Road Trip 1: Boston to San Jose, June 2012
At the end of June, I drove for just over three thousand miles, starting from Hamden, CT and ending on San Jose, CA. I packed up all my stuff from my apartment in Boston into the trunk of my car, spent a night at my parents' house, and took off.
I took CT34 to I-84 to I-80 about 1/3 of the way into PA, which I followed until just before the bay area, at which point I switched to 680. I went through Massachusetts first, then Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, then finally California. I just skirted around the edge of Colorado and came very close to Michigan, but never went to either of those states.
I slept in Macedonia, Ohio; Clive, Iowa; Rock Springs, Wyoming, and then reached my destination in San Jose.
I ate at a Denny's in Gary, Indiana (don't do that) and a little diner named Harold's Koffee House in Omaha, Nebraska. I got a beer at Twin Peaks, Clive; I clearly thought "twin peaks" referred to mountains. It does not. I am not a clever man. I was pleasantly surprised to find that despite the place, their beer is cheap and served in large mugs I grabbed Subway near Salt Lake City. I ate a large bag of chips and a pastry and drank a 12-pack of water and four cokes and that was enough.
Interesting things I'll remember, in no particular order:
Driving with the windows open for some 2800-odd miles at 70 or 75mph gives you chapped lips and a sunburn on your arm; the sunburn especially due to driving in roughly the same direction for the whole trip, with the sun forward and to the left - beating down right on me. Overall worth it though; wouldn't change that. It gets quite hot, though; once it hits 90 or so, it becomes uncomfortable, and after 100 it becomes downright unbearable. My AC works just fine, of course, so those times were the only time I closed the windows with the exception of a small patch of very hard rain. But when it's 85-90, it's very comfortable driving 75 mph with open windows, and the cool wind feels great... but eventually you realize that your back and boxers are completely sweat-soaked. Still, I far preferred the slight discomfort to keep things interesting.
Salt Lake City was nothing interesting (apart from the first time you see a huge, sprawling city in the middle of the desert), but the salt lakes right after smell just amazing. After that there are salt flats for miles and miles. I never looked up how long it went on, but I think I drove maybe 75 miles by salt flats going straight west.
You can see the mountains in the distance, over the salt flats.
Corn country and wheat country isn't actually a bad drive, in terms of boredom. You'd think they are, based on some preconceived notions of 'flatness', but the road turns and rolls. It's a gentle thing, not like my well-trod New England, but it never gets flat enough to get boring. Nor, as I was warned, are gas stations very far apart -- often 5, 10, 20 miles at most apart. Now, after Salt Lake City, it was very flat. I saw mountains in the distance and decided I was 10 miles away from being out of the salt flat area; I think it turned out they were some fifty miles away. That was close to a hundred miles of flat, straight road, and the straightest I saw. In Nevada, there were mountain peaks scattered throughout, but most of the area between the peaks was actually very flat, though under a slight incline so I was always climbing or descending. As an estimate, the distance between bends in the road to go around the mountain peaks were between five and thirty miles apart, depending on the area. The mountain peaks themselves were, I think, quite large, but I couldn't figure out how big they were since they were bare and I had no basis of comparison. I did see snow but only on one mountain; I think it was right at the border of Utah and Nevada. Apart from the mountains, though, the road through most of Nevada was quite flat and the gas stations were quite far apart (often 30 miles or so), and there were a great many exits that said 'No Services'.
On the subject of corn and wheat: I saw why the freight rail system is considered so good in the US. It's a very subtle thing, but I didn't often see it back east; it would hit me that the slightly moving object in the distance was a freight train pulling hundreds of loads of whatever at probably 40mph or so.
On the subject of speed: People sure talk big about how fast you drive in the mid-west since there's nobody on the roads. Turns out they're half right. The roads tend to have about a 2:1 ratio of trucks to cars, and there aren't too many trucks either. But virtually all cars drive within two miles of the speed limit, starting from Ohio to Tahoe. At 70mph in Ohio, cars drive roughly 68 to 72; at 75mph starting at some point west of Chicago, cars drive roughly 73 to 77. I saw hardly anybody driving even as fast as 80. So why the big talk? Nothing embarrassing about driving a respectable, constant 75 everywhere. Very comforting to me, actually, since I didn't have to worry about exceeding the speed limit to keep up with traffic while thinking I might get pulled over since out-of-state plates are easy targets. I cruise controlled at 1-2mph above the limit and was consistently faster than 95% of trucks and 75% of cars.
On the subject of Nevada: There is an exit called Death Starr Valley.
Back to speed: Bikes. Motorcycles, in fact. What's more American than giving up some safety to have the ultimate freedom? It must be amazing to drive for hundreds or thousands of miles in a bike. But I did see stopped cars on the other side, once; there were probably 6 cop cars and 3 ambulances and two firetrucks, and no tanker spill, so I immediately knew what it was: a car, with a bit of a dent, and the hardly recognizable remains of a bike. Damn.
Shell: I dislike shell. Accidentally filled up at a station that looked slightly cheaper than the others, except I didn't notice they added an extra dollar. I hope that extra $10 profit was worth it. (Neighboring stations were charging like $3.80, and they $4.75.) Trick me once...
I drank some water driving through Tahoe and put empty, closed bottles on the passenger seat. Around Sacramento, I heard a bunch of crackling; the bottles all crunched inwards. I never realized there was that much of an elevation difference. But driving from Tahoe, there was probably at least 30 miles where my car was on idle, and I had to constantly brake to stay inside the speed limit / flow of traffic (everyone until Sacramento seemed to drive just at the speed limit, though people do drive slower when it gets darker.)
California liquor prices are insanely better than those in New England, even in the cheapest shops in the cheapest states. We get a lot of bottles significantly cheaper than stores pay retail. I also stopped and got a bottle of tequila where I stopped to eat in Omaha. The short version is: decent whisky, not very tequila-ish. Omaha liquor prices are cool.
Driving through the salt flat area in Utah made my wheels dust red. Also, my car over the 3000 miles became a bug holocaust. I started having to wash my window using the gas station squeegee things every time I filled up on gas, because the usual car windshield wipers and fluid weren't anywhere near good enough. The front of my car where I didn't wash is completely coated in bug gunk.
I saw a lot of power-generating wind turbines along Wyoming and Nebraska. I passed entire fields of them, stretching out tens of miles. They were often seen growing in the middle of corn and wheat fields, like the biggest white tree you've ever seen, too big to knock down for more grain, just lazily spinning in the wind. I haven't lived by them for an extended period of time, of course, but as far as I've seen: they're beautiful. A real marvel of human architectural genius, towering and generating energy and really not taking up any physical space (its platforms were very small, so the hit to grain production based on land area was minimal). As far as birds go: let's be honest, if birds want to kill themselves, they can do so anywhere they please; a few generations of weeding them out and they'll learn to avoid the big spinning thing. I want more of these built where they are cost-effective (preferably unsubsidized). And yes, you are free to build it right in my backyard.
Back in the northeast, I saw a lot of pickup trucks and it often seemed they were being used to feel manly. But driving across the sparsely-populated areas, I for the first time saw those engines were no joke; I got passed by an F350 towing three other F350s, up-hill. Gratifying to see those cars used for their intended purpose.
I passed a lot of cars twice. I tended to fill up on gas more often than necessary because I was drinking a lot of water and had to stop to avoid bladder-burstage. This made me often pass a car, stop for ten minutes, and pass it again later. There was also a woman driving a Prius from Vermont somewhere in Iowa or Nebraska with various earth-saving stickers, because the earth will be saved via liberal application of stickers; she was the easiest to remember passing.
Most people used cruise control. Some did not. Those people are bloody annoying. For over a hundred miles, some old guy with his wife in a little camper would pass me, then gradually slow down until I had to pass him. Keeping track of a fool that was constantly next to me made the road a lot easier than, you know, not having to keep track of any single vehicle for more than a couple minutes. Also, it shouldn't be a matter of pride when someone passes you; just keep chugging at the speed you already were. The thing that made it more annoying was the long distance -- over a hundred miles of this bloody game. Usually either hills or pressures of traffic force cars to stop playing this game -- though I do love those old, barely-functioning beaters that tailgate downhill and fall behind 300 yards up-hill -- but this just went on and on.
People were very nice along my whole trip. Not a single incident of rudeness. And no matter where I passed through, most residential areas looked very similar. We speak one language, more or less understand each other's mannerisms and customs... the war of division rages in people's minds and on their televisions, but in reality, it's clear that people agree on probably 99% of topics. Would be nicer if people calmed down and lived their lives without wanting to force other people to live similar lives, though.
On the topic of nice people: drivers. I expected much worse. I had been driving on Boston for the past six months, seeing crazy things every single day; people turning left from right lanes on red, people triple-parked, people backing up on highways in peak traffic because they missed their exit, and all sorts of idiocy. Nobody on the road did anything monumentally stupid that I saw; the worst was that occasionally someone on a right lane would approach a slower-moving vehicle and merge left with little enough space that the person in the left lane would have to brake to reduce speed. If you read this and think "is he bloody kidding, that's like complaining your coworkers occasionally cough" then you understand how pleasant to road was and how I wish it was always like this. A thought strikes me, too: nice place to learn to drive.
I ate at Subway. They are heavily showing off their new avocado sandwiches. I love avocado. I saw how they do avocado. They have a frosting bag filled with mushed avocado and squeeze it out onto the sandwich like a horse doing its business as it walks. I'll pass, thank you; I prefer my avocado to actually come out of a fruit.
That's all I can really remember from my trip now. As more things come to mind -- if they do at all -- I will update this website.
July 15, 2012