Roaming About

A Life Less Ordinary

Driving across the USA – East to West via I-80

View near Big Cottonwood Canyon, Utah

Utah

After four days of attending the Annapolis Boat Show as vendors, Mark and I left the East Coast on Columbus Day (Monday, October 10th) in an attempt to cross the country at a fast pace. We were pretty exhausted when we started our trip at 7am, but were assured that sitting on our bum would be the main activity for the week to come. Fortunately, the owners of our new house sit in Northern California managed to postpone their departure with a day, which gave us five days to cover 2800 miles/4500 km. Google Maps predicted that that would take about 40 hours in perfect conditions, but with road work, accidents and some traffic congestion, it took much longer. By the time the Annapolis Sailboat Show came to an end that Monday, we had already reached Chicago! We were very happy with our bonus day on the road, which made it possible to reach Rocklin, CA late afternoon on Friday.

Day 1: Annapolis, MD – Joliet, IL (730 miles/1175 km)

Since this road trip was all about getting to the other side of the US as quickly as possible, Mark and I decided to go with Google’s fastest route, I-80. After reaching this thoroughfare from Annapolis via a few other major highways, it shoots straight across the country with a slight curvature to the north. That being said, it is not the most northern route one can follow, which might have been a bit more exciting, especially in the middle.

Monday was a “five states in a day” kind of day. Maryland, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois. We spent about 12 hours in the car and kept our stops to a minimum: 5-minute fuel and bathroom breaks, with a quick stop halfway to eat our homemade turkey sandwiches (Thank you, Bill and Cathy!). Mark and I alternated as drivers in roughly three-hour intervals. He could work on his computer in the passenger seat (his phone acted as a hotspot to get on the T-Mobile cell network) while I sat at the wheel, and I could do my thing when he drove. While he had no choice, running the business, I caught up on a few things online, but mostly zoned out and looked through the window.

Our E-Z Pass made it easy and straightforward to get on all the toll roads – and there were many – but the charges added up quickly. We were surprised to find out that I-80 was a toll road all through Ohio and Indiana. Gas was the most expensive in Pennsylvania. When we reached Illinois, our elevation was only 600 feet and the sun produced temperatures up to 70°F (21°C). Not that we were able to enjoy the sunshine more than as glare in our screens. We were happy to have “gained” an hour; we needed it to do Wirie testing in the evening and finish up some projects. It was midnight by the time we went to sleep.

Day 2: Joliet, IL – Kearney, NE (625 miles/1006 km)

Sunrise from the car in Illinois

Sunrise from the car in Illinois

It was still pretty busy on the roads in Illinois, where we stayed in the most dilapidated Motel 6 we ever stayed at (and not a bargain at $60 a night either). Road work and accidents slowed us down a little bit, but once we entered Iowa, the road was straight and relatively empty. I liked it; Mark thought the never-ending corn fields were boring. We shared the road with triple trailer semi-trucks (in Australia they call them “road trains”, although in the Midwest they are much shorter than down under) and did not see any other Prius cars anymore.

The service plazas in Iowa were modern, convenient and clean, but other than that, it was corn, corn and more corn, all the way through Nebraska. Our main entertainment was NPR. I had to think about my blogging friend Janis of Retirementally Challenged, while we learned about all kinds of facts and topics on the radio. In this brown and yellow tinted, flat state, the speed limit went up from 70mph to 75mph and driving was a monotonous breeze. While there was still a GSM-signal in the morning, we lost T-Mobile in the afternoon, so Mark had a lot to catch up on in the evening at our motel in Kearney, where WiFi was available.

Day 3: Kearney, NE – Green River, WY (580 miles/933 km)

While this Motel 6 was more modern and clean than the first one, our upstairs neighbors pretended to be elephants all night long. The ceilings were not insulated and creaked with every step they took. We barely slept and blamed the motel as much as the weird non-stop thumping behavior for that. No more Motel 6 on this trip for us!

We started the day with 35°F (1,5°C) and rain in Kearney (the 2000’ elevation kind of explained the low temperatures) and ended in Green River with pleasant and sunny 60-degree (15°C) weather. Nebraska is a very wide state of mainly nothingness, but in Wyoming, the landscape changed and hills appeared. The maximum speed limit became 80mph, but that was a bit too high for our little Prius. We kept cruise control at 75mph (120km/h), just like everywhere else on this road trip. Driving was easy and we had gotten in a comfortable groove. The main inconvenience was our lack of cell service, which meant that each time we received LTE on T-Mobile, near cities like Omaha and Cheyenne, we stopped for about an hour, so Mark could make customer phone calls and return emails. It slowed us down and made the days on the road extra-long, especially when we gained another hour.

Wyoming is one of those states we’d love to go back to. We did not pass any major national parks, but we crossed the Continental Divide twice and reached the highest elevation of I-80 (aka the Lincoln Highway) at a rest stop: 8640 feet/2630 meter. That was also where we noticed the wind was blowing hard and directly from the west, the direction we were traveling in. No wonder our gas mileage had been so poor! We were getting less than 30 mpg instead of our usual 40+ mpg. This meant we had to stop more for fuel and remained astonished at the offer of 85 octane as the inexpensive option instead of 87. Is this a Midwest thing? We didn’t want to put that lower quality of fuel in our tank and ended up paying for higher grade gasoline in these states.

On the up-side, Green River was one of the most attractive places to stop for the night along this stretch of I-80, and we had dinner at a real diner. The evening at our most favorite motel of the trip was quiet. Blame the lack of LTE cell service and unreliable WiFi (even with The Wirie)!

Day 4: Green River, WY – Elko, NV (400 miles/644 km)

On Thursday, we took it a bit easier. We did have to stop a few times for work, but the highlight of the day would be a little detour south of Salt Lake City in Utah. It would be our only sightseeing attempt on this trip, a drive through Big Cottonwood Canyon. But first, we had a couple of surprises…

“Unbelievable! It froze last night!” Mark exclaimed in the morning when he came back into the room after bringing a load of luggage to the car. “If I knew that, I would have taken all of our electronics inside!” We especially worried about our hard drive, which contains everything. Luckily, no damage was done, but staring at the 28°F (-2°C) outside temperature on the dashboard display had me blink a few times. The tire pressure was low and one of the tires needed a top-off. We were not expecting this! Neither did we realize that the previous occupants of our motel room had turned the fridge into a freezer. We consumed iced orange juice, tried to squeeze frozen milk into our cups of cereal and had to toss out all our lunch vegetables. Now, we needed to make less convenient stops and buy our lunches…

I enjoyed looking at the yellow, grassy expanses of arid vegetation, craggy hills and rocky outcrops in Wyoming. It truly felt like we had arrived in the West. The light was extremely bright, requiring sunglasses inside and outside the car. Late-morning, after crossing the border with Utah and stopping for fuel and internet, we entered Big Cottonwood Canyon with its abundance of trails and pretty scenery. We stopped a few times for photos, almost got hit in a parking lot by an inattentive driver and did a short hike to find the Hidden Falls. We did not find them for lack of time, but we did discover a cute river and another easy-to-reach waterfall. This is such a great region for outdoor enthusiasts. We will be back!

Driving along Great Salt Lake and other salt ponds was interesting, and by evening, we were situated well into Nevada, in a small town called Elko. All we can tell you about this place is that we found a decent and cheap motel (less than $50) called Elko Motel and that the owner of the Chinese restaurant “Chef Chang”, two buildings down, was very friendly and accommodating. Once again, we were happy with the third and last “free hour” of this crossing. Driving back in time has its advantages!

Day 5: Elko, NV – Rocklin, CA (400 miles/644 km)

In this part of the country, semi-trucks outnumber cars and the roads are pretty empty. Until you reach California. We didn’t get a good look at the rest of Nevada since forest fires obscured the skies. For a few hours, we drove through a smoke curtain. The air was smelly, hazy and grey. We barely saw the outlines of the pointy hills and, despite the warm weather, had to sit inside to eat lunch. By the way, the healthiest and cheapest lunches all around are available at Subway. During a previous fast road trip to Florida, we discovered that a foot-long Veggie Delight sub costs between $5-$6, depending on your location, and, piled with all the veggies they have, one of those is enough for the two of us. (PS: We are pretty big eaters.)

Once we entered the sierras, the sky remained grey, but it was a different kind of grey. The rain started when we crossed over the border into California and from then until we arrived, it came down in buckets. Quite ironic, actually, since this is exactly what they needed 100 miles earlier. The curvy, mountainous highway, busy traffic and heavy downpours made for a white-knuckle ride the last two hours of our trip. But, we arrived safe and well in Rocklin, and after greeting dog Hercules and his owners, receiving instructions and information and unloading the car, we dove into a very comfortable bed with no alarm clock to wake us up in the morning!

20 Comments

  1. I loved going along with you on your road trip! Even though your route was different, it reminded me of the road trip my husband and I took a year ago last spring.

    Welcome to California! I hope you are settling in and enjoying your new “home.” Thanks for the shout-out… NPR certainly is a godsend when you are on the road. I’m looking forward to reading about your upcoming adventures.

  2. Glad you made it safe and sound. That IS such a long road trip….thank goodness for NPR! Enjoy California.

  3. Wow what a long trip! I don’t think I could have sat in a car for that many hours each day, but when you’re on a schedule you don’t really have a choice. It’s neat to drive cross-country and see how much the scenery changes.

    • Once we got in a groove and weren’t so tired anymore, the pace was fine. Taking turns driving definitely is key! Hope you have a non-eventful weekend, Ellen! 🙂

  4. Ah, I had to smile about a few things you mentioned. First off, Wyoming is a mountain state and not Midwest. Due to higher elevations 85 octane is equal to 87 and is very common throughout the mountain states but never seen in the flat Midwest.

    That’s a snow fence you saw. It’s to help keep blowing snow from piling onto the interstate because it sure snows a lot and winds never stop in Wyoming.

    Last month we had to make a quick trip back to Colorado to retrieve our utility trailer and store it in Arizona. We opted to tent it because we’ve had so many negative hotel experiences plus the campground fees were a fraction of the cost. And you can’t beat subway, one of our go to back ups.

    Glad you made it safely to your next gig. I look forward to following your adventures at this new location.

    • What would I do without you, Ingrid? Thanks for clarifying all those things. You are a pro when it comes to road tripping. Mark was wondering whether the fences had something to do with snow, but we still couldn’t figure out what. I guess they somehow prevent (some) snow drifts from falling onto the highway. I’ll change my wording about Wyoming in the blog. I really appreciate you pointing that out. And, the octane thing… very interesting. Even here in Cali, some fuel stations still sell 85 and some don’t. I had no idea about the elevation influence… We usually prefer tent camping as well (weather permitting), but in this situation, we would have lost a lot of time setting up and breaking down and figuring out dinner and it getting dark early, and Mark needing a desk every morning and evening, so we chose for the more convenient option of a motel. We are getting “soft” (and/or old)! 🙂

      • I hear ya on the ‘old’ front. Although we handled the tenting ok, we sure missed our 5th wheel… the ideal way to travel. Hope you enjoy your new Cali gig!

        • Funny! That’s exactly what we thought when we went camping over the summer, how much cleaner and more comfortable this experience would be in our truck camper. 🙂 Glad to be in Cali, but living in the suburbs, surrounded by three lane roads and malls is a shock to our system. Convenient, though!

  5. Thanks for this travel log! Maybe it is because I’ve been to southern Wyoming too many times, but I find the desolation tedious. The rest of the state is glorious and well worth any visit.

    As for Utah, come back anytime! I have a room that you can almost always use (plus your own bathroom) as a base of operations.

    • Ryan, now you tell me! 🙂 We really liked the little part of Utah we saw and definitely will be back. Thanks for the offer. Our few hours there made me seriously wonder why you would leave and swap this state for the one you have in mind. I guess you prefer fresh water lakes to salt ponds? 🙂

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