4,444 miles is how far Google Maps says I drove between June 28th and July 13th. But secretly, it was more than that. Those 4,444 miles don’t count driving up the Taos Ski Valley and back, twice. Or lots of other little detours and mysteries. I moved from Eugene back to New Hampshire, but I didn’t take a direct route.
How on earth do you write about a road trip that is four and a half thousand miles long? I’m not sure, but I’m going to try. Before I begin: internet is slow here at 92 Highbridge Road, so don’t expect many pictures. And unrelatedly, I’ve started a tumblr called Cooking For My Parents about the food I’ll make them for the month that I’m at home. I don’t have time to write up every culinary adventure on this blog, but on tumblr I don’t feel bad just posting a photo and a caption with a short story and a link to the recipe. Already up there is some chicken, an improvisational salad, and some fantastic ice cream.
Back to my road trip. I had an inauspicious start: for some reason I thought it would be a fine idea to work through Tuesday and leave early Wednesday morning. I think at the time, I figured I would pack the weekend before I left. The problem was that the weekend before I left was U.S. Olympic Trials for track and field, right there in Eugene, and I ended up working. No time to pack. Plus I wanted to see my friends. So all of my packing happened Tuesday morning, before work, and then after work that night, with an extended break to get dinner with some friends at the Friendly Street Party Cart (highly recommended! local and cheap!) and then beer with some other friends at Eugene’s best new brewpub, Falling Sky (amazing, ever-changing selection and happy hour prices when it’s raining, a questionable business move in the Northwest). Oh, and Laura and I also had to clean the house! Long story short, I was finally packed up just after 1 a.m. and sacked out in my sleeping bag on the floor.
The next morning, the two of us woke up at 4:30 and drove our separate cars – with a lounge chair somehow stuffed into Laura’s Prius with her other stuff – to our friend Mike’s. Mike wanted the chair and kindly offered to make us breakfast at 5 a.m. before we left. So we ate waffles and hit the road, in our two cars, connected by walkie talkies! Laura is the best. It was Salt Lake City or bust.
And it was almost bust. After just about four hours of sleep, I wasn’t ready for a 14-hour drive. Somewhere in Nevada I got drowsy… and drowsier… and drowsiest until I was nodding along and driving was completely terrifying. I sent Laura an SOS on the walkie talkie. We were in that stretch of I-70 where there are no services for a long time, and I was at a loss. But Laura saved the day by revealing that she had a french press and a thermos full of hot water. We went for a walk in the sagebrush and she made me coffee, and when we hit the road again I was good as new.
After a brief stop in the Bonneville Salt Flats, we made it to Salt Lake, where I handed over the walkie talkie and we parted ways. I drove up Big Cottonwood Canyon to my aunt and uncle’s cabin. Uncle Ross and my cousin Mary were rafting the Grand Canyon, but my aunt Kathy was there to meet me and offer my an amazing dinner of cauliflower fritters, baked eggplant (better than it sounds), fruit salad, homemade pizza, and several other things that I can’t remember but were extremely delicious. After dinner I immediately fell asleep in the big bed upstairs and slept until 11 a.m. the next day. Whew, I needed that!
I can’t remember when the last time I slept that late was, and Kathy gets a big thank-you for being patient! It certainly limits what you can do with your day. But we went for a lovely hike that afternoon to a lake on the other side of the Brighton ski area and watched the dog launch himself off a rock over and over chasing a stick into the water. Then we ate at an Ethiopian restaurant – yum! And had a glass of wine in the hot tub.
By Friday it was time for another long drive, this time down to Taos, New Mexico. I really thought my old car – it’s a 1998 4Runner – was going to croak going through Moab, where it was about 100 degrees. The air conditioner spit out room-temperature air, which was better than hot air but nowhere near what a fully functional car would produce. Luckily we made it to cooler temperatures and I arrived in Taos around 9 p.m. to meet my friend Andrew. We – shamefully, considering all the great food Kathy had just plied me with – ate a fast food dinner and found a camping spot up towards the mountains.
In the morning we began our ascent of Wheeler Peak, which at 13,161 feet is the tallest mountain in New Mexico. Our hike began with a mile or more of steep trail through the woods. Eventually, we came above treeline and things opened up – beautifully. But it was several more miles; when we initially popped out of the woods, we couldn’t even see the peak we were aiming for. It was beautiful hiking, though, with views of the many tall mountains in the “enchanted circle,” as the area is known.
We snacked on top and appreciated the views, but soon heard thunder and saw rain so decided to skedaddle. Andrew revealed he had a headache. I wasn’t feeling so hot either – coming from sea level, 13,000 feet is fairly tough. We ran briefly to make sure we wouldn’t be on the ridge in a thunderstorm, but we needn’t have worried; more hikers were streaming up. In a nice meadow we stopped for lunch. As we ate, we heard what sounded like a very loud cow and wondered aloud whether it was a chainsaw. Minutes later a herd of cows burst out of the woods, pushed along by two cowboys and a dog.
“Are you going to Wheeler Peak?” one of the cowboys asked.
“We’ve already been!” we said.
“You’ve been up and down already?”
“You must be in hell of a good shape,” he said before riding off.
The whole thing – the cows above treeline, the cowboys – made my day.
By the time we got back to our cars Andrew had a migraine. We drove down to the lowest elevation we could, found a campsite, and I set up a tent; he crawled inside and slept. There was still a bit of the day left so I got out my road bike and went for a ride. Hey, when life hands you lemons – it was a nice ride, from Questa to Red River and back. The next day, Andrew feeling better but cautious, we hiked up to Williams Lake, which was nice but relatively unimpressive considering the scenery from the day before. After a Tex-Mex lunch, we parted ways and Andrew drove back to Midland, Texas, where he’s doing an internship.
Next I drove East from Taos to see my friends Maggie and Brad, who live just outside of Ledoux, New Mexico, which isn’t even really a town. Basically, into the mountains from Taos. Maggie sold me my horse Jenny when I was in middle school; she breeds Morgan horses and Australian Shepherd dogs. Back then, I’d go over to her house for a couple of days at a time in the summer, help out around the barn, and ride the horses. For my 14th birthday, she gave me Bravo, my dog. Then she moved to New Mexico.
I hadn’t seen Maggie in ten years and it was a joyous occasion. I stayed for three glorious days, helping with barn chores and riding the horses just like in the old days. Only this time we had Western saddles and real trails to check out. At the end of the day, we’d feed the horses, ride a few bareback down to the pasture for the night, and then sit back and drink beer before dinner. In the hottest part of the day, we’d hole up inside with her granddaughter and play rummy. In three days we ate two watermelons. I didn’t want to leave.
But I did, driving north on the fourth of July to see my college teammate Courtney in Vail. She graciously allowed me to bust in on her family get-together, which was great. Courtney had just gotten back from leading a group of high school students on a trip to Bolivia to install clean water pumps. We looked at her pictures and oohed and ahed. We both wore red, white, and blue outfits. For the first time in my life I felt like Courtney – with her job at the dental office and her boyfriend who owns the house they live in – was way more of an adult than I was. Not that that made things any less fun.
The next morning, Courtney had to leave for work around 6 so I drove over the pass and made quick stops in Morrison for breakfast with my great uncle Donald and then in Boulder for coffee with my co-worker Audrey. Then it was down to Pitkin, another not-really-town, this time outside of Gunnison. My friend Sean had built a cabin and the last time I’d been there, in 2009, it had been, shall we say, unfinished.
This time, the cabin was beautiful and impeccably organized and a place you’d really want to live, despite its ten by twelve foot footprint – and that’s exactly what Sean and his girlfriend Sarah were doing for the summer. They cooked me a birthday dinner of fish tacos (unbelievably delicious) and even made a cake in the tiny gas-powered oven on the porch. We drank the last of the glogg I had made in Eugene this winter. I can’t think of a better place to have a birthday.
Our plans for the following day included hiking Fairview Peak, which looms in Sean’s backyard and is casually taller than Wheeler was. Gotta love Colorado. But the weather came in early and bizarrely, from all directions at once, and we decided to abort. Instead we hiked up to an amazing abandoned mine which featured a huge, still-standing log building for some sort of ore processing. We marveled at how it had been built by hand with such giant logs, and wondered how large of a hammer was needed to pound in the massive nails at the top of the roofline. We were easily at 11,000 feet, but people had lived and worked here back when everything was done by human and animal power – it boggled the mind.
That night, steak, corn, asparagus, lots of booze, and evening walks in the woods. I woke up with a hangover and drove to Granby to see my aunt, the very last stop in the West. It was not a pleasant drive.
But a pleasant visit: I never want to leave Lizzie’s. My friend Ed had come down from Cheyenne, which made the visit even sweeter. Lizzie and her partner Paula are some of my very favorite people in the world and they always take such good care of me. We lounged around, took the dog for walks (that’s another story though), and did a couple great bike rides, one up Willow Creek Pass and the other into Rocky Mountain National Park. We cooked and ate good food. We sat on the porch in the sun and drank beer. They’re lucky they could get me to leave at all.
Finally: Eastward at breakneck speed. Spent the night in Princeton, Illinois because that’s as far as I could get. Then I stopped in Syracuse to see an old friend, Thomas, and his girlfriend Becca. We ate at a Mexican restaurant, Alto Cinqo, which I swear would have beat anything in Taos – the jerk chicken tacos were to. die. for. Then beers with their friends, a late-night run to Insomnia Cookies, and bedtime.
Thomas and I had more of a chance to catch up when I gave him a ride back to the Upper Valley the next day. For the first time all trip, I had a buddy in the car! And it was great. Despite steady e-mail communication, I barely ever see my friends from middle school – we are scattered all over the place. I was just glad that I had been able to carve out enough space for Thomas to sit in, because my car was absolutely jam-packed full!
When I drove up the driveway of 92 Highbridge Road, Bravo barked; he seemed to have forgotten all about the 4Runner in its extended absence. When he saw it was me, he bashfully wagged his tail. I was home.