On the Road Again: Coast to Coast

As I mentioned in my Road Trips 2022 roundup post last December, I not only drove by myself from northern Virginia to the west coast in June, but also in November to celebrate Thanksgiving with my family. I left at the end of a busy work day the Thursday before the holiday, fighting my way through rush-hour traffic on the beltway to get a head start on my journey.

And as usual when you’re trying to leave the office for a couple of weeks at a time, I had an active international parental child abduction case with two children returning to the United States from Venezuela in-progress that very afternoon. Thanks to the help of my excellent colleagues, I was able to track the return up until I needed to walk out the door, and then hand the case off to my backup. As I crossed my first mountain pass in Pennsylvania’s Alleghenies against pelting snow, she worked to monitor the landing of the children’s flight in Miami and update our leadership on their reunification with the left-behind parent. When I finally checked into my motel in Ohio and caught up with my work emails very late at night, I was elated to see all was well that ended well. Fortunately for me, my road trip went just as smoothly.

Whereas in June I had driven to California to see friends and family on my mom’s side, and then up to Washington state to see my dad and stepmom, in November I did the same trip but in reverse; I headed from Virginia to Washington for Thanksgiving at my dad’s house, and afterwards swung down to California before making my way back towards the eastern seaboard.

My 2,849-mile trip west across 13 states and two Indian reservations, November 17-21, 2022.
I started at home in Alexandria, VA and ended at my dad’s in Cathlamet, WA, with overnight stops in (A) North Lima, OH; (B) Austin, MN; (C) Hardin, MT; and (D) Coeur d’Alene, ID.

My 2010 VW #Hilde on the road again

My first night on the road I made it over 300 miles before needing to stop and rest. It wasn’t easy going due to the snow and freezing temperatures, but fortunately I never had to pull my brand new snow chains out of the trunk.

The following day I went almost 800 miles through Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin, and then stopped for the second night in Minnesota. Other than hitting a 90-minute weather-related jam-up in Chicago and having to slow down due to icy road conditions (as seen in the shot of interstate 90 through Minnesota, above) I really couldn’t complain. I’d wanted to make it all the way to South Dakota by night two, but given the weather I just felt lucky to not have seen any mishaps more serious than a tipped-over 18-wheeler. As usual, by day two I had passed over 1,100 miles alone – not bad considering day one started after 16:30!

Beautiful Montana

On the third day, I traveled approximately another 800 miles and 12.5 hours across Minnesota, South Dakota, cutting the corner of Wyoming and heading into Montana, crossing both the Northern Cheyenne and Crow Indian reservations before stopping for the night.

On a two-lane divided highway in Wyoming, I had a little excitement when a giant buck burst from the side of the roadway and ran right in front of my car. Dusk was falling quickly and – expecting wildlife – I had been driving about 55mph in a 65mph zone. The instant I saw the animal’s intimidating antlers in my peripheral vision, I jammed on the brakes and missed plowing into it by less than six feet. I had instinctively calculated that I would need to hit the animal rather than end up in the ditch or swerve into oncoming traffic. Luckily, I stopped in time and the deer kept going.

Lake Coeur d’Alene, Idaho

The driver behind me, who had been following at a safe distance despite my reduced speed, seemed so startled by my sudden stop he made a strange, unnecessary maneuver and then backed way off. My arms trembled for 10 minutes afterwards as I processed how close I’d come to potentially totaling my car in the middle of 200 miles of reservation territory with no cell signal.

The next day I made it across the rest of Montana and Idaho, stopping before dinnertime in Coeur d’Alene to pay respects in the town where my late friend T went to high school. I treated myself to a room with a fireplace overlooking the lake at the local resort, and ordered a fabulous healthy dinner and some wine.

I talked to one of T’s friends from high school who – when hearing where I was staying – told me that in high school he and T used to sneak into the Coeur d’Alene Resort and party. I imagined them, drunk and high and talking to pretty girls in the resort’s beautiful ballrooms, not afraid of getting caught, and definitely not worrying about the future. Enjoying their youth as I had often been too afraid to do myself. It would have been in the early to mid-90s, a handful of years before I ever met him.

Leaving Idaho feeling glad I went, especially after a lovely deep tissue massage before I checked out of the Coeur d’Alene Resort

But sitting in my fancy room, not in any danger of being told I didn’t belong there, I could picture their antics and laugh for a few minutes until I remembered for the millionth time that T took his own life and I couldn’t call him. I sent him a message which he did not read, and I sat by my fireplace alone and wondered if he was still out there somewhere. I felt sure he was, and that he knew I came through his beloved former town, a place I remember him mentioning so many times when we were young.

Some snacks I put out the day before Thanksgiving, because cooking is hungry work

The next day I made it to my dad’s house in Washington and in the following days, my brother C and my stepbrother J arrived – J bringing along his wife and stepdaughter. My stepbrother B unfortunately could not make it, so I missed seeing him and his wife and daughter for the holiday but visited their house the following week on my way to California.

About to enjoy some serious eating, as my SIL told us all about her upcoming appearance on The Price is Right gameshow!

We had a delicious dinner of turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, prime rib, green beans, crescent rolls, cranberry mandarin jello, pumpkin pie, and pecan pie. It was special being able to spend that time with my stepmom as she had been fighting pancreatic cancer courageously at that point for five months. J and I helped with the cooking because she needed to take breaks from time to time to rest.

Happy after opening some early Christmas presents

In the following days my brother and dad and I worked on our cars in the driveway (I relearned how to change a tire, kind of, but probably still don’t remember) and also went on hikes in Washington’s greenest places to try and burn off excess calories.

We also spent time in the workshop at my dad’s second property and enjoyed some nature walks in his neighborhood

I spent about six days at my dad’s in Washington and then left for the 650-mile trip through Washington and Oregon to my mom’s in northern California. My Volkswagen’s odometer hit 88,000 miles on the way down. By this point in the trip, I had solo-traveled a total of 15 states and 3,562 miles.

The vibes every time I go home… shade! 🥰🤣

During my time at my mom’s, I hung out with friends, visited with my mom, and spent as much time as possible outdoors. My brother C had stayed back up at our dad’s for a while to work with him on house projects.

With high school friends R and C on a sunny afternoon in Nevada City, CA

I also went hiking by myself and with my mom at various locations around the county, including Malakoff Diggins, Litton Trail, Hirschman’s Pond, and Bullard’s Bar.

My mom pretending she isn’t cold at Malakoff Diggins State Park – but it was actually super cold

One day I hiked out in the Tahoe National Forest to the remote area where my friend T had died by suicide. On my first visit there in June, I’d had few details about specifically where his remains had been discovered three months after his disappearance. On this visit I knew precisely where he had died because the sheriff’s department had released a confidential copy of the investigative report to me. I was able to map the coordinates and navigate to that exact place on foot.

I can’t say going there really helped me answer the questions I still have, but I wasn’t sorry I went. I didn’t feel afraid when I was there and i didn’t want to become afraid of forests. I was appreciative that I’d received as much information as I had, remembering the early days when I hadn’t even known his cause or manner of death, and laid awake all night in shock, unable to grasp what had happened to him.

Tahoe National Forest

Going to the location where someone died isn’t something every person grieving a death would want or need to do, and a couple of people asked me to reconsider going, at least by myself, but I absolutely needed to go. In the same way it is valid that other people might absolutely need to not go. I took pictures of that place so I could remember it, but I never really showed them to anyone.

Tahoe National Forest / Bullard’s Bar

I will probably keep going there until I feel it’s no longer necessary, if that ever happens. It is going to take a very long time for me process his death and it isn’t something I can ever accept, but I’m trying to integrate the loss so when I think about him, I can eventually focus more on how he lived than all the negative feelings I have about the way he died.

I understood it was a place where he had been happy and sought solace in the past, and so the feeling he is still there is very strong. I never went there with him, but it is similar to many places we did go together and I wasn’t surprised to see pictures from happier years past he’d posted hiking that same trail on his Facebook account. I went to the same place on the trail where he took photos and stood there for a long time, and I do believe he was there.

So much fun on this trip hanging out with old friends and enjoying holiday treats!

It was wonderful to spend so much time with my mom, and to look up old friends I hadn’t seen in a while to plan meet-ups. It was very comforting and felt great.

Eventually the time came for me to start heading back to Virginia, so after checking the Tahoe weather, I made it up I-80 and over Donner Pass to Nevada less than half a day before a big storm hit.

Made it to the Nevada-Utah stateline my first day on the road

Near Great Salt Lake, UT

In Montana, about 220 miles west of Cheyenne, WY

There’s always something about driving west of South Dakota; it’s more mountainous, and feels more like “home.” Everything east of South Dakota starts to become flatter, narrower, more crowded. While I’m a high plains drifter in those badlands, I can’t tell if I’m in the midwest or have crossed over to the western states proper. It’s an interesting in-between.

The Continental Divide in Wyoming, at an elevation of nearly 7,000’. No wonder it’s so damn cold!

Side note: Some people think the Great Continental Divide is the place where water changes direction while swirling down the toilet. This actually happens at the equator; I’ve been to La Mitad del Mundo in Ecuador and can vouch. What it actually is comes closer to a massive drainage ditch, dividing rainfall into east and west and directing it towards tributaries leading to either the Pacific or Atlantic, respectively.

The photo below shows North American continental divides and their names; the red line demarcation reflects where I was parked in the above photo.

After a total of 17 days on the road, I traveled 6,446 solo miles (10,374 kilometers) and visited two Indian reservations and 21 states, eight of them twice. Even though I crossed more than 15 mountain passes in winter, I was very lucky and never had to chain up.

I traveled with my North Face furnace sleeping bag, and kept plenty of food, water, and warm clothes in my car in case of some pileup that would strand drivers for a day on the interstate.

I stayed in eight hotels, and spent nine nights between my parents’ houses.

Fortunately, my car didn’t have any mechanical problems. I never got pulled over or received any tickets. I saw plenty of animals, too, besides the buck that almost wrecked me: live elk, grazing deer, a wolf, mice, a fox, two bald eagles, much livestock, many birds of prey, and a number of unidentified furry friends.

Home at last, after visiting nearly half the states in the Union

All in all, it was a great trip! I returned to California for Christmas less than two weeks after making it back to Virginia – but that time I flew first class from Dulles to Sacramento! It was astonishing to board the flight, rest comfortably for a few hours, and then land at my destination without multiple motel stopovers. I will write about the trip in an upcoming blog post.

People asked me why I bothered driving out west when it’s so much faster to fly. The answer is twofold, and pretty simple.

One, I just absolutely love to drive. As long as I’m well-rested, I would drive almost any vehicle for any distance through any terrain with no prior notice.

And two, because even with the cost of gas and motels, it’s still cheaper to drive than to fly and rent a car for three weeks. And it’s more fun to drive and have a familiar car with me! I just couldn’t do it pre-COVID because I was always chained to work and Washington with no possibility to be gone that long or work remotely from anywhere else. Fortunately things have changed.

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Sarah W Gaer

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