TRAVELOGUE – LA to Chicago

Day 1

Late start. Had to pack the Honda, and return the cable modem to Time Warner, which is always an exercise in patience at an office that is a hybrid of post office speed and DMV efficiency. You know you’re in for the long haul when there are food carts stationed outside in the parking lot…

Eventually we got on the road around 2pm. Waze had me take the 405 up to the 14 and the across the desert on Pearblossom Highway instead of the usual 10 East. So glad we chose that way. Aside from missing the traffic of downtown and the Inland Empire parking lot, the Mojave was an amazing high desert wasteland, right out of central casting. Suffocating heat. Little two lane desert highway. Old buildings, barns, cars, wind blowing dust and sand across the road.

We stopped to eat at Peggy Sue’s 50’s Diner, a fun retro place with multiple dining rooms, heavy on the nostalgic decor. M got a strawberry shake. I got a BLT w/ onion rings. K got a mushroom swiss burger and onion rings. She a bad tummy ache after that.

We have to take turns sitting in the car with Sophie in her carrier, btw. Don’t turn off the car, don’t leave her alone.

Eventually we hit I-15 North to Nevada. Ended up staying in a run down casino hotel in Jean, NV for $40. It was so hot! 110° at 11pm! That night, in the middle of the night, the worst wind/sand/dust storm we’ve ever seen blew through. The window didn’t close all the way, and the howling whistling was loud! K and I both woke up and stared out the window, feeling like the world was ending. Was this a nuclear holocaust? Nothing could survive this! I half expected to see the car’s paint sandblasted off in the morning.

Day 2

The next morning we went to the breakfast buffet at the casino which was $30 and easily the worst breakfast we have ever had. Even the coffee tasted “like it was made with bleach”, said K. The made-to-order omelettes were the only redeemable food.

We got back on the road but we needed to make a couple stops – a water bottle, ID tag and collar for Sophie, and some ginger ale for us. Because of Sophie in the car, we couldn’t all go in, and it was already over 100°, but as M and I looked for stuff in PetCo, the AC in the Honda wasn’t strong enough while idling parked and K soon literally lost her cool. We hurried up so we could take turns and let her go into Target while M & I stayed in the car but quickly felt the same (so hot!). I started to drive around the parking lot to try to improve the AC performance to no avail, but at that time K was ready to go. One more stop in the strip there for gas, where at least there was real shade. Whew! Eventually we got on the road again and the prickly cacti started to molt.

Driving north past Vegas and in to the open desert was beautiful but hard on the car. At one point we were in this incredible narrow canyon carved out for the freeway, but there was construction and we were down to one lane and down to 10 mph. The Honda AC was pitching fits, randomly shutting off, where the car temperature would suddenly skyrocket to sweltering degrees, and then it would kick back in. At one point actual ice chips came flying out of the vents! (What the…??) Eventually we got back to cruising speed and the temp settled down, but it was always over 100° outside at least.

The views of the mountains, canyons, plateaus, rock formations, etc. were just incredible! Every few miles there’d be some new vista that would trump the last. The colors started out pure southwest desert, with zero vegetation, and then slowly, as we climbed north and east, they were supplemented with sage green and iron laden red rocks. Eventually we turned off route 15 to take 70 east, heading towards Denver. That part of the drive was even more scenic than the previous leg! Just incredible views every turn. Now the sage is joined with various brushes and even some hardy evergreens. I felt hyper aware of every time a new view presented itself, beckoning to M to “look at that!” or “wow, look on your right!”. K and I were both doing it. We felt bad she was mostly buried in her iPad and not paying much attention to the scenery, but when we discussed it with her, she admitted that she didn’t find the scenery as inspiring as we did, and offered a logical explanation. She said, for example, if there was a “pile of butterflies in front of us” (instead of those dusty old rocks), then she might be as blown away as we were. LOL. All of this from the mouth of a precocious almost-six-year-old….

It was a long drive, but was wanted to at least hit the Colorado border, which we did. Staying tonight in a Comfort Inn in Fruitas, CO, just north of the CO State Monument park, which looks unsurprisingly similar to all the other awe-inspiring rock formations around here. Ate a nice dinner at the Mexican restaurant next door (“best guac i’ve ever had”, announced K), and walking back to the hotel, saw the conjuncted Venus and Jupiter dancing together in the late evening western sky. The twilight was magical, and the air smelled of life – grass, higher humidity, and “pesticides”, as K joked. A nice moment.

M and I swam for a bit at the pool and gave K a break. They both passed out soon after that.

Day 3

The time zone changes and lack of exercise are making M stay up later and later. This morning she and K both slept well past 8 am. I managed to trundle down to the hotel breakfast and brought them back a couple things, but we didn’t get back on the road until close to the 11 am checkout time.

Today’s was by far the most picturesque drive of the journey. Is there any stretch of road in America that surpasses the panoramic beauty and incredible vistas of I-70 as it heads east through the Rockies? I think not. The repetition of driving around a bend, being presented with a picture post card worthy scene of majestic mountains, greenery of shades I forgot existed, and twisting rivers of cold, clear water never got old. Each scene was slightly different, as the microclimates progressed through the dusty hues of the western edges, to the straight up towering magnificence of the sloped pine forests, to the atmospheric heights of (still) snow-capped peaks at the summit. Vail itself is over 10,000 feet up, and we’d still be craning our heads up to see the peaks. Almost 2 miles vertical from sea level! It was strange to think that even in the flat plains in between the mountains, we were still higher up than Mount Baldy.

We stopped in Georgetown for lunch, a picturesque old mining town filled with gingerbread Victorians (the houses, not the people :), small shops, bikers, and tourists. It’s on the down slope heading towards Denver. K and I had stopped there for lunch when we moved out to LA back in ’02. We went to the same Czech Restaurant that we went to 13 years ago, except by now it had moved, expanded, and was under new management. But the hearty fare was still just as good, if not better, and it was nice to mark the occasion at the same milestone, so to speak.

During lunch a strong thunderstorm moved in. We piled back into the car (Sophie still alive? Check.) and resumed our descent. The rain was hard. Biggest rain drops we’ve seen. Traffic was congested, and piloting the laden Honda down the river road required a little extra focus. Glad I got new tires on her before we left. It handles like walking around in new running shoes. 🙂

Once at the bottom of the hills, traffic increased as we approached Denver city limits, and we turned to I-74 to head north east. The mountains soon gave way to endless prairie. It was amazing to see unfettered views for miles in each direction, sometimes without a single tree, bush, shrub, or anything taller than 2 feet of grass anywhere the eye could see.

This part of the journey is always a bit of a visual let down after the smorgasbord of the Rockies, and we knew we weren’t going to make it to our ambitious destination of Omaha in time, but we did want to get as far as we could to chip away at what will be a massive drive tomorrow, so I hauled ass around 90 mph for most of the way through the plains and corn fields of northeast Colorado and southwestern Nebraska, and we eventually alit on North Platte as our resting spot for the night. Unfortunately, the hotels here were much more expensive than our previous night (even the same chain), plus most of them were either sold out of didn’t have any pet-friendly rooms available. I guess we didn’t take into account that many people have tomorrow off as “July 4th observed”, and had gotten an early start on their weekend travels. We finally found a run down Days Inn for $100, got some late-night take-out from Applebee’s (travel always gives us carte blanche to slum it up, food-wise, hehe), and then we read M some books until she fell asleep. (Tonight she complained of an ear ache, which might be swimmer’s ear, since we’ve been visiting the hotel pools every night, so we skipped it tonight.) We were all a bit extra tired tonight anyway.

Day 4

Today we got an earlier start, knowing our last leg would be the longest. We showered and packed up the car while M still slept, and then woke her up just enough to carry her into the car wrapped in her blanket, and we hit the road. We were happy to skedaddle! The rest of Nebraska was pretty much the same – flat, farmland, prairie, rinse and repeat. I-80 follows the Platte river on a long arc, and there were plenty of picturesque river crossings.

We took an early lunch at McDonald’s, where we won’t have to eat again until 2025, which is about when all the McD’s we’ve eaten on this trip will be finally digested. Getting out of the car, my right Havaiana flip flop decided it was time to give up the ghost, and the strap broke. I spent the rest of that pit stop hobbling around, pinching my toes together to hold on my sandal with the remaining half strap. Not recommended!

From there it was East on through the rest of Nebraska. Like most of the trip, K would look up whatever point of interest we would be passing on Wikipedia, and we’d entertain ourselves with facts and trivia about the local attractions. For example, Lincoln, Nebraska is and was the home of a disproportionate number of famous people (Johnny Carson, Fred Astaire, Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, Henry Fonda, Nick Nolte, Marg Helgenberger, Hilary Swank, Ray Chandler, Warren Buffet, etc. etc.) Whoda thunk?

The flat landscape slowly gives way to beautiful ruling hills around Omaha, and on into Iowa. The farms are no longer relentlessly massive, but instead broken up by the hills and dales where the tractors can’t traverse. That leaves room for more trees, and a more varied visual experience, and a nicer drive overall.

One of the most obvious changes to this part of the country since our last time through is the proliferation of new wind farms. Iowa leads the nation in renewable energy creation from wind. Iowa isn’t beholden to the oil companies like the Dakotas, so the lack of corporate resistance, friendly legislation, and generous support from Warren Buffet (a huge proponent of renewable energy) has made Iowa a model for the rest of the nation.

A couple of hours later, and we’re crossing the Mississippi into Illinois – literally the home stretch. A brief stop for a bathroom break and a leg stretch at the Illinois Welcome Center (“Closed due to budget cuts” 🙁 ), and we were soon back on the road for the final leg. Slowly the population density increases, the road adds a lane or two to accommodate the increased traffic, and a beautiful red orb of the sun setting in the West (hackneyed symbolism) heralded our return. We used the very last bit of light and gas in the car to arrive at our destination, pulling into the driveway right as twilight set in. As we stumbled out of the car, road weary, we were greeted by fireflies, a lush flowering garden, and M’s joyous shouts of “Grandma! Grandma!”