Oregon Trail, in Reverse

Greetings from Baltimore!

Boy, I picked a strange time to move across the country. After two short weeks in the ZeniMax Online offices, I was sent home (along with everybody else) to work remotely until further notice. While the caution is well warranted, it’s a little tough for me personally: I’m just starting to learn my duties, and being home in my otherwise empty townhouse is kind of quiet and lonely. I don’t mind time to myself, but I think I’m going to get more of it than I really want.

Oregon Trail, in Reverse

I’ve been meaning to write about my drive across the country for a couple of weeks now, just because I’m a geography nerd and the trip turned out to be something of an adventure. There’s a reason why people advise against driving across the country in the middle of winter; I departed Pacific, Washington on February 22nd, and arrived in Baltimore on February 28th. Here’s how it went.

First of all, I had some good company for the trip: my daughter Alex decided to ride along to share some of the driving and help me settle in. We spent a lot of time listening to her favorite podcasts (The Adventure Zone and My Favorite Murder), and she introduced me to Spotify. I used Spotify to introduce her to a couple of classic rock LPs I felt she might like and that really needed to be listened to in their entirety (David Bowie’s Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, and Queen’s The Game). It was great to hang out with the kid for a week!

On our first day, we started off by taking I-90 through Snoqualmie Pass and stopped in Ellensburg to visit my daughter Hannah at Central Washington University in Ellensburg. After that, we took I-82 and I-84, finishing for the day in Baker City, Oregon. I’d settled on I-80 as our best route across the country, since I felt that I-90 was too far north and more vulnerable to north plains winter weather, while I-70 crosses Colorado at very high elevations and is also somewhat more circuitous from Seattle.

Day 2, we made it from Baker City Oregon to Evanston Wyoming, zipping across Idaho (speed limit 80!) and dropping down through Salt Lake City. We stopped at Temple Square in SLC to see the Mormon cathedral and tabernacle—we’re Methodists, but it was a reason to play tourist along the way and it’s certainly impressive. So far, so good; we were making good time and the weather was on our side.

Day 3, not so much.

When we woke up in Evanston, the temperature was 15 degrees, and a screaming north wind was blowing at 30 mph+. The sky was blue and clear, so other than grumbling about the bitter cold, we loaded up and started on our way. I drove 150 miles or so, again making great time. Then, a few miles past Rock Spring Wyoming, we found a state trooper and a closed gate on I-80. “Road’s closed,” he told us. “Go back to Rock Springs.”

“Why?” I asked. “When will it re-open?”

“Maybe sometime tomorrow,” the state trooper said, with a look on his face that implied that he couldn’t really care if we found that inconvenient or felt a need for more information. So we drove back to Rock Springs, and I found out from some chatty locals that this was just a thing that happened pretty often in the wintertime—dangerous winds and drifting snow often closed I-80 around Elk Mountain, a good 100 miles or more ahead of us, and since Rock Springs was one of the last bits of civilization for quite a while the Wyoming DOT stopped eastbound traffic there. Keep in mind, the sky at Rock Springs was blue and clear; we didn’t have a hint of trouble ahead. Then one local observed that just a couple of weeks before, I-80 had been closed for a whole week.

Well, the last thing I wanted to do was sit in Rock Springs for a week. I’d built a trip plan around covering 500 miles a day, and suddenly all my planned stops for the next four days were in jeopardy. I looked at the map, reconsidering I-70 as an option. But to get from Rock Springs to I-70 I’d have to either backtrack all the way to Salt Lake City, or take my chances on a 2-lane state highway heading south into northwest Colorado. Alex and I attempted SR 191, but by now the wind was blowing snow across the road, and we were heading into the middle of nowhere. We made it about 30 miles down the road before a state trooper coming north on 191 waved us down, stopped us, and told us that 191 was closed ahead and that we’d have to go back to Rock Springs. So we followed the second trooper back to you-know-where, at which point the Check Engine light came on in my car.

Since we apparently had some time to kill in Rock Springs, I found a local garage willing to take a quick look at my car (Rock Springs Auto Repair—they did right by me). It turned out to be nothing serious—a dirty throttle position sensor, complicated by super-cold temperatures—and by the time we finished at the garage, I-80 was reopened. So Alex and I bolted out of Rock Springs heading east, worried that at any moment the Wyoming DOT might close the interstate again and determined not to get stuck on the wrong side of the state.

By the time we reached the Elk Mountain area, snow was blowing sideways across the freeway, visibility was down to a few hundred yards, and freezing slush covered the road. We managed to get through to Cheyenne, but our plan to press on to North Platte Nebraska was pretty much shot—in addition to the several-hour delay due to the road closure, the weather forecast for Nebraska and Iowa was looking Bad, with a significant winter storm due to hit right around the time we planned to drive through. So at Cheyenne we decided to divert south and move over to I-70, figuring that it was a couple of hundred miles further south than I-80. East of Denver, I-70 would be out of the mountains, and we’d need to get on I-70 sooner or later anyway. We finished Day 3 in Fort Collins, Colorado.

On Day 4, the bitterly cold temperatures and screaming north wind stayed with us. We started off going south on I-25 in clear weather, but when we turned east on I-70 and started heading across eastern Colorado, we hit full-on winter: white-out conditions that slowed us down to 25 mph at times. (There was a point where Alex pulled off the road to switch drivers since she was no longer comfortable with conditions, and turned onto an off-ramp that didn’t have a return to the highway. So we wandered through the Colorado country roads in a blizzard so bad I couldn’t see 100 feet, using Google Maps to find out way back to the interstate.) It didn’t get much better in western Kansas, either. The storm that was supposed to be clobbering the northern plains was hitting I-70 too. It took forever, but we managed to fight our way through to Topeka, Kansas by dinnertime. We celebrated our survival with a steak dinner at the North Star Steakhouse.

Day 5 brought a little relief from the awful weather. We drove across Missouri in sunshine, and at St. Louis we shifted over to I-64 after meeting my friend Warren for lunch in his home territory. In southern Illinois we started picking up light flurries, which intensified in southern Indiana. By the time we reached Louisville Kentucky, it was snowing seriously again. By this point, I was super-anxious about whether or not we’d be able to reach Baltimore in time to meet my ReloCube, which was supposed to be showing up Friday afternoon.

Day 6—Thursday, February 27th—was the day I intended to reach Baltimore, but we were definitely a couple of hundred miles behind schedule. Fortunately, the weather in Kentucky started off fair, so we got into West Virginia without too much trouble. Then in West Virginia it started snowing hard *again,* with intermittent near-whiteout conditions as we battled our way up I-79 toward I-68 and western Maryland. (Boy, I-79 runs through a lot of nothing in the middle of West Virginia—the mountains aren’t anything like you get out west, but in February they’re nothing to laugh at.) In Maryland, the stretch of highway from Cumberland to Hagerstown was almost impassable, but we finally got ahead of the weather late in the day, and managed to crawl into Frederick Maryland around 8 pm. I realized that stopping within an easy 75 minutes of Baltimore was pretty much as good as making it to Baltimore proper, so we called it a day.

Finally, on the seventh day of the drive, we rolled into Baltimore and pulled up in front of my new rental home. And—to my delight and astonishment—all the moving parts of my complicated plan came together. We got in early enough on Friday to get the keys from the landlord, I was there to meet my ReloCube when it showed up early in the afternoon, my in-laws arrived with a U-Haul full of extra furniture an hour later, my brother was able to make it up from DC to help with the move-in, and my brother-in-law and his wife were able to stop by too. Heck, we even got the Comcast guy on the same day. Somehow, after fighting our way through nearly a week of miserable driving and road closures and blizzards, it all came together as planned.

That’s the story of the Big Drive. Next time, I think I’ll try to NOT do it in February. But for all that, the big wide spaces of the West are awesome and majestic, and it’s something well worth doing at least once. Maybe I-40 or I-10 next time, though.

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