Archive for the ‘Travels With Myself’ Category

Reentry and a Perfect Landing

In Travels With Myself on August 7, 2013 at 2:40 am

In my first entry for this blog, I compared leaving home to achieving escape velocity. Well, yesterday I came back into orbit, made my final approach and reentry, and came in for a graceful landing back in Putnam.
I started the day in the Finger Lakes region of New York, just west of Canandaigua. As I followed US 20 the hills and towns through the center of the state, I began to feel as though I was just on the edge of the familiar. MY goal was to reach Albany, then look for a place to spend the night before making my final push into Western Massachusetts and then down into Connecticut.
Feeling as though I was making progress again, I began to take time to admire the neat, quiet towns in places like Waterloo, Seneca Falls, and Auburn; to comment to myself on the wonderful parks that adorn the waterfront of the lakes such as Seneca Lake in towns like Geneva; to gasp appreciatively at the green, surprising valleys as I maneuvered around and over the hills south of the Adirondacks; and to feel a sense of being drawn in as I approached Albany through Esperance and Guilderland, whose names call to mind stories full of wee folk and Rip Van Winkle and the headless horseman. Although the actual setting for those stories was south and east in the Catskills, I discovered that New York State is filled with such places with mysterious settings and magical names.
I stop for lunch in Albany and looked again at the map. The tourist map I was using had no indication of distances between points, so I had to estimate from the scale at the bottom of the map. I figured that I could make it to Pittsfield, MA, about the time I would usually stop for the night and that I would either go that far or stop just short of the state line somewhere around Nassau. I drove quietly through Albany. At the shoreline of the Hudson River, the roads suddenly get busy and confusing as Interstates 87 and 90 converge and blend momentarily with UCS 20 and NY 9 to whisk the traffic over the river and set it on its way either east into New England or south toward Manhattan and New Jersey.
I was finally getting into the near-familiar orbit, just outside the familiar atmosphere of home.
As I emerged onto US 20 and NY 9 east of the Hudson, I saw a sign that indicated that Pittsfield was only 33 miles ahead. It was just about 1:45. I made a quick calculation and realized that if I were in Pittsfield before 2:30 I would then be only about three to three-and-a-half hours from home. If I extended my driving day just a little longer than usual I could be in Putnam by 6:00 or so even accounting for traffic, slow sections of road, driving through Springfield, and other unknowable factors. I began my approach by angling south and deciding to abandon 20 for I 90, thus gaining a little time, perhaps, and putting myself on trajectory toward Palmer, MA, where I could pick up 20 again, a road that I had traveled often over the years.
I soon realized that I had made a miscalculation. I 90 was winding and gusty and uncomfortable. It also led me to pay my very first toll in more than 9,000 miles of driving. It was only 85 cents, but still.
So I recalculated the angle of my approach. I stopped briefly at a rest area near Lee, picked up a map of Massachusetts, saw that I could get back on 20 at the next exit and sent a message letting Sue (who I wanted to be there when I got in) that I was close to home and not stopping for the night. Two miles later I was off the highway, driving through the forests and glens of the foothills of the Berkshires, passed Jacob’s Pillow and Chester/Blandford and back on down under the Interstate toward Westfield. The road then swung straight east again into Springfield, where it is provided easy passage along I 291 over the Connecticut River and on toward Palmer.
At Palmer, I knew my way in and began my final reentry. Here 20 glides smoothly down through Brimfield, past all those fields that are brought to life when antiques dealers converge on the otherwise quiet fields; into Sturbridge, past the shops and restaurants and Old Sturbridge Village; until the course adjustment at Rte 13 through Southbridge; and the
glide down Rtes 169 and 171 into Putnam.
I could feel the gravitational pull of home exert its force as I crossed the hill by the Sturbridge Inn. I had alerted Sue that I was on my way and hoped that she might be able to get to the condo and turn on the water heater so that I could get a badly needed shower, so I stopped quickly for wine and flowers in Putnam then began my landing approach up Rte 12 and onto Perry Street. I was disappointed to see that Sue had not yet arrived, but as I pulled into the driveway she pulled in right behind me, and brought dinner with her: perfect landing.
There is an arc to our comings and goings, whether we are just running out to the store for milk or traveling across the country and back. How often have we heard it said that the trip home seemed shorter than the trip out somewhere? How often do we find ourselves following the same familiar paths home even when we have taken a new route to get someplace? When we travel locally, we may become inured to the arc because our daily routine obscures it, makes it ordinary. But when we travel some distance there is a sense of breaking free, then of being in a new place, and satisfying return to home and the familiar.
I had thought this might be my last entry in “Travels With Myself,” but I may do one more over the next couple of days to debrief and catalog a few somewhat random and non sequitur observations and experiences gleaned from six weeks on nine thousand miles of road through twenty-one states, six of them twice and ten of them states I had never been in before. I hope you’ll bear with me; and I thank you all who have read all or part of my journal. Without these letters home, the road would have been longer and more lonesome.

Distance, Time, and the Eye Of The Beholder

In Travels With Myself on August 4, 2013 at 11:05 pm

I am becoming somewhat obsessive about orientation and location. I keep checking my maps to see where I am, to guess how far it might be to some arbitrary next checkpoint or landmark, to try to figure out just how long it might take me to get there. I already know that I will stay on US 20 all the way back to Sturbridge, MA, except to perhaps take a short section of the Mass Pike around Springfield. I also know that I will be on the road at least two more days before I see Putnam. I am thinking that there are two reasons for this.
The first, and probably least important, reason is that the countryside is becoming more populated and busy as I have gotten out of the rural areas of the Midwest. Small towns run more closely together and their town centers are larger and more crowded. I am not so often alone on the road, but share it with more small vehicles rather than large trucks. There is more signage, both on the highway itself and along the roadside giving information about business, attractions, and local features. The result is that I have more to capture my attention, so I can’t just get into the groove of driving, feeling a part of the country I’m traveling through, letting my mind wander or think about much of anything other than whether I am still on course or how much progress I’m making. This is made harder by a confusing array of local, state, national and interstate routes all intersecting and crossing each other, so that there are times when a single post might have as many as eight or more route signs and two or three arrows pointing in several directions.
Also, the experience of time passing is different now than before. On those long stretches of road through the plains, I often found myself amazed at how far I had traveled because I hadn’t seen anything to mark my passage. Now, there are so many things to mark the way that I am amazed that I haven’t gone much farther than I have. Since not all maps have distances marked along the major and secondary routes, I am sometimes left to guess at how far I’ve gone; and I usually guess that the distances between points on the map are smaller than they actually are; so I think that someplace must be just ahead when I am still 20 miles or more away.
The second reason is that I am getting closer to home. This part of the country feels more familiar. I know the end point of this road and have driven a major section of it often; so I keep projecting my trip forward to that point and trying to sense the erosion of distance as I drive towards it. I don’t think that this is the same as wishing time away. I’m not so much trying to make my trip shorter than it will be, I’m just trying to get a sense of placement relative to the things I know.
This wasn’t a problem for the first two-thirds of the trip, because I was moving away or moving parallel, so the actual distance or my specific relationship to it was less important. I was so disconnected from home by the physical separation and by the sense of movement away, at first; and by the sense that I had gone as far away as possible, when I had reached the Pacific; that the exact measurements didn’t matter. I was out there on my own, and no matter what happened home had nothing to do with it.
In my first entry I used the metaphor of reaching escape velocity, of breaking free of the gravity exerted by home. I can see home now, in my mind’s eye, and I am beginning to anticipate getting back into a familiar orbit and planning my reentry into my native atmosphere. I will write more about this as I complete the journey, but I believe this is a natural response for people who have not traveled extensively or very far. I have traveled so often in New England that it almost doesn’t feel like travelling at all to go up to Burlington, VT, or the coast of Maine. Central Massachusetts is a short trip for a summer afternoon. Rhode Island and Eastern Massachusetts are in the neighborhood. I drive them without even thinking about the distances or the time unless I have some other agenda that demands it. Only map-makers and literalists think of time and distance as fixed. For the rest of us, they are as arbitrary and mutable as the perceptions of our hearts.

A Long Drive On A Good Road

In Travels With Myself on August 4, 2013 at 1:28 am

Today I had an easy and pleasant drive from Michigan City, Indiana, to Cleveland, Ohio; from Lake Michigan to Lake Erie; across northern Indiana and Ohio just south of the Michigan Line. Us 20 passes through farmland and small towns, and dodges around the city of Toledo, rising and falling across gentle hills and running straight ahead for miles. Along the way, I learned a few things.
There is a significant population of Amish in north central Indiana. They move, hurry even, along the sides of the highway between the farms and the towns in their horse drawn buggies, often with small trailers full of goods or kids, or a young man on a bicycle coming up behind. The wide shoulder of the road provides ample room for the wagons, and the automobiles pass by respectfully.
Saturday in the summer brings people out into the small towns. Today I passed through two street fair celebrations, in Fayette and Oak Shade; and drove through the Saturday busy streets of small, clean, appealing cities like Maumee and Lakewood that ring the cities of Toledo and Cleveland like aprons. Traffic moved smoothly along mostly good pavement and broad streets.
There are surprisingly few places to stay along US 20. I started looking for a campground as I approached Oberlin, but didn’t find any place to stay until Cleveland, and then I almost missed the Days Inn because 20 passed by the rear entrance rather than the front. It would seem that travelers along 20 are anticipated to be hungry and need gasoline, but not to sleep.
I also came to the realization that if one has acquired a map for each state one has passed through going in one direction, then one doesn’t need a new map for each state when passing through them again in the other direction. Unfortunately this revelation did not become manifest at the Iowa/Illinois border or the Illinois/Indiana border, but only when I was already a third of the way through Ohio and had not yet found a new state map.
I didn’t say that my discoveries were all significant.

Crossing Illinois

In Travels With Myself on August 2, 2013 at 10:46 pm

Illinois is really quite narrow across the top. Even the southeasterly trip from East Dubuque to Chicago is only 177 miles. The trip from the Iowa line to the outskirts of the megacity of Chicago and its exurbs takes less time than the trip from, let’s say, Elgin to the Indiana line. Traffic started to build as soon as I got past Freeport, began to get fairly congested at Rockford, and then gradually became a crawl as I worked my way through Schaumburg and Oak Park and Oak Lawn toward Lake Michigan.
Admittedly, I had chosen to take US 20 and stay off the faster interstates, because I wanted to see some of Chicago and I wanted to avoid the toll roads. I had also seen that US Routes 20 and 12 run very close to the Michigan shore, and I wanted to get a look at the lake, even perhaps picnic there. Unfortunately, 20 winds through the outlying villages and never even comes close to Chicago proper; and I traveled all the way from Oak Lawn to Michigan City, Indiana and never saw even a glimpse of the lake. Between the highway and the lake are railroad tracks, a few small towns and a great many industrial complexes. Eventually, I followed 20 a little further inland and decided to wait for Lake Erie to see if I can get a better view.
I don’t mind city driving; after all the hours I have spent in the last few days zipping past cornfields, at least the scenery was different and I had time to look at it. But even there I was somewhat disappointed. In “Illini” (I assume this would be a correct term for the language of Illinois) the “village” does not indicate a quaint little community with, perhaps, a town square, a church, a general store and a few houses. A “village” is a city of 20,000 or so people, with a decidedly urban feel, but almost entirely low-rise architecture; and bad roads. I encountered more potholes and rough pavement of a more jarring and potentially destructive character than I have encountered thus far in more than 7,000 miles.
There is also a remarkable shortage of easily accessible parks or rest areas along the whole length of US 20 across Illinois. I would have thought that a state that can easily be crossed in a couple of hours by people rushing through between Iowa or Michigan and Indiana would be some interest in giving people reasons to stop; but unless your interests run to the urban, and the popular mythology of Chicago in particular, there seems to be few attractions worth noting. The only sort of interesting bit of tourist appeal for me was the discovery that the city of Galena, where I stayed last night, was the hometown of Ulysses S. Grant. That at least is a useful bit of trivia I now know that I didn’t know before.
Also, in the last few days I have been through three different cities that can’t seem to decide what state they’re in. This seems to be a mid-western phenomenon. I first encountered it with Kansas City, Missouri and Kansas. Now I have been through Sioux City, Nebraska and Iowa; Dubuque, Iowa and Illinois; and Chicago, Illinois and Indiana, which has the additional feature of stretching over into Gary. Oregon has Portland, which melds with Vancouver, Washington, but at least they have separate names. (Though, technically, to be fair, it is East Dubuque and East Chicago.) But nobody in Chicago even saw any reason to post a sign indicating that I had officially entered another state. Such, I suppose is the nature of human-defined boundaries.

The American Corn Patch

In Travels With Myself on August 2, 2013 at 9:34 pm

Eastern Nebraska and all of Iowa are virtually one great big corn field. In Nebraska, nearly all the fields have signs running along the road indicating which hybrid variety of corn or other produce is being grown in the field. In Iowa, not so much. As I drove along US 20, however, it looked as though the corn was growing green and healthy; but one local man told me that the stalks aren’t as tall, and the ears aren’t as large as they should be; and the ground water and wells are drying up. This was less apparent along the highway, where there were large farming operations, with crop dusters flying overhead at 7:30 in the morning, and the corn fields stretched on for miles and acres upon acres. When I got off the highway, however, and followed Iowa D20 out of Fort Dodge, I was able to get a look at some smaller farms, where watering from a tank truck wasn’t keeping up with what was needed. Here the farms were dry and struggling.
One sign of progress in the area was the large number of wind turbines that shared the fields with the corn, as they had shared with the wheat and the cattle in Washington. Unlike Washington, however, I saw no high-tension towers leading away from the turbines. I can only guess that those must have been at the further reaches of the fields, rather than positioned along the roads.
Iowa along US 20 clearly does not think of itself as a tourist destination. The indication of an historic site or special feature is rare. Most of the signs labeled “Tourist Information” give directions to some kind of tourist business, such as a hotel or restaurant. So I was actually surprised when I took a small detour off of US 20 into Fort Dodge to refresh my coffee cup and make a rest stop, and there on my left was the Fort Dodge Museum and Historic Village. I pulled in and was confronted with a good-sized log-walled western fort. Since I had plenty of time, I decided to pay the small price of admission and tour the grounds. It was an interesting, eclectic, and confusing sort of place.
One of the first things I learned as I looked over the self-guided tour sheet, was that Fort Dodge actually never looked like this. The original fort, which was an army outpost from 1850-1853, had no walls, log or otherwise. It was just a collection of buildings sitting open in the prairie. Then I noticed that the buildings along the town street outside the fort were all either reconstructions of what such buildings might have looked like, or had been brought there from someplace else. The artifacts inside were certainly historic antiques, but mostly not from the time of the fort, but from later years after settlers had arrived and begun to build a town and then on up well into the first half of the 20th century. Until I realized this, I was a bit disconcerted to discover that I was familiar with many of the items on display. In first grade, I sat in desks just like the ones in the schoolhouse; I was familiar with the student inkwells and with the two-edge safety razors and manually operated hair trimmers in the mercantile.
Inside the fort walls, there was exactly one building, the commander’s office that was original to the fort. All the others were reconstructions, made from original materials, but brought in from all over Iowa. Just as I was settling into the idea that this was intended to represent the kinds of things one might have found in a 19th century Iowan fort and town, I entered the first of two long buildings where there were displayed a wide variety of Native American artifacts, military artifacts from the Spanish American War, World War I and World War II, plus a variety of domestic objects such as sewing and cooking utensils, hand-made and store-bought women’s clothing, and some early radios and one of the first GE refrigerators.
In the far corner of the fort was one of the more intriguing displays: the Cardiff Giant. Now if you have heard of the Cardiff Giant, you know that it was a hoax perpetrated in Cardiff, New York, by a farmer who arranged to have an enormous “petrified” figure of a man dug up for the astonishment of his neighbors and his own and his relatives’ enrichment. Well, it turns out that the stone used for carving the giant was quarried near Fort Dodge and shipped east for carving and burying. Now that would be an interesting bit of history, but for some reason, the designers of the exhibit felt it would be more interesting to create a fanciful story (told on the signage without any indication of tongue in cheek) about how the local people called in a sculptor to create a replica of the hoax, only to have the exact same figure emerge from the stone with just a few whacks of the hammer to loosen the surrounding material; thus making this figure the “real” petrified giant.
I did take a walk around the gift shop, however, where I found a mix of wooden and plastic toys, some out-of-place tropical/Polynesian items, some stones and arrowheads, and a few books about the history of Iowa. The best part was a brief conversation with the man who had greeted me on my arrival and was in charge of the store. We talked a bit about the weather and a little about Marshall Bill Tillman, a f one-time Marshall of Dodge City Kansas who was born in fort Dodge and with whom I am familiar because I had an interest as a youth in stories of the old west outlaws and the lawmen who opposed them.
And thus I spent a refreshing and enjoyable hour before setting off once more on my drive across the cornfields, which had become in Iowa once more barren of trees except for a few distant groves. And thus the road and the landscape continued until I passed through Dubuque and crossed the Mississippi into Illinois, where the road suddenly dropped down a long hill toward the river, bounded up over a two-lane bridge, and climbed on the other side into a whole new place of hills and trees and industry.

Going With The Flow Across The Plains

In Travels With Myself on August 1, 2013 at 12:20 am

The laws of simple physics tell me that if I am driving 65 miles an hour, it is irrelevant where I am doing the driving. 65 miles an hour is 65 miles an hour. The somewhat less specific laws of perception, however, allow me to believe that 65 miles an hour is crawling along when I am driving along a long, wide, flat, straight road through miles and miles of ranchland, pasture, and acres of cornfields where even the small towns may be thirty or more miles apart and I am virtually the only moving thing on the road. This contradiction between the laws of physics and the laws of perception are brought suddenly to my attention every time I hit a stretch of road where a strong wind gusts across an open field or the top of a hill, ad every time one of the larger, les streamlined trailer trucks goes cruising by in the opposite direction and my 65 mile an hour RV collides with the truck’s 65 mile per hour wake. Fortunately, the trucks pass no more frequently than any other vehicles and the gusty winds are becoming increasingly rare as I make my way east.
All in all, today was an easy travel day. There aren’t a lot of attractions to call me off the road out here, and I find myself back in a mode of simply enjoying the driving. All of which left me time to notice random sights and events.
Nebraska has some simple, but accurate little blue signs announcing one’s imminent arrival at a roadside turnout. I laughed out loud at the first one I saw today. I was slowing down in anticipation of an area of road work, when I noticed a small, square blue sign sporting a silhouette of a tree with a picnic table siting under it. Beneath the sign was an arrow pointing across the road and the legend “1/4 mile.” I looked up and right there, a quarter of a mile up the road was a large tree with a picnic table under it, exactly as the sign had pictured it. Alas, I was disappointed to discover that all the little blue signs were exactly the same regardless of the actual number of trees and tables or their relationship to each other.
Randolph, NE, the “Honey Capital,” is building a combination motel and laundromat; which sounds like an excellent idea to me. Depending on how they plan to rent the rooms, I could imagine people finding lots more interesting ways to spend their time than reading old copies of People Magazine while their clothes are merrily sloshing around in the washing machines or tumbling in the dryers.
I am happy to be seeing so many trees again. Nothing yet like the forests of the Northeast, but a nice, regular mix of broadleaf and evergreen trees along the road and in small woods off in the distance. I remember that one of the first things I noticed heading west was the gradual disappearance of trees as I crossed the Midwest toward the mountains.
I am getting some really excellent miles per gallon since I crossed the continental divide. The only thing I can think to account for this is that I have been moving steadily along flat straight stretches of good road and generally moving from higher to lower elevations. I have noticed the same effect just driving to the Rhode Island beaches from northeastern Connecticut. I get better mileage as I head toward the coast than I do returning inland.
I have travelled a greater distance than usual today, and am staying the night in the little town of Moville, Iowa, which has one small motel that happened to have a room in spite of the fact that there was a classic car cruise in town today and they just opened the County
Fair. I make sure that I have a full tank of gas every morning, and I was glad to know that I was prepared when I crossed the Iowa state line and found no accommodations for the first 15 miles into the state. This is another conflict between physics and perception. According to physics, 100 miles is a fixed distance; according to perception, it depends on the size and color of the lines on the roadmap and how many little black dots of what size are arrayed along the lines: the big red lines and the even bigger double orange lines, especially when they are spotted with lots of black dots, are shorter than the miles printed alongside them.

Eastward Across the Prairie

In Travels With Myself on July 31, 2013 at 1:15 am

There is one other large road sign in Wyoming that I forgot to mention in my last post. About a mile before the start of any road work on the highway, one can see a very large sign that says: Road Work/PAY ATTENTION/or Pay the Price. Aside from the threatening tone of the sign, which seems unduly preemptive in its focus on dire consequences, the extremely low volume of traffic along these roads, plus the way in which said traffic is channeled into very narrow, slow corridors well before and well after any place actual work is being done makes me wonder how a problem developed of such magnitude that these enormous signs were seen as necessary.
In any case, I have seen the last of them. This morning I got off of I 25 and followed US 20 into Nebraska. US 20 is, with only the exception of a few somewhat bumpy stretches, a long, flat, fairly straight road, two-lanes and generous shoulders that takes its own sweet time showing me the scenery of Eastern Wyoming and Northern Nebraska. There are remarkably few towns and few services along the road, especially in Wyoming. Towns such as Shawnee and Keeline barely exist at all, having only a few closed and boarded buildings along the highway and town line markers that mention only the elevation and no population. On the other hand, the town of Lost Springs posts only a population of 4, but has a small town center and a big welcome sign positioned so as to be visible both to the road and to the railroad that runs parallel to it for most of the way. (It was fascinating to see a train nearly three-quarters of a mile long running east with hoppers filled with coal; then see another just as long running west with the hoppers empty.)
Once in Nebraska, the road becomes wider and generally better maintained. The towns are still few and far between, but each has at least a small town center and some businesses. I am staying the night in a self-service RV park that has only one bathroom and no shower, but full hook-ups. A short walk away there is a gas station, two convenience stores/groceries, ad a Main Street on which the only apparently open businesses in the afternoon are the insurance office, the Farm Bureau and the Farmer’s Co-op, with its truck scale and grain elevator. The one bar opens in the evening, and the one restaurant opens only for breakfast, stays open until noon then closes until dinner time. The specialty of the house is an all-you-can-eat buffet. There is also small town green and a park with a very pretty gazebo; and next to the RV park is a well maintained, and completely empty, picnic area ad the town swimming pool which was very busy on this bright 80 degree day.
The one big surprise along the road today, was just before I came into Crawford, where Fort Robinson State Park maintains a very nice historical facility with its own campground, a riding stable and several buildings dating back to the 1800’s. As I have said, US 20 is a flat, wide road, but I was aware that the elevation dropped about 2000 feet from Casper, Wyoming, to Chadron, Nebraska. This didn’t concern me much because that’s a distance of about 200 miles, and I could sense that, even with the occasional hills to climb, I was generally losing altitude. So imagine my surprise when I came around a bend at the base of a hill ad discovered that the road was beginning a long, winding, steep descent that went on for what seemed like several miles. At the end of it the road flattened out and straightened again into a broad valley encircled by the cliffs and mesas and buttes that stretched across the horizon in every direction.
This is wild and beautiful and surprising country. It is also a country to get lost in. I can only imagine what must have gone through the minds of the first Eastern settlers trying to cross these plains to get to California, or the cowboys who drove their herds along the Texas trail on the way to Wyoming and Montana. It must have seemed as though the journey would never end, the mountains never reached or crossed. Even knowing that I had plenty of gas and plenty of time to travel, there were times when I marveled at the isolation in this great sea of the prairie. There were times when mine was the only vehicle on the road for ten miles or more with no stopping places, no towns, ad no indication that there was anything up ahead except the names on my road map and the small dots along the red line of the road.
Two days ago, I crossed from Pacific time to mountain time. Tomorrow I will cross into the central zone, which cuts Nebraska in half. I like the feeling of getting back into my proper time. When I see that it is now an hour later than it just was, I feel as though I can go a little later before stopping for the night, and that makes me feel as though I am making more progress. I can say to myself that the clock may say 4:00 o’clock, but it’s really only 3:00; then immediately forget that and tell myself that I have done well, today, because I have kept going an hour longer than yesterday.

Just Down the Road in Wyoming

In Travels With Myself on July 30, 2013 at 1:17 am

I 90 runs down from Montana to Buffalo, Wyoming, then I 25 picks up the north-south traffic and continues on down to Colorado. I followed them down only as far as Casper, however, ad will be glad tomorrow to get a last off of the interstates for a while. Not that they aren’t good roads. On the contrary, I would highly recommend that anyone thinking to make a trip west consider taking I 90 across the northern plains and through the mountains of Montana and Idaho; and I 25 is really the only reasonable way to travel from Billings to Cheyenne, the alternatives either being less-well-tended roads that either simply run alongside the highway or meander through the hills without adding anything of real importance to the trip. You can break up some of the highway monotony by taking every advantage of a “business loop” through one of the small cities along the way, or by getting off at a way-station of sorts and visiting some small place, such as the little Mennonite-run general store and restaurant (dinner only by reservation) that I discovered in Gold City, Montana. The store had a fine deli counter and shelves of bulk goods, including some of the best cold chocolate milk mix and hot chocolate cappuccino mix I’ve ever had.
And there is a certain degree of monotony. By the time I got into Wyoming, I was beginning to find myself simply rolling along with the highway as it bobbed and ducked and wove its way through the hills of Eastern Wyoming, only to be occasionally startled back into awareness by coming around a corner or over a hill to see an enormous fortress of a butte jutting up from the plains to one side or the other of the road, only to disappear behind me just as quickly. Fortunately, the winds are not so intense in Wyoming and I could set my own pace. There is very little traffic to speak of, only a few cars and the ubiquitous double trailers that go by and toss ne momentarily in their wakes. The usual speed limit (which is actually rarely posted) is 75 mph; but nobody minds that I take a much more leisurely pace in the right-hand lane.
Wyoming has remarkably little signage on its highways, in fact. They do, however, have occasional railway-crossing-style gates that allow them to completely shut down long sections of the highway, presumably to cope with severe weather conditions, such as drifting snow. Alongside these are warnings that going around them can lead to fines and other penalties. A side note, though, to the people who put up city welcome signs along the highway. It is not possible for people traveling 75 miles-per-hour (or even those like myself driving a great deal more slowly) to read long lists in too-small lettering describing all the many wonders awaiting them at the next exit. Better to put up several signs like Burma Shave, so that passers-by will become intrigued as they learn each new bit of local information. Yes, I’m talking to you, Kaycee, Wyoming; especially since it is so easy to keep going on down to Casper. And you really do have a nice little Main Street that warrants a visit.
I am, however, done with highways for a while. Tomorrow I will get off onto US 20 to take me through Nebraska and all the way to Sturbridge, Massachusetts. That’s right. I am now just down the road from Sturbridge; only a little matter of seven states, a couple of time zones, and a major river between me and home.


In Travels With Myself on July 29, 2013 at 1:18 am

Some things I have noted about Montana. Open range means that many of the exit ramps have cattle gates at the ends of them. These are open grates that cattle won’t cross, and therefore won’t wander up the ramps onto the highway. Montana doesn’t seem to care about things like littering or drunk driving or the usual road hazards. There are very few road signs at all, except where they want trucks to put on or take of chains in the winter, and announcements of “Heritage Sights” and historic points. I stopped at one of these historic points today. Two brown signs pointed toward the other side of the road, so I pulled off into a rough stone parking area. There was absolutely no further indication of what the historic point was or why it was historic.
They have a lot of festivals up here in the summer. I was here in time to catch some of Evel Knieval days in Butte, but passed on it. I was too late for the Testicle Festival at Rock Creek, but could plan ahead if I wished as the dates are set through the end of the decade at least. The sign announcing one’s imminent arrival in Rock Creek is a picture of a longhorn bull looking backward, presumably at his own testicles, which hang nearly halfway to the ground.
In most states outside of the Northeast, I have observed that it is possible to buy beer, wine and liquor at gas station convenience stores. In Nevada, and on the reservation lands of California and Oregon, it is possible to play the slots. In Montana, I stopped at a highway stop where it was also possible to buy an extensive array of firearms, also.
They call Montana the “Big Sky” state; and I have to say that I cannot disagree. I crossed into Montana from Idaho over Lookout Pass, then followed I 90 down through the Coeur D’Alene and Bitterroot ranges to Missoula; but even as I made my way through the smaller passes and between mountains with names like Eagle, and Cherry, and Little Joe, the sky always fought for my attention. It cast a blue mantle around the peaks spread like an inverted ocean above the valleys. It had the effect of a painting in which the viewer has a hard time distinguishing the foreground and the negative space around it. Sometimes the mountains stood out against the sky; other times they shrunk back as the sky came forward.
It is interesting to note that some of the locals here don’t consider these first ranges to be the Rocky Mountains. I 90 doesn’t cross the continental divide until Homestake Pass, about ten miles past Butte, Which is already 230 miles from the Idaho line, and I was told by a fellow at rest stop between Missoula and Butte, that that would be where I would go through the Rockies.
Some of this may have to do with another observation of mine. In the Colorado Rockies, the mountains always seemed close, even while they were still a hundred or more miles away. In Montana, they always seem far away, even when they are just on the other side of several acres of prairie, until I find myself actually driving along a cliff face or through a low pass. The scenery is dominated by that enormous sky and the wide, rolling plains of these high valleys. I forget that I am driving constantly at elevations above three or four thousand feet. To either side of the road, the open range lays out, now gold, flecked with sage, now green and growing; here a small herd of cattle, there some horses; and always the possibility of deer or elk. I had to come almost to a full stop coming down from Lookout Pass so that a doe and a young buck could make up their minds not to cross the road, but to retreat back into the hills.
I got on the road out of Butte early this morning because I had hoped to make it to Billings by midday. The forecast had been for the possibility for strong storms with gusty winds in the afternoon. At one point, I was actually driving along parallel to a heavy shower that I could see just off to the north, literally no more than a few hundred yards. I kept thinking that I would have to find somewhere to pull off the road if it came across in front of me. But it stalled, then seemed to move away. In the end, the storms never materialized, but the winds did. As the day stretched into early afternoon, a strong, steady wind came across the prairie and cut across the unprotected highway, with occasionally heavier gusts that rocked Taliesin and caused me to grip the wheel until I was white-knuckled with the effort.
In spite of that, I made good time over all today. I 90 is a very good road. The interstates out here aren’t the eight-lane superhighways of the east. They are generally four lanes with a divider and generous breakdown lanes. The speed limits tend to be high, around 75 mph or so, with truck speeds often set 10 mph lower. I stick to the lower speeds generally, but when the wind is blowing I slow down even more. I also slow down coming down from the high passes. But most of the trip across Montana has been easy going, and I am now looking at Wyoming for tomorrow as I make my way south toward US 20 and my final turn to the east.

Washington State and into Idaho

In Travels With Myself on July 27, 2013 at 2:23 am

As soon as I have turned east on Route 14 out of Vancouver, Washington, I am struck by the one inescapable feature of the skyline. Mount Hood, that nearly iconic façade of rock and ice stands like a sentinel above the lesser hills beneath it. I could easily imagine the mountain following me all the way through the Columbia Gorge. But by the time I had gotten past Camas and Washougal, no more than twenty or twenty-five miles along the way, Mt. Hood had disappeared from sight as the road began its track through the gorge.
I had sort of thought that a highway through a gorge along a major river, would be along the bottom of the gorge. Route 14, however, spent as much time clinging to the wall of the gorge as it did running along the river at the bottom. The views of the river and the cliffs defining the Oregon side of the Gorge were spectacular. From Camas to White Salmon, the Columbia is a wide, fast-moving river, kicking up whitecaps on its way to the Pacific. The area is a Mecca for sailboarders and kayakers who fill up the riverside parks with their trucks and RVs.
Between the highway and the river on the Washington side of the gorge is the railroad. I have not mentioned the railroads before, but they are a constant feature west of the Mississippi. Three and four engines pull long, long strings of freight: hopper cars of grain and feed in the heartland, tanker cars in the Rockies, and everywhere the container cars of who knows what. What surprised me was that the railroad runs almost exclusively along the floor of the gorge, climbing only occasionally up the walls. I wondered why the highway couldn’t do the same. The view from the cliff-side was spectacular, but so much of y attention had to be on the road, and there were so few viewpoints and turnouts, that I could only glance to my right once in a while to get the flavor of the view.
For the child in me, there is something irresistibly exciting about tunnels, however sort or long, that cut through a section of mountain. I love the feeling of momentarily being inside the mountain itself, then rushing out into the sun again. I find it magical. Route 14 between Carson and White Salmon offers six tunnels. In one of them I passed through the on the road as a train passed through a second tunnel to my right. I actually shouted: “Wow! That is so cool!” Another one was a little longer than the others, with a kind of natural window halfway through it throwing a little light across the tunnel floor.
As I emerged from the gorge, the landscape changed dramatically. The steep dark walls of the gorge turned into low rolling hills covered in pastureland, spotted low green shrubbery and sage; endless prairie that a few cattle shared with wind turbines and high tension wires; a river of energy as wide and powerful as the Columbia rushing seaward below it. This land stayed with me as I turned northward on I 82 toward Spokane, until it morphed into actual amber fields of grain, occasionally broken up by vineyards and pastureland.
Above Kennewick, where Route 395 takes over on the way to Spokane, the land changes again. 395 is a wide, straight, smooth highway that begins a climb up toward the mountains that is so gradual that it was hard to tell that I was gaining altitude at all. I knew, however, that Spokane sits at about 2000 feet above sea-level and I was well below 1000 feet when I left the river. But I was surprise as I left Pasco, how quickly the evergreens began to appear, first a few little groves then whole hilltops. Not long afterwards, I began to see the faint outline of the distant mountains peeking above the horizon. In Colorado, the Rockies had jumped out of the morning haze, majestic and beautiful. Here they crept slowly into view, just a soft swelling of the horizon, until I turned east again past Spokane and headed into Idaho.
Now the mountains stood in front of me. But they seemed less stark than the southern ranges, more welcoming, somehow. Some of this I attribute to I 90. As the interstate starts into the first passes and short valleys of the Idaho panhandle and the Coeur D’Alene National Forest, it remains wide and fast, sliding gently between the peaks. Some is because these peaks aren’t as imposing as the Colorado peaks, and the passes are not as high. Still, there are lakes and valleys and slopes that roll into view around each bend, and I look forward to the passage east.

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