#WayBackWednesday - Part 1 of 4: The Four Trips that Started it All

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QUICK FACTS

What: MMK XC Tour (The Original)
When: March 2, 2007 through March 11, 2007
Where: Across 21 states
Who: Mike (me), Kevin (my friend & roommate), and Matt (friend)
Vehicle: 2007 Chevy Impala - white with a sunroof

FIRSTS

  • Car Rental
  • Mountains
  • Cross country road trip
  • Atlantic Ocean
  • Palm Trees
  • Crossing the Mississippi River

STATES

  1. Michigan
  2. Indiana
  3. Illinois
  4. Iowa
  5. Nebraska
  6. Colorado
  7. Utah
  8. Arizona
  9. New Mexico
  10. Texas
  11. Arkansas
  12. Louisiana
  13. Mississippi
  14. Alabama
  15. Florida
  16. Georgia
  17. South Carolina
  18. North Carolina
  19. Virginia
  20. West Virginia
  21. Ohio
 
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INTRODUCTION

The original.  Number One.  The one trip that can be replicated, but only in a physical sense. The MMK XC Tour of 2007.  I can’t even put into words how excited this trip made us feel at the time, or as it happened, but I’m going to try.  We were young, ready for adventure, and seemingly unstoppable.

This trip started with very few details, but had some main points of interest: We had a concert to attend in Chicago; plans to watch the newly released movie Wild Hogs along the way; plans to meet up with my friend in Grand Junction, Colorado; and then plans visit my grandparents in Gulf Shores, Alabama.  The path between those points was uncharted, for the most part, and would be left open to whichever way the wind blew that day.  We had Microsoft Streets & Trips with a GPS plug in and a laptop to track our route, a paper atlas for our main navigation, and plenty of music on discs we burned days before.

With little experience traveling beyond the bubble of the Great Lakes,  the sense of adventure was running high from mile one.  We had been as far as Chicago, but had no idea what to expect beyond that.  We had no idea it was going to be so flat and boring from Chicago to Denver and we had no idea how big the Rocky Mountains were going to be until we were driving through them.  The red rocks of western Colorado and Utah were strange to us, and the desert of New Mexico was like a different planet.

GRAND RAPIDS (home) to CHICAGO

We left Allendale, MI (technically where we lived, just west of Grand Rapids) on Friday, March 2 for Chicago.  We were going to see Nickelback at Allstate Arena while they were on their “All The Right Reasons” tour.  Yes, Nickelback.  No, I will not take any crap for that.  Performing with Nickelback was Three Days Grace and Breaking Benjamin.  It was a good show, that much I do recall, and very loud.  We pregamed the concert at a Chili’s nearby, drinking our Coors Light and still not realizing we were on the road trip of a lifetime.

On March 3 we met our friend that lived in DeKalb, IL for lunch at Fatty's Pub.  I noted that the Cajun potato salad was the best, so if you’re in DeKalb check it out and let me know - this was 11 years ago so I can’t promise anything.  There are pictures of us doing shots, probably one with an offensive name that has Baileys, Jameson, and Guinness and pictures of the Fatty's sign because it was an the style of a shamrock.  Kevin was playing the arcade Big Buck Hunter and it became a “thing” whenever it was spotted somewhere along the way.  We said goodbye and continued west.

CHICAGO TO GRAND JUNCTION, COLORADO

We started west as the sun was setting.  Illinois became Iowa, and it was the first time for us to drive over the Mississippi.  It was kind of a big deal for a minute, and it was worth a few photos.  I-88 turned into I-80 and we were in one of the flattest places we’d seen.  On March 1st, a blizzard had moved through Nebraska and Iowa causing accidents along the freeway that were still there when we passed through days later.

After a long day of driving we stopped in Des Moines for dinner and a movie.  Wild Hogs was just released in the US and we were dying to see it.  The idea behind the movie may have inspired this road trip, but those details are fuzzy.  In Wild Hogs four longtime friends finally set aside the time and take a cross country road trip on their motorcycles.  We are only three guys, all we have is a Chevy Impala, but we’re headed across the country.  I remember enjoying the movie and being the one to drive that night.  We talked about the movie and one thing led to another and it was decided that we’d find the town from the movie when we got down to New Mexico.  We had to see if Madrid, NM was anything like the movie version, and it fit our overall theme for this trip to take the detour.

We drove across Iowa, then Nebraska, all in the darkness of night.  It was pretty straightforward, follow I-80 then head southwest on I-76.  We crossed into Colorado early in the morning, hitting Denver after sunrise.  The Coors Brewery, in Golden,  was still closed, so we kept pushing west and that’s when it hit us - the mountains.  We’d been seeing them as we crept around the north side of Denver, but there they were right on the road in front of us.  We had the perfect weather for seeing mountains for the first time - sunny with blue skies and mild temps.

After going through our first mountain tunnel, our first big stop in the Rockies was Georgetown, Co.  We went to the Gateway Visitor Center and took a few minutes to let all of the scenery sink in.  As we carried on, the mountains were getting bigger and we went through the long more impressive Eisenhower Tunnel, which was so exciting I took a video.  Think about it, you’re driving THROUGH a mountain, how cool is that?

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I can still remember our rest stop just west of Silverthorne, CO looking at the mountains and at each other with amazement in our eyes.  It was a surreal experience: the breeze blowing, sun shining, and the Rockies all around us.  Seeing the snow capped mountains, and standing in snow ourselves, was amazing but it just got better and better as we kept going.  Winding west, we passed Vail and Glenwood Springs and began the transition into the Western Slope where the mountains were a little smaller and the rocks a little more red.  We ended this leg of the trip at the Motel 6 in Grand Junction in the afternoon.  We met up with my friend, who had recently relocated from Michigan, and went bowling in the evening.  All in all, a good ending to one long and scenic drive.

GRAND JUNCTION, COLORADO TO TERRELL, TEXAS

It was nice to see a familiar face along the cross country journey, but it was time for us to move on.  We hopped back on I-70 and pointed that Impala west.  We were soon entering Utah, and found one of my favorite rest stops to this day.  It had vault toilets and a nice path to a scenic view, what more could you want?  We had fun here, took a minute, and just enjoyed the sunshine.
Moving along, we wanted to go south towards New Mexico, so we exited I-70 and found ourselves on US-191 driving right past Arches, Canyonlands, and various other scenic gems.  This trip had no real plan and the more I research what our motives were, the less I find any at all.  We were less aware of where we were going and what we could have seen, and more focused on just being out and driving as far as we could without trouble.  One place we knew we wanted to see was the famous Four Corners.  We wanted to stand at the point where four states met and see how that felt.  Unfortunately, we arrived thirty minutes after the place closed.  This trip was during a  time before smartphones helped us know everything at all times; we were bummed but carried on.

To get to Four Corners we decided to go down through Arizona, to also add to our state count, and then back up towards Colorado.  We turned sound and went into New Mexico and decided it would be a good idea to find the town from Wild Hogs.  Madrid, NM was just south of Santa Fe and we pointed the car in that direction.  We ended up taking some less than smooth back roads, driving the rental car through a pothole the size of the car, and trying our best to follow the guidance of our atlas and Microsoft Streets & Trips.  I can’t be certain of the roads, as too much time has passed and the original file tracking our trip has gone missing, but I can assure you we found Madrid and it was very dark.  Our judgment was: it looks nothing like the town from the movie.  Looking back, it was dark and we had no idea what we were talking about because the movie was, in fact, shot right there in that town.  Either way, we passed through and headed back to the freeway into Albuquerque.  We connected with I-25, then I-40, and headed east to Amarillo, Texas.  (Amarillo by morning plays as we drive)

We stop at IHOP in Amarillo.  Shout out to IHOP and Denny’s for always being open which is great for three idiots on road trips at all hours of the night.  We left IHOP full and happy, heading south as the sun was rising.  We drove through Lubbock and ended up down on I-20 heading east.  We hit Fort Worth and Dallas traffic that afternoon and crawled through the big cities that, unknown to me at the time, would be my home four years in the future.  After sitting impatiently through Dallas traffic, we ended up Terrell at a Motel 6 because we needed some brews and some beds.  This is one of the nights from this trip that never leaves my memory.

The front desk called more than once, Matt and Kevin may have jumped the fence to swim in the neighboring hotel’s pool, and too much beer may have been consumed.  Terrell, Texas was just a preview of what was to come for the next two nights.

TERRELL, TEXAS TO GULF SHORES, ALABAMA

Our trek to Gulf Shores was easy and went by without any issues. We stopped in Louisiana to get photos at a rest stop, drove through New Orleans, through the tunnel in Mobile and then to Gulf Shores.  New Orleans was recovering from Hurricane Katrina, and those sights were still quite astounding.  When we got to the RV park where my grandparents were, they informed us they booked us a room at the Holiday Inn on the beach!  What a nice surprise it was, because we were going to find some dumpy, cheap hotel and be just fine.  Our room had an angled view of the ocean and there was a pool right on on the edge of the beach, it was the most “beach paradise” place I had experienced to date.  We walked down the road to FloraBama, a bar on the state line nearby, and explored the beach from there.

This was the first time I had seen the ocean, ever, and it was more gorgeous than I could have imagined.  The water was such a magnificent shade of blue or maybe turquoise, it changed with the light.  The beach was a brilliant white and the water was cool, but not too cold.  Being from the Great Lakes, we were used to cooler waters.  As a group, we spent more time in the pool and hot tub than anything, and really soaked up the sun.  When it got dark, the stars filled the sky above the ocean and it was one of those moments you can't’ forget.  We ate like kings in Gulf Shores, as my grandparents were there and treated us to a meal cooked at the RV and a meal out at a very colorful, local place called Papa Rocco’s.  I remember waiting forever to get in to Papa Rocco's and it being alive with music and laughter, I wonder if it's still that popular?  After three days and two nights on the beach, we had to set off for our drive back to Michigan.  I’m forever thankful for the experience my grandparents gave us with a beachfront hotel - really made the trip even more fun.

GULF SHORES, ALABAMA TO HOME

WIth only one real stop in Tallahassee at Florida State, we just spent the last miles driving up the east coast.  At Florida State, we visited a friend who had moved from Michigan and then toured the campus.  Matt really wanted to see the stadium, and so we did.  It was a nice campus, much different than our own college, which is always fun to see.

We made our way up through Georgia, the Carolinas, the Virginias, Ohio, and then to Detroit.  We saw a few funny, to us, signs and stopped at a few visitor centers, but nothing too exciting happened along this route.  The route did allow for some mountain cruising and at least one tunnel, which was fun, though we did not really explore any of the natural beauty.

By the time we hit Ohio, we were ready to be back home.  I can remember passing through as the sun was setting on the snowy farmland and it was bright and golden and it really felt like we were back in the Midwest.

LESSONS LEARNED FROM THIS TRIP

  • A little bit of planning could be a good thing.  We missed beautiful places like National Parks and fun tourist attractions because we were winging it.  Going forward, researching a few things ahead of time would welcomed.
  • A road journal is necessary.  Quotes, points of interest, interesting observations, and a record of the trip are fun ways to look back and enjoy the memories even more.  Also, a road journal would have seriously helped in writing this blog post.
  • Rental cars are the best because they’re not yours and you don’t have to worry about breakdowns, mileage, wear and tear, etc.
  • Photography through the windshield isn't always great.  Stop, take it in, photograph it, and then move on.  We just kept going and going and didn't really stop to take photos or take in a moment.  Future trips had better photos, I promise!

The trip opened our eyes to the country and left us wanting more.  By completing the tour around the USA, we felt empowered to do this again and to see more.  It was something to talk about, something to brag about, and something to cherish forever.  To this day, I still talk about this first trip around the country as the “big break” for me getting into adventuring and road trips.  WIthout this experience, I wouldn’t have the next three spring break road trips and I wouldn’t have seen all of the places I have.  I’d have no idea what was out there in the same way, by previewing it with my own eyes.  The experience of driving, sleeping in the car, staying in motels, and tolerating passengers for 10 days is a life experience I would recommend to anyone wanting to do something different for their vacation.

Come back here next week and I’ll share Part Two of Four - the 2008 road trip.