There… And Back Again: Wagons West

There… And Back Again: Wagons West

When deciding to drive cross country, you’re going to want to pick out a few must-see locations on your journey and try to find interesting ways to get there. For me, I actually pieced together a few different routes using a terrific resource called RoadTrip USA. They have a list of many different routes you can take across the USA – primarily following old two-lane highways that predate the interstate system created in the 1950’s. I recommend this whenever possible, as the older highways have a lot of interesting sights, including weirdo tourist traps and occasional trips through the middle of some forgotten old ghost town. Interstates, while faster, and with more reliable services (including cell reception!) and lodging, just… don’t give you the authentic view of the country. If you’re going through the trouble of driving – look for black and white highway signs, not red white and blue.

Highway 83
“The Road to Nowhere” – US-83 in the sand hills of Nebraska.

I ended up piecing together a few of these routes and combined them with places I wanted to see myself. Heading out west I was actually on a rather expedited schedule. I actually had a flight BACK to Washington, DC from Los Angeles on the evening of July 24th, resuming my journey on the 28th from California. And then I had a wedding to attend back in New Jersey on August 22nd. So those were my deadlines. I had about two weeks to get There… and almost a month to get Back Again.

So on July 8th, I left Somerset, NJ in the evening in a blue Ford Escape. I started out heading west on Route 78 getting about halfway through Pennsylvania before calling it a night. From there I eventually made it to I-80 and split the trip into two main segments. Going west I’d stick to the northern half of the country. Heading home I’d stay mostly south.

Arrow Rock State Park
Arrow Rock State Park in Blackwater, MO. Pretty much everything between here and home is “West Jersey” to me because of how familiar it looks. Just past that horizon though…

The Northern Route (There…)

Because I had to cram a lot into 15 days of driving, my goal was to get as far away from NJ as possible as quickly as possible – basically to get across the Mississippi within a few days and then slow down a bit west of the 100th Meridian to take in the sights between the Great Plains and Pacific. The truth is, that outside of the major cities, there is not a whole lot of different scenery between the East Coast and the Great Plains. Hills, trees, cities, rinse and repeat. Up until you get west of Chicago/St. Louis, it’s basically all just West Jersey to me.

So after a few stops in Cleveland to see the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (not worth it) and switch cars to a blue Dodge Charger after my first car tried to kill me, Michigan, Chicago and St. Louis to see both (awesome!) cities, and catch up with some long lost friends along the way, just four days (really only two and a half driving days) I reached the beginning of the first of the great routes I would be following…

Starting point of the Oregon Trail
You have died of dysentery

The Oregon Trail

From St. Louis I made a beeline for Independence, Missouri which is the traditional start of the Oregon Trail. Like everyone else who grew up during the 1980’s, I spent hours “learning” about places like Chimney Rock, Nebraska (while mostly playing the hunting mini-game because it was a GAME in SCHOOL that let you SHOOT things) but I never thought I would see them in real life.

Starting out in Independence, I took Interstate 70 west about halfway through Kansas (stopping at the world’s largest ball of twine in Cawker City), then turned up north right through the heart of Nebraska (passing the geographic center of the US in Lebanon, KS), connecting to Highway 83 (the old “road to nowhere” – another classic drive) up in South Dakota (to the poignant Sitting Bull monument) and just dipping my toe into North Dakota to get credit for that state (although I would return years later for a more proper visit to Devils Lake and Fargo) before heading back south and turning west.

This is a really fun route because you are basically driving parallel to the path of the legendary conestoga wagons of the 1800’s. It’s really cool, because in some places you can actually see the ruts that were left behind by the wagons almost 200 years ago. Kansas and Nebraska especially do a great job of highlighting points of interest (right on the road!) from the days of the pioneers and wagon trains that really make it easy to get lost into that time period, considering how alone you are when you’re on the prairie. Remember though – the past is not all fun and games, and it is very important to not erase Native Americans from your own understanding of history.

From the highway 83 area it was time to head west via Interstate 90 to the Badlands, Mount Rushmore, the Crazy Horse Monument, and Devil’s Tower (in Wyoming) before going back through Deadwood, SD and back down into Nebraska for a peek at Carhenge (guy’s it’s nuts) and finally the Chimney Rock from the Oregon Trail game (there are more than one! Accept no substitutes!). Then back west for my first proper look at the Rockies jutting up from the flatness of eastern Colorado.

Grand Tetons
Getting ready to cross another mountain range – the Grand Tetons in Wyoming.

The Mountain Pass(es)

I actually took a bit of a rest in Denver, staying in the same place for more than a night for the first time since I left home. After spending some time exploring the city (awesome!) it was time to head across the Rockies. Amazingly you can literally drive over the top of the mountains (max elevation of 12,183 feet! In a car!), through Rocky Mountain National Park via highway 34 and then up the Colorado Basin (one of my favorite places in the world) north into Wyoming. In Wyoming I headed through Grand Teton National Park, then Yellowstone, before turning west through Idaho (just touching the piece of Montana that Yellowstone is in).

In Idaho I stopped at the incredible hidden gem that is Craters of the Moon National Monument. Folks – if you ever happen to be within 150 miles of this place, go out of your way to see it. However, by this point, time was running short as I had only had a few days to make it to LAX. I decided to abandon one of my primary missions of venturing into Washington state and reaching Cape Disappointment, where Lewis and Clark got their first view of the Pacific Ocean (which I did end up doing four years later!). This ended up being a major strategic error on my part.

Oregon Outback
They don’t call it the “Oregon Outback” for nothing.

The Oregon Outback and Pacific Coast Highway

Short cuts make long delays. — Pippin Took

From Craters of the Moon, I continued to Boise. At that point, rather than following my original map up toward the Oregon/Washington border, I decided to gun it straight west on highway 20 and then south on highway 395 across the Oregon Outback, a part of Oregon that… you guessed it, looks kind of like Australia. This was a really fascinating place, but I almost ran out of gas when the only gas station in Wagontire, OR (population: THREE!!!) was closed and the next station wasn’t for another 23 miles. I then got pulled over for the only time on the trip for speeding, and the cop told he was calling in the K-9 unit to sniff out the drugs that I definitely did not have. Once I was free, the route, which looked quite direct on the map, went totally haywire once I got into California.

After about six hours of driving through the orange tinged hills of Oregon, I was in the middle of “Jefferson” – a quasi-state (look it up, it’s crazy) composed of parts of Oregon and California. My route took me right near Mount Shasta, which is incredibly impressive, especially if you don’t expect it. But then, it turned into a bunch of local mountain roads where it was another 6 hours of winding, 30 mph roads through woods, where I literally was turning the wheel all the way to the right, then all the way to the left. It was sheer misery.

From the Mount Shasta area, I followed state route 299 to route 36 through Six Rivers National Forest (and more endless use of the power steering), before finally bursting through to highway 101 near Hydesville, CA. After a short detour through the “Avenue of the Giants” to drive through a redwood tree in the middle of the night (unfulfilling), I continued south on 101 and California State Route 1 to San Francisco. Briefly stopping to revel in the glory of the Golden Gate area, it was on to the legendary Pacific Coast Highway (surpasses the hype!) all the way down to Los Angeles, which I got to with just about three hours before heading to the airport to make my flight to DC.

Mount Rushmore framed by a pine tree
Only way to get a picture of Mount Rushmore without crowds of tourists.

Main Stops

Somerset, NJ (departure at 6:19 pm, July 8th 2010) → Cleveland, OH → Grand Rapids, MI → Chicago, IL → St. Louis, MO → Independence, MO → Cawker City, KS → Mobridge, SD → Badlands National Park → Mount Rushmore/Crazy Horse Monument → Devils Tower → Deadwood, SD → Carhenge (Alliance, NE) → Chimney Rock, NE → Denver, CO → Rocky Mountain National Park → Colorado Basin → Grand Teton National Park → Yellowstone National Park → Craters of the Moon National Monument → Wagontire, OR → “Jefferson” → Mount Shasta → Six Rivers National Forest → Avenue of the Giants State Park → San Francisco → Pacific Coast Highway → Los Angeles (arrival at 1:21 pm, July 24th, 2010)

For the return route, check out Part 2 of this post.

Chimney Rock from the Oregon Trail!
Look familiar?

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