Join author Joseph Popiolkowski as he travels across America solo, camping his way through the heartland to a new chapter of his life – marriage.
Writing and Photography by Joseph Popiolkowski
The cross-country drive is an American pastime. The original settlers in the 19th century went west for jobs and mining prospects. Since the advent of the modern automobile and Interstate system, Americans have turned the drive into a recreational jaunt through “flyover country.” There's even a bourgeoning tourist business for foreign visitors to come to the U.S. and retrace the old pre-Interstate Route 66.
I need to drive from Los Angeles to Buffalo in one week. I've already done the cross-country trip on I-40 and I-70 so this time it's going to be I-15 North through Las Vegas to Salt Lake City. From there I'll take I-80 East through Wyoming, Nebraska, and beyond. That's 2800 miles for those of you keeping score at home.
My goals are simple and twofold. First, I want to arrive safely and on-time, obviously. Second, I want to have a bit of fun and save money at the same time by camping in a tent in state parks along the way while meeting interesting people. As Walter Sobchak from The Big Lebowski tells The Dude, “The beauty of this is its simplicity. If a plan gets too complex something always goes wrong. If there's one thing I learned in Nam…” And, oh yeah, I have a bride waiting in Baltimore. That's right, I'm getting married in two weeks.
I don't see the trip as a “last hurrah” of bachelorhood – the type lazy TV sitcom scriptwriters fall back on for easy laughs. Think, for example, of the two-part episode of Full House where Uncle Jesse and Becky get married. On the day of my wedding I don't feel a need to skydive and subsequently get stuck in a tree, land in a wagon full of tomatoes (thus stain my tux, which is miraculously clean by the time I say “I do” – ahh the magic of television), get thrown in jail, and substitute a cheesy Beach Boys cover song for my vows.
Jesse: (when Rebecca arrives at the jailhouse) Hello, sweetheart.
Rebecca: (smiling) Hello, darling.
Jesse: You're angry, aren't you?
Jesse: Aw, you're so cute when you're mad. And right now, you're about the cutest I've ever seen you.
No, this trip is equal parts practical and idealist. First, I need to get from A to B with all our worldly possessions packed in the back seat and trunk. As a graduate student at the University of Southern California in L.A., I was introduced to the rational choice theory, or, the notion that when faced with a decision a rational person will always choose the action that maximizes benefits and minimizes costs. To ship the car and our belongings via train or truck would be too expensive, I found. The easiest and cheapest way to do this is to drive.
Second, the trip can double as a personal growth experience – just me, the road, and wilderness – with ample time to reflect on where I've been and where I'm going. Sometimes it's good to get deep and philosophical when major life changes are on the horizon.
But as Walter warned against, the trip is of course faced with two challenges that make it more complex. First, the price of a gallon of gas hovers around $4, which means I'll have precious little leeway to stray from the beaten Interstate path. Fun and adventure would have to take a backseat to “just get there already.” Everyone remembers, of course, when in Feb. 2008 President Bush said to one of those pesky reporters, “You're predicting $4-a-gallon gasoline? That's interesting. I hadn't heard that.” Well, Mr. President, as I embark on the longest road trip of my life it's staring me straight in the proverbial pocketbook. We'll see how well the romanticized American notion of a cross-country drive meshes with record-high gas prices – probably like, well, oil and water, I predict. But that's another story and the reality is $4-a-gallon. I've budgeted $360 for gas. I just won't eat.
The second challenge is how to stay connected to a fiancé and parents worried about me making the trip solo when I'll have spotty cell phone reception in my campgrounds – if I have cell phone reception at all. Normally one would value complete isolation from civilization on a trip like this. But I concede that two weeks before my wedding isn't the time to completely drop off the grid. So I buy an overpriced vehicle phone charger from Verizon and hope for the best in terms of connectivity.
I'll focus on the first three days of the trip. The last two days (Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and New York) were tedious and monotonous. You don't want to hear about them. The Western part of the U.S. is more interesting geographically and people-wise.
Destination: Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada
I eat a final delicious burrito at Los Burritos on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. I load up on Vitamin Water. It's addictive and – have you noticed? – it's everywhere now. I need to buy some Vitamin Water stock. However, I feel like there's too much sugar in it. But I digress. Pumped up, ready to go, I crank up the Creedence on the ol' iPod then…crawl in mid-afternoon traffic on the 101 for 45 minutes. I will not miss this aspect of L.A. life. Finally I hit the open road around 1 p.m. I roll through Vegas around 6 p.m. without stopping. Bright lights and gambling don't appeal to me.
One hour later I enter Valley of Fire. I buy two tall cans of Miller Genuine Draft at the convenience store at the entrance to the park operated by an Indian tribe. I have this romantic notion of me sitting in front of my tent drinking a (cold or room temperature, it doesn't matter) beer. George Hayduke, a rough-and-tumble character from Edward Abbey's novel “The Monkey Wrench Gang,” would pound warm beers while he and his misfit gang sabotaged construction and industrial equipment that was spoiling the West's environment. The novel inspired the Earth First! movement. Throughout this trip I will ask myself, “What would Hayduke do?”
Giant red sandstone formations dwarf my tiny VW Jetta as I race nightfall to the campground. I see a newly married bride and groom taking photos by the picturesque Seven Sisters red rock formation and reflect on this foreshadowing. In exactly two weeks I'll be posing for endless photos, too.
I choose a campsite but struggle to set up my tent. It has two collapsible fiberglass poles fitted through slits in the tent to form an X. I call Pam despite my bad cell phone reception and dying cell phone battery. She and her family find my predicament amusing. Pam's mom has set it up by herself, I'm told. I fail to see any humor in the situation as the last of the daylight dips below the cliffs and I have a brief vision of me sleeping in the car. Some Hayduke I am. I shake off any sense of pride and trudge over to the neighboring campsite to ask for assistance. Two couples from Las Vegas are spending the weekend here in their RVs. The husbands – Al and Bill – come over with their Coleman lantern, which vastly outshines my dinky flashlight. We set up the tent in just under 30 seconds. What a relief! I thank them profusely.
Al returns to my tent 15 minutes later and invites me to their campfire for coffee cake and ice cream. I gladly accept. Success! I'm fulfilling one of my goals – meet interesting people. We trade stories under a canopy of brilliant stars. They'd be even more brilliant if not for the light pollution supplied by Sin City, which is 50 miles away. The casinos' countless fluorescent neon lights may beckon gamblers but they don't aid the star-viewing process. Al, a geologist, and I scan the sky for shooting stars and satellites – the ones moving north and south are spy satellites, he says. He tells me about the 3,000-year old Indian petroglyphs nearby. Al's the kind of guy who would do well on Jeopardy. He and his wife Kay have been married 42 years. They have a happy, lasting marriage – the kind Pam and I aspire to.
Destination: Park City, Utah
I wake sore from sleeping on the rocky ground but well rested. I venture out of my tent and in the morning light I can truly appreciate my surroundings. My tent abuts a massive red rock scarred with black smoke from years of barbequing at my site's grill. I grab my toothbrush and towel and head over to the primitive facilities in the middle of the campground. I suppose I should be lucky there are any facilities at all. I'm trying to erase all comfort expectations during this trip. Al calls out to me, “Hey Joe! Want to join us for breakfast?” I see pancakes, orange juice, bacon, and eggs spread out on a picnic table like manna from heaven. I weigh this menu against my planned breakfast of an apple, Clif Bar, and bottle of Vitamin Water and quickly choose the former. My neighbors are fully outfitted with a griddle and all the fixings for a delicious breakfast. I'm lucky they've taken a liking to me. Al tosses bits of multigrain pancake to a small chipmunk that's scurrying around. He gives me his business card and I promise to email him at the completion of my trip. Kay wraps up a plate of leftover coffee cake for me. We take some photos together and I thank them for their generosity.
I walk back up the path to my campsite where I stop in my tracks. I'm confronted with the inevitable. I have to take down my tent. Tonight I'm staying with a friend's family in Park City, Utah but I'll likely find myself in the same situation Monday night when I'm camping in Flaming Gorge, Wyoming (by the way, did anyone else notice the combustion theme between the names of my state parks?). Who knows if I'll find anyone else willing to help me set up the tent. I have no choice. I give in and pack it up.
The drive to Park City, Utah is uneventful except for when I drive by an industrial fire that is belching black smoke across I-15 and moderately reduces my visibility. I have plans to stay overnight with my friend Whitney's family. She was with her dad Bob for a business trip in Toronto and cleared it with him. Unfortunately he didn't clear it with his wife so she has no knowledge of any overnight guest until she returns home to find me at home in her basement. Awkward is right.
Park City is strange. It's ski country and an escape for the rich and famous. It's also the home of the annual Sundance Film Festival, which I attended a few years ago. President Bush was here a few days ago for a fundraiser, I'm told. Utah is a “red state” and this city feels pretty red.
Destination: Flaming Gorge, Wyoming
The next morning Bob tries to convince me to take an alternate route through northern Colorado instead of I-80 through southern Wyoming – it's much more interesting and scenic, he says. “I wouldn't take that route again if you paid me,” he says of I-80. But I'm hesitant to deviate that far from my chosen path. Besides I've never been in Wyoming before and I need to check if off the list of states I've never set foot in.
Today will be the shortest day of my trip. It's less than 200 miles to Flaming Gorge. I'm a sucker for matching songs and albums named after geographical places to my current location. I once took a train to the Widnes railway station in England just to see where Paul Simon wrote “Homeward Bound.” I guess I'm trying to discover what the artist was thinking and connect through the music. Pam just rolls her eyes when I do this. So as I approach Green River, Wyoming I fumble with my iPod and find, you guessed it, Creedence's “Green River.”
And if you get lost come on home to green river.
I pay more than $2 (!) for a tube of chap stick from a convenience store at the turnoff for Flaming Gorge. The high altitude in Park City really dried my lips. It's also important to wear sunscreen because at a higher elevation the sun's rays are more direct and harmful. I drive about 20 miles south of Green River to Firehole Canyon (again with the fire theme!). Sedimentary rock formations, which resemble a layer cake, surround me as I wind my way toward the campground. I pick a suitable campsite and marvel at how quiet my surroundings are. Rock formations that resemble chimneys or pinnacles stand upright reflect in the reservoir below. Other campers' tents flap in the breeze but their inhabitants are out canoeing or boating on the reservoir.
A car pulls up to the site next to mine and a woman about my age gets out. The time has come. I need assistance in setting up my tent. Her name is Katie and she's an ornithologist who just graduated from Clemson University in South Carolina. She's spending the summer mapping bird migration patterns all throughout the West and Midwest. She agrees to help me set up my tent.
I pull my bike off the trunk rack and ride down to the reservoir. It's eerily silent – like no silence I've ever encountered before – the only sound is wind rustling through the prairie grass. The weather is unpredictable. It's alternatively slightly drizzling and windy or sunny with partly cloudy skies. I return to my tent, pull out a lawn chair, snack on some Trader Joe's trail mix and continue with my reading selection for the trip Jack Kerouac's classic American novel “On the Road.”
So now Dean had come about four thousand miles from Frisco, via Arizona and up to Denver, inside four days, with innumerable adventures sandwiched in, and it was only the beginning.
A park ranger drives up to my site on his all-terrain vehicle. His name is Leon and he lives in the house over yonder – the only sign of civilization within 20 miles. His skin is leathery and weathered by years of wind and sun. He welcomes me, hands me a trash bag and warns me about rattlesnakes.
My neighbors return from the canoe trip and cook the fish they caught for dinner. Same as Saturday night – two couples away on a brief vacation. We chat as the sun sets and the wind picks up. I marvel at the inexpensive $16 camping fee when the cheapest motel room would cost more than double that. But my neighbor corrects me. He remembers the days when camping in state parks was free. Then it was $3. Then it kept inching upward to its current total. Gone are the days when Americans could enjoy the splendor of their state and national parks gratis.
The wind sweeping through the canyon hasn't died down and I only have two tent stakes holding my tent in place. I call Pam from the only spot in the entire campground that has even the slightest bit of cell phone reception. When I return to my campsite, some tourists from Denmark and my neighbors are worrying about my tent, which looks like it's about the blow away. My neighbors kindly offer four extra stakes and the use of their hammer. Now my tent isn't going anywhere.
During the night I hear two packs of coyotes talking to each other. Between their howls, the odd birdcall, and my half-asleep brain creates a swirling mesh of noises I've never heard before. It's truly disorienting. Later I regret not popping my head out to see the midnight sky. My neighbor tells me the stars were brilliant.
The rest of the trip
You may have noticed I've hardly mentioned eating. I've been lucky enough so far to eat with kind strangers or my friend's family in Utah. In Cheyenne, Wyoming I stop at my first restaurant – Poor Richard's. It's a Benjamin Franklin-themed establishment and I sit at a booth with a portrait of this famed American patriot staring at me from the wall. The restaurant is in my AAA guidebook. When you're on a tight budget and food money is short, you come to trust and value AAA's recommendations. I only stop at one other restaurant during the trip – a nice sit-down place in Des Moines, Iowa with the best homemade salad dressing I've ever had.
Cheyenne. Wyoming's capital. Bob told me it's a hardscrabble city all the girls are desperate to flee from. I bet the gender ratio heavily favors men. I see a billboard that pairs the words “Construction work…it's not just for men” with a picture of pink work boots. That says it all. I make a special visit to the state capitol building and admire its dome.
A few hours later I cross into Nebraska and the moment has come. I find Bruce Springsteen's album “Nebraska” on my iPod.
Mister state trooper, please don't stop me
Please don't stop me, please don't stop me
Just a few miles past the Wyoming/Nebraska border I see an ominous black cloud in the distance. I feverishly hope I-80 is not directly in its path. Sure enough, however, I soon encounter a ferocious downpour. There's a 45 second stretch where I can barely see the car in front of me, I'm too afraid to turn off onto the shoulder or exit, and I'm not sure I'll live to see my wedding day. But it soon passes and I breathe a sigh of relief vowing never to drive directly toward a black cloud again. Later, while listening to Nebraska Public Radio, I hear about a tornado warning for two towns just north of where I was. Welcome to the Midwest.
That experience marks the climactic end of the exciting portion of my trip. During the last half of the trip I drive almost entirely during daylight hours with a few short breaks sprinkled in. I'm hesitant to drive after sundown. And, sadly, no more camping for me. I make overnight stops in Grand Island, Neb. (where I give in and stay in a motel) and Chicago (where I stay with college friends).
I arrive in Buffalo road weary but proud that I have a solo cross-country drive under my belt. Now a worried mom and bride can stop worrying. The wedding goes according to plan and I'm a married man just like Uncle Jesse – minus the skydiving drama, of course.
If you're going to go:
Join AAA: Buy a membership for AAA and take advantage of its TripTik service. AAA will help you plot out your route and has plenty of guidebooks on camping, hotels, points of interest, and restaurants. Plus many businesses offer discounts to AAA members that may even pay for the membership in time. Also if you need roadside assistance, AAA will pay for the towing, which covers the membership fee right there.
Consider Auto Driveaway: Obviously it's cheaper and easier to do a cross-country drive one-way. My advice is to use a service called Auto Driveaway. Say a family has a car in Seattle but is moving to Pittsburgh and doesn't want to ship it or drive it themselves. They'll pay a small fee to Auto Driveaway to find someone willing to drive it for them. Sometimes the owners even include money for gas. All you have to do is buy a plane ticket from your destination back to your origin once your trip is over. Pam and I have done it twice and it worked well each time. Check out http://www.autodriveawaydc.com/carlist.html for more information.