Open Skies to the Pacific Northwest

As I mentioned in my Road Trips 2022 post, last year was a big road trip year for me.

I took five major U.S. road trips and one European road trip in 2022, racking up over 21,000 miles as a solo driver across five countries and 28 states. And that was after a relative lot of road miles during the years since we’d returned from our second diplomatic tour in Australia already: in 2019 we drove over 2,000 miles through Hawaii, followed by California, Oregon, and Washington; in 2020 we moved by car from Virginia to Mexico and once we were settled took a jaunt up to Alamogordo, NM; and in 2021 I crossed the border on smaller road trips both alone and with my husband to Las Cruces, to California and Arizona, to Carlsbad, Cloudcroft, San Antonio and Fort Worth, and Albuquerque.

Apparently the driving didn’t get old, because last month I was ready to jump back behind the wheel and drive all the way to the west coast by myself again.

My trip to the west coast in March was primarily to accompany my stepmom to her long-awaited surgery in Portland, OR after a difficult cancer diagnosis last summer. As I drove west towards Portland over a four-day period, I reflected upon the fortunate timing of serving my fourth tour in Washington, DC.

I had hoped during fourth tour bidding to stay overseas, and for financial reasons wasn’t expecting to live in the United States on a domestic tour until maybe my fifth or sixth tour. But it has been fortuitous that I am stateside now to offer support to my family. I suppose from a proximity-to-the-west-coast perspective, being in Ciudad Juárez until summer 2023 as I’d originally planned would have also worked. But for so many reasons, living in Virginia is working right now. It especially helps that nothing seems “far” to me anymore!

Before I left home on this trip my dad had asked, “Are you sure you want to drive? Again?” I could hardly underline how much I wanted to do it. There was no way I wouldn’t be there for something so important.

Feeling happy and in my element while driving across the frozen Midwest ~ March 2023

Besides a confluence of factors making me want to be more present with loved ones recently, I also have temporarily traded in my overseas wanderlust for a more domestic appreciation of new sights to see. Taking in the country through my windshield has been an irreplaceable way to connect directly with the very lifestyles and values I have been serving overseas to protect.

Number of U.S. states I’d visited before three tours overseas vs. after
~I’ve previously lived in CA, DC, VA, MD, and MA, marked in green
~I’m unsure whether I’ve visited ME, VT, or CT, but certain I’ve never been to KY, AK, ND, or MI – the other 43 I’ve all gotten

Since I joined the Foreign Service in 2014 – and particularly after spending about seven of the last nine years outside the United States – I have been increasingly motivated to see more of my own country. This struck me more poignantly after living in Uzbekistan and realizing citizens there needed a permit to relocate or even drive from area to area within their own country. I remember telling a few of my Uzbek colleagues about driving between U.S. states or flying domestically without showing a passport. They were dumbfounded. I was curious about other parts of Uzbekistan, and in some cases it turned out – so were they!

Near Butte, Montana ~ a terrifying pass crossing that took two hours instead of the usual 20 minutes. In this photo, the truck on the right is disabled and spinning its wheels while drivers try to pass by in a narrow spot amidst quickly deteriorating conditions. Shortly after, the vehicle behind me was struck by a chain that flew off another disabled truck wheel.

SD-WY stateline with my Juarense doll Esperanza

I’m not sure if during my late teens and early 20s – when my international travel to date had been limited to Mexico – whether it even occurred to me to see the states beyond the west and pacific northwest. I think in some regards it simply didn’t, or seemed unattainably far away given my demanding work and school schedule.

It’s true that now after visiting 29 countries and 43 U.S. states, I’ve both seen a lot and also seen less than 15% of the globe in total. My travel stats are not that impressive when compared to those of many of my FS colleagues. I’ve never set foot on the African continent, have barely explored South America, and I’ve missed – as of yet – the vast majority of common U.S. tourist destinations in western and northern Europe. I’ve never even seen our northern neighbor, Canada!

But I can claim visits to lesser known places like Kosovo, Kazakhstan, the Maldives, and Albania, and I can say that I’ve lived abroad five times – as a Peace Corps Volunteer, as a grad student, and three times as an American diplomat. Not a lot of Americans can say that.

However, despite the persistent myth that very low numbers of U.S. citizens hold a passport, according to the U.S. Department of State (my employer and the only entity which issues U.S. passports), as of 2022 over 151 million valid U.S. passports were in circulation. Even considering that about nine million Americans are ex-pats residing outside the United States, that still puts us closer to half of all stateside Americans currently possessing a passport.

25 years to the day after getting together with my late boyfriend T, I photographed a 1998 message he wrote against the backdrop of Coeur d’Alene, ID, where he went to high school. It was meaningful to bring his message along on this road trip, since our very first date 25 years to the week earlier had been… a 200 mile road trip together. Yes, I drove, although on later trips he tended to drive most.

According to the BBC, the statistic that only 10% of Americans have a passport hasn’t been true since the mid-90s. The BBC also pointed out that while the number of Americans getting a passport has increased every year since, it still ranks behind areas of Europe like the UK, where in 2011 less than 17% of citizens didn’t have a passport.

Wherever I may roam – in any state, any weather, it’s all good

My favorite kind of driving – in Oregon, with big skies and open roads

Maybe a lot of people outside the United States assume that if an American doesn’t have a passport, they “don’t travel” at all. This is not the case, and I would guess it comes primarily from people who live in small countries or countries they need a passport to exit. And as I pointed out, the territory of our own country is enormous, has limited land borders with other countries, requires no passport internally, and contains a multitude of diverse geography and cultures to explore. It’s also worth noting that until the September 11th attacks, Americans didn’t routinely need a passport to travel across Mexican and Canadian land borders.

I think I accepted a long time ago I feel antsy when I don’t have a very large space to move around in. Add this to my love of the technical aspects of driving a car with a turbo-charged engine, my wish to connect with the country I’m not often in, and the relief that comes from seeing vast landscapes where my thoughts can roam free, and you have the perfect recipe for a solo road trip.

Celebrating my nana’s 94th birthday in CA

Travel Pulse cited a survey conducted last year by The Vacationer indicating nearly 81% of Americans planned to travel during summer 2022, with 20% of those travelers (53 million people) heading abroad and nearly 61% (or a further 154 million people) hitting the U.S. roadways. Of the road trippers, 20% said they would travel more than 500 miles (805 km) from home and almost 7% said they would travel more than 1,000 miles (1,610 km) from home.

Hanging out with friends in CA

Spending time with my dad and stepmom in WA

So I suppose I was in the relatively small percent of Americans willing to road trip major distances who took my show on the road last month. The round trip was a mere 37 miles short of 8,000 miles.

To our collective disappointment, although I made it to Portland in record time with about 30 hours to spare before my stepmom’s surgery, ultimately on the day of, surgery was postponed due to a positive COVID diagnosis for her. This was for the best; even though she was asymptomatic, being under anesthesia for several hours and then trying to recover with COVID would have drastically increased her risks.

Road tripping around northern CA and feeling happy

Unfortunately for me, it also meant I couldn’t stay and help my dad and stepmom out at their home as I’d intended, lest I risk catching the virus too. Never deterred by a sudden change in plans precipitating a long drive, I jumped in the car and headed for my mom’s in California nine hours south. But two unexpected things happened on the way there.

Getting ready to hit the road back east from my dad’s in WA

First, I hadn’t make it two hours to Eugene, OR when I had a scary oil warning light come on in my car that I couldn’t get to turn off by adding high-quality motor oil. Incredibly, after much driving through hundreds of miles of desolate wilderness, the VW had decided to freak out only six miles from an official VW dealership and service center.

So after a stressful 28-hour waiting period in Eugene (in which I tested negative twice for COVID), I was back on the road. However, my problems still weren’t over as I navigated southern OR and northern CA mountain passes.

Overlooking Columbia River/Wanapum Lake from the Wild Horses Monument (Grandfather Cuts Loose the Ponies) in Quincy, WA

Always wild to see snow gates across the interstate in Montana

Night was falling, and the weather was rapidly deteriorating. The snow was coming down harder and increasingly beginning to stick, and the road became icy as the temperature dipped well below freezing. Even worse, I was getting drowsy. I considered my route over the next three hours; after leaving interstate 5, I would have connect to highways 99, followed by 70, and finally 20 to make it to my mom’s.

Thunder Basin National Grassland, WY

I knew very well from my days attending Chico State University as a freshman in college that all three of those roads were often single-lane and very treacherous. Driving at night, in poor visibility and conditions while animals are out and while also being tired is a non-starter for me.

I knew even with only two hours to go I couldn’t make it safely, so I stopped for the night to rest and rolled into my mom’s town the next morning. It sucked having to lug my bag into one more motel, but it was preferable to the physical misery the trip had become. Being a good long-haul driver isn’t about making it at any cost, or “overcoming” bad odds. It’s not even about doing something other people can’t understand. It’s about smart planning and giving your body what it needs to stay alert, hydrated, rested, and well enough to do something unnatural – stay focused hour after hour on a life-threatening dangerous activity – all so you can arrive safely at your destination. If I’m not enjoying any part of it and it’s not fun anymore, it needs to end, and quickly.

Crazy Horse Memorial in Crazy Horse, SD

I did enjoy the time with my mom and friends in California, and even got to take my nana to brunch for her 94th birthday. Fortunately my stepmom recovered from COVID, so I chose to return to Washington to see them again before I had to go back east. This Virginia to Washington to California to Washington to Virginia routing was a little tedious, but still OK. It made the road trip different than my June 2022 road trip (Virginia to California to Washington and back), and my November 2022 road trip (Virginia to Washington to California and back). Unfortunately her surgery was rescheduled for weeks after my departure, so it wasn’t an easy option workwise for me to stay.

Another thing that made this road trip different was prioritizing some touristy stops on the way back home, specifically to the Crazy Horse and Mount Rushmore monuments in South Dakota. I had never seen either place, and although I do try to pull over randomly and see things – like when I was in Washington and impulsively hit the exit after glimpsing a sign for a “Wild Horses Monument” – I don’t always feel that the fast-paced nature of these trips leaves me time to explore much of the places I’m blazing through. But to be fair, this time I also would have stopped at Yellowstone to see the Old Faithful geyser had my quick research not confirmed it was closed until summer.

Next time.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial – Keystone, SD

And yes, there will be a next time. No one knows when, but I think it’s a sure thing!

7,963 miles (12,815 km) through 18 states across a span of 24 days. I was the sole driver for all but 292 miles where family members drove on side trips.

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Sarah W Gaer

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