To undertake a 4,500-mile cross-country drive is not a decision one makes without careful consideration and planning.
But when the 20-year-old son of my photography partner, Barb Gonzalez, asked his mother in February if she could make arrangements to have his 2006 Toyota Camry delivered to his new home in Orlando, Fla., she was quick to assure him that we could deliver it ourselves.
Then she looked at me. “Right?” she asked.
As much as I love a road trip, I was dubious. If we were going to do this, I didn’t want it to be a race against time. We needed to make it professionally viable and it was essential that it remain affordable, not a luxury getaway.
We would be flying home from Florida, so we had to be careful that we didn’t pack more than we could carry aboard the plane, including some cold-weather clothing for the trip down. We had to be sure the Toyota was serviced and physically ready for such a journey.
The planning process
We jointly decided that we could each afford to budget $100 per day for the entire month of April. That had to include all auto expenses (mainly gas), lodging, meals, and such peripheral costs as admissions and entertainment. We estimated that gas alone would run about $600 (at about $3.75 per gallon, 30 miles per gallon). That allowed us $180 per day, all inclusive, after fuel.
The sum sounded ample, so long as we chose modest accommodations and kept our fine-dining expenses to a minimum. We made our meals last longer by packaging up leftovers from our dinners, keeping them in a room refrigerator or ice chest, and enjoying them chilled for lunch the next day.
Next question: What would be our route? We both knew that we wanted to spend a few days in New Orleans. I proposed a southerly trip, through the red-rock country of Utah and the pueblo lands of New Mexico, but Barb expressed a special interest in seeing Mount Rushmore. We considered traveling east as far as Chicago before heading south, but in the end decided to angle across the Midwest to save on time and mileage.
Even on the first of April, there remained the likelihood of snow or inclement weather across the northern United States. We had no choice but to carry winter clothing. But we limited our wardrobe options and planned to do laundry at least twice on our route. We carried mostly casual wear — three changes and something a little more upscale for possible jacket-and-tie occasions.
We had the car lubed, the tires rotated and pressure checked, and confirmed with our auto-insurance company that we would be covered in the event of any need for roadside assistance.
As a home-technology expert, Barb added some new touches to trip planning with state-of-the-art iPhone apps. Our favorites were Road Ninja, which kept us apprised of upcoming restaurants, tourist attractions and even rest stops; and Hipmunk, which collected information from various other hotel rating sites — Trip Advisor, Booking.com, Hotels.com, Priceline and others — to recommend inexpensive lodging along our route. We also referred to I-Exit, which told us what was ahead when we were traveling on interstate highways.
We set out, perhaps appropriately, on April Fool’s Day. We had considered that we might encounter a little spring snow in the high country of Wyoming, but we were challenged the moment we left our house: A couple of inches of fresh snow had fallen overnight in Bend. The Toyota wasn’t equipped with snow tires but our plans to tackle U.S. Highway 20 to Burns without traction devices lasted only as far as the Brothers rest stop. Seeing three tractor-trailer rigs off the side of the road was all the convincing we needed. The chains went on.
For better or worse, the weather was fickle. No sooner would we pass through blizzard conditions than we’d hit a stretch of clear, dry road, tough on aging chains. Then we would reencounter another snow-and-ice-packed piece of highway. By the time we had eluded the worst of the storm, near Riley junction, the chains had succumbed to an asphalt beating and were whipping our vehicle’s fenders. At our next opportunity, in Burns, we disposed of them in favor of new chains for later in the journey. (As luck would have it, they were never needed.)
Exhausted, we overnighted in Boise at a favorite hotel, the Riverside, and dined at a favorite restaurant, Shige Japanese Cuisine. Then we were off early the next morning, hoping to drive through Craters of the Moon National Monument before continuing into Wyoming.
The main access road into Craters of the Moon, however, remained closed by winter weather. So we stayed on the interstate highway that follows the Snake River and stopped instead at the Idaho Potato Museum in the small town of Blackfoot, in Bingham County northeast of Pocatello.
One cannot travel through rural Idaho without seeing fields of spuds. About 30 percent of all potatoes grown in the United States come from Idaho, and Bingham County alone harvests more than 2 billion (with a “b”) pounds of Russet Burbanks each year, earning it the nickname, “potato capital of the world.”
The museum occupies the 1912 Oregon Short Line Railroad Depot. It’s hard to miss the giant fabricated potato that sits in front of it, topped with facsimile sour cream and butter. Inside are plenty of educational exhibits, but many visitors are more impressed by collections of Mr. Potato Heads and 100 potato mashers; by the world’s largest potato chip (Guinness-approved); and by a famous poster that features a young Marilyn Monroe dressed in a burlap potato sack.
No sooner had we crossed the state line into Wyoming than our wildlife sightings began. As we girdled the Snake River Range, a herd of two dozen Rocky Mountain goats descended into the river valley near the hamlet of Alpine. We pulled off the road beside a state trooper who was surveying travelers’ reactions to the long-haired crowd favorites. Wearing their spring coats, the goats looked especially healthy, having not yet shed large chunks of wool, as they do later in the summer season.
Jackson, one of my favorite mountain towns in any season, was 20 miles ahead. Although the major ski area here, Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, was building up to its final weekend of the winter, and we had clearly arrived at a transitional time in the community, the cowboy flavor persisted. The Silver Dollar Saloon remained open, and restaurants like The Kitchen still did a bustling business in regional game dishes.
Moose wandered through the grounds of the Snow King Resort — we watched them through the windows of Hayden’s Post restaurant as we ate — and massive herds of elk patrolled the National Elk Refuge at the edge of town. Grand Teton National Park was still snowed in, even though major highways edging the expanse had been cleared. But the Teton Range itself was as spectacular as ever, its icy crags rising high above fields of snow untouched by ski or snowshoe tracks.
With Yellowstone National Park’s south entrance still closed, we headed east from Jackson across 9,548-foot Togwatee Pass. We made a lunch stop in Lander, a charming town at the foot of the Wind River Mountains and home to the National Outdoor Leadership School. The infusion of active young outdoors lovers into a traditional ranching culture has given Lander a more spirited flavor than many other towns this close to the Continental Divide.
The next 100 miles were bleak, as we followed long-abandoned pioneer trails across arid prairie. Finally we approached Casper, a veritable metropolis of 50,000 people and the heart of a region rich in fossil fuels. For the next 120 miles, the landscape boasted a wealth of oil derricks — and, closer to Gillette, several large, open-pit coal mines.
Our overnight stop in the latter working-class town left us, as non-smokers, yearning for the ban in Pacific Coast states against smoking in public places. Even the restaurant at our motel placed the “smoking section” immediately next to the “non-smoking” section, allowing fumes to drift freely through the dining room. It was a problem we encountered several times during our trip, but rarely worse than here.
Across South Dakota
The story of our passage through the Black Hills of western South Dakota was told in these pages on April 21. Basing ourselves in Rapid City, a community slightly smaller than Bend, we spent three days exploring a concentration of national parks and monuments. (My annual national parks pass allows us admission to all.) Mount Rushmore National Memorial is the best known of a group that includes Devils Tower and Jewel Cave national monuments, Wind Cave and Badlands national parks, and the Deadwood national historic district. But a couple of highlights don’t appear on that list.
The Crazy Horse Memorial was one. Already 65 years in the making, the homage to a 19th-century Lakota Sioux chieftain will be the world’s largest sculpture when it is completed — perhaps another three decades from now. The work begun by artist Korczak Ziolkowski has been continued by his family, and it is slowly taking shape; the 87-foot-tall face of Crazy Horse, who defeated General George Custer in the Battle of the Little Bighorn, is nearly half again larger than the Rushmore presidents.
Ultimately, the Ziolkowski family hopes, the complex will be home to a university and museum dedicated to the native cultures of North America.
Not far away is Custer State Park, the region’s best destination for wildlife lovers. The 71,000-acre park has herds with hundreds of bison (buffalo) as well as pronghorn, elk, deer, bighorn sheep and wild burros, plus large colonies of crowd-pleasing prairie dogs. Several scenic driving routes sweep through its rolling prairie and pine-studded mountains.
Rapid City, meanwhile, is known as the “City of Presidents.” Indeed, it features statues of every American president standing on 12 downtown street corners, in keeping with the Mount Rushmore theme. And the city has an active arts community and the excellent Journey Museum, which traces regional history from the age of the dinosaurs.
Brews and bandits
A day’s drive southeast of Rapid City, I insisted upon visiting the Nebraska farm town of Columbus — home to the Gottberg Brew Pub. The pub’s namesake was likely not a relative, though given the relative obscurity of the surname, it is quite possible that some ancestral connection exists. I discovered the pub several years ago during an internet name search.
My name opened no doors after the front one. But I was intrigued by the handsomely restored red-brick building, which the Gottberg Brew Pub shares with the moderately priced Dusters Restaurant. (The steaks, premium Nebraska beef, were excellent.)
Built in 1920, the striking design of the brewpub building incorporates terra-cotta shapes of Model T Fords in the white-stone cornice work.
It turns out that Max Gottberg (1860-1944) owned the town’s first auto and farm-machinery dealership and garage, and this building was his assembly plant and repair shop.
Living in Bend, I have an appreciation for good beer, and these German-style ales weren’t bad at all. The brewmaster, Adam Daake, had nine ales on top, ranging from the Tin Lizzie Hefeweizen to Oatmeal Stout. I especially liked Gottberg’s Dark Star Lager and its Smokestack Porter. Barb preferred the Apricot Wheat Ale.
We stopped twice more en route to Kansas City — once in the Old Market area of Omaha, a charming historic district where horse-drawn carriages ply cobbled streets; and once in St. Joseph, Mo., the eastern terminus of the pre-railroad Pony Express mail service, and the home of the notorious 19th-century outlaw, Jesse James.
James’ small home stands next to the elegant Patee House, a hotel that served as Pony Express headquarters. Relocated here from a nearby hill and refurbished as a small museum, its highlight — if one can call it that — was the room where James took a bullet to the head in 1882.
After that, it was time to find something more upbeat.
We found it in Kansas City, whose metropolitan population of 2.3 million made it the first true urban center we had visited since leaving Bend, about 2,000 miles ago.
“I??m going to Kansas City. Kansas City, here I come.” The words from that rhythm-and-blues standard of the 1950s kept running through our heads as we sought out the corner of 12th Street and Vine, where more than 300 recording artists found their “Kansas City baby and a bottle of Kansas City wine.” We found a commemorative marker in a quiet park.
Beginning in the Prohibition era and extending through the mid-20th century, this was the northern edge of a flourishing African American neighborhood. It was seminal to the emergence of three cultural icons — the bebop jazz scene, a unique style of barbecue and Negro Leagues baseball.
We found all three alive and well in the 18th and Vine District, just around the corner from a monument to jazz saxophonist Charlie “Bird” Parker.
Sharing opposite ends of a central building are the American Jazz Museum, its interactive exhibits flowing into the Blue Room jazz club, and the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, which tells the story of “America’s game” as it was played in the era before the major leagues were integrated.
Nearby is the Mutual Musicians Foundation, a weekend jam club for musicians who gather after hours when other jazz venues around the city close. (The public is welcome.) And east and west, especially along Brooklyn Street, are cafes like Arthur Bryant’s and Gates & Sons, where diners slather meaty pork ribs with spicy sauces and wash them down with local beer.
The current darling of the KC barbecue scene is Fiorella’s Jack Stack. Its four locations include one at the renovated Freight House in the emerging Crossroads Arts District. Our meal there, despite having to wait nearly an hour for a table, wrapped up a day of nonstop sightseeing that included visits to the National World War I Museum and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, both of them absolute “must-see” stops.
Nelson-Atkins is immediately recognizable by the giant shuttlecocks on its broad lawn, the work of famed Swedish-American artist Claes Oldenburg.
Within the giant Beaux Arts-style building, completed in 1933, are renowned collections of Asian art, especially imperial China, and European painting (Rembrandt, Monet, Van Gogh).
There’s no finer view of greater Kansas City than from the top of the Liberty Memorial Tower, rising 217 feet above the hilltop war museum. The newly renovated and stunningly curated exhibit space recalls the origins of the First World War (1914-18), describing its origins in Europe and the American role in the conflict beginning in 1917.
Kansas City appropriately marked the end of the western half of our trip. Adjacent Independence, Mo., now a KC suburb, was the jumping-off point for the Lewis and Clark expedition and the Oregon Trail, and a hub for westward expansion of the United States. From here, we’d be continuing south and east — to Memphis, New Orleans and on to Florida.
— Reporter: firstname.lastname@example.org