October Odyssey: The Mountain West

So I have this map. It’s old, it’s tattered, and it has all of the routes that I’ve traveled in the U.S. over the last 58 years highlighted in orange. (Or at least all that I can recall.)

Yes, I’m a geek. But you already knew that.

One of my bucket list goals was to have been in all 50 states, and I attained that goal at the ripe old age of 39. Interestingly, the last state to hit on my list was West Virginia.

A corollary to that goal has been to drive most of our major Interstate highways from end-to-end, and my trips to fill in the gaps on the map with orange highlighter have affectionately become known as my “coloring trips.”

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Travel map before trip

I’ve driven most of the east-west Interstates from one end to the other: 10, 40, 70, 80, 90, and 94. And many of the north-south Interstates: 5, 55, 65, 75, and most of 35 and about 90% of 95. But there are gaps in I-15,  I-25, and I-84 that have been aching to be colored for years now. This is the tale of my crazy-ass odyssey to color in the remainder of those three highways.

But it’s also a tale of renewal and reflection.

You see, us introverts need to escape on our own for extended periods of time. It’s how we renew our superpowers. What better way to escape the crowds than by putting yourself in a car for a week and touring the great American West? Solo. Just you, the vast landscape, and some appropriate road trip music courtesy of Sirius XM satellite radio.

I also needed to trade some screen time (the digital variety) for some windscreen (as the British would say) time. There is a real world out there, and it’s too easy to forget that in this digital day and age.

Lastly, it was a time to reflect on all that’s happened in the last year. As cliché as it is, there were simply too many reminders that tomorrow is never promised to us, so we need to live in the moment while we have the ability to do so. YOLO, dude!

Lest that last paragraph drag you too far down, let me assure you this was a fun, exciting odyssey for me. My derrière, on the other hand, by Day 8—not so much. You can check out a spiffy map of my trip and statistics at the end of this post.


I was tempted throughout this trip to live-blog or live-post my experiences as they were happening, but I didn’t for two reasons. The first was simple. One of the purposes of the trip was to disconnect digitally. It felt good. But the second was practical. Nothing screams, “You are cordially invited to take every possession in my house for the next ten days while I’m away,” to potential ne’er-do-wells if I post everything on Facebook or other social media. Just call me silly.

However, had I been live-blogging, I did think of a creative way to get you to tag along for the journey, so I was going to offer up clues as to what I was up to and to see if you could figure out the details. You’ll see them as they come along.

Day 1: San Diego to Cedar City, Utah

Three in one. Just for fun.

You know, being the geek that I am, I couldn’t just hop on the Southbay Expressway and head to I-15 via the shortcuts. No. I had to drive over to the very beginning of I-15 and start my journey there. (Technically, it’s CA 15 at that point, but I wasn’t going to fuss over that.)

The drive out of San Diego through Escondido and Temecula went just fine. I resisted temptation to divert onto I-215 for a Portillo’s Italian beef sandwich fix in Moreno Valley, and stuck to my guns by remaining on the 15.

Going over the Cajon Pass, I could see the results of the Blue Cut fire in August. The red fire retardant chemical was still visible on the hillside, with the burned out area on one side of the retardant, and unburned brush on the other. I guess the stuff really does work.

Once over the Cajon Pass, all the yahoos heading to Las Vegas were gambling with their lives—and the lives of the rest of us motorists on the highway—as they weaved in and out of traffic trying to get to the casinos faster than the other guy weaving in and out of traffic. Nuts. Thankfully, a few were nabbed by the highway patrol along the way and racked up some early financial losses.

Traffic through Las Vegas was slow, but once I got past it, it was a breeze heading into Utah. One thing that struck me was the cloud formations. How pathetic was it that I thought, “Wow. Those look just like the clouds on the opening credits of the Simpsons!”?? Comparing the real clouds to animated clouds. Yep. I definitely needed to disconnect.

I captured a Utah sunset near Toquerville before calling it a night in Cedar City.

Day 2: Cedar City to Pocatello, Idaho

Stay within the borders, but just barely.

I was sorely tempted to divert into Bryce Canyon National Park, but that would have consumed at least half a day, and I just didn’t have the time to devote to it given the plan I had in my head. It just had to wait for a time when I can do it justice.

Two things surprised me about Utah. First, I didn’t expect to have an 80 m.p.h. speed limit. You can put some good ground behind you traveling a mile every 45 seconds. Second, there was a lot of what I call visual pollution. Billboards every-freakin’-where, distracting from the surrounding scenery.

Shortly after my parents were married, they talked of moving to Provo, Utah. Of course, I drove right past it, with the big “Y” on the hillside for Brigham Young University. After lunch in Lehi, between Provo and Salt Lake City, I had a choice to make. Do I fill in the little chunk of I-84 missing between Ogden, UT and Burley, ID or not?

If I did, that would mean driving the 100 miles, turning around, and heading 100 miles back the same way to get back on I-15 where I left off (I needed to fill the gap on I-15 from Ogden to the Canadian border). If I was geeky enough to drive to the very beginning of I-15 to start this journey, you already know the answer to what I did.

Eighty-four ain’t a bore.

Taking that extra time was absolutely the right decision. Wide-open grassland and rolling hills for as far as you could see, with a changing sky as a thunderstorm approached.

One down, two to go.

On my return to I-15 near Ogden, the skies opened up and the lightning in the distance put on a brilliant show with cloud-to-ground bolts lighting up the area. Fortunately the rain wasn’t too heavy and driving wasn’t an issue.

I made it to Pocatello to spend the night there. The one thing the rain brought was cooler air. When I left Cedar City that morning, it was 72° F / 22° C. The next morning in Pocatello, it was 41° F / 5° C. Good thing I packed my winter coat, hat, and gloves.

Day 3: Pocatello to Great Falls, Montana

This spud’s for you.

On my way out of Pocatello, I saw a sign for a potato museum. Really. I didn’t bother to stop because my goal was to get all the way to the Canadian border that day. I was keeping a close eye on the weather. It was still raining on and off, and my bigger concern was whether it would turn to snow on the 6,811-foot / 2.076 m Monida Pass. It didn’t.

The drive along the Missouri River between Craig and Cascade, Montana was inspirational with its rock cliffs, evergreens, and aspens turning gold. Die-hard fishermen were in their boats in the rain trying their luck for the day. Who knows if they were successful or not.

North of Helena, I was back in the wide-open and relatively flat range land of northern Montana. Driving the last few miles of I-15 was easy, and I arrived at the Canadian border at Sweet Grass, MT around 5:30 p.m.

Fifteen: It’s been seen.

Because there’s not much of anything in Sweet Grass, I headed back into Great Falls, Montana to spend the night following a celebratory dinner and a beer.

Two down, one to go.

Day 4: Great Falls to Buffalo, Wyoming

Jefferson, Adams, and Gallatin “showed me” how to become one.

One of the reasons that I rocketed up I-15 was because I was hoping to drive through Yellowstone National Park and spend some time there.

Yes, it was late in the season and most of the lodging was closed, but in all of my travels, I had never been there. I really wanted to check it out, but Mother Nature had other plans. A Winter Storm Warning was in effect for the region, with snow possible down to the 4,500-foot / 1.370 m elevation levels. Accumulations at the lower elevations were forecasted to be in the 1-3 inches / 3–8 cm range; at higher elevations, 10-13 inches / 25–33 cm.

I downloaded the Montana Department of Transportation Travel Info application for my phone (great app) and also checked the Yellowstone National Park’s website for road closures. What was open the day before, was now closed. Drat.

The forecast said that the biggest impact of the storm would be later in the afternoon and into the evening, so I opted to high-tail it out of Great Falls and head east away from the storm. Yellowstone would have to wait.

Before leaving Great Falls, I stopped by a Walmart to see if they had chains for my car just in case; they didn’t. My car is all-wheel drive, so I felt comfortable going without, but worried that their might be a chain restriction imposed someplace and I might get turned around. It was a chance I was willing to take.

In the Walmart parking lot, I checked the travel info one more time. I was planning on driving U.S. Highway 87 east towards Lewistown (always looking to explore areas I haven’t been before), but it was already snow-covered. The route back to Helena and east on I-90 was snow-free at that point in time. Decision made.

When I got to Helena, I opted to get off the Interstates and took U.S. 287 / U.S. 12 towards Townsend, and then south to Three Forks. That was a wise choice. I avoided the higher elevations around Butte and didn’t see a single snowflake. What I did see, however, in the middle of rural Montana, were not one but three different signs for adult pleasure shops (e.g., Adam & Eve). More visual pollution that gives insight into what some Montanans may be up to during their long winter nights.

Just outside of Three Forks is the Missouri River Headwaters State Park. It’s where the Jefferson, Adams, and Gallatin rivers all come together to form the Missouri River. (Missouri, the “Show me” state. Get it?) Lewis and Clark were there on 25 July 1805 and gave the names to each of the tributaries to honor those who chartered their exploration.

The winter storm kicked up some howling winds—gusts routinely over 40 m.p.h.—which made the drive into Buffalo, Wyoming interesting. I made it there just fine, and it was a brisk 38° F / 3° C when I parked the car for the night. I took my bottled water inside so it wouldn’t freeze.

Day 5: Buffalo to Pueblo, Colorado

Where the deer and the antelope roam.

One thing I need to add to my Travel Checklist is an ice scraper. I still have one after moving from Indiana to San Diego, but just forgot to put it in my car. I needed it when I woke up to a frost-covered car in Buffalo. I improvised by using a plastic membership card out of my wallet as a small but effective scraper.

The winds continued to howl across the vast open spaces as I began my journey down I-25. Something caught my attention out of the corner of my eye, and it was a pronghorn antelope grazing on the grasses. Then there were quite a few others, and there was a parking area along the highway where I was able to pull over and just watch them graze. Thankfully, I did bring my binoculars on the trip, and they brought me “up-close-and-personal” with the antelope.

Tired of the rut you’re in? Make your own ruts. Go west!

Sometimes on these make-it-up-as-I-go trips, I stumble across little gems along the way. One was the Oregon Trail Ruts Viewing Area near Guernsey, Wyoming. Wagons heading west in the 1840s left ruts in the rock that can still be seen today.

I can’t imagine the tenacity and fortitude our early settlers had to make the journey west. I hop in my car and travel a mile in 45-seconds listening to Dust in the Wind on my satellite radio. It took them an hour to walk the same mile actually eating the dust in the wind. Inspiring and one of our brightest stories.

All along on my journey, I had been in a really happy, good mood. Then I hit Denver. At 5 p.m. Rush hour. Ugh. At least I got a good look at Mile High Stadium while stuck in traffic, and got to watch their light rail trains zipping past, one after another. Oh well. I survived, but my happy-go-lucky mood did not.

I did make it to Pueblo where it was a balmy 62° F / 17° C when I parked the car for the night.

Day 6: Pueblo to Las Vegas, New Mexico via Taos

Aside from my desire to see Yellowstone, this leg of the trip was my most anticipated one yet. I’ve been to this region twice before and love it.

Not long after crossing over the 7,835 foot / 2.388 m summit of Raton Pass, I turned west on U.S. Highway 64 toward Taos, following the Santa Fe Trail. (Are you detecting a recurring theme here—Lewis & Clark; the Oregon Trail; the Santa Fe Trail?)

The first part of U.S. 64 is through open range land and is straight as an arrow for miles, giving the artist and photographer a great vanishing point on the horizon. Before getting to Cimarron, a sign on a small bridge announced that I was passing over Crow Creek. Just as I hit the bridge, a big, black crow flew right in front of the car. How appropriate!

As you leave Cimarron, you begin climbing in elevation before you get to one of my favorite places in the U.S.—Cimarron Canyon State Park.

As its name implies, it’s a small park in a canyon that has the Cimarron River running through it. Sheer cliff walls tower above the river in some locations and, in others, the canyon opens to a small marshy area. There are campgrounds, day use areas, and a few trails to hike. It’s a great place to simply sit and enjoy the beauty around you.

When you leave the park you head west into Eagle Nest at 8,238 feet / 2.511 m elevation, the highest point of my trip. You’ll skirt Wheeler Peak, the highest point in New Mexico at 13,161 feet / 4.011 m on your way into Taos.

On my first trip to Taos in 1997, I was in an hours-long conversation with a gentleman, George Robinson, who owned a rare and antique map store. I was in my element and we talked about maps, geography, and all sorts of other things. He mentioned that he was looking to retire from the business and would be putting it up for sale. That little nugget stuck in my brain the rest of the trip, and when I got back to Indiana, I started an email conversation with him about buying the business. Obviously, I didn’t. His price was basically everything I had saved and, had I bought it, I couldn’t have afforded the move out there, let alone someplace to live or food to eat.

After a wonderful lunch and delightful day in Taos touring the shops and galleries, I headed to Las Vegas, NM to spend the night, taking another trip through Cimarron Canyon State Park just as the late afternoon sun was hitting the canyon walls.

I generally tried to finish driving by sunset each day, but this was one of the few days where I was actually driving when it was dark. Just before getting to Las Vegas, I pulled off on a country road exit where there were no city lights just so I could catch a glimpse of the stars. Even with a waxing crescent moon and not a cloud to be seen or even a hint of haze, there were, as Carl Sagan would say, “billions and billions” of stars to be seen. I spent the next fifteen minutes standing beside my car in the chilly night air, gazing up into the Milky Way for the first time in a long time. Magical.

Day 7: Las Vegas to Las Cruces via Santa Fe

It was a brisk 45° F / 7° C when I started my hour-long drive into Santa Fe, another of my favorite places in the U.S.

I paid $10 for all day parking in the lot next to the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, which could not have been more central to everything to see and do in downtown Santa Fe. I checked out the Santa Fe Plaza and the Native Americans selling their turquoise and silver jewelry, pottery, and baskets at the Palace of the Governors, and then just wandered through galleries and shops.

The Andrea Fisher Fine Pottery Gallery had some mind-blowing pieces with such intricate patterns that there’s just no way to believe that this is done by hand. But it is. And I had to stop at the Andrew Smith Gallery to see some of the fine art photographs in his collection. The Monroe Gallery of Photography had some iconic historical photos, including a limited edition signed print of the raising of the flag on Iwo Jima by Joe Rosenthal. (As I recall, that could be yours for a cool $18,000—but don’t quote me on that.)

As I was walking through town, there was a gentleman sporting a Chicago Cubs hat, so I blurted out, “Go Cubs!” We chatted briefly and, come to find out, he used to live in Evergreen Park, right next to Oak Lawn where I grew up and where my mom worked in the high school. Small world.

On my way out of town, I took a little tour of the rest of Santa Fe, just in case San Diego ever gets too expensive or too L.A.-like.

One thing that I spaced in planning this trip was the fact that the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta was happening while I was there. I skipped it this time around because I just didn’t have the time to do it justice, and that’s an event that requires some thought and planning.

Twenty-five: Quite the drive.

The ride south of Albuquerque to Las Cruces was the last segment that needed to be colored in on this trip. Three down, none to go!

Day 8: Las Cruces to San Diego

Yes, really. There’s a fine line between over-achieving and insanity, and I crossed it on this segment.

White Sands National Monument was nearby, and I decided that I’d take the time to check it out seeing as I was in the area. It’s a pretty incredible sight, although I have to admit that I thought the dunes might be larger. (Perhaps I missed some of the larger ones by not hiking deeper into the park.) The gypsum sand is brilliantly—blindingly—white in the sun. It reminded me of being out in a fresh-fallen snow on a sunny winter’s day—you definitely need sun glasses.

After driving around the park for an hour or so, I pointed the car west towards San Diego. Originally, I thought I might spend the night near Tucson or Gila Bend. But the closer I got to them, the desire to get home got stronger and stronger. Besides, this was a route that I had driven a number of times, so there was no need to stop along the way. Until the sunset.

There were storms brewing around Tucson that had some cloud formations that I thought would make for a better than average sunset if things played out the way I had hoped. I spent a good 30-45 minutes trying to get a decent photo that would tell the story of an Arizona sunset. I’ll let you be the judge.

By that point, I was about 4 hours from home, so I decided to go for it, arriving just after midnight last night. My derrière thanked me.

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An altitude of -30 feet.

When I hit El Centro, it was the low point of my trip. Literally. At 30 feet / 9 m below sea level, it was truly the low point of the trip.

Epilogue

Sure, there were tons of things that I missed along the way by doing a trip like this. Great things. But remember the singular purpose of this trip: To tick off three more goals on my bucket list of travels. Check, check, and check! That makes me happy and proud. Really. Just take a look at that map again. Have you seen that much of this beautiful country of ours??

On this trip, I stood where Lewis and Clark stood as they named the three tributaries that feed the Missouri River, wondering which way to head next; I stood on the trail carved through solid rock by thousands seeking a better life during the great western migration; I spoke with some truly gifted artists as they proudly displayed their work;  and I saw sublime natural wonders. Experiences all, even on a fast-paced odyssey like this.

My introvert superpowers restored, I’m ready to face the masses again.

Statistics

My car’s trip computer calculated the total mileage, number of hours actually driving (wheels turning), miles per gallon, and average speed:

trip-stats

For my International readers, that’s:

  • 7.149 kilometers
  • 105 km/hr
  • 7,73 litres/100 km

And here’s an interactive map of the route taken and places visited:

And some short videos of goofy me coloring in the map:

One thought on “October Odyssey: The Mountain West

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