The American Dream Adventure: Driving Across the Country

by Dan Trew.

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The pretense of this adventure was to shuttle a friend of mine across the country, from Pennsylvania to Washington. Almost like a last hurrah, this trip was to be our last adventure together. Truthfully, I really just wanted to drive across the country like all young people dream of and spoiler: I would do so again. He originally asked me to join him several months prior to our expected departure date, and with little more than a date and an end destination, I immediately accepted the invite. Loose on details and high on adventure, we started out across the land.

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We started out bright and early driving south towards Fayetteville West Virginia, home of the New River Gorge. The cruise through rural Appalachia was not unpleasant. There were many stunning vistas along the road and a decidedly east-coast feel to the mountains with their mostly deciduous trees that went from the dull grey sticks that still peppered the mountains here in PA to the rather verdant hills south of the Mason-Dixon. The hills themselves changed as we drove south as well. As we went from State College through Maryland and portions of West Virginia, the ridge and valley systems slowly changed to steep 300-500 ft hills that squished right up next to each other, making the land less the organized and more like an alluvial egg carton.

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My friend was the driver for this portion of the trip, leaving me with many opportunities to acquire pictures of the landscape. I had hoped to catch a picture of the more interesting motor vehicles that populate this region of the country. The landscapes were equally truly a site to behold.

Once firmly in the south, we dropped off some of the extra things my friend had intended to leave with his family whilst he tramped around the country for the next 3 months. We enjoyed fine pizza and locally brewed root beer and decided to get a few westward miles under our belt since we had only gone south to this point.

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We switched places, and it was my turn at the wheel. I pointed the car west on I-64 and set the cruise control to 70. We stopped a little outside of Louisville, Kentucky and took pictures at a Jim Beam plant and a sign announcing the location of the Center for Mollusk Conservation.

We started early the next morning since we wanted to get a good start on the day. The change in scenery wasn’t fully apparent in the little we could see in our headlights, but come morning we were treated to a completely different set of landscapes than we had left behind in West Virginia. The mountains had mellowed into longer rolling hills plastered with farms and fields bordered by rows and clusters of trees. We joked about American myths such as Paul Bunyan using a giant iron to smooth out the Midwest. Perhaps there was some truth to those after all?

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As we made our way into Missouri, the only attraction that I wanted to see was the St. Louis Ach. And by “see,” mostly I just wanted to look at it from a quarter-mile away and take a picture or two.

I took the few hours leading up to the Gateway to the West to look up other attractions we might want to stop at. The one that sounded the weirdest was a waste containment structure, west of St. Louis. It was apparently built to hold a bunch of nuclear waste and other very nasty things. So after a little walk about town and a stop at a city food market, we set off to see this “attraction.”

On the drive over, I spied an F18 doing some odd maneuvers. When I saw a handful more, I asked my friend to get my binoculars to see if the planes were painted the blue and gold of The Blue Angels: young Dan Trew’s heroes. As we pulled into the parking lot of our destination, it became clear that we happened to be in town during a huge air show, and the F18s were in fact Blue Angels just getting to the good part of their routine. I stood in awe outside of the car completely forgetting that I had a camera around my neck as they did a low altitude flyover about 100 feet above us. They don’t do that for crowds at air shows for obvious safety reasons, so to say I was excited would be a huge understatement!

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Minor geek-out aside, we got a short history tour of the disposal site and walked up what I can only describe as the weirdest hike I have ever been on. The structure was exceptionally regularly shaped, to the point that it felt like you were on the moon. The lack of any reference points along the very straight surface would almost give you vertigo. The pictures included showcase an otherwise mostly indescribable experience. This was not our destination, however, as St Louis was a resting point, and the real end point for the day was to be Oklahoma.

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We left the strange trapezoid around 4:30 and unfortunately followed the instructions of my friend’s GPS, getting off the highway and right into the traffic exiting from the air show. There was literally no worse place we could have turned off. I tried to pull us out by skirting through a mall complex hoping for an alternative exit, and all I found was a spot for us to sit in a mall parking lot for the better part of two hours. Two incredibly frustrating hours.

Eventually, we successfully got back to the highway and made our way to Oklahoma, where the wind came whipping up off the plain. At this time there were still things I would call hills scattered here and there, and most of them even had large numbers of trees. The plains had yet to really start. We pulled into a little state park and spent the night hoping that we wouldn’t be blown away. The next day was the real test.

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The morning was beautiful with puffy cumulous clouds moving across the sky and very hospitable temperatures in the high 60s. My friend drove in the morning until we got just over the Texas line, at which point it still pretty much looked like where we had come from previously: rolling hills with diminishing trees. About 2 hours into my turn at the wheel that all changed.

It is hard to put into words just how terrifyingly flat West Texas is, especially in 90 degree heat with winds gusting to 45. I would love to experience that area at night with little to no light pollution because I think if you were to look up you would feel like you would just get sucked up into the sky. There were no landmarks, no senses of perspective — just long, perfectly flat plains filled with dusty crops and dustier equipment. The road disappeared around the curve of the earth with no turns in it. It is truly an experience. I soldiered on through Texas and witnessed 1,000 ft tall dust devils and huge dust storms beginning to boil up from the baked soil around us.

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Despite these awe-inspiring sights, we were more than excited when New Mexico came and give us actual topography we could perceive. I finished out the drive through New Mexico — by far my favorite state scenery wise — pointing out landmarks I knew and geological features I remembered from previous trips. In the town of Gallup, New Mexico we switched roles and also paid a visit to a Wal-Mart where I purchased 6 lbs of vegetables and some juices since I was quite tired of eating processed snack foods and diet sodas from rest stops.

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Over 1,000 miles from where we had started that day, we parked in some woods behind Flagstaff, Arizona where I got to fight very strong winds for a second night. For the majority of the evening, the wind threatened to blow me away, literally. There were several points in the night where I found myself trying, mostly in vain, to keep my tent from collapsing in the strong gusts. At one point, I found myself over the door of the tent while the floor was being blown over my head.

Morning did come though, and an oil change and some discount pretzel hot dog buns later we met up with an old friend. We all spent the day together, visiting a local outdoor shop, eating at fancy restaurants, and hiking up the side of a mountain. It was a good non-driving day. My friend and I retired to a place called Priest Draw in Northern Arizona where he wanted to do some bouldering and I could walk around and take pictures.

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The following day we did just that until about noon. My morning was spent picking a direction and heading off until I felt like I had gone far enough, only to pick a new direction and repeat the process. In that way I found a survey marker from the department of agriculture, a very seldom traveled path, several animal tracks, and a peaceful harmony with the world around me. It was a good morning.

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The afternoon was spent speeding through the remainder of Arizona, Nevada, and into Yosemite. This was the real scenic highlight of the trip, and often I would remark on how absolutely gorgeous it was. Things like the setting sun blasting though a gap in the clouds over top of the Sierras to long sun mottled vistas of desert mesas — sights you just can’t get in State College. After a bit of campsite confusion, we eventually found our way to our resting spot in Yosemite.

The following morning, I got to see the childlike joy of my friend as I showed him all the sights he had only ever seen pictures of or read books about. It was a pretty standard first day in Yosemite; though, thanks to my friend’s girlfriend, we were able to use the staff showers and get the last few days of travel grime off of us.

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The next day was my real day in Yosemite. I found a very difficult trail and took it to the 6,000 ft top of Nevada Falls. I decided to give my knees a break by taking a different trail back down and continued around until I had done about 10 miles and a few thousand feet of elevation for the day. My back regretted the decision to bring only a shoulder bag and staged a coup to cripple me with very powerful muscle spasms in my lower back.

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Wrapping up my day with a trip to the Fresno airport at 5 AM, I said my farewells to my friend and got on my airplane. In theory my adventure would stop there; however, the State College flight I was supposed to get on was cancelled. My best guess is that the airplane that was intended to get to Washington from Newark had some mechanical issues. They apparently returned to Newark without ever landing in Washington, leaving me with no airplane and a solid 14 hours until the next flight. With one final night of camping under my belt, I settled into the 6AM flight and promptly passed out for the entire duration of the trip. Needless to say, I was exhausted from the adventure.

Without any hesitation, I would happily travel across country again. You never know exactly what you’ll find or what adventures you’ll be exposed to. If you have the opportunity, definitely take the plunge like my friend and I did. It’ll be worth it, for sure!

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  1. Pingback: /Explore | Trew Travels by Train

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