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Driving Across America

In late August I had the opportunity to drive across America from Portland, Oregon to Western Pennsylvania and then to Buffalo, New York before flying back to Portland. I’ve traveled in the past, flown to Mexico and Hawaii, driven to Canada, California and Montana, but this adventure – all the way across the United States – was new for me, inspiring, and worthy to share.

Silver Volvo packed for a cross-country trip
Fully loaded. This old Volvo is packed for the cross-country trip.

My daughter and I began this adventure in her old Volvo, a car she bought with her own money. We left Portland, stopping first at Affogato for coffee, early on a Saturday and drove, 14-hours to Duchesne, Utah.

Why Duchesne?

Well, there is a boy there, of course, working as a wilderness firefighter. When Kindra accepted an AmeriCorps/VISTA position in St. Marys, Pennsylvania she knew she and Dylan would be apart until Thanksgiving, in a best case scenario. Ah, young love. She just had to spend time with Dylan.

For the first day, the scent of wildfire smoke and diminished visibility was a distraction from the usual beauty of the Columbia River Gorge and Eastern Oregon.

Smoke from wildfires reduces visibility in Eastern Oregon.
Headed through Eastern Oregon and into Idaho, the sun peers through wildfire smoke.

In Idaho the smoke cleared and the scent of Sage wafted into the old Volvo. We stopped briefly in Boise and walked in a park along the Boise River.

By 10:30 that night we arrived in Duchesne, a remote desert town with one decent restaurant. I passed the next two days of the trip in a rather nice Studio6 Hotel with internet, air conditioning, and continental breakfast, building a website and keeping up with my Waterlink Web clients.

For several years she has wanted to live and work in the Appalachian region. (See her website at Bike4Appalachia.org for details of a cross-country bicycle trip she and her sister made in 2013.)

Didn’t take any pictures of Duchesne. The town itself is not actually all that picturesque. The best restaurant offers fish and chips with iceberg lettuce salad and over-large hamburgers. It has a pretty, but short, river walk along the Strawberry River. There was a thunderstorm each afternoon I was there with real rain, something we missed this summer in Western Oregon. The beauty of Duchesne lies in the mountains to the north. However, these are 30 miles away and, after the 14-hour drive, I choose to leave the car parked.

We departed on Tuesday morning for the drive into Colorado. The contrast between these two States is impressive: geologically, legally, and gastronomically. Colorado, of course, has the Rockies. It also has alcohol and marijuana legally available. In Steamboat Springs we ate at a riverside cafe, dining on a grilled open-faced sandwich of organic eggplant and Mozzarella Cheese along with a bowl of spicy ham and garbanzo bean soup.

Model horse and young woman in front of F.M. Light & Sons
F.M. Light & Sons draws customers in from miles away with enticing highway signs.

Steamboat Springs is the home of F.M. Light and Sons, a western outfitter with a wood plank floor and, apparently, unending array of cowboy boots. They also have a unique way of advertising. About 100 miles before you arrive in Steamboat Springs you will see bright yellow signs with black lettering along the roadway, not so big as to block the view of the mountains, valleys or streams, but big enough to read. These signs advertise F.M. Light, feature brands, products, and the venerable age of the company. With 100 miles of advertising repetition I was hooked. In Steamboat Springs I bought my second pair of cowboy boots and had them shipped home, avoiding sales tax and the impossibility of adding anything else to the car. (For the record, I should say that my dad bought me my first pair of cowboy boots when I was a teenager from Portland Outdoor Store, a local and equally impressive western outfitter whose website I have since built.)

Young woman holding up a tent in front of a mountain lake in Colorado.
If you are going camping, it is always nice to have someone who can put up a tent. Here Kindra shows Mom how it is done.

Out of Steamboat Springs we followed Hwy. 14 up into the mountains to camp at a high lake, North Michigan Lake, in a State Park.. I cannot say too much how beautiful this country is. During the night I watched the moon rise and the stars shine. In the morning we watched the sun come up and hiked in the woods around to the lake.

Rocky Mountains with field, forest and mountains.
Where’s the Volvo?

The drive the next day (this is Wednesday) took us to the top of the pass on Highway 14, an elevation of 10,276 feet and so close to the tree line that it looks like only a short but very steep walk to reach that region where the air is so thin that only lichens can grow.

Mary Ann Aschenbrenner in a Rocky Mountain field.
Mary Ann Aschenbrenner in a high mountain meadow.

From there we descended into Poudre Canyon. This must be one of the most beautiful drives in America. It is two-lane road, winding with the Poudre River running alongside, inspiring rock formations, old cabins and ranches and beauty at every turn.

The Rockies end abruptly, from mountainous to flat in a quarter mile.

We drove to Fort Collins, a bustling college town with a four-lane highway through the center, with parking on both sides and in the middle, and stopped for espresso coffee drinks. Then north to Cheyenne, Wyoming to Hwy. 80, a freeway that runs the length of our country from San Francisco to New York, and into Nebraska to spend the night in Kearney.

Windmills and farmland along Hwy. 80 in Iowa.
Windmills and farmland along Hwy. 80 in Iowa.

I loved Nebraska. I never thought I would love Nebraska, but I do. The soil is black and rich, loamy and fertile. It is graced with rolling hills and green. Yes, green all the way across.  Even the hay fields, recently harvested, are green. Much of Hwy. 80 in Nebraska follows the North Platte River. Small deer can be seen in the fields adjacent to the river and a variety of birds. Apparently, in the late winter and early spring this is the major gathering place for Sandhill Cranes. As the sun set behind us in the west we drove through a flock of a thousand swifts climbing and diving, just as they do at Chapman School.

Kearney is a major city by Nebraska standards with bicycle trails and pedestrian walkways extending along various waterways and into parks and fields. We stayed at the Ramada Inn, which I recommend if only because of the free breakfast the following morning. It included an omelette made to order, waffles, fruit, coffee, etc. They called it a continental breakfast, but it is more like a brunch.

Brick home in Avoca, Iowa.
Home in Avoca, Iowa. There is no espresso here.

The next day (this is Thursday) we drove the rest of the way through Nebraska, stopping briefly in Omaha in a futile search for espresso coffee – another city we both loved – and into Iowa. Iowa also has rolling green hills, green fields, and lush farms. Apparently the rain we normally get in Portland all ended up in the midwest. We stopped only briefly in Iowa at the town of Avoca, for the same reason we stopped in Omaha – to find espresso coffee.

There is a business opportunity along Hwy. 80 for some enterprising barista. Open a reputable espresso coffee shop along this stretch of road in Nebraska or Iowa and you will have no competition. Put up small signs 100 miles before your coffee shop advertising cappuccinos and lattes and we will find you. (By the way, these are both very long states.)

By dark we were entering Illinois. I drove the final leg into Chicago where the speed limit is apparently 75 on city freeways and most trucks are going faster. If I was before, the freeway experience in Chicago woke me right up. We made it to the Chicago Loop Hotel safely, if a little stressed.

Chicago … a lovely city. It really is. Neither the food or the room were over priced. This is my first trip and it left me wanting to return. Kindra and I spent most of Friday at the Art Institute of Chicago, apparently America’s answer to the Louvre. Even in five or six hours we still did not get to see it all.

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There are fountains and a park along Lake Michigan, the famous Bean, a concert area that had a free jazz concert in progress, and the most impressive children’s playground I have every seen. By this time it was Friday evening. The children’s park was filled with parents playing with their children, climbing through the play structures, going down the slides and, in general, trying to keep up.

Saturday we started early. Indiana is not a long state and it has a toll road that avoids the small towns. We pulled off the highway only once, into the town of La Porte located around a pretty lake. The search for espresso coffee was successful here. At the gas station in La Porte they have an espresso coffee machine – just push the right buttons and you can have a mocha latte or a cappuccino with an extra shot – that the manager claimed cost $80,000. Actually, it was the best espresso coffee we had in, well, five states.

Ohio has its turnpike, also a toll road, dotted with very nice restroom facilities and gas stations every few miles.  The cost for the toll road in Ohio was more than in Indiana. As I recall, about $17.00 as opposed to $10.00.

Then we were in Pennsylvania! Pennsylvania is beautiful with bigger hills than the midwest and deep gorges with winding ancient rivers, like the Allegheny.

By late afternoon we were in St. Marys, a town established in the early 1800’s. Kindra’s new home seems at least that old. It is a big house with lots of character and needed upkeep, a backyard that slopes down into a creek, and apple and maple trees. There is also a very fat pair of gray groundhogs that come out in the afternoon to eat the fallen apples and looked up at me sitting on the kitchen deck with interest but no fear.

Niagara Falls from the American side.
Niagara Falls from the American side.

The next morning we drove north to Niagara Falls and my flight from the Buffalo airport.  The Niagara River is very wide but flows only a short way, pouring from Lake Eerie into Lake Ontario. While all of the Great Lakes are connected, this is the only place where there is a steep elevation drop creating a falls.

Niagara Falls is a destination for the world. There were families from many countries at the falls, speaking various languages. Some travelers appeared to be honeymooners, others came with the children and grandparents. It was crowded and commercialized. It was Sunday of Labor Day weekend.

I believe I would prefer Niagara Falls in a more wild setting, with the hotels, restaurants, and parking lots set back from the Niagara River and the Falls by at least half a mile. I believe I would prefer a more quiet place where we could contemplate the majesty of this creation. Nevertheless, commercialized as it is, Niagara Falls in still awesome and powerful.

The flight back to Portland was swift by comparison to the drive to Pennsylvania, comparatively cheap and certainly convenient. Nevertheless, I would have preferred to drive.

Taken from the sky and shows storm clouds and the wing of a jet.
Storm clouds to the south and the wing of a jet. This flight was completed without trouble.

By Mary Ann Aschenbrenner

Mary Ann is a website designer and developer working with small businesses and nonprofit organizations. She works and lives in St. Johns, a neighborhood in North Portland.

4 replies on “Driving Across America”

Mary Ann, this is lovely! I’ve never been to most of these places and it was wonderful to read about your Midwestern adventures and see the photos. BTW, I was just in Chicago for the first time, and we went to the Art Institute. LOVED it.

Hi Mary Ann, thanks for sharing. That was lovely. I have been to some of those places because I have traveled to over 30 states. I thought Niagara Falls was beautiful from the Canada side and American side too. My family and I have rode the Fountain of the Mist and I was about 7 years old. There’s nothing like road trips, the sites, the sounds, the food!

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