The Way West…a narrative

It’s been almost two weeks now since my daughter and I embarked upon our drive to Portland. I’ve had some time to reflect on the journey we’d dreamed of and planned for many months; making such a cross-country move and starting over was a daunting task and so it had needed a large dose of dreams, plans, and determination to bring it to fruition.

I’d never driven across the United States; I’d never driven alone more than 400 miles, and no more than 1100 miles while sharing the driving with others. My daughter had never been on a long road trip and I was sure she was underestimating the difficulty in making such a trip, particularly with our pet family. But we forged ahead, determined nothing would stop us, even when a lack of funds and illness threatened to derail us before we could even start the trip.  We planned every detail, going over and over the route on Google Maps and making sure no freeway interchanges would give us problems. We measured the car to determine how much it would hold. We spent hours deciding what to take and what to leave behind. We even planned to be sure we’d get the right balance of nutrition in the food we were packing for ourselves.

The week before we left was a flurry of activity, making last-minute arrangements, donating clothing and books, checking the weather daily, then hourly, and before we knew it, it was time to go. We knew we’d likely be hitting some heavy rain as we drove through the south, but after the deluges we’d driven through during 25 years in Florida, we weren’t worried about our ability to handle heavy rain. And after a bit of a delay with one of our cats objecting to being put in her carrier and having to chase her about as she climbed the walls of the garage, we were finally on our way.  Little did we know the trip would turn out nothing like we’d planned.

We made our way up through the Florida peninsula without incident, and sailed through Georgia, until we hit Atlanta, and ran into this:

Thinking there was perhaps an accident up ahead and that we’d get through the jam soon, we waded into it. But as an hour ticked by, I finally called 511 and learned the left 4 lanes were closed for construction for 2.5 miles, and travelers were advised to take the perimeter freeway around the city. Great. I was somewhat familiar with Atlanta, so we exited as soon as we could and went west on Peachtree Street, which runs across most of the city, and got a nice tour of the downtown area. All well and good, but somehow I got turned around and we ended up in West End, nowhere near the perimeter. We finally found our way to I-20, having wasted 2 precious hours in Atlanta, then I-285 and got back on I-75 for Tennessee.

Just over the state line in Chattanooga it began to rain, lightly at first, which actually made for a beautiful misty green Tennessee evening. But as we made our way to Nashville, the rain became heavier and heavier, until we could see only about 10 feet ahead. We made it as far as Smyrna, when we encountered standing water on I-24. The eastbound lanes were already closed, and though our westbound lanes were still open, we were driving through water that was becoming uncomfortably deep. A couple of exits later I-24 had come to a standstill. All the 18-wheelers had pulled over to the side. We were near a break in the median wall that would allow us to turn around and go east, and others had this same idea as well. So we turned around and made our way back to the nearest exit where there were gas stations and an extensive restaurant/general store/truck stop, where we stopped to get information. Numerous other travelers had stopped there, peppering a hapless state trooper with questions: “How long is it going to rain?” “When will they open I-24?” “Is there any other way I can get out of town?” “I HAVE to get home, what can I do?” and on and on. We realized we weren’t going anywhere and tried to hunker down in our small car for some sleep, and I dozed a bit, but half an hour later my daughter said, “We can’t stay here. We need to find a way out of town and keep moving.”

We pored over the road atlas and found another highway that would lead us south and away from the storms, if we could get through. It was still raining, but we set out on U.S. 41 S and headed for route 231, and we eventually encountered standing water and a Red Cross van nearby. I ran over to the van and asked, “Can we get through here? We’re trying to get to 231!” One of the men answered, “231 is clear, I drove it myself a little while ago; if you can get through this water.” We watched a pickup truck make it across, and I shook my head. “Our car is too low for that.” He countered, “There’s another small car trying it now. If they can make it, you can.” We watched the small car chug through water up to its doors, and felt it was worth a try. I hopped back in the car and we set out across the water, cringing all the way, the water up past the bottom of the doors. We held our breath, but our little Kia didn’t stall out and made it safely across. We were relieved, but shaking with fear, realizing we’d taken an awful chance. With the rain still pelting down, our car was likely one of the last vehicles to make it across that stretch of water before the road became completely impassable, and we hurried toward highway 231, and on to Huntsville, Alabama.

After a very unusual winding-road trip on 231, at Huntsville we turned to go west and were planning to make our way to Memphis to pick up I-40.  In Florence, I was driving past a police car with lights flashing that was stopped by the side of the road, and the officer was waving a flashlight. Figuring he was waving us on, I slowed briefly and then continued on. Minutes later the police car was behind me and put on its lights, and I pulled over. Because our dogs were barking at this approaching stranger, I got out of the car, but because of fatigue, stiffness due to sitting in one position for so long, and dismay at the prospect of receiving a ticket, I stumbled a bit, and thought, oh great, now he’s going to think I’ve been drinking, too. I started out right away saying I was sorry, that I knew I’d had my bright lights on, and had I done anything else? He told me I should have stopped or moved over when passing a stopped emergency vehicle in Alabama, so I apologized again. He checked the registration and took my license to his car to check it out, which seemed to take an inordinately long time, but at last he came back and I waited for him to ticket me, but he didn’t. I told him then that I thought we’d been driving too long, and could he recommend a nearby motel where it would be safe for two women to stay? He recommended a Super 8 motel up the road about 5 miles, and we stopped there, but it was more than I wanted to pay and I didn’t like the look of the place.

At about 4:30 a.m. we found a Jameson Inn that looked very clean and comfortable, and I forked over money I dreaded parting with for a first-floor handicapped room with a king-sized bed, where we simply crashed and tried to sleep awhile. My daughter slept for about an hour, but I was worried and slept not at all. The best part of having the room, however, was that we had cable TV and could watch The Weather Channel, which spelled out the entire weather picture for us, so we could make an intelligent decision as to what to do next. We then scoured the road atlas for our best chance; Memphis was out because of flooding there, and tornadoes and severe storms were expected in Arkansas as well. We finally decided to backtrack toward Huntsville, take I-65 to Birmingham and then I-20 across Mississippi and Louisiana to Dallas, picking up I-35 going through Oklahoma City and Wichita to Salina, Kansas, and then I-70 west to Denver. From there it was north to Cheyenne, Wyoming on I-25 and then we’d be back on our originally-planned route of I-80 west to I-84 west, which would take us at last into Portland. Armed with the best route we could find to skirt most of the worst of the weather, we started out again before 8 a.m., not wanting to stay until check-out time at 11.

Bleary-eyed, we made our way to Birmingham through a very hazy and otherwise unremarkable Alabama, then into a greener Mississippi. We did encounter rain around Jackson, where there was a flood warning, but we made it through there unscathed as well. A highlight was crossing the Mississippi River into Louisiana; I’d never seen it in person, and we crossed it on a rather ancient but ornate bridge. The mighty Mississippi indeed! The muddy water had a look of power and a don’t-mess-with-me attitude; we respectfully moved on.

The route through Louisiana was very flat and boring, with mile after mile of monotony. Traffic picked up in Shreveport, and I was nodding off a bit at that time as my daughter drove. We sailed into Texas without incident.

I’d never been to Texas before; I have to say, they certainly make sure you KNOW you’re in Texas there, from the signs to the accents to the attitudes. We breezed into Dallas, and I thought taking a route around the outside of the city would be easier and save time–ha! Thankfully I’d gotten a second wind and was alert enough to navigate the tricky lane changes that seemed to occur every quarter mile or so. Thoroughly exhausted by the time we finally reached I-35, we stopped at Denton, where at the QT (Quick Trip) gas station had to be one of the best convenience stores ever. Dozens and dozens of doughnuts, pastries, sandwiches, pizza, a coffee bar, deluxe restrooms; a nice pit stop for weary folks like us.

We made our way into Oklahoma and my second wind began to give out, but my daughter was too tired to take over for me. Oklahoma may be a beautiful state, but it was dark, so I couldn’t tell. What I could tell is that the interstate system needs an immense amount of work; the roads were in terrible shape, and the state of Oklahoma should be ashamed to put travelers through such a rough ride. Anyway, we made it as far as Norman, and due to fatigue could go no further.  After having spent nearly $100 on the room the night before, we couldn’t afford to stay in a motel again. We pulled into a Wal-Mart parking lot and tried to rest, and it seemed several other people had the same idea. However, it didn’t really feel safe, and after an hour there we were at an impasse, too tired to move, but we had to go. My daughter spied a McDonald’s up the road and said, “OK, I don’t want to do this, but we have to get moving.” She ordered two large cups of black coffee for herself and off we went. I slumped in my seat and slept then, only to be awakened by her screaming, “Oh NO!  OH NO!” and both feeling and hearing a thump under the wheels. “I killed it!  I killed it!” and then she cried; and it seems she’d hit a raccoon or a cat, though she’d done her best to swerve and avoid it. We’d seen SO much roadkill already on the trip and she had feared this happening while she was driving, and it did. As a fervent animal lover, this saddened her deeply and she was depressed over it for the rest of the trip.

When I woke again it was dawn and we were entering Kansas, which because of the greatly improved road conditions was a real relief. At Wichita my daughter bought two more large cups of black coffee and proceeded to down them; she had the idea that somehow she could stay caffeinated all the way to Portland, but soon her caffeinated state turned on her, and she became shaky, nervous and tearful. I felt a bit better for having napped, so I took over the driving, and as we entered the high country of western Kansas, I began to feel exhilarated. I loved the breezy blue skies and there seemed a clarity to everything that I’d never experienced at sea level. I enjoyed that part of the trip very much, and we entered Colorado with expectations of more of the same beauty. But that’s not what we saw.

The route west on I-70 to Denver was brown, dull and unappealing. Tumbleweeds rolling across the freeway gave it a western touch, but we felt let down. And halfway to Denver, on reentering the freeway, an idiot driving a Winnebago that was pulling a trailer tried to sideswipe me and then nearly ran me off the road as he cut in front of me to exit. I hit the brakes, and the horn, hard, and was thankful I was alert enough to react quickly. This further soured my view of Colorado, and both my daughter and I felt very discouraged at this point. We’d been traveling for two and a half days through very difficult weather and road conditions and were having a hard time keeping the goal in view. The dogs were tired, the cats exhausted, and we felt guilty for putting them through this ordeal. We had no choice but to continue, however, and eventually our spirits seemed to pick up a bit as we neared Denver, with the snow-capped Rockies in the distant background.

We missed the exit for the toll road to take us around Denver and ended up in the thick of downtown Monday afternoon rush-hour traffic. The route took us through an extensive industrial area, so it was not a very pretty introduction to the city. We made it onto I-25 and stopped for gasoline outside Denver in Thornton, where we saw a nearby Subway sub shop. After endless hours of granola, nutrition bars and crackers, a “five-dollar-foot-long” sounded mighty good, so we indulged, and felt better for it. Soon we were on our way to Cheyenne, and were cheered by the fact that when we got there we’d finally be back on our originally-intended route.

Wyoming! What a beautiful state! At over 8000 feet of elevation, we did see a good bit of snow, which was amazing to my daughter, who had never seen snow in person before. We were charmed by the attractive city of Laramie and wished we could have stayed in the area longer. But we pushed on as it got dark and we became exhausted again around Wamsutter, stopping at a Love’s Truck Stop to try to sleep for an hour. My daughter woke me up then, saying it looked like everyone was leaving the parking lot and it didn’t seem safe to stay. She took over the driving and seemed to be more alert and very sure of herself. The signs on the road were a bit confusing; I asked if this was the right road, and she assured me it was, though I didn’t find out until later that she wasn’t sure at all! We pulled into Rock Springs later that night, with the extremely cold wind whipping around us as I put gas in the car. My entire body was chattering and it took several minutes inside the convenience store for me to stop shaking. I asked the clerk, “Does the wind always blow like this up here?” She laughed and said, “Oh yes, all the time! We have a joke here that if the wind ever stops blowing, we’ll all fall over!” I went out to help my daughter walk the dogs, and we promptly stepped in a large amount of dog poop. I tried cleaning my shoes, but to no avail, and pitched them and my socks in the trash and opted for my flip-flops the rest of the trip. I hated parting with my athletic shoes, but it couldn’t be helped at that point. On to Evanston, where we encountered snow showers, but fortunately none of it was sticking to the road, and we crossed over into Utah.

The mountains in Utah were impressive, but by this time we were very, very tired and unable to fully enjoy looking at them. We passed Ogden and Brigham City, where we should have stopped to get gasoline, but I realized to my horror when we were away from the cities that the tank was getting low. Fortunately we made it to Snowville (an apt name, as even in early May it was very, very cold there), where we filled up, bought more bottled water, and entered Idaho; one state to go!

In Idaho things began to unravel. We had reached that dangerous condition of being so sleep-deprived that we began hallucinating.  It happened to my daughter first; she told me later it had been going on for some time, but we weren’t very far into Idaho when she was driving, I was dozing, and I was suddenly awakened by repeated bumps and rough spots in the road, and when I opened my eyes we were driving in the emergency lane. “What are you doing??” I asked. “Oh, there’s a sidewalk there and some tables, and I thought we’d pull over and buy some things,” she said. I became suddenly concerned and said, “This is a freeway. There is no sidewalk. There are no tables.”  She said, “Well, or not…”  I realized then there would be no more sleep for either of us, since we’d have to work at keeping each other awake the rest of the way. It was at that point that we began switching drivers every hour. Much of the route in Idaho looked like this, which added to our hypnotic condition:

When we finally reached Boise, we felt we were going to make it, and soon after, we saw this:

Though we still had 374 miles to go, we were SO thrilled to finally see our new home state. The scenery was stunning, and we couldn’t stop gawking:

We stopped in La Grande at a gas station in front of what appeared on the outside to be a ramshackle convenience store, but it was actually very, very nice inside, cozy and inviting, and the pizza there looked and smelled just heavenly, but we resisted (due to dwindling funds) and forged ahead. I-84 was a surprise, the way it twisted up hills and then there were very steep grades downhill with breathtaking vistas. Before we knew it we’d made it to Hermiston and then saw the Columbia River ahead at Blalock Canyon.

Though the scenery was beautiful, all we could think about was getting to Portland. When we got to The Dalles I felt like we should be in Portland in a few minutes, though it was still 82 miles away. When we got to Cascade Locks I had just about had it. I was having a very hard time staying awake, but I wanted to finish my driving shift in Troutdale so I could switch off and take pictures as we drove into Portland. I kept slowing down and putting on my turn signal, but there was no exit. My daughter asked what I was doing, and I realized I was thinking of a road somewhere else a long time ago where I would have turned right, and I tried to wake up and pay attention.

By the time we got to Troutdale, it was getting dark and misty, not conducive to taking pictures. I was unprepared, too, for how close everything is in Portland; I was in the process of advising my daughter where to get on I-5, to be in the right lane when we went over the Marquam Bridge, and brightly lit downtown Portland whizzed by before I could get more than a glimpse of it. In no time we were at our exit, and arrived at our new home in short order, where our traveling finally ended. We celebrated with pizza and I said to my daughter, “Let me try out the new mattress I bought.” I lay down, and that was it. I immediately fell asleep and didn’t wake up until the next morning. We were finally safely home…

We were so focused on getting here that it took a few days to process what had transpired. Relatives and friends were clamoring for information about the trip, and it was a few days before we could really talk about it without feeling exhausted all over again. We’d been through 14 states in three and a half days, seeing the country in a blur, as fast as the speed limits, and the weather, would allow. We would have liked to have made it a more leisurely trip, stopping in places we’d only heard about, sampling the local cuisine, wandering about in the shops, talking to the people there. I don’t know if I’ll ever get back to any of the states we went through, at least not anytime soon.

When I reflect on it now, it still seems improbable; for two people who hardly ever drove more than a few miles from home, did we actually do this? But obviously we did, and it’s good to be home–at last!

6 thoughts on “The Way West…a narrative

  1. What a great blog about two amazing pioneer women & their brood! 🙂 I’m just so happy that you all made it safely to your beautiful new home and state! Congratulations!

  2. Thanks! I definitely hope that your own trip west will be smoother and that the weather will be favorable, but most of all that you get there safely as well! 🙂

  3. I could feel the experience you and your daughter had. The tension, the weariness, the fears, and finally, the relief and jubilation. BRAVO! Great blog. And a good psychological profile of what can await one when driving a long distance.
    One never knows….does one? :o)

  4. Thank you, I’m glad I was able to convey the what the experience felt like to us. It was hard to know what to include and what to leave out; there were other experiences along the way as well, but they would not have contributed to the flow of the narrative. It’s amazing how different the actual trip was from what we’d carefully planned, but I still think the careful planning helped prepare us for the totally unexpected.

  5. love this!

    our family made the drive from florida to oregon in five days. five days in the car with 2 kids, 2 dogs, and a cat. ours went mostly as planned, but my husband was very anal about planning our routes, getting hotels that would allow pets, etc….

    the hardest part for us was kansas, which seemed to go on FOREVER!!

    cascade locks is sort of ‘our town’ since it was the first place we stopped in oregon. everyone was so nice, the weather was cool and dreary and drippy (love it)….it was everything we hoped.

  6. Thanks! Five days was a good way for you and yours to make that trip; that was the course of sanity! I really don’t recommend the way we did it to anyone; it was just too unsafe.

    Yes, our first stop in Oregon was in La Grande, so we have a special fondness for that town. It was chilly and misty and just perfect. The mist when we arrived at the eastern edge of Troutdale was very welcome, too; we had outrun the hot and humid weather of Florida at last!

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