint.  Eventually we passed through the lovely settlement of Keystone and climbed up to our destination at last.  Being a somewhat popular attraction, the was a significant queue at the entry gates and we were stuck for some time.  After getting in we somehow found a spot appropriate for a car and trailer and made haste wandering up to the memorial.

Fossilized dead presidents

The Mt. Rushmore National Memorial is beautiful.  It’s built of granite blocks and has a stone plaza that leads to the monument with flags of every state adorning its flanks.  At the end is an amphitheater; it was more or less empty when we got there and what they show there I don’t know.  However, above it carved into the mountain was the glorious presidential sculpture.  My first impression was “Wow, that’s small.”  I’m aware that their eyes are taller than I am, but compared to all of the photographs and illustrations I’d seen in my life, it was just so diminutive.  Of course it was still quite far away, and in person it really is very impressive.  There was also museum there showing the history and construction effort and I strolled through briefly.  Did you know each of the presidents were supposed to have full torsos, 450,000 tons of rock were blasted off the mountain, and John F. Kennedy was supposed to get a head on there too?  Two truths and a lie.

No matter how amazing a feat of human engineering and artistry is, I really can’t bring myself to spend more than an hour looking at it.  We retreated to the car and headed on our way back toward Rapid City.  The hills gave a challenge yet again, up-shifting and down-shifting to find no equilibrium.  At least going 20 mph let us enjoy the scenery.  The Black Hills are gorgeous with their evergreen forests, steep hills, and exposed rock faces.  Rapid City is not, however, some place I’d call gorgeous.  It’s just a relatively plebeian city, not really notable in any way, and somewhere I’d probably grow bored in.  Once through the city and back on the highway, I-90 took a turn to the northwest toward the small sleepy town of Sturgis.  Hey, isn’t that where the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally is? Good memory!  Yes, that is indeed where all of those motorcycles that had been passing us for days were heading.  As expected, most of them got off at the exit for Sturgis, and at this point, we began to see them coming down the west lanes in the other direction.  Imagine that.

The very western side of South Dakota was very three-dimensional.  I-90 cuts north of the Black Hills, but they remain alongside the highway, forming slight valleys at times.  A short clearing later and Wyoming was upon us.  I immediately felt like I was in the wild west and I thought I should be seeing cowboys riding horses and shooting buffalo on the side of the road.  The Black Hills gave way to rolling brown hills covered in dry grass and shrubs and as usual, this continued on for some time.  Occasionally a rocky butte would spring up out of the land, but this was uncommon.  Near Gillette, Wyoming we stopped for gas briefly, and I took note of an enormous coal mine, a quarry blacker than anything I’d ever seen before.  Later research taught me that Gillette is the “Energy Capital of the Nation” and given the motherlode I saw I’m not surprised.  Around this time we were calling hotels to book rooms before we arrived.  We settled on staying in Buffalo, Wyoming for the night. (Buffalo!)

Mountains!

As we approached, the Bighorn Mountains appeared on the horizon and my heart was set aflutter.  These were the first mountains we’d seen on our trip and I could not wait to conquer them.  The sun set over them as we entered the city of Buffalo, looking for food.  We decided not get Chinese food that night, instead opting to eat at the apparently renowned Occidental Hotel.  The inside was odd, with ugly wallpaper and old wooden stuff.  We’re pretty sure that the guy a table over from us was a food critic of some kind.  I had a steak and it was okay, nothing special.  After dinner we drove to the hotel, a beautiful Hampton Inn.  Since the night was cool and the Wyoming air was fresh, I once again elected to camp in my car.  I cracked the windows, covered my eyes, and fell asleep to the sound of the sprinklers on the lawn nearby.

Day three: Mitchell, SD –> Buffalo, WY. 553 miles.

I awoke the next morning as rested as one could be after sleeping in a car, ready to face the rugged terrain of Wyoming.  One of the places I was most looking forward to seeing, Yellowstone National Park, was on the itinerary for the day and I was excited to say the least.  I took a shower in one of the prettiest bathrooms I’d ever been in and we grabbed breakfast downstairs.  After consulting with the front desk about routes through the mountains, we elected to go directly west from Buffalo across the Bighorn mountains;  we chose scenery over ease of travel, which in retrospect was probably the best choice.

Can I be here, right now?

Eastern Wyoming is (ironically, considering the context) nothing to write home about, but central and western Wyoming brought me some of my absolute favorite scenery and sights.  The Bighorn Mountains are covered in temperate evergreen forests, and as the road winds up the slopes, the valleys below and in the distance are incredibly scenic.  Once again the car was having fun getting itself up the mountains, but this time we were more prepared for what lay ahead.  The crest of the mountains was surprisingly disappointing, and there wasn’t much to see.  In fact, I’m not even sure where the point was that we started descending.  Regardless, the road began to wind down into a rocky valley carved over millennia by a single babbling brook.  Not driving this time, I took full advantage of my camera.  If only I had an overhead view, I could have taken a picture of the hairpin turn we navigated.  Seriously, it actually looks like a hairpin. Gradually the valley blended into flat land, yellow rocks turned red, and we ended up surrounded once again by small towns and farms, albeit with mountains behind us as well.  Very green grass popped up as rocky mounds of red rose behind; if I didn’t need to socialize or to work for money, I would probably find my way back there and build a house.  So many colours, so much space, so few people.

We drove through this fertile farmland for a little bit before rejoining US-20/US-16 near the town of Basin.  It still blows my mind that US-20, a road that runs right through my hometown and one I’d even driven multiple times from there across New York state to RPI, goes all the way through Wyoming.  Crazy.  And so we took that road through the empty expanses of central Wyoming, passing through the small town of Greybull before heading west across a flat plain surrounded by rough hills and plateaus.  Eventually we came across a sign for a town that made the two of us chuckle.  The sign was for Emblem, Wyoming, and written below the town name were the words “Population: 10.”  Remember how I thought Mendota, Illinois was small?  Yeah, not anymore.  Emblem consists of about two houses and some kind of post office-like structure.  In about 10 seconds we had come and gone.  Mountains grew on the horizon yet again, and soon enough we approached what appeared to be a sizable human settlement.  It even had an airport!  It was the city of Cody, Wyoming, the gateway to Yellowstone National Park.  There were beautiful new visitor centers there and the large metal supports for traffic signs that crossed over the roads were colored brown to look somewhat like logs.  There’s also a Chinese lunch buffet there.  Score.  We stopped to eat briefly, heading on afterward into the mountains rising over Cody.

Buffalo Bill was here, and he’s stealing your water.

The road danced with a rocky creek canyon before entering a tunnel, emerging on the other side along side a lake.  Immediately I asked that we pull over, and there just happened to be a convenient parking lot there.  Upstream on that creek was a dam, the Buffalo Bill dam, and behind it lay the Buffalo Bill reservoir.  Being a fan of hydroelectricity and river-stopping infrastructure, I was thrilled.  The mountains split to form a steep canyon just beyond the dam, and they sank down into the choppy green-brown water of the reservoir in the other direction.  There was a visitors center for the dam, but we decided not to dawdle since the glorious sights of Yellowstone beckoned.  Driving along the Shoshone River, the mountains surrounding the valley grew ever larger until they became jagged walls in the distance.  Though it was a several hour drive, it seemed to go by in a flash.  Yellowstone was here.

Someday this lake will kill us all

We passed through the entry gate and climbed for what seemed like an eternity into grey-green mountains adorned with evergreen trees (both living and burnt to a crisp) and snow.  It was August 7th, but there was snow in the mountains.  (Coincidentally, this is to date one of the last times I’ve seen snow.)  At the crest of the road, we were treated to a beautiful vista of Yellowstone Lake, snow-capped mountains in the distance, burned forests below, and thick rainclouds looming overhead.  Driving down toward the lake, the smell of sulfur grew in the air.  Along the lake were jets of steam rising out of the earth, the likes of which I had not seen since a trip to Hawaii in 2001.  The water was incredibly choppy as stormy winds manifest over the middle of the lake.  We passed several beaches that were devoid of people, covered in flotsam, and being buffeted by cold waves.  It terrifies me to think about swimming in that water.

Sometime later we came upon the Fishing Bridge visitors center and stopped in for a quick romp.  Just up the road was the Fishing Bridge, a wooden bridge crossing the Yellowstone River at the lake.  I don’t recall seeing many fish in the water, but I stubbed my toe something fierce on an unsuspecting rock.  There were some boats on the river and the skies were sprinkled with friendly puffy clouds, the prospect of a rainless day making me happy.  Driving up the loop road along the Yellowstone River made me nervous.  Just off the side of the road I could see rapids as the river flowed onward and I couldn’t help but imagine how screwed I would be if I somehow ended up in it.

Water-breathing dragon

The first real scenic stop allayed my worried mind though, and we pulled over for the Mud Volcano and Dragon Mouth Spring.  This place was awesome.  There were pools of water sitting there just happily boiling while the surrounding dry mud cracked.  A short walk up the boardwalk and we come upon the Dragon Mouth Spring, a turbulent pool connected to a steaming cave.  The water inside the cave was sloshing madly and the sound was violently loud, no doubt linked to a magma chamber of some kind.  I stared in amazement at the sheer energy being knocked around in that tiny little pool.  Further up the path and we come to the mud volcano.  Similar to the Dragon Mouth it was an energetic little pool, but this one was as the name suggests made of mud.  Bubbling, hot mud.

It’s a volcano… made of mud!

Occasionally it would blast a massive spurt into the air, to the delight of those watching.  In the area there were also a number of fumaroles, muddy holes where volcanic gasses escape out of the planet’s crust.  They smelled so very sulfurous, and since they were not moving or entertaining in any way really, I decided to return back down to the start of the path and check out the boiling pools once again.

Soon we were back on the loop road heading north along the Yellowstone River, and we pass through a clearing where people are out with cameras, some set up with tripods.  I didn’t see anything particularly interesting, but eventually we notice that there are buffalo out across the river!  Cool, I’d never seen a buffalo in person before.  So up we go on the road until we come across brake lights.

Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo

There’s a massive traffic jam and we have no idea why.  I attribute it to the upcoming intersection near the waterfalls, but it turns out that idea was completely wrong.  We see that traffic is starting to move just up ahead, and there seems to be a similar traffic jam starting in the opposite lane there.  As we round a slight bend we become aware of what’s holding up traffic. A massive buffalo is standing just off the road in the woods, minding its own business, perhaps frozen still out of terror.  Of course, I roll down the window and snap a few pictures as we pass.

The lower of two waterfalls that flow over yellow stone

Just after the buffalo was the turn toward the waterfalls and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.  I’d looked at pictures of the Lower Falls while planning the trip and determined it was something I definitely needed to see.  In person, the grand canyon is so much more glorious.  It’s made of yellow stone (huh, that explains a lot) cut by a pair of waterfalls slowly making their way upstream.  From our vantage point, the canyon dropped at least 700 feet to the river and of course I made sure to slowly inch toward the edge to avoid falling.  The Lower Falls cascade is absolutely gorgeous.  The sheer volume of water flowing over the precipice was impressive (again, not something I’d like to be caught in) and the mist gave the rocks at the base a healthy green color.  The Upper Falls was a bit hard to see through the trees, as it lies around a bend in the river upstream from the Lower Falls.  Across the grand canyon I spotted a long staircase winding its way down the canyon-side to a vista point on the rock face.  The people walking down there were braver folks than I.

Ol’ Underwhelmin’

As we left the Grand Canyon overlook, we continued along the loop road, curving around to the south.  The only things to see along this stretch were evergreen trees, distant mountains, and the occasional creek flowing near the road.  It was getting late in the day and there were only a few more places I wanted to visit.  The first is probably the most well-known feature of Yellowstone National Park, Old Faithful.  We arrived there not too long after an eruption so the crowds were relatively thin.  It had also just rained there apparently since everything was wet.  What a fun way to spend a half-hour.  Crowds gathered and the clock counted down to the next estimated eruption.  Soon enough hot water started to fizzle out of that hole in the ground, blasting jets tens of feet in the air.  The crowd went wild, but I found myself underwhelmed.  The geyser itself went on for a few minutes shooting water into the air with a pffffff sound before it suddenly ended.  I guess I expected more.  And so we left before the crowds got to their cars and we headed back up the road from whence we came.

The last stop on our tour of Yellowstone, and my absolute favorite feature of the park, was the Grand Prismatic Spring, a deep blue pool of hot water surrounded by orange mats of bacteria that blend to yellow and green as they enter the spring.  I couldn’t wait to get there.  The spring itself lies across the Firehole River from the parking area, and boiling orange streams of water could be seen flowing into the river right next to the bridge.  Now this is point where things get interesting.  Already late in the day and being threatened with rain since we left the Grand Canyon, drops of water start to fall from the sky.  I grabbed my umbrella and headed onward.

It’s rainin’ sideways!

The rain starts to pour, and those visitors already at the spring decided it would be a good time to leave.  I start to advance up the boardwalk across the river, but my flip-flops lend me no traction on the artificial wood surface.  The winds start to pick up and I’m forced to hold my umbrella in front of me, pressing on as tourists walk briskly in the opposite direction.  At this point I’m going blindly forward into the wind and rain on shoes that threaten to land me on my ass at any point.  Okay, so I make my way around the boardwalk, stopping to take pictures of the Excelsior Geyser Crater, a light blue pool of steaming water deep in a rocky crater, the wind and rain at my back blocked by my umbrella.  Another brave soul has decided to stay out there and admire the springs despite the weather.  I pass by and continue up the boardwalk where it turns back into the rain.  The rain causes the steam off of the Grand Prismatic Spring to become very thick and I’m now blinded by more than just my umbrella.  Eventually I work my way slowly over to where the spring should be (I knew because there was a sign there), but as I mentioned, there’s thick steam all around.  Fortunately, at this time the rain decided to stop and I was able to disarm my umbrella.

Mission accomplished

This was not the ideal situation for grabbing a shot of the Grand Prismatic Spring, but I managed to get something.  I was ecstatic.  The orange wet ground expanded out from the edge of the spring beneath the boardwalk and down toward the river, something I’d never seen anything like before.  Now this was the point where my camera battery, exhausted from a long day of shooting, decided to go to sleep.  I managed to jolt it awake a few more times but soon I gave up, since my mom was getting pictures as well. (Thanks, mom!) I admired the blue-brown dichotomy of the Opal Pool and the aptly named Turquoise Pool before we headed back down the path to the bridge, green steaming streams following along down into the river.  It’s been almost a year since this happened, but I remember it just as vividly as if it were today.  Though the rain wasn’t exactly what I wanted, it made for quite an adventure and I’m really glad it happened that way.  Someday I’ll return and get some pictures in good weather :).

Escape from Yellowstone

And so we left the Grand Prismatic Spring and headed out of the park toward the town of West Yellowstone, Montana.  Along the way it was stormy, with dark clouds obscuring the sun setting over sharp mountain peaks.  The state line of Montana was crossed with little notice in the middle of a dense forest, but fortunately West Yellowstone had a big welcome sign.  It got dark as we progressed through Montana and we reached the state line of Idaho and the continental divide before it got too dark.  We were now left with the challenge of finding lodging and dinner in the empty unknown of northeastern Idaho.  After at least an hour driving down US-20, we limped into the town of Ashton, Idaho and booked a room at the first hotel motel we saw.  We grabbed dinner at what seemed to be the only restaurant in town open at the time, which just happened to be across the street.  I had a hamburger and I made sure it was all together (thanks, waitress).  We left the car in the parking lot across the street from the motel, next to the restaurant (too far from me for comfort, but alas what could I do?).  Opting this time to lodge inside, I hooked up my camera battery to charge, and quickly passed out in my bed.

Day four: Buffalo, WY –> Ashton, ID. 400 miles.

(Continued in Part Three)

Stats at the end of Part Two:

  • Days: 2
  • Total days: 4
  • Miles traveled:  953
  • Total miles traveled: 2,221
  • State count: 4 (SD, WY, MT, ID)
  • Total state count: 13 (NY, PA, OH, IN, MI, IL, WI, MN, IA, SD, WY, MT, ID)
  • Time zone count: 2 (CST, MST)
  • Total time zone count: 3 (EST, CST, MST)
  • Notable license plates in this part:  Delaware (seriously)
  • Total times eaten Chinese food: 3
  • Total continental breakfasts: 3
  • Amount of corn seen: basically none!
  • Motorcyclist density: peaked, then precessed in the opposite direction
  • Notable “cities”: Rapid City, SD; Buffalo, WY; Cody, WY

State Welcome Sign gallery:

WyomingMontanaIdaho

I don’t see any mountains!

Transnational Movement, Part One: The Midwest is Flat

As I’ve mentioned a few times recently, I’ve lived in California almost one year.  Whether or not that was a good decision remains to be seen, but it certainly made for an adventure getting myself out here from the cold reaches of the Northeast.  This is part one of a to-be-determined (let’s say, three?) part series documenting as much as I can remember about that week-long voyage across the land.

What I woke up to on my last day in WNY

In the weeks prior to my move I had all of my stuff packed in boxes in piles in my bedroom, downstairs, and in the garage with the larger items filling up what was once empty space in the family room.  I put it there when I came home from college and it stayed there for just over two months during the summer.  The summer in which I did basically nothing but marathon HBO, eat at Wegman’s and wait patiently by the phone/email for interviews/job offers to come.  My last day living in Western New York, my dad and I loaded all most of my earthly possessions into a 200 cubic foot box with wheels and attached that bad boy up to my (well, it wasn’t mine at the time) little four-cylinder Saturn.  With everything ready to go, the next day couldn’t come soon enough.  And so it did, and I said goodbye to the place that was my home for 18 years (and a little bit during college too).

I should mention that I did not make this journey alone; my mom came along to help with the move and driving because she’s a pretty awesome mom.  Plus who would pass up an opportunity to drive across the country?  Oh, also in addition to the trailer, my most valuable (read: fragile) belongings were in the car itself, so as it were, there was the two of us in the front seats, cameras and snacks within reach and the backseat filled up to head level with carry-on luggage and other random stuff.  So at around 7:30am on a sunny August 4th, 2011, we set off for the Golden State. We headed up the 400 expressway toward I-90, our home for the next 11 hours.  I-90 west along Lake Erie is nothing notable;  earlier that summer I traveled to West Virginia on a whim so that stretch of highway was familiar and went by quickly.  The New-York/Pennsylvania border is only an hour and a half from home, and the crossing of Pennsylvania took only about 45 minutes.  We made a stop for gas early on in Pennsylvania.  I don’t recall where exactly, but I remember the station being across the street from a somewhat forested area screaming with cicadas.

From a brief stretch in there Lake Erie was clearly visible, covered in haze on a humid summer morning.  As Pennsylvania faded into Ohio, so did the hills fade into farmland and flatness.  The trees became more sparse and homesteads and barns became more visible.  The very familiar suburban rust belt environment of Northwestern Ohio grew dense as we approached Cleveland, the first city of several that we would drive through on the trip.  There’s not much to say about it really; Lake Erie is right there, it’s got some nice shiny buildings, Progressive Field is visible next to the highway, and we crossed over some neat bridges but I was more excited about the signs pointing toward Chicago.

The most exciting part of driving through Cleveland

After Cleveland, the farmland became all there was for hundred of miles.  We stopped for lunch at a travel plaza briefly and in my growing boredom with Ohio decided to start the game of looking for different states’ license plates.  I drew a crude map of the country from memory (something I’ve gotten better at since) and started crossing off states I’d see on the road.  This kept me alive, awake, alert, and somewhat enthusiastic as we drove off across the two-dimensional landscape.

At one point we crossed a bridge over the Maumee River and down it I could see the skyline of Toledo.  Neat!  Finally after a long 5 hours, we crossed the border into Indiana.  I don’t remember much about Indiana since being almost the same as Ohio, I just tuned it out.  About halfway across the state though we briefly hopped off of I-90 heading north.  I had planned into the trip slight detours that would enable us to hit as many states as possible on the way;  the first was Michigan, a state lying about a quarter mile north of I-90 at Indiana State Route 9.  After five minutes off the highway and having nabbed a photo of the state welcome sign, we were back on our way once again.

The most notable thing about the drive through Indiana was the time change.  Near the western half of the state lies the divide between Eastern and Central time.  I made sure to get a photo of the sign there as well, though not a good one as it snuck up on us. (and it was in the median! What the hell, Indiana?)  In this area, the geography became once again more populated.  Lake Michigan was just north according to my maps, but I couldn’t see it over the suburban developments and trees.  It’s probably a good thing that these developments also blocked my view of Gary, Indiana.  Near Gary the roads get a bit congested, not with traffic (yet) but with other roads.  I-80 merges with I-90 and I-94 (kinda) and I-65 starts there and heads south nearby as well.  There were a lot of confusing interchanges and concrete mazes to navigate.

By now it was about 5pm and we were approaching Chicago.  Bad news bears.  As soon as we crossed the border, we became lodged in a veritable vehicular logjam.  Obviously I was bored stiff since we were not moving, but I think the worst part may have been the fact that I couldn’t even find any new license plates because we were surrounded by the same freakin’ cars the whole time.  Sometime later, I don’t know when, we started going again and eventually it seemed most of the traffic headed north to Chicago whilst we stayed going due west on I-80.  Around the interchange of I-294 I somehow found the Sears Tower (what are you talking about, Willis?) barely through the haze.  It came and went from my vision, but I know it was there.

Once out of the Chicago metropolitan area, the amount of corn I could see from the highway increased exponentially.  Still driving on perfectly flat land, there was nothing to see but stalks of corn (and wind turbines on the horizon!) for miles in every direction.  The sun was setting in our face as we approached our first major turn, I-39 north toward Madison, Wisconsin and we decided it would be a decent time to stop for dinner and lodging.  The first exit with a hotel was for the small town of Mendota, Illinois.

Main street, Mendota, Illinois

Growing up in the suburbs of Buffalo, New York near farms and whatnot, I thought I had an idea of what a small town was.  Nope.  This place was about the size of the town I worked in during high school, but condensed into a few square miles with nothing but corn surrounding it.  And somehow, they still had a Chinese buffet!  (aside: According to Wikipedia, in 2000 the town had 7,272 people and an Asian contingent of 0.45%, or roughly 32 people.  I’m sure they were all in that restaurant.)  My new idea of a small town would later be obliterated, but I’ll get to that eventually.

After dinner it became dark quite quickly and we called it a night at the local Comfort Inn.  Being the adventurer that I am (also paranoid, since my life was in a trailer), I slept in the car that night while my mom took a nice room in the hotel.  Wait a minute, didn’t you say earlier that the car was full of stuff?  Why yes I did.  With mom’s carry-ons in the hotel, I moved my stuff to the front seats and made myself a bed in the back with a couple pillows and blankets.  My six-foot frame was a bit scrunched, but I made it work.  The hot, humid night made sleeping interesting, but I survived the night out there in the parking lot.

Day one: Elma, NY –>; Mendota, IL. 628 miles.

The next morning we watched the sunrise over the corn from the hotel, grabbed a quick continental breakfast and set off on Day 2.  Since my mom powered through 12 hours of driving the first day, I took the wheel.  Heading up I-39 we spotted wind farms amongst the corn, giving us basically the only excitement of the morning.  I couldn’t wait to get to Wisconsin for a change of scenery.  Luckily, the hills began to roll around Rockford and the farms became slightly more wooded (as in, there were some trees now).  The highway snaked around Rockford, connected to our old pal I-90, and headed north toward Madison.

As we entered Wisconsin, the geography began to change into rolling wooded hills dotted with farms very much reminiscent of home.  About the state though there isn’t much else to say.  Madison is a small city, much greener than I would have imagined, and once past the forests began to spring up.  We passed several water parks (like, three in a row) and campgrounds, kind of like those near Lake George.  This went on for a few hours.  I continued to scan for license plates, I let my mom look up stuff on my Droid, and eventually we turned west yet again.  Fast approaching was the Mississippi River and we both got our cameras ready.  As it turns out, I-90 crosses the Mississippi at a series of shrubby islands, so there wasn’t anything to see at all.  I did spy a riverboat but we were unable to capture its soul in film.  The Mississippi is of course the state line here, so we were now in Minnesota.  The west bank is adorned with steep cliffs and the highway started snaking through a deeply cut river valley.  I was excited; having never been to Minnesota, I imagined much of the state to be like this.

Minnesota, in a cornshell.

Nope.  A few miles later and we were back to corn and flatness.  Both of us growing bored of this, we decided to break for lunch and gas at the next exit.  Enter, Stewartville, Minnesota, another small town just south of Rochester.  Having some decent foliage masked the size of the town, which was about the same size as Mendota, but it seemed bigger to me.  We ate in the center of town at Subway, which was just like any Subway I’d ever been to, except this one was full of strange looking old people.  Minnewegians or something.  To fit in, you betcha I tested out my Minnesota Nice, complete with exaggerated accent. (Ahh, geez)  Small town Minnesooota was fun while it lasted, but I was always anxious to get moving again.

Minnesota, like Illinois, was as I mentioned covered in corn and wind turbines.  I-90 goes through town after town, each separated by tens of miles, rinse and repeat.  Speaking of rinse, one of these such towns is Austin, Minnesota, a place I would like to avoid driving within 100 miles of again.  See, Austin is the headquarters of the Hormel Corporation, famous for their delightful meat-like substance SPAM.  You better believe the whole town smells like SPAM. Ohhh youuu betcha it does.  Windows up, AC on recycled air.  Once past, windows down and let that fresh air in.

Minnesota is not a small state.  We spent over four hours crossing flat farmland on a straight highway at 75 mph.  Fortunately, we eventually came to another one of my detours.  I-90 is routed across southern Minnesota where it heads over into South Dakota.  However, there’s a nearby state that I really really wanted to visit and it was only ten miles south: Iowa.  Hopping off at US-75 south, we drove through corn fields until we reached a rather sharp S-curve.  According to the map, this curve was right on the border of Minnesota and Iowa.  Sure enough, there was the welcome sign halfway across.  We pulled over, took some pictures (because Iowa. Crazy!) admired the corn, and headed on again.

Future birthplace of James T. Kirk

A right turn near Rock Rapids and we were on the way to South Dakota.  I still can’t believe I drove through South Dakota.  I always think of it as being so far north, but it really isn’t. (Hey, maybe that’s why it’s called SOUTH Dakota, dummy)  Anywho, we get into Sioux Falls, a nice little city that for some reason also reminded me of home, and head up I-229 back toward I-90.  Maybe it was the light at this point, but South Dakota definitely seemed browner and more grassy than Minnesota.  Perhaps I’m confusing my memories with another later state, but that’s what my brain tells me.  Still flat, but less corny (Hallelujah).  The highway continued on straight.

For the past few hours, we had begun to notice an increasing number of motorcyclists on the road passing us heading west.  I know I didn’t think much of it initially, but as we approached Mitchell, South Dakota, things got interesting.  We decided to stay the night there, but upon reaching some hotels, we were shocked to find them all booked solid.  See, in early August there’s a motorcycle rally out in Sturgis, South Dakota.  It’s called the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally (go figure).  A sizable population of bikers heading there decided it would be nice to stop in Mitchell for the night, getting there just before we did (not really, but that makes it more dramatic doesn’t it?).  We spend a good half-hour looking around Mitchell before we find a place to stay that doesn’t completely suck.

It’s a palace… made of corn!

During our exploration we wandered past the Mitchell Corn Palace.  I heard it was something I should see, but I didn’t really care much.  Plus, corn.  We’re all sick of corn now.  For dinner we hit up a nearby Chinese restaurant and ate our fill before heading just down the street to our hotel motel.  I planned once again to sleep in the car, which we had parked in a grassy lot behind our room.  However, and I still don’t know where it came from, there was just an awful smell hanging in the air.  It was like garbage mixed with body odor, and it wasn’t coming from inside the car.  I tried to see if it would be tolerable, but alas I decided it best to sleep in the room that night.  My streak (of 1) was broken.  That day I drove a good 12 hours and as soon as my head hit the pillow, it was lights out.

Day two: Mendota, IL –> Mitchell, SD. 640 miles.

(Continued in Part Two)

Stats at the end of Part One:

  • Days: 2
  • Total days: 2
  • Miles traveled:  1,268
  • Total miles traveled: 1,268
  • State count:  10 (NY, PA, OH, IN, MI, IL, WI, MN, IA, SD)
  • Total state count: 10 (same as above)
  • Time zone count: 2 (EST, CST)
  • Total time zone count: 2
  • Notable license plates in this part:  Washington DC!
  • Total times eaten Chinese food: 2
  • Continental breakfasts: 1
  • Amount of corn seen: too much
  • Motorcyclist density: increasing
  • Notable cities: Cleveland, OH; Chicago, IL; Madison, WI; Sioux Falls, SD

State Welcome Sign gallery:

PennsylvaniaOhioIndianaMichiganIllinoisWisconsinMinnesotaIowaSouth Dakota

Central Standard Time… it’s in there, trust me.