#WayBackWednesday - Part 2 of 4: The Four Trips that Started it All

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QUICK FACTS

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What: MMK XC Tour Part Deux
When: 2/28/2008 - 3/9/2008
Where: Across 18 states
Who: Mike (me), Kevin (friend & roommate), and Matt (friend & roommate)
Vehicle: 2007 Mercury Grand Marquis (it was an "upgrade" and a gas guzzler)

FIRSTS

  • Pacific Ocean
  • Redwoods
  • Death Valley
  • Las Vegas

STATES

  1. Michigan
  2. Indiana
  3. Illinois
  4. Iowa
  5. South Dakota
  6. Wyoming
  7. Montana
  8. Idaho
  9. Washington
  10. Oregon
  11. California
  12. Nevada
  13. Arizona
  14. New Mexico
  15. Texas
  16. Arkansas
  17. Oklahoma
  18. Missouri
 
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INTRODUCTION

A lot can be learned in one year and that is certainly true with road trips and other forms of adventure.  We had a great time in 2007, saw plenty of random places, had some first time experiences, but ultimately wanted more for our next trip.  In 2008 we follow through by researching and planning stops at more places, adding destinations along the way, and driving even further than before.  More notes were recorded, more observations made, and more photos were taken to remember the experience a little better that the year before.

Since the last trip, we’d all moved in together and were officially roommates in a house in the suburbs of our college campus.  Living together made planning the trip easier and definitely created a new dynamic.  Before, Kevin and I had only seen Matt occasionally and now we all shared a house together every day.  We had a countdown in our kitchen, had purchased stuff to take with us, and spent evenings reminiscing about 2007 in preparation for the next big adventure.

GRAND RAPIDS (home) to SEATTLE

The first leg of the trip was going to be a long one.  We wanted to get out west as soon as possible and we knew it would require about 32-36 hours in the car.  We left on a Thursday afternoon and arrived in Issaquah, Washington on Friday very late, probably technically Saturday the first of March.  We didn’t have any concerts or stops planned between Michigan and Washington, except to see if Mt. Rushmore would be open whenever we sailed through which happened to be 4am when it was definitely closed.

It was sunny and cold in Michigan, with our giant car packed and the mixed CDs stashed, we were on the road headed south towards Chicago.  We made it through the Greater Chicago area, onward to Iowa in the afternoon.  This year was no different than last year with the winter storms rolling through the plains days before and the roads being residually icy.  We saw more semi trucks and cars still in the ditch this year but made it through unscathed.  Day quickly turned to night and we were rolling with as few stops as possible.

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We entered South Dakota in the early morning which meant no Mt. Rushmore but we did see every star in the sky as we cruised at 84 MPH down I-90.  I made a specific note about the speed we set and about how surprised I was at the night sky throughout South Dakota. One more thing thing to note about the sparseness South Dakota -- we almost ran out of gas and it was hilarious and made our hearts race.  We were driving along, through the darkness and the gas light came on.  We pulled into one place, which appeared to be open or at least have their pumps on, and none of that was true so we had to get back on the highway and keep looking.  We were searching on our Microsoft Streets and Trips the best we could, but not finding much anywhere ahead and so we just set the cruise down to a more conservative speed and kept our eyes open.  The outlook was grim and we had accepted our fate of running out of gas in the middle of nowhere when out of the darkness there was a shining light of angelic proportions (not really, but you get the point) and we exited the freeway to open gas pumps!  It’s funny how things work like this, stay tuned for a less fortunate story from the road trip of 2009.

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We drove through the northeast corner of Wyoming and the pink sunrise hit the snow dusted hills in a magical way.  A breakfast and Walmart stop was made in Gillette, and we marveled at the decoration on the side of the building being a scene with bison.  We thought it classed the place up a bit.  Moving right along, we were in Montana before we knew it.  The beauty of Montana, when we started to see the mountains, was remarkable and the pictures we had did it no justice.  Upward and onwards into the narrow bit of northern Idaho we went and were amazed at the scenic drive through Coeur d’Alene. Spokane, which was noted as one of the cleanest places we stopped, was fun to briefly explore. We had to keep pushing through, as this was the point in the trip when we started to get tired of the car and each other.

Tensions were high, attitudes were flared, but we kept going as it got dark and we hit the Cascade Mountain range.  The extra large, rear wheel drive Mercury Grand Marquis was not handling well when we hit slushy weather at Snoqualmie Pass.  It didn’t get any easier moving forward nor did the weather let up, but Kevin was driving like a champ.  He steered us through it all and landed us down in Issaquah without dying!  We checked into a Motel 6, slept it off, and started March with a better outlook and better attitudes.

SEATTLE TO OREGON

Seattle was a dream and I can remember meandering through the city like it was yesterday.  I can see the buildings, the streets, the marketplace, everything.  The weather was cloudy thus making it the stereotypical day in Seattle for our first visit.  We drove through the tall buildings looking around and trying to find a place to park.  We parked at Pike Place Market and explored that area.  The outside smelled like fish and sea air while the inside was warm and cozy.  We got coffee and a mug from the first Starbucks store and then made our way around walking to the Space Needle and seeing Komo Plaza among other things I can’t remember or name from the photos.  This area of Seattle is full of museums, points of interest, and sights to see.  After making our way back to the car, we drove past Safeco Field and then hit the freeway.

We took I-5 down towards Olympia and picked up US-101 towards the coast.  I noted in our book that gas was expensive on the west coast, and about $3.44/gallon in Olympia.  As we drove through Washington, we got our first glimpse at the sun and also the greenery that is the Pacific Northwest.  Our first major stop after Seattle was a the Willapa National Wildlife Refuge.  It’s safe to say this was our first National Wildlife Refuge and it was a great way to start off the scenic tour that was the Pacific Coast.  Highway 101 through the wildlife refuge was beautiful and curvy and we stopped so many times to get photos.  Leaving the refuge, the highway went down through a few more towns and a tunnel (exciting) before the Megler-Astoria Bridge into Oregon.  The bridge is a spectacular sight - green and mighty and spanning between the two states.  We were officially in Oregon and I was officially in love with the Pacific Northwest.

THE OREGON COAST

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Starting from Astoria and going down the coast, we were in continuous amazement at every mile.  Our first big stop was at Arcadia Beach.  It was the late afternoon and it was our only Oregon stop for the day, since starting in Seattle.  We spent an hour on the beach taking photos and soaking up the views.  It was a sun drenched afternoon but the temperature was cool and the wind strong, which made the beach even better.  My kind of beach day does not involve baking in the sun or having to take my shirt off, so the Oregon Coast has my vote for beach day any day.

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We drove a bit further down the coast and decided to stay in the Econo Lodge in Newport, Oregon.  It was halfway through the state and a good starting point for the next morning as we headed into California.

I still remember the morning leaving Newport along the coast - dewy, moist, foggy, sunny, and magical.  The smell was fresh and the breeze a bit chilly as we headed south with the windows open.  From this day forward I became OBSESSED with Oregon, the Pacific Northwest, the Pacific Coast, and everything related to those things.  From Newport, the magic of the Oregon Coast continued with our next stop at Devil’s Churn.  Devil’s Churn has been a highlight of the Oregon Coastline that I tell everyone about.  It’s an inlet, very narrow, into a cliff where the sea crashes in and sprays.  On this trip, it was easily one of the coolest things we saw.  We spent a good chunk of time at Devil’s Churn before continuing south towards California.

NORTHERN CALIFORNIA TO LAS VEGAS

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As we crossed the border into California, we saw a liquor store called All Star Liquors.  We were in need of some libations for our hotel later, so we decided to stop in to see what they had.  We were astonished to see the prices the lowest we’d ever seen, and we stocked up.  I only include this tidbit of information as it is important to know we stocked up at later hotel stays when said liquor is consumed. We stopped at a few places, that I can’t quite pinpoint, and then landed at the Redwoods.  This was our first National Park on the trip and we were awestruck.  We went to the Big Tree wayside, walked a little on a hiking trail and drove the Newton B. Drury scenic drive in full.  The size of these trees was beyond comprehension and our necks were sore from constantly looking up.  Spending the day along the coast and in the trees left us ready to relax so we spent the night at a Best Western in Eureka, California.  This hotel was an upgrade for us from our usual Motel 6 or similar style property and we took full advantage of every hotel amenity.  This place had an indoor/outdoor pool, a hot tub, a sauna, the most comfortable beds, and free breakfast.  I remember this hotel specifically for the pool, though, because we thought it was so cool that we could swim outside, under a half wall of glass.  This trip just kept getting better and better and we were on cloud nine by this point.

We departed the next morning with San Francisco as the destination.  We took Highway 101 South and made our way through the Humboldt redwoods and even drove through the Chandelier Tree in Leggett.  Instead of continuing down 101, we opted for California 1 down the coast.  On this route we curved through coastal trees, encountered free range “happy cows” along the road, and experienced the tourism of small coastal towns.  CA-1 was taking forever, due to the little towns, so we took a road through the mountains, through Boonville, and back to 101/I-5. The Golden Gate Bridge Recreation Area was our next stop.  We walked around the fort, took photos of the city and bridge, and just enjoyed the fact that it was a sunny afternoon in the highlands.  From the highlands we descended into the city to explore before having to go find a hotel for the night.  We ended up in the Business District for a couple of hours until making our way back to the car.  San Francisco was a lot like Seattle, large and overwhelming but beautiful and different for us small city people.

We found the freeway out of town, into Silicon Valley, and decided to find somewhere to eat first.  We went to a Chili’s.  Kevin ordered a Labatt Blue (a popular Canadian beer we got in Michigan all the time) and the lady took the order with Matt and I’s and hurried off.  She came back with our beers, and asked Kevin “what’s in a Labatt Blue, our bartender has never heard of it!”  We looked puzzled, laughed, and explained it was a kind of beer.  Apparently, California doesn’t get Labatt Blue, or didn’t at the time of this trip.  It was our first taste of regional differences and it was just notably funny for us.  We ate our food and moved along to King City to spend the night in a Motel 6 and break open that liquor we purchased.  We drank, we were merry, and we played quarter bounce on a nightstand - oh to be young.  I think we went to bed, after wandering to a gas station for snacks, the details of the night are fuzzy at this point.  Death Valley and Vegas were on the agenda as our next big stops, but we had to get there first.

We woke up in King City and headed south a bit more and then east towards Bakersfield.  We were trying to get closer to Death Valley, but didn’t have a real plan for that other than just driving through.  It took all day to get to Bakersfield and through the Kern River Valley to Ridgecrest, so we’d be positioned for a quick morning drive to spend the next day in Death Valley.  The Kern River Valley was a real treat and we got a taste of the Giant Sequoias famous in those parts.  The drive along the Kern River was winding and sunny and was a welcomed surprise after the almond fields and brown landscape around Bakersfield.  Ridgecrest was back to brown, but we spent our time at the bowling alley and in our hotel room enjoying more libations.

We woke up and got to Death Valley National Park in the late morning.  It was cool and breezy, though very sunny.  We entered the park at Panamint Springs and drove to Stovepipe Wells and then down to Badwater Basin.  I’m going to preface this next part by saying that I personally had no idea the desert could be in bloom or that it was an event treasured by many.  Flowers started to appear the closer we got to Badwater Basin and eventually it was a sea of yellow.  The desert was experiencing a major bloom and we just happened upon it at the right time.  We saw the lowest point in North America and then started our journey out of the park and on to Las Vegas.  We exited and drove through a town called Pahrump, NV and had to laugh because we’re children inside.  After a long day of driving, exploring, and desert surprises we checked in to the Mirage in Sin City.

LAS VEGAS TO MICHIGAN

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We decided to stay at the Mirage hotel because of my suggestion.  My grandparents used to stay there for conferences and I’d always get stationary from them so it was a familiar place and the price for a room wasn’t too bad either.  The room had strip views, was on a high floor, and had two beds so we were all set.  Never had we ever been to a party like Las Vegas.  The casinos were one thing, we had casinos in Michigan, but the ability to publicly drink and walk around was mind blowing.  The “literature” and “trading cards” that were being handed out were obscene and amazing and the whole energy was overwhelming in a good way.  We went to Paris and got souvenir Eiffel Towers filled with daiquiri and margarita and wandered up and down the strip.  We swam in the Mirage pool the next morning before departing for the Hoover Dam, and I remember it being brisk and refreshing and cooler than we anticipated.  The Hoover Dam was impressive, and we got to see one of the turbines out for repair which was rare.  At this point in time, they were just starting the new bypass bridge and it was neat to see the construction.  We moved along with Flagstaff as our next stop.

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The sun was setting behind us, the air was growing cooler as we moved forward, and we were almost to Flagstaff when we were pulled over.  Reading back to the previous post, I failed to mention that while in Texas were pulled over for doing 78 in a 70 and were issued a written warning.  It was funny, but we slowed down.  This time, we were going about 72 in a 70 and were pulled over on I-40 just a few exits before Flagstaff - when the elevation really climbed and the trees were plentiful.  We did all the right things: had our hands visible, Matt had his license ready, and we had our rental paperwork.  The officer took Matt’s license and started the routine and asked Matt to step out of the car and answer questions at the patrol vehicle.  The conversation started off normally with the usual “do you know why I pulled you over?” and “where are you headed?” questions.  We were told going 2-3 mph over the speed limit was dangerous, as there were deer in the area.  Then, it got weird.  The officer asked if were on drugs or had any drugs in the car, to which we replied no.  He asked why we had the strong scent of a pine air freshener in the car and we had to explain that three guys on a cross country tour really can stink up the place.  The officer kept pressing about the drugs and if the air freshener was a cover up for the drugs we were smoking.  The only drugs we had were my prescription and some alcohol, which were both in the trunk, so we started to just feel very uncomfortable.  He finally let us go when we didn’t change a word we said.  We were issued a warning for going over the speed limit (by 2 mph) and sent on our way.

We opted for another Best Western as we felt we deserved it after a couple of Motel 6 stays and that run in with the law.  We wandered over to The Museum Club, a log cabin looking bar, and bought three drinks at a time, as it was easier that way.  We proceeded to be asked to leave unless we bought tickets to see the rapper Afroman, so we bought tickets and decided stay.  We knew his stuff, thought it would be fun, and got in on that action.  We kept drinking, got some food from the food truck/whatever outside, and waited for the show.  His opening act came out, we weren’t familiar so we kept waiting with a few more drinks in hand.  By the time Afroman came on stage, we were in no mood to stay and needed to leave.  We heard one or two of his songs and snuck out.  Once back at the hotel, we cleaned up and prepared to battle it out with more booze and drinking games.  It was a long night and there were many arguments of which whiskey was better between Matt and Kevin.  The next day was rough, and I was the only one fit enough to drive in the morning.  I made many stops throughout Arizona and New Mexico so the guys could take a break and regain their senses.  It was starting to look like it would be a long drive home.  I specifically remember getting McDonald’s at some point between Flagstaff and Amarillo, but I couldn’t tell you where that was.

Our main goal was to drive through until we got home, with a stop in St. Louis for the Gateway Arch and Budweiser Brewing.  We basically took I-40 from Flagstaff all the way through to Oklahoma and then it got weird because we were tired and we wanted to also include Arkansas in our state count so we went out of the way to drive through the northwest corner.  The only thing I truly remember about this portion of the night was finding a retro looking Denny’s in the middle of nowhere and eating there, or maybe not eating there? I have no idea.  We made it to St. Louis by daybreak and visited the brewery and drove by the arch, but did not go up.  We ate an Applebee's just over the river into Illinois and then booked it home.  We were tired, burned out, and ready to off the road at this point.

FINAL THOUGHTS

This trip was planned to the max, with freedom in between the main points which is how I like to travel.  We took hundreds, if not thousands, of pictures which was far more than the year prior.  Our notes were not great, but they were existent which was miles ahead of the original tour.  The feeling of freedom was still there, but it was not exactly like the first trip.  We had more booze, more hotel stays, and more overall adventure, but none of it felt quite like the first time.  I realized this trip could not recreate the first one, but it sure did build on it and introduced me to National Parks and the Pacific Northwest.

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If you look at overall adventure, this trip had it all.  We encountered urban areas, scenic beauty, the ocean, the desert, the high desert, and the plains.  We spent a lot of time driving, and maybe too much time together in the car because of it.  This trip had a lot of tension in the beginning, but since we were stuck together for ten days we worked it out and got over ourselves.  We learned to love every minute and we tried to compromise to meet everyone’s expectations.  I think this trip helped me learn a lot about what I wanted out of a road trip and if you come back next week you’ll see a lot of that knowledge was applied to 2009.

Though this trip was more purposeful, we still didn’t take enough notes or photos to recall everything.  Not recalling everything isn’t always a bad thing, but it is nice to have some points of reference beyond just the memories.
 

Come back here next week and I’ll share Part Three of Four - the 2009 road trip.