Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Driving Across the Continent in December (~100-6329')

After all that fuss over the mold in my car, I knew I couldn't make it through another five months of Redmond rain. It was time to head home to the East Coast, where I could cuss my way through horrible traffic underneath blue skies again.

So I packed my stuff and plotted my eastward route. This being December, I figured I'd stick to the interstates--no sense detouring to parks when everything's closed for the season--and take I-90 to I-25 to I-80 to I-29 to I-70 to I-64 to I-81 to I-66 to home. Quite the simple trip, compared to how I'd gotten there.

And then I called my parents to tell them my plans. "Are you going to need tire chains for that?" my dad asked. "And what about the weather?" my mom added. "Is it safe to drive? What if you get caught in a snowstorm?"

Snow? Tire chains? I hadn't even thought of those. Nothing had frozen down in Redmond... but the Cascades were a completely different story. I looked into it and learned that Snoqualmie Pass (I-90's route through the range) had already received dozens of feet of snow that fall. East of there, I'd need to cross three major passes through the Rockies: Lookout Pass on the Montana-Idaho border, Homestake Pass over the Continental Divide, and Bozeman Pass east of Bozeman, MT. And, as I'd learned on my westward trip, the Great Plains were prone to blizzards and ice storms as far south as Kansas. Snow and sub-freezing temperatures were a certainty; the only question was how much I'd get... and whether my little front-wheel-drive sedan could make it through.

So I replaced my balding front tires with some snazzy new all-season ones, picked up a set of tire chains, stocked the front seat with food, water, and blankets (in case I wound up stuck on the shoulder), and steeled myself to face the northern roads.

The day of my departure dawned cold and clear--but snow was scheduled to roll in any minute, and I had to get over the Cascades before it hit. I bade goodbye to my friend (he was mostly awake...), then set out just as the sky began to lighten. One last time, I circled around Lake Sammamish, and then I merged onto I-90, where I'd stay for most of the next two days.

The western foothills were familiar from my day trip to Rattlesnake Lake. I zipped up the near-empty highway, watching the forests fade from green to white. Powder snow blew across the road, ice patches lurked in the shadows, and hard gusts threatened to shove my car out of its lane, but the sky stayed empty.

I summited Snoqualmie Pass around 9 am. The jagged peaks on either side were covered in snow-draped firs; all was painted pink and blue by the rising sun. I'd made it! I shouted over the hum of the heater. The worst was past; I'd beat the snow.

But just as when one hikes, it's not enough to simply summit; one also has to make it down. The eastern slopes of the Cascades were gentler than the western ones, but they were rather worse-plowed--and the sun in my eyes, beautiful as it was above, didn't help any.

I skidded down the mountains, then stopped for a break at a rest stop west of Ellensburg to still my shaking hands. The wind hit me like a slap the moment I opened my car door; it was a good 20 degrees colder than it had been on the coastal side. This was the sagebrush steppe I'd read about on that sign at Rattlesnake Ledge.

Even the Lars were shivering.

Shortly afterwards, the highway dropped into the Columbia Gorge and crossed that wide river. I pulled off the highway on the far bank at a sign promising a "scenic view," but the road leading up to the viewpoint was gated off for the season.

Told ya everything would be closed. This is all I could see.

After that, the road ran more or less straight east through the rolling steppe. The sky above was clear--the Cascades would hold back that Pacific storm for quite a while--but the asphalt beneath my wheels got steadily snowier until I hit a thirty-mile stretch that didn't seem to have been plowed at all--on an interstate highway, no less! The only clear road was a pair of wheel-ruts down the rightmost lane. I slowed down and stuck to those ruts, reminding myself, as I would throughout the trip, that a passing lane is a privilege, not a right.

At least there weren't any RVs on the road. As my dad later explained, those things aren’t meant to be driven in the winter. They’re poorly insulated to cut down on weight and so top-heavy that they'd flip right over in a gale.

The left lane eventually cleared, but ice kept creeping back into it all the way to the Spokane County line. Around that point, the trees kicked in again--deep-rooted ponderosas, not the water-sucking cedars of the coast. Spokane itself was a respectable-sized city, complete with its fair share of traffic and tailgaters.

Thirty miles up the road, Coeur d’Alene was much smaller, despite being the major “metropolis” of northern Idaho. The town got its curious name from the local native tribe, who were christened "awl-hearted" by French fur trappers for their sharp business dealings. The current locals are much friendlier, though, as I discovered when I stopped in to refill my various tanks. The fast-food folks and gas-station clerks said hello and chatted with me about the weather (not as cold as it had been on the windy steppe, but still quite chilly).

After my meal, I looked around at the snow-frosted mountains and deep blue lakes and thought to myself that hey, I could live in a place like here. If, that is, it wasn't a five-day drive from nearly everyone I know and care about.

But I couldn't linger long; I had another pass to clear before the day was done.

The mountainous stretch from Coeur d’Alene to Missoula, where I'd planned to spend the night. was steep and twisty in places, but no more so than I-81 coming down from Blacksburg or I-68 through the Maryland and West Virginia hills. To my surprise, it was clearer than the roads down below. Some dude on the Internet had described it as "white-knuckle" driving... well, maybe in blizzard-force winds, but thankfully not that day. The mountains themselves were smaller cousins of the Colorado Rockies: brown crags and pine forests covered in shallow snow. The topmost trees seemed to be coated in rime, just like the lower White Mountains had been last winter.

I reached the Missoula Valley just before sunset. It was wider and flatter than I'd expected, another former lake bottom left high and dry after the last ice age. I was quite eager to see the town; Missoula was one of several to which I'd considered fleeing in the grim "point to a spot in the Mountain time zone; it's gotta be better than here" phase I went through after college. And in that purple twilight, wedged between the University of Montana's "M" and Thing-in-the-way Hill, it did look rather quaint and cozy.

However, it's got a heck of a rush hour for such a small town. I pulled off the interstate and found myself mired in gridlock on awkwardly narrow streets. My hotel took a few passes to find, but the clerk was friendly and the heat was blazing--a good thing, because at 17 degrees Fahrenheit, the cold outside was literally painful. I went right in, flopped onto the bed, and fell asleep.

I forced myself up at 6:30 am to find it not only still dark, but snowing. Not the best time to head out.

I slept a few more hours to the grinding of snowplows, then surfaced again around 8:45. The side street outside my window was still snow-covered. None was falling, though, and the Montana transportation department's online pass-cams showed one lane clear over both Homestake and Bozeman passes, so I decided to head out anyway.

Tyranitar used Thrash... Car is no longer Frozen!

‘Twas the right decision. The plows and sand-trucks had worked their magic on I-90 East; one lane was properly clear all down the valley. The only problem was that I was driving straight into the sun, which caused some issues when my wiper-fluid froze across my windshield, blurring it worse than the sand-splatters I'd been trying to clear off. The several seconds it took to sublimate were rather tense... but I managed not to crash, mostly because there was nothing on that wide, empty road to crash into. Heyo, Montana!

After crossing some low hills, I stopped at a rest area near Anaconda for a mountain-admiring break:

How you doin', Anaconda-Pintler Range?

Now that I'm home, I wish I would have taken the time to venture off the interstate and properly explore Montana. Nothing was stopping me, really... except for the cold and the barely navigable roads and the hotel fees and the snowstorm sneaking up behind me.

Okay, maybe Montana wasn't meant to be explored in December.

I sped through Butte and climbed the switchbacks to Homestake Pass, the high point of the trip at 6329'. The pass was so heavily sanded that the snow in the road was more brown than white. A beautiful gray ridge ran to the north of the pass. I'd love to return and traverse its knife-edge someday... maybe on the Continental Divide Trail?

But cold and snow and such. I slid on down the interstate through another valley, full of pine-speckled hills and yellow rangeland, to Bozeman. Along the way, I passed a handful of exits labeled only "Local Access." Were there no towns along those roads?

I thought of stopping for lunch at Bozeman, but decided to press on. Thick clouds were gathering behind me, and I wanted that last pass over and done with.

Bozeman Pass was less heavily treated, but clearer, though I passed a truck on the way down that had slipped off the road and crashed into the hill. Better than slipping in the other direction, I supposed.

The far side of the Bridger and Gallatin Ranges was overcast. I stopped for gas at Livingston, a tiny tourist town beneath steep gray peaks:

with Yellowstone somewhere on the far side,

then followed the interstate alongside the Yellowstone River. The hills around me flattened into buttes, then into the long undulations of the plains.

Billings, of Trumpet of the Swan fame (koh-hoooh!), was long and flat and unappealing, peppered with smoke-spewing natural gas wells and processing plants. I even saw an open flame flaring from one pipe. Not the best spot for lunch.

Just east of town, I-90 split in two, sending over half its traffic due east on I-94 towards North Dakota. I veered southward with the remainder towards the Wyoming state line.

The next restaurants turned out to be half an hour down the road in Hardin, a tiny town on the edge of the Crow reservation, which ran from that point to the state line. I pulled off for the Subway, but it appeared to be inside a casino, so I went with the McDonalds instead. Inside was the first majority-Native-American crowd I'd ever seen, hanging out and eating hamburgers like any old folks.

I could have spent the night there, but the motels in Sheridan, WY were cheaper, so I continued on despite the dimming skies. They faded fast as I drove south; full dark fell before I was halfway there.

That stretch of highway was downright unplowed, the snowiest I'd seen yet. I found myself cringing along at 20 mph below the speed limit in my little beam of light, struggling to stay within constantly shifting wheel-ruts that, for some bizarre reason, were wider in the left lane than in the right. Things improved slightly once I crossed the Wyoming state line... but not because the roads had been plowed, because it had snowed less there.

I finally rolled into my motel an exhausted nervous wreck around 5:50. The friendly clerk talked me through all its features, including the ice machine in the lobby. I don’t think I’ll be needing any more of that today, I replied with a wince. I found my room, fixed myself an impromptu supper, and vegged out to Frank Zappa songs for the rest of the evening.

Not pictured: fifty miles of black ice.

My alarm woke me at 7:30; the sun was already up. Like yesterday, it had flurried quite a bit overnight, but the inch or so of dry powder was easy to brush off my car.

The 13,000-foot Bighorn Range was invisible from town, but I soon spotted it to my right as I followed the interstate south. I pulled off at a scenic overlook (open! though snow-covered) a few miles out to take a look:

That stretch of I-90 and I-25, which I switched onto as I-90 forked east towards the Black Hills, was more of the same from last night: unplowed roads, ruts formed in an illogical left-lane consensus. At least the sun was up, so I could see where I was going.

A bit past Kaycee, I must have crossed the border between cold and warm masses of air, because the windshield suddenly icefogged up. (I cranked up the heat inside the car; after another tense ten seconds, it faded.) The warming continued as I drove south. By the time I hit Casper (at the base of a long slope down towards the Independence Mountains), the snow in the road had turned into water: slick, splattery, grimy water. The mess it made stuck on my car all the way to Virginia.

Somewhere along this stretch, a dog darted onto the highway in front of me. I braked hard; it backed off to the shoulder, then crossed the road after I passed--nonchalantly, as though it hadn’t just escaped death at the hands of a ton of speeding metal.

I took a break at Orin:

...where the prairie was a bit less frozen,

then, half an hour later, turned off the interstate to follow US-26 (and the North Platte River) diagonally into Nebraska, hoping to avoid the Cheyenne (pop. ~63,000) rush hour. The hills of Wyoming faded into the distance as I descended from the high plains. So long, Rockies.

The tiny towns of Lingle and Torrington were just the same as I'd found them last August, except for the Christmas wreathes on the lampposts. As far as I know, the road between them was the only bit of asphalt this trip shared with my summer travels (I intersected my eastern loop again on the concurrent stretch of I-57/I-64, but I'd been headed north/west then, rather than south/east.)

Across the Nebraska border, I hit a string of small towns--hmm, I thought, maybe people actually live in this state. The largest of the bunch, Scottsbluff, even had three whole stoplights!

At a junction, I came quite unexpectedly across Chimney Rock, a rather undistinguished spire by which the pioneers had marked their progress along the Oregon Trail:

Apparently it used to be larger, but it's collapsed quite a bit over time.

And that was about all northwestern Nebraska had to offer that afternoon.

Ogallalla, my destination for the night, was spread-out and interstatey, with the town set off from its exit's fast-food/gas station/chain motel ghetto by the North Platte River. I arrived at my motel well after dark. "Long drive?" the clerk asked as I checked in. I nodded in the affirmative, figuring he must ask that to every lone driver who wandered in after dark (Ogallalla is a long drive from just about anywhere), but then I caught my reflection in the window and saw that in addition to my real glasses, I was also still wearing my sunglasses atop my head.

The covered sidewalk outside my room was hung with foot-long, rust-brown icicles, some of which even had their own icy stalagmites reaching up to them from the pavement.


I broke off the worst of the stalactites—someone could put their eye out on those things!—and turned in for the night.

The next morning was overcast but, for the first time since Redmond, above freezing.

No precipitation on the car, either--another first.

Aside from a short detour down local roads to bypass Omaha, that day's drive was the easiest of the entire trip. No hills, no turns, and no traffic for three quarters of the day, just a straight slide down the plains to the Nebraska-Missouri line.

At a rest stop, a nice Midwestern man asked me if I was going east. (Seeing as this was the rest stop for the eastbound lanes... but he seemed nice, so I checked my snark.) When I replied in the affirmative, he said that we were in for snow, as a glance at the weather-alert TV on the wall confirmed. Oh, joy, more of that. It can't be any worse than Wyoming, I replied, and shared my horror story of the unplowed interstates. The fellow's eyes went wide. "It can't have been any fun driving in that," he said in his very Midwestern accent. Nope, it wasn't.

Not long after that rest stop, I crossed into the eastern region of the state, which, as I'd learned from Wikipedia the night before, was something called a "dissected till plain" In short, this meant there were hills again, though little net rise or fall. I turned off the interstate at Lincoln, dodged through some local roads to NE-2, and followed it across yet more bumpy till dissections to the border, the Missouri River.

The bridge over the river seemed to drop me right out of the sky into extreme midwestern Iowa. I stopped for gas on the floodplain--the car was slurping up that ethanol-diluted fuel--then hopped onto I-29 and headed south into the river's eponymous state. The interstate followed the floodplain for a while, then slid up onto the river's eastern bluffs and bounced up and down an endless succession of creek-ridden hills.

Kansas City, where I arrived in the late afternoon, was the first respectable-sized metropolis I’d seen since Redmond. I shoved my way through the city center's traffic and onto I-70, which led me to Cheap Motel #4. Its parking lot seemed a little sketchy, and my window looked out onto a suburban cul-de-sac, but I didn't care as long as the showers and bed worked.

Hey, looks kind of like home.

The next day dawned clear for the first time since Montana. I woke up later than intended, breakfasted quickly, and hit the road around 9 am.

Unlike its neighbor to the west, Missouri was forested--with rather low and scrubby trees, but more than just cottonwoods. Most of those trees, however, had been plowed over for farmland. I headed east through the rolling hills (more till plains, or Ozarks? I couldn't tell). The rocks in the roadcuts reminded me of the sedimentary pillar I'd climbed in Illinois last summer.

I passed through St. Louis around noon, glimpsing the Arch between overpasses, and switched onto I-64 just after crossing the Mississippi river. The country on the far side was more of the same: hills, trees, denuded cornfields. Before I knew it, Illinois was past; I'd crossed the Wabash River into Indiana, the quintessential flyover state.

The first half of that state was straight and flat, without even the slightest dissection of till to break up the landscape. I stopped once, at a lonely little gas station whose restroom was full of fundamentalist-Christian comic-book pamphlets. The one in my stall featured a gay pastor who followed the urgings of his (literal) shoulder devil to lure impressionable youth into the "homosexual lifestyle." I thought of taking it with me as a gag souvenir, but decided I didn't want something like that lying around the house.

Back on the road, the miles slipped away beneath my wheels. Flat fields turned to hills while I wasn't paying attention, and before long those hills were covered in the first proper deciduous forest I’d seen since August (Hoosier National Forest, I later learned). They don’t make ‘em like that out West.

The sun set as I drove through the trees; it was dark by the time I crossed the Ohio River into Louisville. The town was another metropolis, complete with sports stadia and Systematic Chaos-style interchanges. I stayed the course and continued on into Kentucky. The highways there were full of brown signs for bourbon distilleries--I guess that’s what I missed by only popping across the VA border to snag Black Mountain last summer.

I wound up spending the night in a hotel in Winchester, KY; the place was surprisingly nice, considering what I'd paid for it. As always, though, I didn't have time between conking out and waking up to use the pool.

The next morning was overcast again:

Yup, looks just like a cloudy day at home.

I quickly snarfed some food and headed out.

By the time I hit Ashland, the hills along I-64 had grown to quasi-mountains; they grew into real ones soon after the West Virginia border. I crossed the Kanawha River on a big green bridge at Charleston, then continued through the state via its narrow, twisty, and tolled section of I-64E/I-77S. The $4 was worth it for the scenery, even under clouds: rugged hills covered with dormant forests, mantled in the burnt orange of dried oak leaves.

I went down Sandstone Mountain--a 7% grade for two miles straight, reminiscent of I-70 in the Front Range--then over the New River Gorge on the Mary Draper Ingles bridge, named for an early settler who had lived near my alma mater. She was captured by Indians in an attack on her village, but managed to escape and follow the Ohio and New Rivers all the way back to the colonies, living off the land all the while. Though shorter, I'd say her journey was a good deal more impressive than mine.

I knew I was nearing the state line when the hills straightened out into proper ridges. Sure enough, I crossed it a short while later. The western half of Alleghany County looked about the same as West Virginia, but then I climbed sideways up a three-thousand-foot-high ridge, crossed over... and there it was, the Shenandoah Valley

The descent from there was long and straight, a gentle slide to the valley floor. At its base, I-64 joined with good ol’ I-81, which took me north along familiar roads to I-66 and home.

Oh, Shenandoah...!

So yeah, that's how I wound up back East. I haven't had much time to climb since my return, but I do hope to take a few trips this spring and summer... you know me, I can't keep away from the cliffs. Check back for the occasional trip report as the Lars and I eat all the mountains we can within a day's drive of Northern Virginia!
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