After work I spent the evening packing and weighing all my stuff. I wanted to avoid a tire-destruction incident similar to the last cross country trip and also wanted to avoid overtaxing an engine that already struggles on steep inclines even without a load. According to Ford, the payload capacity of the Focus is 827 lbs. I weigh about 170 lbs. Trammell and Taylor combined weigh about 125 lbs. All the stuff that I ended up Tetrising into the back of my car weighed in at 500 lbs and change, so in theory at least I was following the car rules. I was in bed by 11:30 pm.
My alarm was set for 4 am, but I woke up at 3:48 anyway, fed the dogs, showered, ate a couple bowls of cereal, double-checked the weather, double-checked the straps on my bike rack, double-checked the room for important left-behind items. Eased my low-riding car onto the road at 4:45 am under a misting rain. Taylor rode shotgun while Trammell perched behind my head on a blanket poofed up on top of my surf bag. They seemed to know the road trip drill and stayed awake just long enough to watch me fill up the car with gas, then curled up to sleep. The car felt sluggish and I wasn’t ready to push it through the steep mountain passes just outside of Yakima, so for the first hour I followed a non-highway canyon road north, winding along next to the Yakima River, planning to connect with a flatter section of I-90 on the far side.
Thirty minutes into the drive I came around a bend and was met with oncoming headlights in the opposite lane and a boulder in the road in my lane. I flinched as I tried to straddle the rock with my car and swore (startling the dogs awake) as it bounced hard off the bottom of my car three times. Not a great beginning. Hope everything is intact because I’m not stopping on a completely dark road in the middle of nowhere.
We connected with I-90 near Ellensburg, where I should’ve stopped at a gas station to peak at the car’s underbody but didn’t, and nudged the speedometer up to around 65 for the first time. The incline on the east side of the Columbia River provided the first real uphill test and my stress level dropped a little as the Focus handled the climb without issue. For the next hour or so I poked through thick fog (which would turn out to be the worst weather I ran into during the drive), sometimes with visibility only a couple dozen feet in front of me and wished for the sunrise. As daylight murkily emerged through the fog, Taylor sat up and joined me in watching the road and passing farmland. Trammell slept until we stopped a rest area to stretch our legs and where I finally poked my head under the car and was happy not to see any fluid gushing onto the parking lot.
Even on the east side of Washington, which doesn’t have dramatic mountain peaks as a backdrop, I was struck by what a gorgeous state it is. Expansive rolling vistas everywhere.
In Idaho, I knew Fourth of July Pass and its 6% grade would be the first true indication of my odds of making it through the mountains without disaster. After a long uphill climb where my car struggled by not abnormally, I was pleasantly surprised to see a sign marking the top of this pass. Hey maybe we’ll be okay, just a few Montana passes to go and then downhill into flat land.
In Montana, my car threw a hissy fit. It happened not long after I filled up with 85 octane gas at a station near the ID/MT border. I blame the 85 octane. At first, my car started sputtering and surging toward the end of long inclines (I just barely eased over two mountain passes), but later, just about any stretch of road that pointed up sent my car a-spasming. With a good head of steam and some determined coaxing we made it through though. I pumped in the rich people gas at my next couple of fill-ups.
We merged onto I-94, which would take us just about the rest of the way back to Michigan.
I stopped at a rest area west of Glendive, MT and ran the dogs for about an hour, hoping a good cooling off would do the car some good as well.
Montana was easily the most spectacular stretch of road on the drive, particularly as the views opened up east of the Rockies. It also had the most blood stains on the road and the zippiest semi drivers. The highway was eerily dark and empty after the sun set.
I had been chugging caffeine since Glendive, something I rarely do, determined to make North Dakota on day one. I had been hoping for Bismarck, but with eyelids drooping at about 11:30 pm PST, I settled for Dickinson, ND. I drove around for a little bit, gassed up, and talked to Mary on the phone, before pulling into a Holiday Inn parking lot. I stretched out the best I could across the front seats with Taylor squeezed in nearby and fell asleep around 1 am PST
Day 1 stats:
18.5 hrs on the road including rest areas, etc.
Two and a half hours of fitful sleep later I woke up cold and with the parking brake poking into my side. Back on the road we go. A couple hours of sleep is usually a decent enough recharge to keep me lucid and I felt fine as I pulled back onto the empty highway. Caffeine, talk radio, and repeated deer sightings along the road also helped to keep the focus. Up until this point the roadway had been buttery smooth, but North Dakota finally brought the first few stretches potholes and rough concrete.
I stopped for breakfast at a McDonalds in Fargo. There are few things in the world better than breakfast on a road trip. A random mom-pop diner with some friends is better, but a Sausage McMuffin, warm and aromatic in your lap while you drive, is somehow great too.
Minnesota brought dawn, a steady rain, a few more bumps in the road, and the first hint of traffic congestion. It also disappeared more quickly than I expected and suddenly I was 100 miles into Wisconsin.
Near the Illinois border I was really starting to drag, but a meal and a stretch break seemed to iron things out.
And then Chicago and an hour-long first gear (second gear tops) traffic jam that I was less than pleased about. The dogs seemed to enjoy finally getting to hang their heads out of the window though as we crept along.
Blink, Indiana, blink, so long Indiana.
And on into Michigan for the first time since May 2006. On the home stretch. Immediately over the state line the roads are dramatically terrible, almost intolerably bad coming from a state the day before with zero potholes. How is this allowed? No live construction though, which was nice. A couple hours later, past midnight local time, I rolled into GR via 131 and then 196. Everything looked just about the same
Day 2 stats:
It sure was great having you nearby for a few days, popping in now and then, helping out in a number of ways. You do amaze me, though, how you can push through such a daunting trip by yourself, with two big dogs, a carful of stuff, nursing a balky car through the mountains , a couple hours of sleep in the car, and all in two days!
Looks like I’ll be spending a few days in the gloom of Michigan myself in the middle of this most gloomy of months in that part of the world – hard to believe as I look out my open door at brilliant sunshine and puffy clouds in a deep blue sky. So now that you are without a car will you be taking your bicycle for your mountain hikes?
Only a month or so of potentially decent hiking weather and clear roads, so probably no more mountains in my near future. I might be buying an old Corolla from a guy at work though, so we’ll see.