November 2013 marked a rite of passage for me, a personal hijrah, if you will. I packed my ’09 Subaru Impreza full of basic necessities and departed for the journey of a lifetime – an epic road trip from Madison, Wisconsin (my hometown at the time) to San Jose, California, where my good friends had been camping out and living the “room and Ramen” startup life for the past 9 months.
The southwestern corner of Wisconsin is, hands-down, one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever had the privilege of driving through. I had no idea that Route 151, the same highway I took to work every day for nearly two years, eventually meandered through imposing rock cliffs and sleepy Midwestern villages to give way to a magnificent bridge over the Mississippi River at the Dubuque, IA border.
The first time I crossed the Mississippi was a moment I’ll never forget.
In fact, that trip, I think, was the most gorgeous drive of my life, one that I wish I had Google Glasses for. It was June 2013 and I was driving from Madison to Cedar Rapids for a three-day business trip. There was not a cloud in the sky, the weather was marvelous, and the verdant rolling hills of Iowa, were, for lack of a better word, singing. No other drive I’ve made since has managed to instill in me as powerful an appreciation for the joy of the open road.
This time around, the drive wasn’t that memorable. The dreary November weather left a lot to be desired. Cruise control was my go-to – I kept it at the speed limit or 5 over (max) the entire way down. In terms of entertainment, two albums of music that I’d managed to stick into the center console would be the only soundtrack to accompany me on this lonesome, two-and-a-half-day hike.
I had left Madison around 11 AM (on November 9, Day 1), so by the time I crossed Cedar Rapids and was making my way through the heartland, the sun was already on its way down the afternoon sky.
I remember stopping at an outlet mall to get gas and was semi-surprised by how out-of-place it seemed. Wouldn’t be the first time something like that happened on this trip.
I didn’t realize crossing Iowa would take me a little over five hours, so it was convenient that I had a friend in Des Moines, close to the state’s western border, who could offer me a much-needed reprieve from the road. A first-year medical student with aspirations to become a surgeon, Saman was happy to see a familiar face in the midst of studying for his biochemistry exam. After a hearty conversation over several cups of Ceylon tea (brewed expertly in the Persian fashion), I managed to get a quick a glimpse of Des Moines University. It struck me as a very quiet and suburban neighborhood nestled in a comfortable enclave of a low-key Midwestern city. Here are some snapshots:
The sun was just about to set set as I bid farewell to Saman and got onto I-80W, the transcontinental artery that would take me pretty much all the way to San Jose.
Iowa gave way to Nebraska. I had already decided before I left home that I would call it a night in Omaha, the only real large city before I hit the Rockies the day after. I had arranged to stay at the home of airbnber’s Leon and his fiance Yon, a stone’s throw from downtown. Here’s a glimpse:
Leon ended up being a fantastic host and we’ve been in touch since. A witty guy with a charming English accent, he made me feel at home the minute I stepped in. He introduced me to the surrounding neighborhood and suggested I eat a döner burger for dinner, from a downtown Omahan establishment known as Amsterdam Falafel & Kabob. He didn’t realize I was a sucker for Turkish food, so I was immediately sold. Less than an hour later, here’s what sat in front of me:
The next morning I set out again, knowing full-well that I wouldn’t hit civilization until Salt Lake City, which was a tremendous distance away (beyond all of Nebraska and all of Wyoming, to be exact).
Gorgeous weather and unique scenery compelled me to capture the following:
By the time I arrived in Cheyenne in the early afternoon, I was due to start an online English class in a few hours’ time. With the the Rockies looming ahead of me, I decided to take a break and mosey around to find a place with reasonable WiFi.
I found myself in downtown Cheyenne, hunting around on Yelp to find a place that would have just what I needed - Paramount Cafe.
Before I knew it, I had some signature bubble tea and my very own desk to set up shop:
A few kids started playing the piano nearby, and some of my students got to practice their English to the accompaniment of classical music:
Very impressed by this small cafe – the employees were beyond friendly. That’s what happens when you take trips. You learn to appreciate people who would otherwise be strangers, folks you would have never imagined crossing paths with.
While there was still light out, I’d managed to catch a quick bite at a Subway just around the corner from the cafe. I asked the cashier about crossing the Rockies. He said it wasn’t that bad a trek – the elevation changes were pretty manageable. I would be doing the trip overnight so I wanted to make sure I knew what was up ahead. Turned out it wasn’t so bad. I didn’t take any photos because it was so dark out.
I do remember staring up at the night sky and thinking in awe to myself at how many stars there must be out there. Never got a chance to appreciate the sheer beauty of the open wilderness until this overnight mountain crossing.
Traversing the Continental Divide was pretty cool too!
I entered the Beehive State a little after 2 AM Mountain Time. I was desperate for a place to spend the night and managed to make a reservation at the cafe in Cheyenne before I headed out. It was a small Airport Hotel in Salt Lake City. I don’t remember when I checked-in, but I do remember passing out pretty soon after I walked into the room.
The next morning I set out for California, determined to drive the rest of the distance this final day, Day 3 (Monday, November 11).
I’m gonna let the photos and videos do the talking on this one. Here are some clips of the Utahn landscape adjacent to the highway. I tried to get as many long-distance shots of the mountains as I could with one-hand on the wheel and the other on my camera phone.
And here are the famous salt-flats:
What was interesting about the salt flats was the fact that there were no exits for about 50 miles, if memory serves me right. I had left the hotel with very little gas in the tank so I was very distraught when I saw that I could only go a few more miles before the inevitable.
Thankfully I was able to avoid getting stranded on the side of the highway by a small pair of towns named Wendover and West Wendover.
The only thing I could think of when I took the exit to get off at Wendover, UT was that there was a gas station there. I didn’t even pay attention to the glitz and glamor that loomed on the other side of the street.
I had no idea that the place that I had chosen to fill up was on the Utah-Nevada border. And, just as all the stereotypes had led me to believe, Nevada makes a grand entrance to the weary eyes of a transcontinental traveler.
West Wendover, NV was a godsend. The next seven hours were spent in some of the most desolate terrain I had ever laid my eyes on. Interstate 80W snakes through the northern Nevadan desert, an area I can best characterize as sandy nothingness, dominated by tumbleweed and windswept mountains.
It wasn’t until I got to Reno, a solid seven hours later, that I would stumble again upon civilization.
Let me let the visuals do the talking:
The Golden State, at last. I crossed over the Nevada-California border shortly after sunset. The drive was pretty uneventful – I was tired – focusing on the fact that I was on the homestretch and needed to concentrate on making sure I got to my destination in one piece. Shortly after crossing into the state and navigating through the mountains (several very steep descents near the Tahoe area), I remember that every car had to slow down to get inspected by uniformed officers from the Department of Agriculture (or something like that). It was kind of like the fast lane at a toll booth, because we didn’t have to come to a complete stop, but it was still something I hadn’t experienced in other states. Not sure how they could manage to inspect every single vehicle on such a busy interstate, but that’s the way it is I guess.
I remember arriving at my friends’ home in the foothills of northeastern San Jose late at night, around 10 PM Pacific. I was finally home. The next morning, these were the sights that greeted me:
I would spend a little over four weeks in San Jose, during which I would make multiple trips to San Francisco and one trip to Los Angeles. Stay tuned – I look forward to writing more posts about my Californian adventures.
Some cool facts about this trip: