Driving across the USA has been on my bucket list for years but I never conceived of the how or when or with whom aspects of my wish. When I found out that Mike Rudolf needed to start his new job at the Mammoth Lakes Hospital in Mammoth Lakes, California very soon, the opportunity presented itself. This is another time in my short retirement when things fell into place so well that to not follow the obvious path presented to me would have resulted in expending a lot of effort. Following the obvious path resulted in Mike and I having great experiences in our road rally across the country.
Thanks to Bernadette and my niece, Emma, who relayed me in their cars to the journey’s starting line in Spring City, Pa. Along the way Emma drove me to have a short visit with my sister Beth, brother in law Joe, niece Angela, Mike Hiller and their wonderful children, Chase and Harper.
Bernadette and I worked on coming up with a theme for the journey which morphed into a pie trek across each state.
Mike R and I started on Monday, Sept. 19, 2016 at 6:17am. I photographed the odometer of Mike and Priscilla’s Ford Edge which performed very well.
Mike Rudolf and I drove 2,677 miles across country in slightly more than forty eight hours while his wife, Priscilla, had the difficult job of staying back to get their house ready for sale. Our plan was to drive about two hours or 130 miles and then switch places. Mike’s cell phone navigation system helped in addition to my hard copies of state maps in my US atlas.
Since the first state was Pennsylvania, I was lucky to stop at a Wawa Convenience store on Rt. 263 in New Hope, Pa where I tried, successfully I might add, the Keystone state’s famous Butterscotch Krimpets Pie. I was provided this delicious piece of pie by the reigning Miss Wawa 2016 (Emma Rudolf) whose platform centered upon putting a smile on the face of everyone she meets at Wawa markets during her one year of service as Miss Wawa.
Appetizing right, I thought so. The recipe for this concoction is to take six Tastycake krimpets, line them up, and cut in triangular wedge shape with plastic knife. It can be done very quickly with obvious results as you can see above. We drove 293.4 miles, following the I-70 route, and left Pennsylvania before entering West Virginia.
We were in West Virginia so briefly, only 13.1 miles, that we did not sample a piece of pie. However, not wanting to disrespect the fine folks of the Mountaineer State, we noticed a billboard advertising free dental extractions for new patients. We could not pass up this opportunity. As Bernadette reminds me, it is not just about the destination, it is also about experiencing the journey. Therefore, Mike and I both chose our best, front tooth and in ten minutes the extractions were completed. The medical team at the local Dental Urgent Care Center used moonshine (cherry or peach flavored) instead of nitrous oxide for pain relief. I felt somewhat okay about their universal precautions practices as I got to take my swig first before the dental assistant and the dentists took theirs! They did not have a digital camera but instead used a Polaroid camera to take one smiling photo of each of us to display on their proud patient cork board in the lobby. Just imagine the menagerie of photos on that display. As my dad use to say, their teeth looked like gear boxes where the missing upper and lower teeth somehow interlocked with the remaining teeth like gears.
Packed with some gauze to bite down upon, we headed into Ohio where we hoped to sample some pie without dislodging our gum’s blood clot from the extracted tooth. [Note, only the mileage driven actually occurred in West Virginia, the rest is just a missing tooth in cheek fairy tale].
We entered the fine state of Ohio, home to the NFL Hall of Fame in Canton. That tourist spot was not on our path. We drove a total of 225 miles through this state. We stopped at a Waffle House where “Gina” the waitress sold me a piece of triple chocolate cake. I put it in a to go container for later as I was doing my driving shift then. We had to stop for a gas/bathroom break once. We did that stop at the London Travel Center which had one of the most peculiar locations for artistic sculpture I have ever seen (or ever need to see I might add). You guessed it, above the urinals in the men’s bathroom were sculptures of mermaids.
I wonder what Ohio zoning or building codes existed which required the placement of this sculpture here instead of in the main lobby of the rest area where everyone could enjoy the sight of this sculpture. Imagine what the artist thought when he/she received their invitation for the unveiling and state officials dramatically pulled away the black curtain to reveal, for the first time, to the world, this beautiful mermaid… inside the men’s bathroom! On to the Hoosier state of Indiana.
I always associated Abe Lincoln with Illinois so I picked up a bit of trivia just as we entered Indiana, our fourth state. Because of the angling of I-70 slightly to the southwest, we were not crossing Indiana at it’s widest east-west measurement. We traveled 154.4 miles and entered Illinois. I ate the “Gina” triple chocolate cake from Ohio when Mike took over the helm in Indiana. So this chocolate cake gets credit in two states-state of purchase and state of consumption.
We missed the entering Illinois sign but did have some fun stops and sights in this state. Their common nexus was that they all occurred in Effingham, Illinois.
At one rest area there was a T-shirt hanging on a rack where it was advertised that Illinois was the state “where our governors make our license plates”. Pictured on the shirt are former governor Rod Blagojevich (on the left) who is serving a federal 14 year prison term for corruption which included trying to sell President Barack Obama’s old U.S. Senate seat. To the right of Rod, is the picture of George H. Ryan Sr. who was convicted of 18 counts of corruption including taking bribes for persons applying for commercial drivers licenses while knowing those persons were not competent to drive commercial vehicles. One of the improperly licensed “truckers” came to light after the trucker caused a fatal accident which resulted in the death of six persons. Ryan was currently serving a six year and six month sentence.
As we left the front of the rest area building we noticed a whole bunch of welded, multi-colored metal lawn ornaments for sale. At least these were more interesting than pink flamingos.The manufacturing and delivery time is slow due to demand. So, Bernadette, don’t worry, I have made arrangements for the delivery truck to put our six lawn ornaments on the side porch while we are away on our European trip. No thanks necessary.
After getting back onto I-70 I photographed what had to be the largest cross ever. It was erected on the south side of the interstate and did not seem to have any church type buildings nearby. I made note to “Google” it later as I felt there must be a story.
Google revealed that the “Cross at the Crossroads” was built for noble religious reasons and to outsize every other big cross in the US, especially the giant cross in Groom, Texas. This Effingham cross stands 198 feet tall and is just slightly taller than the Texas cross. The height was designed specifically to not be 200 feet as the FAA would have required it to have a beacon on the top and the founders of the cross did not want that cost added to the project. Apparently, along ground level are markers for the ten commandments where visitors can push a button to hear the particular commandment. Our journey just keeps getting more interesting.
We decided to take an actual sit down meal at about 7:30pm in a TGIF Restaurant in Effingham as well. The purpose was to rest a little and to download the TuneIn Radio App on my Iphone so we could listen to the Eagles vs. Bears Monday night football radio broadcast. We successfully downloaded the app and actually had the choice of three radio broadcast teams for the game. We opted for the Philadelphia radio broadcast team instead of the Bears broadcast or the NFL broadcast. It was a great way to spend the next few hours driving while we listened to the game which the Eagles won in fine fashion. Go Iggles!
We finished our quick 153 miles in Illinois, saw signs for East Saint Louis which is at the end of the Illinois border before crossing into St. Louis, Missouri where we saw our next state welcome sign. The problem was that the Missouri sign was not located on the right hand side of the highway where I was looking. It was in the middle of the grass median and we were by it too quickly to cross three lanes for a photo. Not wanting to do any sideways miles by turning around, we kept on trucking westbound. We finished Missouri, our sixth state, by doing 248 miles. We had now done a total of 1,086.9 miles but we were not quite halfway to California yet. We would now enter the State of Kansas. It was about 2am on Tuesday Sept. 20th.
Mike R had warned me about the uniqueness of the beautiful scenery of Kansas. Mike had driven this very route with long distance trucker Woodie for years when Mike was in his late teens and early twenties. Mike helped Woodie make deliveries all over the country.
Pretty much after you enter Kansas you see signs for two cities. One is Lawrence, Kansas which I believe is the home city for Kansas University. The other sign is for Topeka, Kansas. You encounter that sign just a ways past the Lawrence sign. After that, the route along I-70 is so boring that it is mind numbing. We did all 417 miles of the journey through very desolate looking areas. In all fairness, it was at night time, but it looked like all we saw were some farm fields and signs for little towns which were accessed by an exit ramp, only to find that the town has not apparently operated as a town for a long, long time. One deserted store in one of these areas featured a sign over the door advertising for TIRES—OIL—DRINKS. That’s all folks.
We stopped at one rest area for gas, windshield wash, and bathroom break. After walking out of the bathroom I saw an advertising poster for “Little Apple, Big Attractions in Manhattan, Kansas” courtesy of the Convention and Visitors Bureau. I think I’ll save up my money to return and see some of the Big Attractions which were not specified. I don’t know where these fancy sky scrapers were located but I did not see any from I-70.
As we were approaching the western end of Kansas, before entering Colorado, we saw a sign for Kanorado. It seems that someone decided to name the town, nearest the border, by combining Kansas and Colorado to create Kan-orado. Notice that it was exit 1 in the photo. We had entered the state at around Exit 417. The exit names were matched to the milepost markers.
Next up was the colorful state of Colorado. It was about 8:47am on Tuesday, Sept. 20th.
Now I want you to think back to your 8th grade Geography class and picture a north/south line running straight down the middle of Denver from the northern Colorado border to the southern Colorado border. Everything east of this line is virtually identical to the bleak hundreds of miles in Kansas. It seemed so similar that I wanted to coin the name of a new Colorado town. I would call it Color-ansas. Sort of a take off of the Kanorado city across the border in Kansas.
The good news was that Mike had made arrangements to stop in Denver to meet with his Roslyn, PA childhood friend and classmate, Dave Savoni, as well as Dave’s wife, Denise. They graciously offered us their shower and a chance to just sit for a while before continuing on westward into the Rockies. It was great getting a shower and into fresh clothes as we had been driving for about 26 hours. It was very nice meeting the Savonis and Mike had a wonderful visit talking about the old times and some of the new times.
We were given good directions by Denise as to how to get back onto I-70 to head west out of Denver. Mike R had the first driving shift. We stopped at a Macaroni Grill to eat and review some map/itinerary logistics on our way toward Utah. The driving Mike did up and over the Rockies was incredibly beautiful. I should say, up and over and THROUGH as he drove through numerous tunnels as well as I did when my driving shift commenced. The Eisenhower Tunnel was very long and very steep in a downward direction. As we were heading down it, I recalled some of the tunnels we drove through in Pennsylvania about one day before. The PA tunnels were not as long and they seemed pretty flat in comparison It did not take much imagination to picture how dangerous these severe mountain roads were in any type of weather. Even during clear weather and dry pavements, there were massive emergency steep pull off ramps for trucks to utilize if the trucks lost their brakes on the steep descents. There were numerous signs warning about putting on snow chains. We navigated all the sharp turns, both up and down safely and stopped in Eagle, Colorado at the Eagle Diner for a bathroom stop and to try to get another pie in our trek. I know I have been a little remiss in my duties in this regard. While Mike was using the bathroom I talked to the waitress in this very typical retro diner with the black and white tile floor and colorful tables in booths. I explained that we were driving across country and were trying to get to California by Wednesday morning. She mentioned she had a couple of different pies but none of them sounded my taste bud alarms. However, she added, we do have carrot cake. Bingo. I asked if she could wrap up a piece to go. A man, who had been sitting nearby on a stool while doing paperwork, appeared to possibly be the manager. He motioned to the waitress to put two slices in the container so I got two slices for only $2.50. I gave the waitress a $5 bill and told her to keep the change. I ended up eating the two slices at different times during my passenger/navigator shifts in other states.
We completed 460.3 miles in Colorado where we covered the most mileage in a single state during this cross country trek.
We had now done eight states and covered 1,964.8 miles as we entered Utah about 7:47pm on Tuesday Sept. 20th. Just three states to go.
We entered Utah just a little east of of where we headed south off I-70 in May for our Moab, Utah expedition. It was fun seeing some of the same areas we had just seen only four months earlier. We saw our second sunset and Mike did most of the driving across Utah until we swapped places after we approached the intersection with I-15 on the western portion of Utah, near the Nevada border. We were now driving on a very dimly lit Route 6/Route 50 as we approached the state line. Most of the road consisted of one lane each way with no median between. We really had to focus so as not to hit any livestock or other things on the highway.
We finished 330.3 miles in Utah, all in the dark. We approached the Nevada state line and saw signs for both Nevada and for the eastern edge of the Pacific Standard Time Zone.
We stopped at a convenience store right at the state line, across from the sign above. As I walked through the adjacent room to get to the bathroom, I saw a few people sitting at slot machines. Welcome to Nevada. When I went to leave the store, I talked to the owner, who was an elderly lady who said she had lived in the area for 40 years or so. I mentioned that we were trying to get to Mammoth Lakes by the early morning and when she heard that she cautioned us to stop our plans as soon as we got to Ely, Nevada which was the nearest town with some motels. She explained that the next 120 plus miles had little or no cell reception, no towns for support or service and dangerous narrow roadways (ie Rt. 6) which were frequented by wild horses during the night. There were no fences on either side of the road when compared to the cattle ranches we saw in Colorado or other states. She explained that the best thing for us to do was to get into the motel in Ely, get some sleep, and to drive the dangerous portion of Rt. 6 in daylight. As Mike came in from pumping the gas, we discussed this alternate plan. Everything in me said to trust this woman and so we did. We took turns driving the additional miles to Ely, Nevada and checked into a local Motel 6 who had “its light on for us”. It also had a security slot with a bandit barrier at the front desk as well for us to provide some security for the night clerk. We checked into our room around Midnight which was the start of Wednesday Sept. 21st. If we got about five to six hours of rest, a shower and change of clothes, we could still make it to Mammoth Lakes, California by Noon which was my original ballpark estimate for time of arrival.
This photo was taken in the early light later the same morning. Two things we noticed in our room. The toilet was the lowest toilet I have ever sat on. The seat was so low that whatever the opposite of hyper-extending your knee is, that is what I did to my right knee. Where I thought the toilet seat would take over supporting me was actually about four inches lower. The other thing Mike and I noticed was the shower, no tub. It was one of those 90 degree round corner showers with a pull around shower liner (note, not really a curtain). The quality of the caulking done to seal the edges and joints of this shower kit could only properly be shown in a photo. But alas, I forgot to take a photo of this contractor’s folly. I also forgot to photograph the wavy bathroom floor which suffered from the water coming onto it from the inside of the shower.
However, despite the condition of the motel room, it looked the same as the Waldorf Astoria did when my eyes were closed and that seemed to occur about thirty seconds after laying down. It definitely was the right decision to stay here for this brief pit stop for rest.
When we resumed our journey west on Rt. 6 we saw first hand why the convenience store lady warned us about the dangers of wild horses along the roadway. Mike saw the horses first. Some were alone and some had some buddies. There were no fences whatsoever and the horses seemed to all be jet black in color. I don’t think if we had driven through the night we would have ever seen these horses. We would have only felt the impact.
Driving in the daylight also let us see some of the other Nevada sights along the way including the famous Extraterrestrial Highway (which is Rt. 375) which runs from Rt. 6 where we were in a generally eastward direction toward its end. The interesting thing is that this public highway provides the nearest access to overlook Groom Lake which is the basin area nearest Area 51. UFO seekers and other tourists pull their car over to try to use binoculars to see strange aircraft in the sky.
As the ET Hwy is about 96 miles long, it was not worth driving all the way down and then 96 miles back even though we could have sampled some local UFO tales in a diner near the other end of Rt. 375.
We also passed by the missile sign for the Tonopah Missile Test Range.
Now the area fenced in with the barbed wire is very small and I am sure the actual test range is much bigger. I just would not be wandering around these open plains as this whole area smells of federal government/military use. Trespassers beware!
We finished traversing Nevada where we had driven 304.1 miles. We now were entering our 11th and final state, California. We took a photo of the welcome sign and used the opportunity to cross the road to take a daylight photo of the Nevada sign as my photo during the night was not well illuminated. It was now 10:40am PST on Wednesday Sept. 21st.
We were getting really excited and we set up the driving shifts so that Mike would take over for the final stretch in California to Mammoth Lakes. We only had to drive 77.9 miles in California before arriving at the welcome sign for Mammoth Lakes. Although we had arrived at 12:14pm PST, fourteen minutes past my original goal, we were safe. We had made it. We had driven 2,677.1 miles in two days and about six hours.
I still could not take a decent selfie (or brofie?) even after all the state lines. I apologize for that. Some of the really bad ones never made it off the editing room floor.
Life in Mammoth Lakes
I helped Mike get his car unloaded so all the initial belongings could be moved into his temporary apartment. Thanks to Priscilla who packed with great organizational skills so Mike was pretty well equipped. The temporary apartment was very nice and convenient. There was one bedroom, a pull out bed in the living room and two bunk beds just inside the front foyer. I chose the lower bunk. It was comfortable, long enough and had a light for me to use. Also, it was easier to straighten in the morning.
Mike handled the pre-employment appointments with the hospital and made other arrangements such as for mail. I tagged along for some of his appointments and met some of his co-workers who were all glad to see Mike. There is no commercial or residential delivery of mail by the US Post Office in Mammoth Lakes. All companies and people need to get a PO Box at the one post office. That is where all your USPS mail is delivered. UPS or FedEx type packages are delivered to your physical address.
Mike spent some time getting oriented to the local streets and the geography of the area. We met some people in the local Von’s Supermarket, one of whom recommended we go to her boss’s new place called the Liberty Grill. It was opened by two guys from Philadelphia so we went there and enjoyed meeting one of the two owners. He was a Temple U graduate. We had a great cheese steak. There are numerous flat screen TVs in the grill and when the Eagles are playing, a couple of screens are set to the Eagles game. It does not matter that most of the people out there are 49ers, Chargers or Seahawk fans.
When one of Mike’s appointments on Friday, Sept. 23rd ended early, we decided to get some Subway sandwiches and head to the eastern entrance to Yosemite National Park, off Rt. 120, which is just about 45 minutes from Mike’s temporary quarters. Once again my lifetime America the Beautiful Senior Pass worked like a charm and we did not have to pay to enter the park. Personal vehicles have to pay $30 for a seven day pass. We stopped at the Tuolumne Meadows Visitor Center and discussed some short hike options with a resident ranger. We decided on Lembert Dome which involved about a 2.8 mile round trip hike with an approximate 900 foot elevation gain to reach the summit of the Lembert Dome. We ended up following behind another group who was following a different path to the top. It worked out great as we skirted around the base of the mountain until we could begin climbing up the actual rock itself. There was no technical climbing but we just kept walking up and up on the side and back of it. We saw a few different climbers using ropes on the front face of the mountain. We summited around 9,500 feet above sea level. It was a beautiful day. Two female German tourist hikers took our photo and we reciprocated and took their photo.
It was a great way to end the trip. Beautiful skies and a great hiking partner. I could not have thought of a better way to check off the “Drive Across Country” item from my bucket list. Thank you Mike. And thank you Priscilla and Bernadette for your understanding and patience as we ventured across this beautiful country with the exception of Kansas, of course. Also, thanks to Emma for the pumpkin chocolate chip cookies which I rationed as we moved across the state borders. After finishing your batch, I found some others Mike left in plain view on the kitchen counter.
We got up early on Saturday for Mike to drive me to the Reno Airport so I could fly to Seattle and spend four days with Joel B. But that part of the adventure, as they say, is another story for another time.