After the Michigan road trip, I officially became unemployed. My job was grant-funded, and when the grant ended so did my employment. I expected this but didn’t really have any plan in place. I filed for unemployment and started job-hunting in earnest. Unfortunately, the market for people with degrees in Museum Studies has always been tight, and the fall of 2013 was no different. I bided my time and tried my best to fill my days, but it was difficult.
S. and I took a late fall trip to Ottawa, Ontario for a scooter rally. Ottawa is a city much like Madison Wisconsin. It has all the trappings of a city (good food, museums, diverse population) but is also situated close enough to the countryside that you never feel all that removed. Also, poutine. Who doesn’t like poutine?
Back in the real world of Rhode Island, my unemployment woes were joined by more automotive troubles – the Focus received its first major ding. While out at a local taco joint for lunch, a Honda Pilot backed into the front of the Focus, denting the hood and buckling part of the plastic grill. I was enraged that the driver did a hit-and-run, and the local police were less than helpful (it took a full 4 months to get the accident report, and even though we had an eye-witness, the police were reluctant to do anything). I was still paying on the car I had full coverage which was fortunate as the repair estimate $3000. Realizing that the damage was cosmetic, I took the check and kept it for a rainy day, driving the battle-scarred Focus.
Oddly I can find no photos that I took of the car in the immediate aftermath of this accident. This is unusual, as readers of my past COAL’s can attest, I take photos of my vehicles every chance I get. Thinking back, I must have been so upset that I just didn’t want reminders of the incident. Below is a closeup of the damage several months later, you can see that the galvanized steel managed to stave off rust where the paint was scraped off.
In addition to this accident, another curious incident happened. During one particularly hot stretch of summertime hot weather, I noticed that the paint on the roof of the car had started to peel off, all the way down to the bare metal. I was angered by this – why on earth would the paint on a relatively new car fail so easily, and why? As it turns out, a guy-wire from a telephone pole that was adjacent to my parking spot had worn through the bark of a branch, a branch that was located directly above my car. The hot weather had made the tree slowly drip sap onto the roof of my car, which eventually dissolved the paint. Ford was no help, as this was an “Act of God” and not covered under the paint warranty. I was beginning to think that Elektra was cursed to be constantly dinged and dented.
Just like the Focus, my personal life continued to be dinged and dented as well. I was legally and physically separated from my wife (and would be until we finally got a divorce in 2016) and I was still unemployed. I didn’t know what I was doing with myself and I had no clear plan. There was some pressure from my parents to move back home to give myself a breather and a reset, but I didn’t want to admit defeat.
As 2013 rolled into 2014, Elektra and I would take two more wintertime trips to Ottawa. I loved skating on the Rideau Canal and eating Beavertails – Canada sure knows how to do winter! S. and I also took an extended trip to Hong Kong and Vietnam during this time, but all of my travels could only postpone dealing with my unemployment situation. Two weeks shy of running out of unemployment benefits, I managed to land a job at a travel tourism company. This was far from ideal, but it kept money in my bank account and allowed me a little bit of breathing room. Before I started the job I informed them that I had already planned a vacation for June/July of that year and they agreed to give me the time off. The original plan had been to go to France for the wedding of one of my best friends, but when that fell apart I decided to use this to my advantage and take a road trip to California.
I had only requested a week off from work, so that meant my options were extremely limited on how to get to California and back. As luck would have it, a very good friend of mine, C. was in between jobs. I invited her to lunch approximately two weeks before my vacation time and made a proposal: would she want to take a week to drive Elektra out to Los Angeles, and I would fly out to meet her there, and then we would spend 9 days driving up the Pacific Coast Highway and on into Seattle, and then head back home? C. is as crazy as I am, so after giving a few minutes though, she agreed. A week later the car was packed and she was headed west.
It was a strange week at work, following my car as C. drove across the country. I was anxious to join her and drive up the PCH – I had never been all the way from LA to the Oregon Coast and I was excited. June 27th found me winging my way to LA. C. picked me up at the airport and I promptly crashed at our hotel – I had worked the entire day before my flight. Combined with the jet-lag and I was exhausted.
The next day dawned early and I was still on East Coast time, so we loaded up and headed into LA traffic for the PCH. Our first stop was Paradise Cove in Malibu. If you aren’t aware, this is where James Rockford kept his trailer in the TV show The Rockford Files – one of my all-time favorite shows. Some 40-years on and Paradise Cove still looks almost exactly as it did in the 1970s during the show.
I had fond memories of driving portions of the PCH in 2004 in a rented Mustang Convertible, but that car had an automatic and a lousy V6.
I was eager to enjoy the manual transmission in my car, zipping around curves and enjoying the spectacular views. Of course, traffic and construction would conspire to make that a difficult proposition for most of the trip.
The stretch of the PCH near San Simeon is both beautiful and fairly desolate. It’s also cattle country, something that I don’t associate with the Pacific coastline of California. We didn’t have time to stop at Hearst Castle as we needed to push on to our campground for the night.
We eventually made it to our campground in Big Sur towards nightfall. Luckily, C. and I are adept at setting up camp and cooking dinner in the twilight. We had a nice meal nestled among the redwood trees.
The next morning we packed the car and continued northward. We would be passing through San Francisco on this day, but again we didn’t have much time to stop. I am lucky to have a friend like C., she enjoys the ride as much as stopping and seeing things. With the limited timeframe that we had, we both agreed that just driving and enjoying the scenery was as much fun as spending a day here and there.
We made it to San Francisco by mid-afternoon paused to venture down Lombard Street. Unfortunately, unless you drop someone off at the bottom of the street before you drive down, it’s impossible to get a good photo of driving down the zig-zag street. After crossing the Golden Gate Bridge we stopped to admire the bay, the bridge, and the San Francisco skyline. It was while standing at the viewing area that I heard one of the strangest things I’ve ever heard. A family next to us was discussing their plans when one of the younger members said: “Tomorrow isn’t going to take all day”. While I understand the intent of the statment, C. and I found it hilarious and to this day still repeat it to each other.
We motored up the northern end of the PCH over the next day, stopping to camp in Bodega Bay for the night. The following day would take us through the end of the PCH. We enjoyed the scenery of the sparsely populated Northern California coastline. About fifteen miles before the end of the PCH, the road takes a sharp turn eastward. This marks the point at which you no longer see the Pacific Ocean (at least on the PCH). We stopped for a photo to mark the end of this part of the voyage.
As we neared the village of Leggett, CA, we had to stop at the world-famous Chandelier Tree. I could never condone carving out a car-sized hole in the bottom of a redwood tree today, however as the Chandelier Tree was desecrated nearly a century ago and has survived we decided to drive through it. I’m a sucker for road-side novelties, what can I say?
Along with the visit to the Chandelier Tree comes the end of the PCH. As we didn’t start in Dana Point, CA we missed the first few miles of the PCH but we did manage to cover most of the 656 miles from one end of California to another. In many ways, the PCH is just a road like any other, with traffic, stop-lights, and grim strip malls and urban decay. Beyond the geography of the road itself, which does take you through many spectacular vistas and locales, there is something almost mythical about the drive. Much like Route 66, it embodies a fusion of nature, man and machine. You really need some form of transportation to enjoy what the PCH has to offer, so for gearheads like C. and I, it was well worth the effort it took to get us there.
The end of the PCH didn’t mean we would be turning east to head back home. We picked up US 101 and continued north, our next stop being the Redwoods Nationa Park. I had been here once as a child in 1984 and had always wanted to go back. This would be one of the few days of this road trip that we would actually stop and walk around for a bit. Being among the towering redwoods compels you to take time to wander among the ferns and dappled sunlight. Words fail me when I think back on the redwood trees, they are so majestic and massive. If you haven’t been, please take the time to plan a trip and go!
We camped that night in Klamath and spent the morning of the following day wandering around in the Redwoods park. We ventured out on a small hike to a World War II-era radar station (Radar Station B-71). It was a concrete block building designed to mimic a barn/house. It was completely empty but it was left just as it was at the end of its useful life.
We only had the morning to spend enjoying the Redwoods before we needed to continue on our way northwards. We soon crossed over into Oregon. This was the first time I had enjoyed the Oregon coast, and from my experience, US 101 here has far more spectacular views than the PCH.
The clock was running on our trip and we had to make a turn eastward to connect with I-5. We made our turn near Reedsport, OR and followed along the Umpqua River. We stopped in Elkton for a rest and found one of the most spectacular vistas. I’m not sure of the geology of the area, but water erosion in the rocks have formed undulating bumps and small pools. The shallowness of the river afforded us the opportunity to walk around and admire the rocks as well as cool our feet.
This is what I love about road trips – finding little places that you wouldn’t ordinarily find. Timetables be damned, sometimes you just have to stop and enjoy where you are. My mindset in this situations is that I’ll probably never get a chance to come here again, so enjoy it while you’re there!
The remainder of the day was a highway slog into Vancouver, WA. We met up with friends’ of C. for dinner before bedding down in an actual motel. We both needed the creature comforts of a bed instead of a tent, and the next day we felt much refreshed. Neither of us had any strong feelings about spending any time in Seattle, it was just the milestone where we would officially turn eastward for the journey home.
What we DID want to see was Roslyn, Washington. For those of you that aren’t familiar with 90’s television, Roslyn is the home of the fictional Cicely, Alaska, aka Northern Exposure.
In the show, the focal point of the town is a bar called The Brick. The real bar/restaurant is also known as the Brick and the vibe is very much the same. It is a popular tourist spot at the same time an actual gathering place for locals. During our stop there we saw bicyclists mingling with loggers and of course us. The waitress regaled us with an amazing story that could have come straight from the mouth of Shelly Tambo. Art imitating life, or life imitating art? The rest of Roslyn looks almost exactly as it did on the show, including the store-front KBHR radio station set and Joel Fleishman’s doctor’s office (now a gift shop). All in all, Roslyn was one of the high points of the trip for me.
We returned to I-90 and headed into Eastern Washington State. I had never been there before and was surprised to find out just how dry and arid it is. Washington is one of those states that I have in my mind as “pine trees and rain”.
We stayed near Pocatello Idaho for the night. Unfortunately, it was not a restful night’s sleep, as the campground was hard against I-90 and the heavy truck traffic noise was unbearable. I didn’t mind all that much as the next day would find us in Montana, and I could cross off another state on my list. The elevation of the Rocky Mountains isn’t as dramatic in Idaho, so before we realized it we were on the other side of the Continental Divide. We stayed on I-90 until Garrison, MT were we detoured onto US 12 for the remainder of Montana. I’ve traveled enough in the West to know that the sparse population makes the US# routes often as fast and far more scenic than the interstates.
We US12 connected us back to I-90 near Forsyth, MT where we camped for the night. We resumed eastward on I-90 until Miles City where we turned off onto US 12 again. This would take us through the very south-eastern tip of North Dakota, another state for me to cross off my list. It’s debatable if I can say I’ve visited North Dakota since we were there for all of 45 minutes, but I’m going to count it. I know I’ll go back someday, so I’m not too worried.
After our short jaunt through ND, we entered South Dakota. We would take US 12 for the length of South Dakota as we wanted to see the prairies, grasslands, and Small Town USA. It would also afford me the opportunity to do some top-speed testing on my Focus. I attempted two high-speed runs, both times maxing out at 119 MPH. No matter how hard I tried I could not inch it to the 120 mark, but given the two passengers and camping gear load, I’m pretty impressed with Elektra. No buffalo or prairie dogs were harmed in the high-speed testing.
As we crossed South Dakota we noticed a thick haze in the air, an air-quality condition that initially started in Montana. The radio informed us it was smoke from wildfires in Canada, and we would experience the haze for the next three days.
US12 is a lovely route to take across South Dakota, giving you a real taste of what the middle of the country is like. I don’t believe it extended our trip much more than taking I-90 and it was much more scenic. If you have the time I highly recommend taking this route over I-90. We eventually crossed the border into Minnesota, and for me, this felt like the beginning of the end for our trip, as the wide-open expanses start to diminish and the population density starts to increase. Our one mechanical problem also occurred in Minnesota. We were just approaching the western edge of Minneapolis when I realized we were low on gas. I stopped at a no-name gas station to put in a few gallons to get us to the other side of the city. Unfortunately, this gas was terrible and Elektra bucked and shuddered, enough that I had to limp the car to another gas station off of I-90 and get an (expensive) full tank of gas. We suffered no more mechanical maladies on the trip, but for a few moments, I was very concerned about getting home.
Minnesota passed by in a blur, as did Wisconsin. This day happened to be the Fourth of July so we wanted to take advantage of the lack of Chicago traffic and get as far east as possible. This turned out to be fortuitous, as we experienced one of the most magical fire-works displays I have ever viewed. For about 30 miles, from the northern end of the Chicago suburbs all the way into Gary, Indiana the sky directly above the highway was filled with fireworks. I’m not sure if they were all municipal or private or what, but it was a continuous stunning display of pageantry just for us. By the time we stopped for gas in Gary, Indiana the humid night air was filled with the smell of cordite, so much so that you could see it hanging in the air.
The next day we powered the rest of the way back to Rhode Island, just wanting to be home and out of the car. Even though C. and I have iron-butts and can drive for long distances (in fact, she did 1100 miles on the longest day of the year on her way out, crossing 3 times zones) there comes a time when a road trip is just finished. I often feel this way when driving in the dense, congesting northern states – it stops feeling like an adventure and becomes a slog.
I had bought a case of Rainer beer while in Washington, and upon arrival back in Providence, we cracked open a can to celebrate our journey.
At the time of writing this post I can’t seem to find the Captain’s Log journal that we kept, detailing the miles, miles per gallon and the total number of days we were on the trip. I’ll update with the information once I find it. This would not be the last cross-country road trip Elektra would make, so stay tuned for Part 3 of this COAL, which will encompass that trip and the conclusion to this story. Thanks for your patience in reading this long COAL, I hope you’ve enjoyed the journey so far!