Highways to the horizon: A 10,000-mile road trip around the US – CNET
My engine roars and I yell for joy as I blast up Interstate 15 through the San Gabriel Mountains. Behind me, Los Angeles. Before me, the Mojave Desert and the mountains of Utah and Colorado, the Great Plains, Appalachia and, as if just beyond the curves of my hood, the Atlantic Ocean.
I have an epic adventure planned, and this is the start. Leaving my home for the first time in 15 months. Over a year of stagnation after six years traveling the world. But that’s behind me now, just like Los Angeles. The high desert awaits, and then the breadth of North America.
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I’ve split the trip, in my head anyway, into four unequal but logical sections. The first leg is from LA to Denver. Then it’s on to what I call the Big Upper Middle. North Dakota is one of two states I haven’t visited (the other is Alaska, planned for next year), and it’s one of the main reasons for this adventure. From there, I’ll turn right, and head to the East Coast for the third section: several weeks in New Hampshire with my family.
After that, it’s the long road home. Down through New York and Washington, across the Midwest and the Great Plains and over the Rockies again, before burning across the desert to Los Angeles.
With all those miles ahead, and so much time to do it, I don’t feel the need to rush. There’s plenty to see, and even five to six hours on the road per day is plenty. I also plan on being careful. Not just with the long days on the road, but despite being fully vaccinated and dutifully masked, there’s still a pandemic on. That’s all the plan, anyway.
What happened, despite some setbacks, was the cathartic adventure I’d dreamed about for more than a year. This is the story of my 10 weeks on the road.
Week 1: Los Angeles to Denver
My trip begins in a rush as I need to get to Denver fairly quickly. I’ve two CNET photo tours to do, and need to finish them fairly quickly, lest I incur the wrath of my editors.
I’m tired and discouraged when I arrive in St. George, Utah, for my first night. I’m not off to a good start — what should have been a six-hour drive took nearly nine hours. Technical issues with cameras and Android Auto, plus a stand-still traffic jam in the middle of nowhere, conspired to make what should have been a celebratory start to this adventure a grueling, inauspicious slog.
I don’t sleep well, either. The alien bed and alien surroundings mess with my brain. But getting up early to explore some of the beautiful rock formations on the edge of town is a turning point I hadn’t expected. The rust-red rocks, lapis blue skies and a bit of vigorous exercise are a perfect reminder of why I’m doing this. After spending a refreshing day, I’m ready for the miles ahead.
The next day I head out, and I’m greeted by unfamiliar roads through absolutely stunning central Utah. This end of Interstate 70 is a gem and easily one of the most scenic stretches of highway anywhere. This is what I was looking for.
I arrive in Denver a few days later after weaving my way through the impossibly picturesque canyons that cut through the Rocky Mountains. Now my sights are set due north.
Week 2: Denver to South Dakota
Denver is a lovely town, but I’ve been here many times. It’s a strange feeling — I’m glad to be here, but I’m also ready to leave. The need to see new places is pulling me over the horizon.
Before I go, there are two standout museums that I’ll photograph. The Wings Over the Rockies Museum has one of only two B-1A Lancer bombers, curvy Mach 2-plus machines that look fast even parked inside.
Then there’s the Colorado Railroad Museum and its collection of local and nationally important locomotives and railcars.
Mile-high historic trains at the Colorado Railroad Museum
They even let me put a tiny action camera on one of their model trains.
I finish as quickly as I can, ready to move on. I’m heading due north now. Waze directs me onto small two-lane roads that still have highway speeds. Good job, Waze, this is gorgeous.
I land in Deadwood, on the western side of South Dakota. The steep, shaded canyons of the Black Hills make for some excellent driving roads with low-speed curves.
This is also the first time it’s been cool enough to camp. Most of the tiny trunk of my Mazda Miata is filled with gear. The tent surprisingly takes up the least space, followed by the bulkier sleeping bag and the air mattress that’s oddly large, even deflated. The latter fills probably 30% of the total trunk space, but there’s 0% of me that wants to find out what it’s like sleeping on the bare ground and then folding myself into a Miata for six hours.
Week 3: South Dakota
South Dakota is a beautiful state, and one I think wrongly gets lumped into the “flat and boring” category by those who haven’t been there. At the edge of the Black Hills is my favorite national park, and the one with the coolest name by far: Badlands.
Greeted by a rare day without rain or oppressive heat, I get up early and head in. The heat holds off, the rain doesn’t, but I still see quite a lot.
I need to stay in one place for a few days, and the area turns out to be an excellent spot for it. Besides the Badlands there are several nearby museums to visit. One of the most surprising is one of the best Saab museums in the world. Yes, Saab, the defunct Swedish car company.
I feel like I’ve been rushing since I left LA, and in a way I have. It’s just eight days in and I’ve already driven 1,654 miles. Now it’s time to slow down a bit, enjoy where I am and get some work done. I tour another standout museum, the South Dakota Air and Space Museum. It has the second B-1 Lancer of the trip — this time the newer, slower, but more versatile B-variant.
Check out the bombers and fighters of the South Dakota Air and Space Museum
I’ll spend over a week in South Dakota, but then it’s time to move on to the great unknown (to me, anyway).
Explore decommissioned underground nuclear missile launch centers
After a private tour of a Minuteman Missile Launch Control Center, I head north across the rolling farmland of central South Dakota for one of my favorite drives so far. Absolutely stunning.
Week 4: North Dakota
Western North Dakota is a lot like western South Dakota with the pointy bits smoothed off. Theodore Roosevelt National Park is a lot like the Badlands, but more muted and mixed with the green grasslands of the Great Plains.
It’s also impressively empty. If I stand on the roof of my LA home, I can see more people than live in the entire state of North Dakota. Here there are few cars, fewer farms, and, after finally heading east, even the hills fade away into flat prairie as far as the eye can see.
There is, however, a pyramid.
Week 5: North Dakota to Minnesota and Wisconsin
I’ve turned directly east now, for the first time. The weather also has turned. After the blistering heat of the southwest and the cool, clear skies of the Dakotas, Minnesota greets me with sheets of rain. Massive trucks, pickups and trailers, kick up walls of water pummeling my tiny car.
The weather prevents much sightseeing. So it goes. But I do visit the National Railroad Museum in Green Bay, Wisconsin, where I duck from trainshed to trainshed between downpours. I’m wet, but it’s worth it. They’ve got an Aerotrain!
Behold 100 years of rail history at the National Railroad Museum
And then it’s on to the unexpected: a World War II submarine in Lake Michigan.
Week 6: Michigan to New Hampshire
I cross Lake Michigan on one of the last coal-powered ferries in the world, the SS Badger. This allows me to spend the weekend with my cousin and her family in Manistee, Michigan. It’s a nice respite from hotels and campsites.
More rain. So much rain. I push on, though, with three long driving days in a row, my first such stint, to get across the entirety of five states.
After 5,000 miles, I hug my parents for the first time in nearly two years. Worth it.
Weeks 7 and 8: New Hampshire
I spend three weeks with my parents, eating home-cooked food, relaxing and playing with my dad’s dog, Booker. Booker is a standard poodle and a very good boy.
Week 9: New Hampshire to DC
I consider dognapping Booker. Grand theft doggo. Unfortunately, he doesn’t fit in my car. Well, not in the passenger seat anyway.
I don’t want to say goodbye, but it’s time to make my way south. I have a bunch of museum tours planned. In fact, CNET photo tours are going to outnumber national parks for the rest of the trip.
Come explore the USS Nautilus and the Submarine Force Library and Museum
I make my way south, through Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut, before stopping over briefly in New York City. Then it’s through New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and over to DC. I skirt the city itself, heading to Chantilly, Virginia, and the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. (Look out for my photo tour, coming soon to CNET!)
I do make a detour to Dover, Delaware, to visit the Air Mobility Command Museum. I love huge cargo aircraft, and this museum is dedicated to them.
Week 10: DC to Colorado
There comes a point in every long trip I’ve taken when the end is in sight, and I’m ready for it to be over. I don’t want it to be over per se, but since I know the end is near, I’m ready to be done. I’ve reached that time. Plus, with the rise of the Delta variant, I’m becoming wary of being out in the wild.
So I head over the Appalachian Mountains and back into the Midwest and the Great Plains: Ohio, then Indiana, Illinois, Iowa and Nebraska.
Just outside of Omaha is one of the museums I wanted to visit most. Featuring one of my favorite eras of aviation is the Strategic Air Command and Aerospace Museum.
Check out the bombers of the Cold War at the Strategic Air Command Museum
Soon, Denver again is in my sights. Sadly, the Rockies are shrouded in haze from distant wildfires plaguing the West Coast. I’d hoped to spend some time here before the last stretch, but the smoke is not only limiting the views, it’s also making the already difficult-to-breathe rarefied air even more challenging. I cut a planned week down to just a few days, with one last must-see national park in mind.
Great Sand Dunes National Park is at 8,000 feet, perhaps higher than the smoke. I optimistically book two nights.
I don’t sleep well at Great Sand Dunes. I’m awakened constantly through the night, gasping for air thanks to a brutal combination of smoke and altitude. At least I got some cool photos.
I bail on my second night and continue southwest. Getting to, and walking around, Four Corners Monument lets me set foot in my 30th state of this trip: New Mexico.
And then there’s Monument Valley. If you’ve ever seen any Western, any Roadrunner cartoon or even Forrest Gump, you’ve seen Monument Valley on screen. It seems a perfect last stop on this trip, as it’s a place I’ve always wanted to see in person but have never had the opportunity.
Sadly, it too is exceptionally hazy.
After one last hotel stay in Williams, Arizona, I began my final push home. My house was right where I left it, as was my bed.
By the numbers
The grand total was 9,985 miles, plus around 62 miles on the SS Badger crossing Lake Michigan. That’s 44% of the total miles on my 2018 Miata RF, impressive given that I hardly drove anywhere in 2020, and in 2018 and 2019 I was still a digital nomad.
I averaged 37.2 miles per gallon, which is respectable considering the car was fully loaded both in the trunk, the passenger seat and the footwell. The highest was 46.3, after a slow-speed, sixth gear, mostly downhill stretch fleeing Great Sand Dunes National Park.
In total I was gone for 73 days, by far my longest road trip.
The camera I used the most was actually the GoPro Hero9 Black, which was a reasonably trouble-free dash and action cam. I say “reasonably” because it locked up a few times each week, and no camera reliably connects to any phone (at least not that I’ve tested or used). That seems like something we should have figured out by 2021, but here we are. For more on some of the gear I used, check out the best camera gear for your next road trip. The photos you see above were shot with a mix of the GoPro, Pixel 5, Insta360 One X2 and Canon R6 with Sigma lenses.
Highlights (besides my friends, family and Booker): the Badlands, Interstate 70 from Utah into Denver, Denver to Deadwood, South Dakota in general, discovering the midwestern chain Culvers, (mmmm, salted caramel custard shakes), the Air Force Museum (photo tour soon), the list goes on.
Lowlights? Being harassed and nearly run off of the road twice in one day (thanks, Ohio), driving in New York (if you have the chance, don’t), leaving my folks (and Booker!), and the endless, endless heat of the hottest summer on record.
But I can’t end before giving one last special shoutout to the incredible, impeccable, surprisingly rugged Mazda MX-5 Miata. It is such a precision machine. Whether it was cruising across South Dakota at 80 mph with the A/C blasting, navigating the rutted gravel roads to get to the Pyramid of North Dakota or the endless miles of rain-soaked highways, it never faltered. It was also surprisingly comfortable, drew eyes wherever it went, fit everything I needed and was a superb road trip companion. And through it all, 9,985 miles of sun, rain, highways and sideroads, it never stopped being endlessly fun to drive. If you have a chance, I highly recommend checking one out.
Can’t wait for my next trip. I’m already planning it.
As well as covering TV and other display tech, Geoff does photo tours of cool museums and locations around the world, including nuclear submarines, massive aircraft carriers, medieval castles, airplane graveyards and more.
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October 14, 2021 at 05:15AM