Back in June of 2018, my daughter and I drove from West Virginia to Montana, towing a 4,000 pound trailer full of our stuff. A few weeks ago, it became clear that I needed to return to West Virginia. Plans were made and departure set for Sunday December 16, 2018.
Bigfork, MT to Polson, MT
The departure date was moved up a day. On Saturday, the 15th, a friend helped me put the 34 foot motorhome into an enclosed 14 by 41 foot storage unit. I had already filled up with gas the day before and I hit the road at 1:30 PM, MST. Given that I wanted to continue building things in my spare time, my little Toyota Corolla was loaded to the ceiling with tools and other heavy gear like a drill press and welding machine. The rear end of the car was squatting way down from the weight so I’d have to drive carefully.
I’m always concerned about breakdowns on long trips like this where I’m far away from help or anyone I know. During the first 30 miles south along the shore of Flathead Lake, I was listening carefully for any odd noises. My imagination obliged by conjuring up tire noises, bearing noises, and gear noises. Road conditions were good with a few small patches of ice.
Polson to Missoula, MT
At Polson, I turned south on Highway 93. This is a scenic stretch with snow covered mountains just east of the highway that resemble the Swiss Alps. The highway was straight and good quality to St. Ignatius, MT.
Mountains south of Polson, Montana
After St. Ignatius, the highway crosses mountains and changes from narrow, straight, and flat to a wide high speed superhighway with big sweeping turns and gentle ups and downs. The climate here is also more wintry. Although I had mostly sunshine, the road was still covered with snow, ice, and water. Trucks were going fast and throwing big sprays of slush on my windshield. With the late sun in my eyes, glaring off the wet highway, and the slush and dirt on the windshield, it was challenging to see. It was not a fun stretch to drive and seemed quite dangerous.
Eventually, the section of diving, sweeping turns settled down to relatively flat superhighway but still with plenty of ice patches. It was clear that winter is more severe along this stretch from St. Ignatius to Missoula than farther north where I was in the Flathead Valley. I stopped at a rest area for a few minutes. Walking was challenging because of the thick ice everywhere and it was cold and windy. I was impressed by the construction of the restroom building. It had double doors and powerful electric heaters to heat the entry space between the sets of doors. I got the distinct impression that winters in this area are harsher than anything I’ve ever seen.
Highway 93 Approaching Missoula, Montana
The sun went down and it became fully dark just as I reached Missoula. I had no reason to stop and transitioned directly onto I-90 East.
Missoula to Butte, MT
This segment of I-90 from Missoula to Butte was interesting to me and very challenging for truckers. I was lucky that the weather was decent. East of Missoula, the Interstate commences a steep climb into rugged terrain. I passed a chain-up area for trucks and my ears popped from the elevation change. The temperature plunged into the low 20s. I saw no elevation signs and didn’t think to used the barometric altimeter in my phone, so I don’t know how high the summit was. Past the summit was an area for trucks to remove chains and a steep descent, like a 6 percent grade for two miles. That seemed pretty intense for an Interstate but, apparently unavoidable.
A few miles along commenced another steep climb and the same sequence — plunging temperature, ears popped, chain-up area, summit, followed by a steep descent. This was a series of steep climbs and descents. I didn’t count them. The final summit was marked Continental Divide and the descent took me into Butte, Montana. I thought to myself, if I drove an 18-wheeler, I’d simply refuse to drive this route. This is crazy.
Butte, Bozeman, Livingston, Billings
After Butte, the terrain flattens out considerably to the east. This was fine with me since flat is more fuel efficient than ups and downs. But flat also meant that the gusty winds I had felt since before Missoula were no longer obstructed by rough terrain, and could build up speed. The wind was impressive at times, blowing everyone around on the road. To my surprise, because my car is tiny, aerodynamic, and overloaded with heavy equipment stowed low to keep the center of gravity low, I was blown around less than everyone else. This was fine with me.
Livingston was the only town I passed that I had been to before. All of this was new to me. I was starting to feel tired as I approached Billings, but it wasn’t that late, maybe 11 PM or midnight. I wanted to see northern Wyoming in daylight but I also wanted to press on and not fool around. I considered getting a motel here in Billings. It was cold. I figured the farther south I went, the warmer it would get. Finally, I just refueled and headed south into Wyoming.
Billings to Casper
I saw the moonrise when I turned south at Polson and now the moon was setting. It was pitch dark on this drive, but the stars were spectacular. On the drive out in June, my daughter said I’d love the stars in Montana. I was looking forward to taking some good photos of the Milky Way. But, it was not to be. Astronomical “seeing” conditions around Bigfork, Montana were only marginally better than in West Virginia — pretty poor. The conditions around Billings and now into Wyoming were spectacular. Why? The answer is pine trees. On many mornings in Bigfork, you can see the pine “smoke” laying dense over the cuts and valleys, almost like a fog. Pine trees outgas a kind of smog. It’s what makes the Smoky Mountains smoky, and it greatly restricted “seeing”. Here in Wyoming, no pines, just scrub brush, and crystal clear skies. But, I had no time to stop and enjoy it.
Once into Northern Wyoming, the terrain changed in a familiar way, even though I had never been in this part of Wyoming before. The road was continuously changing elevation over rounded hills and across rounded valleys. There was no flat ground anywhere, no straight climbs or descents. It was just like the terrain of West Virginia. This made me wonder. The coal country of West Virginia is like this, and I was in the coal country of Wyoming. Is there a connection between coal deposits and this kind of terrain? I’m not a geologist, I don’t know.
There was very little traffic here in Wyoming and the two sides of the Interstate were so far apart one could leave high-beams on continuously without bothering oncoming traffic. This is a lonely stretch of highway and it was boring at night. But I pressed on hard.
Back in 1979, I had a job offer from one of the coal mines in the Sheridan, Buffalo, Gillette area of Wyoming. I didn’t take it and always wondered what might have happened, had I taken it and remained in Wyoming. So I looked forward to seeing a glimpse of Sheridan and Buffalo. I mainly wanted to see Gillette, since that’s where I would have had to move, but it was off my path.
By now, I was getting pretty tired, so I refueled in Buffalo and hoped I could make it to the Kaycee Rest Area without falling asleep. I did. It was a nice rest area but it was too cold. This was also my first attempt at sleeping in the car and I didn’t have a blanket or anything ready to hand. The next time I tried this I was more prepared and had unstowed a blanket and pillow. It was 21F outside and the car rapidly became too cold. I woke up after 90 minutes of sleep and felt pretty good, except for the cold in my bones.
I sat in the car and sipped a Coke for a little while, until I saw the first faint pink glow on the horizon. Then I headed south for Casper. The increasing light of dawn revealed a land of endless winter desolation of snow and snow fences. This much hadn’t changed since I lived in Wyoming 40 years ago. Wyoming snow is dry powder and the wind blows it endlessly back and forth across the land, creating ground blizzards, even though it may be sunny and blue sky above. The snow fences help make the snow drift up and stop moving. The landscape was occasionally punctuated by a microwave tower, but that’s about it.
Mile after mile of flat land and occasional gentle rises. On and on, until I finally reached Casper. The terrain around Casper, with the steep bluff south of town, I instantly recognized from afar. The rest, not so much. I slowed and managed to recognize a couple of things. I exited I-25 at the center of town and drove a few blocks through what used to be the entire town. Back in 1979, there were just two ramps for I-25, one at the east and one at the west end of town. Now, there are many more. But, I did locate the east ramp that I always used and which figures in another story I tell in my biography. I located the McDonalds I used to frequent. It had been rebuilt long ago and needed rebuilding again. I left Casper by way of the same east ramp I had always used and headed on my way.
Casper to Cheyenne
Leaving Casper, I was astounded by all the new construction and industry. I passed through Douglas and pulled off for a moment there. Douglas used to be just a couple of blocks in size. All of that was gone and replaced with a modern city.
On the trip from WV to MT in June, my daughter and I saw numerous large wind farms. Now I would see many more, starting here in Wyoming. Some of these wind farms are tremendous and go on for miles along the Interstate and miles to either side. I didn’t stop, but there was a good photo opportunity east of Casper where I could have captured oil wells, a gigantic coal power plant, and wind turbines in one frame.
At night, the wind farms are easily recognized because of the synchronized red clearance lights. Each wind turbine has a red aircraft clearance light. I suppose that hundreds of these blinking randomly is hard to interpret from an aircraft, so all the lights are synchronized — square miles of red lights turning on and off together.
I hadn’t had enough rest, and it was only mid-morning. I’m a night-person and even though I usually get up around 9 AM, I don’t come fully awake until 2 PM. I was fighting sleepiness and had to stop and walk around every 60 minutes or so. The dog didn’t mind the extra walks, but it was cold and windy.
As I drove along I-25, which I used to know like the palm of my hand, it was familiar but something was wrong. It didn’t look right. Eventually, I realized, it had been resurfaced. When I drove from Casper to Cheyenne, I-25 was new, all smooth and white concrete. It had been resurfaced with black and brown asphalt, so it looked wrong. There was also more hill climbing than I remembered.
I stopped for gas and a break at Wheatland. I laughed at Lusk, WY as I passed it, just as I always used to do. It was the only place that hadn’t changed. It was a local joke then and is still today — a couple of old buildings and a couple of mobile homes alongside a railroad track. I still don’t know why the town exists.
Some things looked vaguely familiar as I approached Cheyenne, but it had changed completely and grown tremendously. I almost didn’t stop, but I did and looked it over for a few minutes from a high point near the intersection of I-25 and I-80. The Interstate took me right past the entrance to Warren AFB and Missile Drive, and that looked the same. If I had had more time, I would have explored downtown to find familiar landmarks, the house we lived in, and the railroad yard. But, there was no time for that and I didn’t want to drive the car any more than absolutely necessary. This trip would have been a bad time for a breakdown.
Cheyenne to Denver
As I mentioned, I’m a night person and a very slow starter in the morning. I had been driving for six hours but it was only noon and I was still sleepy. I don’t usually reach full mental speed until about two or three in the afternoon. I was dragging and not at all sure what to do. It was bright, sunny, cold, and not a place I wanted to stop and rest, so I decided to press on. I was willing to do whatever was necessary to avoid Denver traffic. It’s always terrible and a Sunday afternoon seemed like a good time to tackle it.
Not far south on I-25 from Cheyenne, one crosses into Colorado. As I expected, the quality of the road got much worse and the quality of the drivers as well. I’m sorry if this offends Coloradans, but in my experience, Coloradans are the worst drivers in the country. I’ve observed this since the 1960s in California, and nothing had changed. I’d see a crazy driver on a California freeway and, sure enough, Colorado plates. So, here I was on terrible, poorly maintained road with crazy drivers all around.
Soon, while still 80 miles north of Denver, I saw the plume of Denver smog stretching along the Rocky Mountains west of me. I hadn’t seen bad photochemical smog in many years, but there it was. Soon, I could smell it. Wow. And to think I grew up in Los Angeles, in this same stink, before Southern California cleaned up its air. Why can’t Denver clean their air? I don’t know. I stopped at a rest area for a few minutes to walk the dog. It was very stark and poorly maintained. I resolved to get through Denver and out of Colorado as fast as possible.
Traffic quickly became very dense and intense, but never dropped to stop-and-go, thank goodness. The only way to deal with crazy Colorado drivers is to drive just as crazy as they, so I bombed along and headed for the airport because I knew this would place me on I-70 heading east out of Denver. As I passed the airport and Denver was receding in my rearview mirror, my fatigue finally faded away and I came fully awake. I was past Denver. Hurray! I knew that ahead of me stretched about 800 miles of nothing until I reached Kansas City.
Denver to Kansas City
After leaving Denver, the road quality improved on I-70. Southeast of Denver, Colorado is a great open space of nothing. At least I had finally left the snow behind me. Upon crossing into Kansas, the road quality improved even more, to near perfect — quiet, flat, like riding on rails.
My 90 minute sleep at the rest stop in Kaycee, WY taught me that trying to sleep in a car when it’s 21 degrees F outside is problematic. In about an hour, the icy cold seeps into the car, and I have a hard time sleeping when my feet are freezing. All day, I had been keeping my eye on the temperatures around me and the forecasts showed lows of around 40 degrees along I-70 in Kansas. I wanted to reach that area before stopping to rest. There was a mass of cold air moving down from the north but it was expected to stop short of I-70. Unfortunately, it didn’t. The cold air continued south until it just engulfed I-70 and then stopped advancing — just far enough to mess up my plans. Yet, I had to stop and rest.
Kansas has plentiful rest stops along I-70, nicely laid out, clean, well-maintained. I chose one near Quinter, KS and settled in for a rest. By now I had worked out an arrangement of a blanket and pillow. After walking the dog, I settled in and managed to fall asleep. Ideally, I’d like to drive in and make use of my fatigue to immediately fall asleep in the warm car. But, having to walk the dog first breaks the spell. I have to go outside and walk around in the cold air, which wakes me up again. But, I did get to sleep, waking up 90 minutes later, cold. It was 29 degrees outside — better than 21 but not 40.
Some drivers repeatedly start and run the car to warm it up. Others simply leave the engine running all night to stay warm. I refuse to do either one of these things. So, after 90 minutes of sleep, I hit the road again. Besides, I prefer to drive at night.
This was Sunday night and I knew I had been enjoying reduced weekend traffic, which would soon come to an end in a few hours. It looked to me that if I pushed, I could make it though Kansas City before morning rush hour, and I resolved to attempt it. With this goal in mind, I hit the road with a will at about 1 AM and made use of the 75 and 80 MPH speed limits. Now I was on a mission, which helps maintain focus and alertness.
I flew past Salina and continued on to Topeka. Here, along I-70, was one wind farm after another, for miles and miles. At Topeka, I knew the Interstate became a toll road to Kansas City, but had forgotten this. Suddenly, there was a sign that said “Last Free Exit”. I should have continued straight but I dove across the freeway and took the exit, thinking that I would end up on surface streets and could stop and consider what I was going to do. However, this exit was not “free” it was a trap. The exit placed me at a line of toll booths for a toll road heading to Wichita, with no escape.
I had no choice but to take a ticket and continue, hoping to find an exit. Fortunately, there was an exit four miles down the road, which I took. The next exit was 40 miles farther. This exit dumped me into a deserted industrial sort of area so I fired up Google Maps to navigate me out of the mess. It was now about 3:30 AM. Google did a fine job of leading me to a toll exit, where I had to pay 50 cents, and then led me back to an alternate onramp and toll booths to get back on I-70 East to Kansas City. So, thanks Google. I had no idea where I was. Google made it easy.
Now, back on my way to Kansas City, and having wasted 15 or 20 minutes, I pressed the speed to the limit. Unfortunately, the road quality was terrible — bouncing and bumps all the way. Which brings up a topic that irritated me the whole way to Kansas City. How is it that an Interstate Highway, built and paid for by all taxpayers in the United States, can be commandeered by a state and turned into a toll road? I think I could accept this if the charging of tolls resulted in an excellent quality highway. Or if there were a non-toll alternate route. But this highway is the only way and it was in terrible condition, worse than the rest, and I have to pay extra for it? I don’t get it.
Onward I flew, always watching the clock advancing, and hoping that I’d beat rush hour. I reached the end of the toll section, just short of Kansas City, paid my $3.75, and continued on to the city. As it turned out, I was still plenty early to miss the bad traffic. It was pitch dark, around 5 AM. While there was plenty of traffic, it wasn’t heavy.
I had never been to Kansas City before and was impressed at the appearance of the city center. There were lots of factories around generating plumes of steam and a smelly oil refinery near the civic center that stunk up the city. The whole place emanated a sense of hard-working serious business and industry.
Getting through Kansas City and out the other side was the most convoluted twisted mess I’ve ever driven. I just kept following the signs, but I have never made so many freeway transitions in a short period in my life. I must have made a dozen transitions in as many minutes.
Since it appeared that I had a little time, I stopped and got off the freeway near the civic center and looked for a McDonalds. I found one but it was closed — too early. As I drove on surface streets, it seemed like Kansas City was unusually dark, spooky, foreboding, and then I noticed that all the street lights were out. As far as I could see, the lights were all out. No wonder it was so dark. I immediately returned to the freeway and continued on out of the city. How could a city like Kansas City have all it’s street lights out? I don’t get it.
On Into Missouri
By now, I was tired and hungry, and somewhat annoyed that my stop at the McDonalds was a failure. Signs on the Interstate that show food services don’t necessarily mean that the restaurant is open. I knew there was a rest stop past Kansas City at a place called Concordia, about 30 miles farther along. That was my goal and I counted every mile. Along the way, I found a McDonalds that was open and bought a couple of cheeseburgers. I found the Concordia rest area and hoped it was open because I needed to stop. It was open and seemed pretty nice. I took care of the dog, ate a cheeseburger, and decided to drink a can of beer before attempting to sleep. The temperature was 35 and I parked so the morning sun would shine in and warm me. I was pleased I had made it past Kansas City and fell asleep just as the faint pink of dawn was starting to appear on the horizon.
I awoke three hours later, quite warm from the sun, and feeling pretty good. I took my time getting ready, stretching, walking the dog, brushing my teeth, etc. My friend Todd in Montana texted me and asked how I was doing. I told him where I was and he was impressed at my progress and asked if I expected to arrive in West Virginia that night. Up to that point, I had been just running top speed with my head down, not paying attention to progress. My original arrival time I had in mind was Tuesday night. This was Monday morning around 10 AM. I texted back, no, no, I have a long way to go yet and don’t expect to arrive until Tuesday night. I had more cities to go through — St. Louis, Indianapolis, Columbus, etc.
I got back on the road, heading for St. Louis. I ought to pass through St. Louis around noon, which was great, since I’d again miss rush hour. As I drove, I was thinking about what Todd had said. I hadn’t even considered attempting to reach WV by Monday night. But I realized that I was closer to WV than it seemed. Cities back East are much closer together than out West. St. Louis to Indianapolis is a short hop compared to 800 miles from Denver to Kansas City. I began to look at the rest of my route and realized that maybe I could make it. It seemed like I could make it by just past midnight. If that was the case, I’d have to try, rather than spend yet another sleep period in the car. I don’t like sleeping in the car. At a stop for gas, I texted Todd, thanking him for pointing out my progress to me and making me think it through. I also texted my friend Steve in Clarksburg to let him know I can probably arrive a day sooner than planned and asked whether this would create a problem. He said no, come on ahead. So with that in mind, and about 12 hours of driving ahead of me, I bore down and put the speed up.
This segment of I-70 needs to be widened. There’s way too much traffic here for an old four-lane Interstate.
I had never seen St. Louis before. In fact, this trip knocked two more states off of my very short list of states I’ve never visited: Kansas and Missouri. Knowing the geographic and historical importance of St. Louis, I had done a bit of advance study so I would know where to look as I passed through. Fortunately, my route took me close enough to the spots I wanted to see. The St. Louis Arch was much larger than I had envisioned and visible from far off. I had seen, touched, and sailed on the Mississippi River numerous times. But had never seen the Missouri River. My route crossed over right at the confluence of the two great rivers, and I knew that the Illinois River joined just upstream from where I was. These are the reasons that St. Louis is where it is.
I-70 Crossing the Missouri River. Rocheport Bridge near St. Louis
One thing I noticed about Missouri is the number of cops or troopers on the highways. I was astounded. Up in Montana, you can go for weeks without seeing a single law enforcement officer. But, in Missouri, it was crawling with troopers — every mile, one or two across the median, others hiding behind this or that, pairs of blacked out suburbans here and there. What’s going on here? Is crime that bad in Missouri? I doubt it. What’s more the speed limit was only 70, where elsewhere it was 75 or 80 MPH.
I also noticed here in Missouri that every other billboard is advertising “adult toys”, gentleman’s clubs, and sexy lingerie. I noticed the same thing in June in Wisconsin, I think. It was either Wisconsin or Minnesota. What’s up with that? I’ve never seen that anywhere else.
Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia
After St. Louis it was go, go, go, and not attract attention from State Troopers. For the most part, the roads were pretty good, with a few bad spots here and there, especially in Illinois. Hour after hour, I drove. I already knew Indianapolis and Columbus, OH, so there was no interest in either place. Just fuel and go.
My goal was to reach WV by 12:30 AM, but it seemed that, little by little, I was losing ground. A minute here, a minute there. So, I put the speed up some more. I didn’t want Steve to wait up far into the wee hours for me.
Then I realized I would lose an hour by crossing from the Central into the Eastern Time Zone. Damn. My 12:30 AM target was actually 1:30 AM in West Virginia. Ugh! I decided not to mention it and just keep the speed up as high as I dared for safety and the cops.
After Columbus, Ohio, there was still quite a way to go, and I knew I’d switch from an Interstate to Highway 33, which I expected to be slower. But I stayed with the locals, who tended to drive quite fast, even faster than I would have gone by myself, and made good time. Highway 33 wasn’t bad at all. There were spots where things slowed for stop lights or towns, but the highway was good and fast, well maintained and new-looking.
I was looking forward to Parkersburg, WV. Despite my years living in West Virginia, I had never seen Parkersburg. Reaching Parkersburg was, for me, the final milestone of the trip because it placed me on the final stretch, on US Highway 50, to Clarksburg.
Parkersburg did not disappoint. I didn’t know what to expect. I had seen photos and I knew there was a bridge over the river. I half expected a sleepy old town. Instead I saw two gleaming oil refineries and what appeared to be lots of industry. There was plenty going on at midnight. I felt like an ant dodging between all the semi trucks with double hoppers and tankers going very fast, this way and that. I was definitely in their way. Parkersburg was a happening place. So, that was an eye-opener, and very different from sleepy Clarksburg.
Now, thinking in terms of Eastern Time, I reached Parkersburg a little after midnight. I had about 70 miles to go. I was tired, but this was no time to fade out. I had plenty of fuel. Off I went without any delay and into another surprise. Highway 50 near Clarksburg is pretty benign, curving along, mostly level. East of Parkersburg, Highway 50 is like a slalom race. Steep grades, hard turns, and dark. I joined up with a tanker truck, who seemed to be driving above safe speed limits, but he knew this highway, so I stuck with him. He took some descending turns even faster than I would have, but this kept me going. Up, down, turn, up, on and on we went. About 15 miles west of Clarkburg, I finally got a glimpse of the huge natural gas liquids separation plant that had been built near West Union. Even just a glimpse at night was very impressive. That’s a lot of plumbing there.
I texted Steve as I approached. Soon, I slowed for Clarksburg, exited Hwy 50, and rolled up to my destination at 1:35 AM Eastern time. If it hadn’t been for my oversight of the time zone change, I was only five minutes late.
I crossed three time zones, nine states, 2,600 miles, in 58 hours elapsed time, including rest, fuel, and food stops. Not bad for an old guy like me.
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