Road trip recap

13 Oct

When you move cross-country, the beginning of the trip is really what feels like an ending. This is the longest moving road trip I’ve taken, but not the only one. Intuitively it feels like the part of the trip that defines the new phase of your life should be showing up at the new place you’re going to live, but that’s not the case. Leaving feels like a much larger life event than arriving. When I got to Oakland it didn’t feel much different than when I got to Reno the day before.

Here is a map showing my route:

I-35 to I-80 with a little detour onto I-76 to Denver

Here is my itinerary:
Day 1: Minneapolis to Lincoln
Day 2: Lincoln to Denver
Day 3: hang out in Denver
Day 4: Denver to Salt Lake City
Day 5: hang out in Salt Lake City
Day 6: Salt Lake City to Reno
Day 7: Reno to Oakland

Here is a state by state recap:

I already mentioned how the start of the trip feels like an ending. Consider that point reëmphasized.* Driving out of the alley leaving my parents house was accompanied by a distinct feeling of “holy shit I’m really doing this.” Retracing a familiar route knowing it’s the last time you’re going to do it is surreal.

*On my blog I’ll be writing words like reëmphasize and coördinate with umlauts like they do in The New Yorker. I realize that’s pretentious and I don’t care.

I’ve spent most of my life in Minnesota, and driving south on I-35 is kind of odd. I’ve only done it a couple of times, so even fifteen minutes or so from Minneapolis it feels totally foreign. I’ve seen road signs pointing toward Albert Lea hundreds of times in my life. I’ve never been there or met anyone from there. Actually driving through it is a surprisingly jarring experience.

Hey I’ve driven on this highway!

Driving through Iowa is boring. That’s all there is to it. To Iowa’s credit, Des Moines is unexpectedly large (not in the sense of being actually large, just in the sense of exceeding expectations). They have a couple tall buildings and a beltway and everything. I’ve been to Des Moines once. All I remember is a bland suburban subdivision and getting lost on the way to a soccer game. I definitely recall taping ankles on the moving bus. I probably stayed at a Courtyard by Marriott or something. A lot of those trips blend together. That might make for some interesting blog reading. Stay tuned. So anyway Des Moines seemed like an OK town. Not great, but not the kind of backwater you might think.

Other than Des Moines there wasn’t much in Iowa on my route. A lot of corn. A lot of cows. I did see something that I feel obliged to pass along. You may be familiar with Barilla brand pasta. It has positioned itself as a fairly upscale brand; it’s one of the more expensive brands of regular white flour pasta you encounter at your local supermarket. This image is what greets you at their official website:

Well I guess I’ll cancel my Italian vacation then

While driving through Iowa, I passed a complex of grain silos bearing the Barilla logo. That’s right, when you eat Barilla pasta, you aren’t discovering Italy–you’re discovering Iowa. You are BUSTED Barilla pasta.

Nebraska is a lot like Iowa. Corn etc. I stayed overnight in Lincoln at a Rodeway Inn. This was not a nice place to stay. There were sketchy characters in the parking lot leaning against a pickup truck drinking beer. I like to think they were meth dealers. I got to Lincoln in the early afternoon so I had the chance to do some sightseeing. Jealous? There are two sights to see in Lincoln: the State Capitol building and the University of Nebraska campus. I was there on a Sunday so I don’t think the Capitol was open. Cool building though. I also walked around campus a bit. It was hot as fuck so this wasn’t as enjoyable as it could have been. Like upper 90s. I’m glad I don’t have to deal with that kind of heat anymore. The campus was like most other nondescript large state university campuses.

The real attraction in Lincoln is Memorial Stadium. I went into the main lobby and there was only one guy there (this was a Sunday, remember). He was pretty friendly for a security guard, and let me in to walk around a bit. There were a bunch of offices and athlete lounges and stuff in the stadium. I think this is pretty common, and it always strikes me as odd. Don’t they have a better place to put this shit? I was in West Virginia’s basketball arena once, and they have the whole PE department in the concourse. Classrooms, offices, everything. Not what I am used to from my undergraduate experience. From the field the stadium feels a bit unbalanced. They have a crazy amount of seating in the end zones and not enough on the sidelines.

They’re adding a matching giant press box on the right sideline

I thought Colorado would be all mountains all the time. That’s not really how it works. It’s more like driving up a gentle hill for several hours and then seeing a sign with some crazy elevation level. East of Denver things seemed pretty barren. Nebraska-esque even. I spent a day in Denver, which I enjoyed. One thing about Denver is that there’s a Six Flags practically downtown. Bizarre. I went to the Denver Art Museum, which had a pretty good collection. Not great. It’s one of the museums that’s been renovated/expanded recently and has gotten a lot of publicity for the architecture. I wish museum architecture wasn’t such a thing. I’ve been to a few of these museums in the last couple of years, and to be honest, it doesn’t add much to my appreciation of the art. I can see how it’s important as a matter of civic pride though. Especially for those second-tier American cities like Denver. Having a signature building like a museum is something to put on brochures and brag about to out-of-towners.

Just look at that roller coaster

Wyoming is a more interesting state to drive through than Nebraska or Iowa simply because of the landscape. Its nice to have some hills to look at, and sometimes the road curves or there are bridges and tunnels to keep things interesting. I stopped at a Burger King in Wyoming. That was the only thing I did there.

In general, I tried to eat at interesting local restaurants on this trip. That isn’t always possible on the interstate. I think that I stopped at McDonald’s at least once every day I was driving. And the thing is, I didn’t have a burger or fries there once. It’s easy for me to see how McDonald’s maintains its position as market leader. It isn’t about being better than other fast-food restaurants, it’s about familiarity and convenience. Even in the vast expanse of the west, McDonald’s is probably the most common sight on the freeway. I would try to start driving by 7am every day. Then I’d stop at McDonald’s for breakfast/coffee between 9 and 10am. The food is always the same. I’ve eaten at countless different McDonald’s (McDonalds’? McDonald’ses? Writing this paragraph has been a nightmare) in my life, and there is never a change in quality. That’s not to say that the food is good, just that it’s always the same. There’s value in that. Especially in a strange place. McDonald’s should be commended. I would also frequently stop in the afternoon just for a Coke. Getting off the freeway and driving through at McDonald’s is much more convenient than stopping at a gas station. And you can get any drink for $1. Do you know how much drinks cost at gas stations? It’s ludicrous.

If you want mountains, skip Colorado and go to Utah. Driving into Salt Lake City is impressive. The highway cuts through valleys and there are peaks and mountain lakes and streams. It’s the kind of drive where I wish I had been a passenger so I could have looked around more.

There are a lot of Mormons in Salt Lake City, which is kind of a goofy place. I walked around Temple Square some. I didn’t think it was that impressive, honestly. I could make some snarky jokes about Mormons here, but I don’t want to offend anyone since I know so many Mormons read this blog. There are four streets named “Temple”: North, South, East, and West. Confusing. I noticed that everything is closed on Sundays. Even the Vietnamese restaurant I went to. Other than the Temple there isn’t much downtown. If you drive down the main drag, it starts to look like an exurb literally ten blocks out of downtown. Unnecessarily wide, car dealers, strip malls, no pedestrians anywhere. I dropped in on the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art, which was very small. I was not expecting to see contemporary art at all in SLC, so kudos to them. This was such a boring city that I ran out of things to do in my day and a half there and went to the movies. I saw Moonrise Kingdom, which I had already seen. I do not regret it. It is a great movie and I’m confident seeing it is more fun than anything else in SLC. It was also in the 90s there. I thought that high up it might be cooler. NOPE. Strike three. At least three. Probably more.

I stopped and saw the Great Salt Lake, which was almost as disappointing as SLC. The only thing on the shore are dead birds and swarms of bugs that chill on the sand and then fly away like a flock of birds when you approach. The birds don’t really decompose because of all the salt, so whatever doesn’t get eaten just stays there. Lots of bones and feathers. I wouldn’t stop there again.

The salt flats were kind of interesting, in that there isn’t really anything like it anywhere else. This was starting to get into the desert, which was eerie and kind of nerve-racking to drive through.

I also got pulled over in Utah for crossing over the far right white line on an exit ramp with my passenger side tires. This is something that every driver does on every exit ramp. Man fuck Utah.

Last year I saw Meek’s Cutoff, which I really enjoyed. It’s about a group of families traveling west in wagons. They take a shortcut that might be a boondoggle. The movie is about their increasingly desperate situation. It stars Michelle Williams. She is Hollywood’s best actor. Highly recommended. I spent a lot of time on this trip thinking about pioneers. It’s amazing to me that people made trips longer than the one I made in covered wagons. The most amazing part is Nevada. There is nothing in Nevada. This is stereotypical one-exit-every-hundred-miles territory. I stopped and bought two liter bottles of water in case my car broke down. If that happened I would have been walking like one of the poor souls in Meek’s Cutoff. That kind of terrified me. I am not good at cars. I learned how to change a flat tire when I was fifteen but I’ve never had a flat, so I haven’t done it since then. Fifteen was a long time ago. If I had to change a tire this would be me:


Except on I-80 in Nevada there isn’t anyone passing by to offer tips. Thank God I made it through Nevada.

I stayed overnight in Reno. Reno is a depressing place. I stayed at the Circus Circus downtown. I was on the top floor. What a fucking high roller I am. I’d say the hotel was 15% full. On a Friday. Casino floors are sad places to me in general, and Reno’s slogan might as well be, “We’re not Las Vegas and it shows!” Everyone gambling looked like they had been there for hours without moving. I was definitely not underdressed in mesh shorts and a t-shirt. The best part of the city was recognizing things from the interstitial shots of Reno 911!  I’m not planning to go back to Reno.

Yes this is the hotel where Carrot Top threw a bunch of stuff out the window in that one episode of Reno 911!

The state line is in the Sierra Nevada mountains, which are beautiful. Just inside the state line is Donner Lake. I mentioned pioneers earlier, and the Donner Party is my go-to party when thinking about pioneers. I watched an American Experience documentary about them in high school, and I was totally riveted. It was narrated by David McCullough, who is the best narrator there is. He’s probably most famous for narrating Ken Burns’s The Civil War. He’s also the author of many books, some of which you may have heard of and has won two Pulitzer Prizes. So everyone should watch that documentary.

I pulled off the highway and drove around Donner Lake, which was kind of disappointing. It’s just another lake with vacation homes and boaters. I was hoping there would be a Donner Party museum or something. What I really wanted was to see the camp and the famous trees the party cut at the snow level that winter. That would have been cool.

That is a lot of snow

Then came the Central Valley. Then came the traffic. Then came Oakland.

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