Twice this summer, I drove West across America, as part of our relocation from Charlottesville to Portland, OR. Twice. I know a lot of people who haven’t done it once, and I had the good fortune of doing it twice such in this golden summer.
Differences in the route. In May, I made a 3900 mile trip, from our home to Los Angeles in order to spend time with my father in law and to make some upgrades to my Mini. Well, that was the plan, anyway. After a few days there, I drove North up Interstate 5 to Portland. In July, with my family, we drove on Interstate 64 West to St. Louis, took Interstate 70 to Kansas City, went North to Omaha, and then took Interstate 80 West to Salt Lake City where we caught Interstate 84 into Portland. The second trip was a hair under 3000 miles.
I made the May trip in 10 days, but that included 4 days in Los Angeles when I was not driving at all. The July trip was five days of drive that we did over six days – a late start the first day, then four regular days of driving, and we arrived on the sixth day just after lunch.
The routes were as different as night is from day. I can’t stress that enough. Interstate 40, which I drove almost the entire time I was heading West in May, is amazing, and largely rural, and stunningly beautiful at that time of year. It’s also mostly an 80 mph speed limit. Less traffic that I64 or I70 or I80, and without a doubt, far more enjoyable of a drive. I really did like driving on I40, when I can’t always say the same about all of the other roads we took in July.
And while the drive up California to Oregon did rather suck, I40 really did feel like a meandering and wandering adventure – even when it was the one road West the whole time. It was very relaxing. I far more enjoyed taking I40, even with longer days, more miles and all that. I only wish I had made it to Albuquerque and then headed North to Montana – my other favorite place to drive at that time of year.
Differences in doing it alone, versus doing it with your family. Well, there certainly are some, that’s for sure. I tended up get up earlier, hit the road faster, eat in the car far more often, and put in longer days behind the wheel. But I also drove most of the way in silence I listened to some music, but not very much, and really not very often, I turned off the AC, and put down the windows most of the time. It was gorgeous, so pretty, that I really did enjoy taking it all in. And it was a great time to clean my head and do some thinking. I think I did 800 to 900 on my longest day when I was driving alone, and didn’t think anything of it.
But it’s not like that, when you’re making this trip with a family. We are lucky, in that 1) we were making this trip with teens who are 2) awesome travelers. Our kids truly are world-class travelers, who have been on the road, doing planes, trains and automobiles since they were born. But it means getting up, getting everyone fed, getting everything packed, checking emails, making sure everything is packed, packing the car, making sure we really haven’t forgotten something, and going – only to stop an hour later for a pee break. No “breakfast is a Clif Bar somewhere along the way” or keeping the passenger seat stocked with bottles of water and cold soda, plus Atomic Fireballs and sunflower seeds. A long day was 600ish miles, but we did that like clockwork.
There are no day stops anywhere, to go sightseeing. We drove, every day, and kept moving forward.
If we stopped, someone stayed with the cat. If we were all getting out of the car – going in for a great BBQ lunch in Kansas City with our friend Rich – we put the cat into his carrier and smuggled him in with us.
We didn’t hit the road as fast as we would want to in the morning because, well, the cat might still be eating. We knew that he didn’t eat during the day, and he didn’t drink water either. So, we tended to be very deferential around him, letting him top off as much as he wanted to, before we packed things away to start the day. And we always had an eye on the clock, looking to end things at a reasonable hour, so he could get settled back into a hotel room, and get back to eating and drinking. He just didn’t wan to eat or drink while there was a car involved. And at 22 – damn, he’s our elder and we have to respect that.
But while we were driving, he was great. We’d let him out of his carrier, and he’d generally sit on a pillow on either of the kids’ lap, for the whole of the day. Snoozing, like he is the king. No complaints. All in all, he fared very well on the drive.
On the May drive West, I tended to stop at Motel 6 – low fares, military discounts, and what I needed without much more. And they were always near I40, with easy access on and off the interstate. That was not the same with the family trip. It was catch as catch can, for accommodations, in part to sometimes trying to be honest and find places that were friendly, and sometimes just trying to find places open and with available rooms.
And there was the sad note, that Madison made the trip to Portland and died a few weeks later. We console ourselves, in that he made the trip to our forever home and will be here with us, forever. Great cat, that Madison.
What do you really need, to make a trip like this. Let me see if I can break this down into basic things.
You need a car that can make it 4000 miles without any mechanical problems. None – no problems. It’s best to have zero issues with your car when you are seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Who actually wants to try to find a dealer or a mechanic of any kind, one they can trust and in a hurry, when they are nowhere near where they started and nowhere near where they want to be. And when thy would rather be driving. So, get all of your services done before you go, make sure your tires, fluids, belts, hoses, etc are all ship shape before you even pull away from the curb to begin.
You need a damn credit card that works. Unlike mine that, into my May trip, the credit card company decided to kill because they assumed it was being used fraudulently. How many times had we talked with USAA about our buying a house in Portland? How many times had we talked with them about the homeowners insurance starting about then, vs the renters insurance, and my drive West? How many times had we talked about the car insurance, and my car going West, with me in it? I guess all of those things didn’t matter, because we didn’t call Biffy Joe Bedlap personally and tell him about the drive, because things almost got ugly. Just… do whatever you have to do to ensure that you have credit card coverage for the drive. Life would suck if you were trying to make it without one.
You’re going to need a phone, and you’re going to need a data plan. No two ways about it. During the May trip, I was using the GPS in my car (which sucked), and I was using the CoPilot Pro app (which works off of maps you load onto your phone, and doesn’t use data). But still, there’s no way to get around needing to find hotels, places to eat, etc these days without one. And social media. Yes, social media.
Kristin and I quickly figured out a couple of hashtags for our drive West as a family, settling on #GoWest, #LastPCS and #MovingDay. But we also incorporated from luchador masks we have been given into the whole adventure, making good used of something fun to catch people off guard and spice things up a little bit. It’s not something you can do easily when you’re making a trip like this alone, but it’s certainly something you can do when you’re making a family trip. And yeah, luchador masks are awesome.
You need some clothes, but not much. You are, after all, just sitting in a car. We hit heat on our drive, but we had good air conditioning, and we weren’t getting out of the car for adventures or hikes or anything. Really, we needed a week’s worth of clothing, and that was it. We packed light, and packed deliberately. It was great. If all else failed, we had that credit card that would have saved us and allowed us to make up for anything we had forgotten or omitted. Always bring a swimsuit.
And always, always, always pack spare charging chords, and bring along spare batteries for charging things from USB. I have a couple of those, that we had in the car with us. I also had a couple of 110/220v USB charges that we set up every night, to recharge everything as part of our little ritual. They worked like a charm.
And entertainment. I mentioned that for the May drive, I drove in quiet for most of the time. But in July, we started every day with a new CD of MP3s. It was awesome. I had made six before the drive, loading them all into the car’s CD holder, and it worked out well. There’s no way to drive across America and expect to be able to stream music all the time; cell / data coverage across the country just plain sucks. Having physical media with you is the only make to ensure that is actually works. Use actual CDs, run a cable, rely on bluetooth – do something, but have a plan for something other than streaming Spotify.