I used to think the point of a road trip was pretty well summed up by Jerry Reed in “East Bound and Down”:
“There’s a long way to go and a short time to get there …”
Even if I started a trip thinking we could take our time, at some point the urge to make time grabbed me and we’d keep driving, stopping only to eat and pee, driving sometimes through the night. That feeling—push on, don’t stop—fueled most of the road trips I’ve ever taken, including multiple road trips across the United States, Michigan to Washington, including a memorable 1000-mile final push that ended with me hallucinating in the Palouse and lumps of dried cat shit in our bed. That same feeling pushed us to leave Peggy and Joe’s in Gaithersburg, Maryland, at 9 PM on a cold November night, determined to make a mad dash back to West Lafayette, Indiana, before our infant son woke up. (It didn’t work.)
But this time was different … or should I say, this time “time” was different. There was no deadline: no new job that started next week, no cold front to drive through, no track day to get to, no sleeping kid threatening to wake. Just a few days before the start of the trip, I’d left my job of 14 years and the whole world lay wide open before me. What better time to hop into our super-comfy Volvo V90 Cross Country and set out on an open-ended road trip across the American West with just one agreed-upon resting point: Albuquerque, New Mexico?
This is the story of a road trip, told in 3 parts: one about the car, one about the drive (both parts in this blog post), and one about the great big hole opening up in my mind along the way (that’s coming soon).
We call the car “Rootbeer Float.” That’s the name Sara gave the car shortly after we bought it in the summer of 2017 and for obvious reasons: the car is a lovely chocolate brown on the outside (Volvo calls it Maple Brown Metallic), but open the doors and you just drink in the sumptuous creamy foam of the leather, all over the dash, the doors, the seats, all the way back. Rootbeer Float it is.
Sara chose the name for the car, but the car kind of chose her. Our car shopping started that year because we’d made a decision to change out our car mix, to just acknowledge the fact that Tom was going to be driving a coupe, so that meant Sara needed something bigger. We started out shopping for an SUV, and we ran through drives in the Jaguar F-Pace, a couple Land Rovers, and both the Acura MDX and RDX, but none of these swept Sara off her feet. And then I suggested we take a look at Volvos. When we walked in to Sandberg Volvo in Lynnwood, Sara walked right past the XC60s and XC90s sitting outside and went straight up to the long brown V90 Cross Country that sat in the showroom. We didn’t even have to drive it to know that this was the car, but we did drive it and she loved it. I liked it too, but I had a thing for the Volvo “Bursting Blue” color and I said to Sara, “I love the car, but we should order the blue one and wait for it.” She pulled me aside and said, “We’ll use the fact that this isn’t our first choice color to bring down the price,” and sure enough she did.
I’m not going to rave about the driving dynamics of the car, at least the way I typically think of driving dynamics, spoiled by my M2. I find the tip-in too abrupt—ask for a little oomph and suddenly you get it all—and the engine sound is just meh. It’s a soft ride, so there’s too much roll and you learn not to attack corners but rather to ease into them. But there’s another kind of driving dynamics that the Volvo excels at and that’s just the experience of sitting in the car, being in the car. The 400-way adjustable seats are incredibly comfortable and supple, and that’s before you turn on the massage feature. The full-length sunroof bathes the car in light, and you can filter it with the shade if it’s too much. But you want the light, the better to showcase what may be the most beautiful interior and dashboard I’ve ever seen in a car, with the real wood panels and the luscious creamy leather. Driving in Rootbeer Float is just a different kind of car experience.
I liked Rootbeer Float before the road trip, but after 5,000 miles in it, I think I’m ready to say I love the car. All the things that make it comfortable on short trips just grow in importance when you’re spending hour upon hour in the car for days on end. The comfort, the quiet, the supple ride … yeah, let’s go. We spent most of our time about 10 MPH over the speed limit (sometimes more, as you can see in the photo below), which meant we were doing 75 or more much of the trip, sometimes cruising along at 90, and we returned 28.4 MPG for the whole trip. Not bad for a big wagon.
It wasn’t all sunshine and roses, though, as we blew out a tire 40 miles north of Rock Springs, Wyoming, but even this lone glitch was totally my fault. When we left Rock Springs in the early morning, the temperature was in the low 20s, and we got a warning that said we had low pressure in the left rear tire. This was just the car overreacting to the temperature swing, I reasoned, as it had several times before. So we ignored the warning and kept going, and didn’t think of it again until 40 miles later—40 miles driving straight north into the vast high desert—when it suddenly sounded like there was a helicopter flying overhead. Whap, whap, whap, whap, whap. I looked ahead, as a big truck was coming in the other direction, and thought it must be the truck, but then he passed by and the sound didn’t stop—whap, whap, whap—and then it dawned on me, we had a flat tire.
I pulled off into the drive of a ranch road and hopped out and saw to my intense shame that I had shredded the tire: it was in tatters, nearly wholly ripped off the rim. Whenever I saw other people along the road with a tire in that condition, I thought and generally remarked: “Fucking idiot.” Who would be so dumb to drive so far on a flat tire? Didn’t they know you should pull off right away and not risk damaging your rim or, hell, losing control of the car? So here I was, a fucking idiot, standing alongside the road 40 miles from nowhere, unloading all the gear in the trunk so that I could get at the space saver tire, Sara all the while calling tire stores to find out if anyone had tires that would fit the car.
It really wasn’t that bad from there though: in the 20 minutes it took me to change out the tire, 4 people stopped to offer help. The first two were cowboys in a big-ass pickup, coming out the ranch road. They pulled up and the passenger gave me a big grin and asked if I needed anything. I said I thought I had it figured out, but I knew I looked like a damned fool with a tire shredded like that. “You said it, not me,” he laughed. Two minutes later a young guy stopped over and he too was fully willing to help out, but by then it was pretty clear I was in good shape. I asked him which was the closest place to find tire repair and he said it was either 60 miles north or turn around and go back south to Rock Springs, which would be the better bet. That’s what we did and we had the pleasure of landing at a Les Schwab where, within the hour, they had slapped on four brand new Continental LX25s and had us on our way. The thousand dollar tab didn’t even hurt, as we were getting to the end of life for the tires that were on the car, OEMs from when we bought it new. Hell, the tires were quieter and smoother than before—it was an upgrade! When life gives you lemons, you stop in at Les Schwab for lemonade.
There is a fairly direct path between Seattle and Albuquerque, if you don’t mind sticking to the Interstates most of the way. It’s a 1,444 mile journey, something you could easily knock off in 2 days, maybe even one day if you’re young and hungry and don’t mind ending your day jacked on caffeine. But we aren’t young, we wanted to avoid Interstates, and the only thing we were hungry for was novelty—the novelty of new roads, new sights. After a year of being confined to our house in Snohomish, we were ready for a little adventure. So we chose to lengthen our trip by half each way, choosing two different routes that ended up being right around 2,100 miles each, and because our goal was to also get out for 4-6 miles of walking and exploring each day, that meant we gave ourselves breathing room: 5 days/4 nights.
The conventional way to describe to you our route would be to use road names and numbers and to tell you which direction we went and which towns we went through. Screw that. I want you to narrow your eyes—to squint, try it with me—so you don’t see the details too clearly, and then pretend that you are going on a roller coaster ride across 2100 miles of the American West, with the entire trip compressed into 3 minutes of fun. Ready?
We start out—clickety clack, rackety rackety—up the long climb on-90, east over Snoqualmie Pass, boring, ho-hum, done it a million times (except for the quick trip into Owen’s Custom Meats in Cle Elum to stock up on landjaeger and jerky, because damn, I left them in the bread box). This is the long, slow climb up to the top of the first hill on the massive roller coaster we’re on, and it takes forever but we reach the top just east of Ellensburg, where we get off 90 and then start the long, swerving, dipping slide down the far lower flanks of first the Cascades, then the Sierra Nevadas.
For 3 whole days—but remember, it’s passing in a blur—we barrel up and down across rippling sage colored landscape, up and down the swells of this massive wave of land—Goldendale, the Gorge, narrow canyons opening out into vast plains, the world closing in with forest then boom, just around the bend, widening to an incredible vastness as we come up over a rise and the land falls away, taking our stomachs with it, a flat, nearly white lake in the distance promising water that may just be salt, with some unnamed range beckoning a hundred miles distant. Scale and perspective are all blown out; the world is huge. The ride slows in Bend for a burger and a beer, outside in the cold, then blows wide open as we turn left into morning in the “Oregon Outback,” emptied of people, sometimes thick with trees, sometimes blown free of anything but scrub. We rise again, hardly noticing the climb but for the growing presence of snow around us until we find ourselves impossibly high over Mono Lake, then we wind down, down into a land that grows ever more arid, arid enough to hold an internment camp, testament to our shame, so arid that finally we dive right down to the bottom of Death Valley, and it’s only there that we shake free from the grip of this massive upthrust range and set out across the wide, regular swells of Basin-and-Range Nevada.
Our roller coaster ride had a little transition here: we popped up out of Death Valley for BBQ in Beatty, Nevada, and here was a decision point: turn right for the well-traveled road leading to Vegas, or turn left, north, to spend the night at the Shady Lady, a former brothel exactly one-third of the way to nowhere, backtracking to set ourselves up for the fun house ride across Nevada. You know which one we chose.
Our ride got weird here. No more dipping, rising, plunging vastness; to cross central Nevada is to be in a trance. We gassed up in Tonopah, knowing it was our last chance for a while, then we entered the twilight zone. We’d glide across these long straightaways that stretch ALL THE WAY to the horizon, and just when you think you’ll never turn again, that you’ll just keep driving straight into the endless dry distance, you jog left, then right, wriggling up across the slight rise that defines the range, thinking maybe there’d be something new beyond but no, just another long straightaway, A sign warned of low-flying aircraft, then sure enough, a fighter jet marked his highway crossing on one rootbeer brown Volvo: WHOOOOOSSSSHHH, and the car shuddered, briefly, side to side. 9 times we cross the basins: 9 times we wriggle up then down, then straight, straight, long enough to muse about what would happen if we broke down out here, 50 miles since we’d seen another car, and then, just as we’re getting a little worried, we drop down into Caliente, gassing up again, prematurely maybe (there’s still a third a tank) but it feels right, before entering a new land, scrub pines and the start of red rock country.
The dream, the roller coaster ride, stopped there, at least for me, and became a drive again. The land tightened up as we came into Utah: there were still huge open spaces and vistas, but the features changed more rapidly as we twisted and turned south of Zion and up through Coral Pink Dunes to Kanab. We planned a morning hike in a box canyon nearby, but the morning surprise—2 inches of fresh snow everywhere—kicked us into gear: time to get to Albuquerque. With a promise of “mixed” weather all day, we scooted out, dark brooding clouds and spitting snow chasing us across northeast Arizona—Kayenta, Many Farms, Window Rock—before we dropped down, plop, onto I-40 heading east out of Gallup, poor Sara taking the wheel for the freeway driving, full of semis, as a dust-storm blew us into Albuquerque. As we took the familiar exit onto Rio Grande Blvd. we looked at the dusty brown squalor of the city and wondered, what the hell did we ever see in this place? When we woke to blue skies over the Sandias, we remembered.
The return trip was just as good … but let’s save that story for another time.
Part 3 of this “story” is also Part 3 of my earlier series I’ve called “The Attention Experiment,” so I’ve broken it into a separate blog post. Check back soon for that one.