Stories from the road trip: Seattle To Denver 2004

I needed a break from working on my first book. I decided to drive from Seattle, WA to Denver, CO to visit Chris McGee one of my best friends from Carnegie Mellon University.

Here’s the travelogue I wrote on the way:

  • I got really good at getting gas. I mean really really good. I can do regular, super, or even supreme unleaded. I also know my way around any gas minimart, blindfolded. So if this book writing thing doesn’t work out, I think I have a new career lined up (Funny story: When I pulled in to a gas station in Oregon, a guy walks up to my window and taps on it. I roll it down and say, “what do you want?” and he looks at me like I’m an idiot. “what kind of gas do you want?” he asks ,and I look around, unsure as to what the hell he’s doing, and respond “uh, I can get it myself.” to which he smiles, still somehow annoyed at me, saying “but I’m supposed to get it for you” and points to the gas pump, as if I didn’t know where it was. Finally I realize he’s trying to tell me it’s a full service station. I laugh and explain to him my confusion, to which he says “Welcome to Oregon!” which makes me want to stab him repeatedly with my credit card. Anyway, my point here is that if I move to Oregon (or NJ, another fine state known for it’s full service stations) I can obtain employment gassing up cars for idiot out of state drivers. So there.)
  • Somewhere in Wyoming I saw a red van driving way too fast with luggage strapped on the roof, and watched as said luggage flew off, exploding open on the road, and clothes went flying. I couldn’t stop laughing. Underwear, shirts and pants were everywhere. They pulled off to the shoulder and did the road trippers walk of shame up the highway, trying to grab unmentionables before they flew away.
  • Driving 600 or so miles a day, I had a sense of weather. I could always see storm fronts an hour before I’d hit them, and then drive through and pass out the other side. Had a real sense for how weather moved, and since the sky is so big (no buildings) most of the time, I found myself predicting weather. I lucked out for the most part – only a had a few short stretches of rain. I realized that driving on the road, as opposed to flying, keeps you close enough to things that you have a sense of speed. In a plane, the distances and speeds are surreal – you can’t connect with them (except for takeoff and landing). But in a car passing through weather patterns, i felt more aware and connected to the systems of landscapes that I would otherwise… you know… valley, forest, mountain, forest valley, hill, mountain… and how the weather systems work near and around mountains.. . (Though, unlike a walk in the woods, I did miss out on all of the details and smaller systems…)
  • I had a cell phone for the trip – boy, do cell phones suck. Yeah, I know I was in the middle of nowhere half the time, but there is nothing more annoying than a phone that half-works. What good is a picture/mp3/voicerecorder/game player/screwdriver/nosepicker/phone, if I can’t hear what the other guy is saying? How about a Morse-code phone? At least then I could get some information through – Hearing only one out of every three syllables really isn’t much fun. I had one phone conversation with Jill that lasted about 20 seconds, half of which was spent laughing at how incomprehensible we each were.
  • Somewhere in Idaho or Wyoming I’m cruising along at near 80mph, when a sleek silver sporty sedan (say that 5 times fast) pulls up next to me, honking it’s horn again and again. Alarmed, I look over – there, pushed up against the passenger side window, is a centerfold of some really nasty pornography (which was mostly impossible to make out, other than the fact there were naked bodies of some kind, doing lots of things with other naked bodies). The car is filled with a bunch of college age kids laughing their heads off (not at me directly, but more so at the absurdity of what they were doing… I think), and I couldn’t help but start laughing myself. It was certainly the funniest, and most creative thing I’d seen anyone do all day. Then to ice it off, I watched as they passed me, drove up to the next car, and the next car, repeating the same activity. Gotta hand it to them – I bet they gave lots of people a story to tell when they got home… There’s something to be said for the people who give us stories to tell.
  • Books on tape rock. I really never understood this whole idea at all, but I finally got it on this trip. I got a BBC Radio version of Lord of the rings, and it rocked. It was soooo much fun to listen to (and you can skip past the songs reaaaally easily). It was 13 CDs long, but I finished it 400 miles before I got in to Denver. I also had Hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy (Douglas Adams), a favorite childhood book – that was ok, but it was just him reading it. I think the radio versions of stuff are way better – the sound effects, the acting, the different voices. I tried to get the hobbit radio show as well, but it didn’t come till later. (Also: I don’t think Hitchhiker’s guide has aged well. I found it more like a book for teenagers – it seems great for that age when you first discover Monty Python, same kind of mentality, but I didn’t find that the humor made me more than smile. Maybe I’m old, or I know the story too well. I also found the story more cynical that I remember – it’s kind of a downer.. .at least through the restaurant at the end of the universe).
  • The best western hotel 50 miles outside of Boise has a 24 hour indoor pool. Getting in at 10:30pm at night after driving all day, it was a road trippers dream hotel. I swam for an hour or so, and had a great night sleep. (They also had chocolate chip cookies at the front desk – THEY WERE FREE! FREEE COOKIES! WOOHOO! Life’s little thrills – you appreciate the little things more when you’re traveling all day I guess. Another reason travel is so healthy for the souly soul).
  • The Great salt lake stinks. Seriously, it smells. They should call it the big stink lake (though I can see how tourism might decline with a name like that) The thing looks like old soapy water. Like what you see in the bathtub after washing your dog. There’s no boats or anything on it, and no marinas or docks – so even though it’s only a few miles from the city, and it’s huge, it’s sort of like a post war bomb zone: nothing around. It’s huge and dramatic though (look at my little map: see how insanely large the lake is?), going on forever past the horizon – small mountains near it and everything, but there’s something ominous and foreboding about it. Like a haunted, but pretty, place. Salt Lake city itself is cute – nestled inside a small stretch of mountains. I didn’t spend the night there though, so I can’t say much else about it.
  • I realized a bit late how much cool shit there is in Utah. All kinds of world class national parks and stuff – Chris gave me the low down while on the road, but I chose not to take the extra day required to get down south and back. I do think I’ll head back to Utah though (never thought I’d say that).
  • Wyoming is windy. Really windy. The valleys are windy and the mountains are windy too. I started to think of the state as Windoming. Or perhaps Winding. Maybe Wyoming is the Indian word for stinky wind? Here’s a wind related story to drive this windy point home: When I took a scenic side route into an eastern mountain range off the main highway, and hit construction (one lane road, alternating directions..) , I spent 10 minutes talking to the construction guy, the dude holding the stop sign, about how windy it was. him: “Hey, pretty windy huh?”, Me: “Uh.. yeah, I guess so.”, “Yeah, it gets like this sometimes.. .know what i mean?”, me “uh, yeah, I guess so..”, etc. for about 10 minutes. Nice guy, but he wouldn’t shut the fuck up no matter how loud I made my radio. I guess it gets lonely standing by the side of the road all day, in the wind. And while we talked, one of his coworkers behind him struggled to light a cigarette: can you guess why? the wind.
  • Chris showed me a great time around Denver – we drove through Vale and Aspen, went white water rafting near Buena vista, played with his and Heather’s grand pack of dogs, and had drinks at a funky western bar known as the Skylar. Driving west on I70 with him was one of the cooler drives of the trip – lots of good conversation and the sights weren’t bad either – the highway weaves inside a narrow canyon, with one half elevated and tunneling through mountain sides. It’s a gorgeous drive – and in retrospect, I’d rather have done this stretch again, instead of heading north through Wyoming to get home (although this wasn’t a choice if I wanted to get to little big horn).
  • I was stuck between two towns as the NBA finals were on. So I had to listen to the 4th quarter in Spanish, since there was only one station I could get that was broadcasting the game ( I can’t even to begin to explain this. It was like 1560 on the AM.. only station I could get that wasn’t playing music). I couldn’t stop laughing, because i don’t remember much spanish – the play by play went something like this “blah blah blah ocho blah blah blah Bryant blah blah blah Shaquelle blah dos blah uno…”.
  • One morning, while pulling out of a gas station somewhere in Wyoming – a guy had a sign near the gas station that said “need money for gas to get home”. He was an old guy with a grey ponytail, but looked honest to me for whatever reason. So I gave him some cash, leaning through my passenger window. He looked me straight in the eye, his clear blue eyes staring out from his tan, but sunburnt face, shook my hand through the window, and said “god bless you son.” I thought he was going to cry. I guess when those situations are real, and you’re stuck somewhere and need the help of strangers, it’s pretty fucking hard to stand on a corner and beg for help… regardless of how you got there. I won’t forget that face for a long time.
  • I realized (again) how big the U.S. is. Lots of empty, dry, barren (useless) space. There isn’t enough water for all this land, is really the problem. I kept thinking about all of the dams that shift water from here and there, and how we’ve messed up the natural water table, using more water than gets replenished on it’s own. I think the west (California/Nevada/Arizona) is going to have some real water problems in the next 30 years – we’re still using 50 year old frontier philosophies that somehow there is always more natural resource for us to use… but there ain’t. Driving through helped me to think about that – there just isn’t that much water. Parts of Idaho and Wyoming were so empty I wondered how cheap it would be to buy a 100 acre ranch and never see anyone again. (Are neighbors really neighbors if they are 10 miles away?).. but then I wondered how much I’d have to pay to get water…
  • The curse of Walmart – a few highway towns have been devastated by Walmart. Instead of a bunch of stores and shops by the side of the road, there is now only a big ass Walmart, a gas station, and a bunch of chain fast food places. You can still see the old independent stores sitting in vacant strip malls not far from where the wall mart is – all soaped up windows and for rent signs. In a few cases, I could see the Walmart from miles away – looked like a factory over the hill. There’s something creepy about miles of empty landscape, and then a big grey Walmart sitting in the middle of nowhere.
  • Custer’s last stand was interesting . I read up on the history in the visitors center before I walked up the hill where all the action happened. It’s a good story, since it reveals a lot about how messed up American policy was regarding the Indians – Custer was an arrogant idiot, but his mission was directed by the government as an escalation against the Lakota. They didn’t know that the Lakota were in such large numbers, and were pissed off about the last dozen treaties that the US had broken. I learned that the battle, the despite the comical outcome, was used as propaganda for the US to escalate engagement against the Indians.. that somehow despite the fact that Custer attacked the Indians, and that they were defending themselves, that it was a savage massacre. In reality the battle lasted less than an afternoon, the numbers being so lopsided, and Custer so unprepared. The site is easy to understand – a hill in the center of a long set of sloping smaller valleys and hills.. it’s easy to imagine how Custer and his 200 men ended up there, and how the Indians managed to circle and prevent escape. Anyway – an interesting story, and a powerful place – very easy to visualize what took place there. (Also, it’s really easy to get to – a perfect American car road stop. It’s about 10 minutes from the highway, and it’s a 5 minute walk from the parking lot to the little big horn).
  • I stopped 3 times, in the middle of nowhere, when there were no cars around and when I was on a beautiful hill or on the side of a mountain with an awesome view in the middle of a beautiful day. I got out of the car, stood up on the biggest rock I could find, and screamed at the top of my lungs; “WooHOO!”. Never felt better. I highly recommend this.
  • On the last stretch of I90 near Seattle, both leaving and coming home, I saw Striker convoys on the highway, presumably on training missions before heading out to Iraq (There’s a major fort in Washington, I forget the name). I took some pictures of them (kids: don’t drive and take photos at the same time, you end up doing badly at both). The soldiers were cool: they waved, smiled, and even saluted me as I drove past. They were crammed in on the tops and sides of the Striker (basically a big armored van, with super-sized wheels, and tons of anti-missile armor on the outside), and some were manning machine guns.
  • The Bozeman inn, in Bozeman, MT, was a great cheap place to stay. The best western told me their last room was $119, and that I’d have no luck elsewhere… I went across the way to the Bozeman, and got a sweet room for $60 (I think the reception lady liked me – she only charged me a single price, for their double rooms which usually cost $85). Had great food in the restaurant while watching the finals, and got a swim in their heated outdoor pool at 7am before heading for home. I think they allow pets too.
  • The book is going well. Writing this much all at once is very hard – Frankly, there’s just no one to blame for things :) So I can’t say it’s been easy or fun all of the time – However, I am enjoying it,and it feels right, and I’m going to write another one when this one is finished – I’m making my dates, and I’m about halfway through the first draft. Words of encouragement appreciated, or just yell “WooHOO” at me next time we talk.

2 Responses to “Stories from the road trip: Seattle To Denver 2004”

  1. Jay Hogan

    Im a 16yr old kid from england, gettin ready to learn how to drive and get on my own road trips around this tiny country.
    But reading that makes me want to go to America so much.
    It sounds like an amazing experience.
    thanks for sharin your story :)

  2. Audry Alvarado

    Nice job kept me reading all the way to the end. I was thinking about sending my daughter on a road trip from Seattle to Denver thanks for the info it was interesting.


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