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Road Trip Series : X-Country 4

After months of late night shifts as an Assistant Editor for a television production company, working 6pm to 4am digitizing tapes and grouping camera rolls by scenes, I finally got to head back to New York for a vacation. As we wrapped up our last episode, I grabbed a few phone numbers and e-mails in hopes that when I returned I could contact someone and there would be some work available.

For this trip I decided to take a northern route. I had been all along the west coast, but I still never made it inland to Idaho and Montana. Through a little bit of planning I found several places I thought would be interesting to drive through or visit: Death Valley, The Sierra Nevada, a “lunar” crater, Glacier National Park, and Rugby North Dakota, the geographical center of North America.

As the days grew closer to my take-off date I received an e-mail from a long lost friend. An old elementary school friend, John, had stumbled upon my website and decided to shoot me an e-mail. Through our exchange he filled me in on his life. He was living in Minnesota and said that if I was passing by that area on my road trip to stop by. So I added that to my itinerary. I was excited, until I realized I was driving up north, in a compact car, in the winter…


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Day 1

Leaving Los Angeles in the winter is never fun. The weather is nice and cool, it’s still warm enough to wear a T-shirt and shorts, and the nice periodic breeze from the ocean is just right. I had stopped by my friend Meesh’s house in The Valley to drop of the keys to my place (to feed the pets) and started on the beginning of my journey to Death Valley. Sounds like a great place to start a trip, right?

It was actually very cool. Well, not weather wise, but visually. The area gives true meaning to the phrase “Open Road”. Rugged hills and mountains made of warm colored rocks lie in the distance. Long stretches of road pull you into the desert. As I made a turn around one mountain, the road stretched as far as the eye could see. The more I drove, the more I felt like I was going nowhere. It was as if I wasn’t gaining any ground.

The best part about it though, was that I was able to “pull a buck twenty” (120mph for you older folk) and still feel completely safe. There was no-one on this road that continued straight for miles and miles. This happened to be one of my favorite scenic drives on this trip, right up there with driving the 110 mile stretch of open road on I-70 in Utah. The road was flat and well paved. Along either side of me was dirt scattered with shrubbery. It was smooth for miles and miles with a slight change in elevation here and there that kept your attention. The best part of all was that in the distance were mountains that were probably four or five thousand feet high but appeared about 2 inches tall looking through my windshield. I blasted Jimmy Eat World’s “Open Road” song and sang at the top of my lungs. I had not a care in the world, no one could hear me, that was certain.

When I pulled into the park they gave out a brochure which I skimmed. Looking back in retrospect I should have skimmed better. As I was driving along the desert I saw some pretty scenic areas including “painted” rocks of different shades and a sand dune which looked like it belonged in Egypt (or on a movie set). The photo to the left shows a section of the dunes I drove by. It is not photoshopped. It was amazing how in the middle of dark brown dirt and green shrubbery was this bright patch of golden sand dunes. The vibrancy of the dunes and color variation of the area blew me away.

I tend to make a lot of stops on these trips to take pictures, and at one of my stops I noticed an animal ahead. It looked like a hybrid of a coyote and a wolf. To this day I’m still not 100% sure what it is. So I pulled up closer to him, and based on the size of his teeth, I decided to play it safe and stay in the car. ;)

As I was taking pictures he stayed in the middle of the road. For his safety I decided to throw a piece of my bagel off the road and onto the dirt so that anyone else driving by didn’t hit him. I hung around for a bit then continued on my way. The reason I should have skimmed the brochure a little better was because besides telling you to stay in the car, which obviously I’m smart enough to know, they tell you not to feed the animals. Oops!

A few hours into the trip I saw an intriguing sign for “Scotty’s Castle”. A castle? In the desert? Well, I had to go check it out! This is what I personally love about not planning every little detail of a road trip. It gives you the flexibility to make pit stops or even veer off the beaten path to get a glimpse of something that could be worth seeing.

Back in the early 1900′s a man named Walter Scott, who was also known as Death Valley Scotty, convinced a Chicago millionaire and his wife to invest in a gold mine in Grapevine Canyon in Death Valley. The nearby springs provided water which was used to generate electricity. Unfortunately, due to the stock market crash in 1929, the couple was unable to finalize construction. Several years later, the investor and his wife finished construction and turned it into a second home. When they eventually passed, they had no heirs and the castle was given to the Gospel Foundation, who later sold the property to the National Park Service.

The castle was very interesting to walk around. It feels like a private villa in the middle of the desert. As I left Scotty’s Castle and Death Valley National Park, the Nevada border approached. Apparently they hire a different company to pave their roads. (See picture left)

I drove through the Sierra Nevada Mountains as the sun set, it was really beautiful. The horizon had a thick purple hue to it.  For a good while the sky stayed like this, but before I knew it, it was pitch black.  Driving along I looked at my map. There was a small area designated “Lunar Crater” so I decided to go check it out. I had veered off the planned course for about 10 miles to go see it, driving on a somewhat bumpy road, only to reach a point where a sign read “Lunar Crater – Backcountry Byway”. Aside from that all I saw was some weird looking vegetation on the ground, and because it was completely dark out, I was getting pretty nervous. I was ten miles off any major road, in the pitch black, looking at what could be a dropping point for aliens, reading a sign that says “Lunar Crater”. That really scared me. So, with nothing to see, I continued back towards Utah.

As it turns out from looking online, this crater looks pretty awesome. The picture to the left is what I saw at night. To the right is a photo taken by Graeme Colmer I found via Google. (If you are smarter than I am, visit it during the day.)

I decided to cut into Utah to visit Salt Lake City. As much as I love visiting Utah I’ve never been to its capital and largest city, so I decided to head there before entering Idaho. While driving along I hit Wendover, Nevada. There was a pretty big casino along the road so I deciding to pop in, hoping that maybe it would wake me up. There was a band playing, black lights everywhere, and a very cute girl who sold me a shot-glass. I’d call that a successful pit stop.

Within a few hours I reached Salt Lake City. The city was founded by a group of Mormon pioneers led by Bringham Young, who fled from the east due to religious persecution. It’s amazing the price people will pay to have multiple wives. ;)  I actually wandered around this city for awhile. It was 4 in the morning and nothing was open, but I stopped by the downtown area, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, all just to took a look around. I must say the one thing I didn’t like about the city, besides its insanely cold winters, was that just outside of it are these huge plants that were probably oil refineries pumping tons of pollution into the air. Besides the health factor, it was an eye sore. But overall based on what I saw I liked the city. The snow-covered mountains surrounding it added a nice visual touch.

I took a 3 hour nap in some random parking lot under a lot of lights, and then continued into Idaho.

Day 2

Driving the northbound stretch into Idaho was beautiful. Small to medium sized mountains covered with snow surrounded me. There was no snow on the ground, and the fields were colored yellow or a light brown. In the distance were brown mountains halfway covered with snow from top to bottom. Considering my location in the middle of nowhere, it was a very pleasant drive.

By the late morning I was entering Montana and passing the Continental Divide. The weather got colder and the snow started to creep up on the grass and shoulder of the road. I had driven pretty far north into Montana, reaching Missoula by the mid afternoon when I decided to take a major break. I wanted to see Glacier National Park during the day and at the rate I was going I would have arrived at night. So I planted myself at a Motel 6 and took the deepest, longest sleep I had ever taken on a road trip. It was really nice.

Day 3

The next morning I woke up re-energized. The weather had gotten colder overnight, so cold that I actually pulled into a gas station and the pump handle was frozen to the stand. I had to pull up to a different pump. The water that was in my car over night also froze. It was my welcoming to the bitter cold north. My experience driving in Montana was a lot different than Idaho because of the snow. They must have had a storm recently because the ground was covered with residual, dirty slush. As I traveled farther north, a light blanket of snow started to cover the mess. This drastically reduced my speed but I was okay with it because it was a very pretty scenic drive. I drove over the Hungry Horse Dam and up towards the eastern entrance to Glacier National Park.

The surrounding area alone was beautiful. As I approached the park I noticed some sort of Tourist Information Center and decided to pop in. It was your typical souvenir shop. The man inside was helpful and pointed out the possible driving routes telling me that most likely the eastern entrance was closed due to snow. I had driven this far, I figured why not at least give it a shot.

I had made it in a little bit before a road closure. It looked like there was a ski resort which posed as my dead-end. All that was available now was for me drive up and over, or down and around the park. I opted for the down and around approach. It looked like there might have been access points for me to get back in.

As the sun set I had driven the southern edge of the mountainous, highly elevated park. As I looked west the mountains were dark with white snow capping them off. The sky was a light white and blue color with orange and red clouds shooting out from the mountain tops which were probably hiding what was left of the sun. I drove below the park and came up the western side (as if I was making a U shape) and came to a town called Saint Mary on the western edge of the park. I had decided to make one last ditch effort and take a route into the park to see if I could reach a higher elevation for some good pictures.

Of course it couldn’t be easy. Because it was so dark I drove straight into a mound of snow blanketing the road in front of me, probably about a foot and a half high, and stretching across both lanes. I backed up, put the car in drive, and the pedal to the floor. (For the record I didn’t back up THAT far, just far enough where I thought I could plow through the rest of the snow and not ruin my front bumper.) I made it almost 3/4 of the way across the snow pile. With a few additional back-and-forth attempts I made it all the way. Mission: Accomplished. I drove a few hundred yards until I reached a gate with a sign saying “Road Closed”. Ugh… “I guess it’s back to the Interstate…” I thought to myself.

After all this was said and done, it was pitch black again. I hopped onto Route 2 and bolted upwards of 90 mph to North Dakota. The story I was told, and I forget who told me this, was that Montana didn’t have a speed limit until people from Seattle and the surrounding cities kept coming in with their fancy cars and recklessly driving at 100mph or greater. Eventually the state got fed up and enlisted a 75mph speed limit. Wikipedia somewhat backs this claim, stating that in the late 1990′s there was no speed limit, yet people where getting convicted of driving “recklessly” and fighting the tickets in court. Eventually this led to the state enacting a limit so the disputes would cease.

I continued through Montana, passing a small town called Malta which I thought was interesting because my grandmother was from the island of Malta off the coast of Italy. The street posts and telephone polls had banners about dinosaur excavations, which I guess they used to try to attract drivers as a form of tourism. Since it was night and the town was dead, I kept on going till I reached Rugby, North Dakota.

It was freezing when I reached Rugby, the Geographical Center of North America. It was 6am, still dark out because it was winter, and the wind was whipping by insanely fast. I remember the radio stations always said “above or “below” when they announced the weather. (As in, “It is 15 degrees below zero today.” or “It is 15 degrees above zero today.”) The monument was a little upsetting. I was expecting something a little grander. I wonder how many tourists it actually attracts, if any. So I continued on my way but right before the sun rose, I started to doze off. I pulled over for a quick power-nap but couldn’t sleep. If I left the car on, I was scared of either a cop pulling over or me dying from inhaling fumes or something. If I turned the car off, I would have frozen to death. So after a very short, probably 45 minute or so nap, I continued on my way.

Day 4

I reached Minneapolis in the late afternoon or early evening. The roads weren’t too bad. My friend John met me for a drink and offered to let me crash there for the night. It was a tough decision to make because I wanted to spend some time with him since it had been years since we hung out, but a huge snow storm was on its way and could have inhibited my driving if not stranded me in the city. After having a drink and some great conversation I decided to take him up on his offer. Besides not seeing him for so long, I was also extremely tired from not getting any rest the night before, so I crashed at his place. The next morning was going to be interesting…

Day 5

Surely enough, the snow came. And hard. I woke up somewhat early and there were already a few inches on the ground. A plow had come down the road earlier and the path that it cleared was almost unnoticeable. John had to leave for work and I felt awkward overstaying my visit so I decided to take off, as slowly as possible.

After spending a half hour driving what normally would have taken 5 minutes I made it to the highway. From there to Chicago was going to be a long, long ride. The one thing that made it interesting though, was my near death experience.

I don’t remember which interstate I was on, but it had three lanes. I was in the middle lane when I pulled up behind a slow milk truck. To his right was a cargo/shipping truck that was maintaining about the same speed. Aggravated, I decided to look towards passing them in the left lane. Unfortunately, the snow from the plows had been pushed into that lane, and it also showed signs of black ice. So that was a no-go.

That is, until my patience wore out.

After spending several minutes behind these idiots, I decided to make a move for it. I pulled into the left lane and slowly passed the milk truck.  I figured I needed to get back into the middle lane soon because staying in the left lane didn’t seem safe. As I turned my wheel to gradually go right, my car spun out of control on the ice. Within milliseconds I did a 180 degree turn and was literally sliding “forwards” but facing “backwards” at the milk truck! My car continued to spin and by the time I was in the right lane, I was facing forwards again. I still had the mental image of the milk truck coming right at me when my car continued to spin, doing an additional 180 degrees spinning out of control and flying off the highway. All of this in happened in one continuous motion and in a matter of seconds.

When all was said and done I stared down a one lane road with my heart still racing. Where the heck was I? Did I spin out and do a 540 across a 3-lane highway? Maybe even a 720?

I started to calm down and put two and two together to understand where I was. When my car flew off the highway and almost did a second 360 degree spin, it put me right back onto the on-ramp to the highway. To the left is a shot of my tracks as I spun out of control off the highway. Once my heart rate normalized, I just put my foot back on the gas and drove up the ramp back onto the highway.

What an adventure that was. So, needless to say I drove a little slower the rest of the way home. I reached Illinois in the early afternoon and clocking in at 3,000 miles into the trip. Typically a direct route from New York to Los Angeles is that amount, so you can see how much mileage I added on to my trip. Aside from paying $9.00 in tolls, it was a pretty slow and boring ride from Chicago to New York. I reached my family’s house at 6am the following morning.

Overall this was a fun route, especially in the northern and western part of the country. I’d recommend staying away from it in the dead of winter though.

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