Why “The Greatest Road Trip In The World” Turned In To A Nightmare

Among some of the non-technical garbage on my old blog was an occasional post about my travels. There weren’t many due the pandemic not long after I’d started being able to do such things. But I got to do something last year I’d wanted to do for 20 years.

It was not such a great road-trip after all.

72 hours, 5000 hours of open road, and a satellite radio subscription. That was the theme of 2019. After having a driver’s license for 20 years I was getting to do the thing I’d only dreamed about; driving ‘cross country. Well…maybe not coast to coast; but still, look at that line. The line actually would keep going up the side of Nevada to Reno and then off in to Northern California; but Vegas was actually two stops so I played it up.

But the real kicker of this plan wasn’t that I was going to be doing this solo; but that I was going to cover the 36 hours to Vegas in less than 48! My intention, by the end of a week-end; was to have gone from Washington DC to Las Vegas. I mean NYC to LA has been Cannonballed; but I’m not talking about breaking any speed records. It would be tunes, caffeine, nicotine, an absolute love of the road, and driving as much as possible. Two 18-hour days on the road left six-hours to sleep; plus I would ultimately gain three hours “off the clock” during this trek.

“But what we gonna do right here is go back….”

So who in their right mind would put 18 hours behind the wheel on the list of things to do? This guy, right here; the grandson of a guy who would drive 3 hours round-trip just to go to dinner. A guy that drove back and forth between Florida at least once a year for many, many years. A guy who learned to drive at 12 years old. The man they claimed was born with a steering wheel in his hand; which made my father remark “that must have hurt grandma”. He could drive anything with a steering wheel and didn’t care how long he had to do it.

I grew up with the early era of racing games; which while I enjoyed the competition of racing, for me it was all about driving the car. I wasn’t too far from getting my drivers license when games like Crusin’ USA, Grand Theft Auto (the original top-down), and Gran Turismo came out. But the excitement around finally getting my driver’s license wasn’t as shallow as I feel some make it out to be. Sure, the ability to legally drive a car and have that independence is fantastic in it’s own way; but for me, it was deeper. It was like..I loved driving before I had a chance to actually drive; I loved driving after getting to drive; and now….I had the license.

I was also apparently…pretty good at it. I was even told by the driving instructor that I was a natural. The entire time I did in-car there was only one-thing he had to legitimately remind me of…which was a issue of safety more than legality; but mostly just nit-picked and joked. But..while I did have one grandfather that was a natural at driving and had an absolute love of it; the other one’s could also drive anything with a steering wheel. This was also the same grandfather that would let my sister and I as little kids drive his lawn mower around the yard. Come to think of it a lot of my early memories of driving were of the lawn mower; which were good times. Not even in the context of reflection since my grandfathers have been gone for 15 years….just the fact we got to drive the lawn mower around his yard.

Let’s fast forward through 18 years of a lousy job, lousy relationships, lousy cars, shit, shit, more shit, less shit, almost stopped being shit, got really good for a while, then just back to the shit pit; stopping sometime in late 2016. I was starting to gain momentum making my way out of shit pit; and most of it was due to caring less about things and just doing stuff. A lot of this had to do with the 2013 spinal injury that looked like it was going to end a lot of things. Work, walking, living without constant pain, roller-coasters…it was a crazy simile to having gotten knocked in the shit pit; I hit the bottom so hard I literally destroyed my back.

But, you know; I dealt with the pain. Drugs helped…then quitting those sucked. But it was just eleven months later when I walked, pain and mostly limp-free, in to “the local amusement park”, and promptly got in the first roller coaster I could. I rode everything. I walked more in that day than I probably had the previous 11 months. Did I hurt? Hell yes I hurt; but it was where I hurt. It wasn’t anything related to the spine injury; it was my legs. My calfs; the muscles around my shins…the only things that were sore were due to just the amount of walking.

So during the period of time I was “recovering” and not yet back to work, I got my ham radio license; and since I had started using Reddit during boredom during my back injury, started hanging around it’s ham radio subreddit. Being the type of geek I am; I started hanging around it’s IRC channel…then meeting another group of guys from there. They’d been a legit licensed ham radio club for..I’m not sure how long; but for the past year or two they’d gone out to a ranch out in Northern California for a little ham radio thing called field day. The stories I heard made me realize I needed to go; and it was sometime in November of 2016 that after randomly looking at a flight, decided 2017 would be the year I went.

“At This Point I Might As Well Just Go To Vegas”

So Las Vegas isn’t actually anywhere near where I needed to be if my point was to head to the ranch; so when I made this decision it wasn’t even being thought about. Instead, my plans involved Reno; which at 2.5 hours away is the closest major city with an airport. Was November too early for a June trip? I didn’t think so at the time and almost grabbed a ticket right then; the price of that is what made me realize I could probably afford a trip after-all. I remember thinking about buying it right then…but between some advice and realizing I should do more research as I’d never gone anywhere; I didn’t.

When I did finally start wanting to plan the trip after the new year, no one else was even thinking about it; so attempts to find out any more details about “how things usually went down” amounted to “just get to Reno”. I did know one thing; I knew where this ranch was on Google Maps and knew I could find my way there. So I decided to approach it from the “take care of myself” angle; which started making sense in a number of ways. Less to do with the fact I hadn’t physically met any of them; and more the “I’ve never done this” aspect. It also just simplified plans; tack on the rental car and I know I’m covered.

But things were about to get crazy.

The price of that flight to Reno started going up; and at one point all the flights to Reno jumped in price. It reminded me of that time in 2010 when I booked a “suite” in a hotel far enough in advance the “convention rates” hadn’t kicked in. I got this entire jumbo sized hotel room with whirlpool tub, sitting area, and a single king bed; for less than half what people were paying for standard rooms. In fact it was about 4 months out when those convention rates kicked in. Even the front desk clerk did a double-take at my reservation; but I made it at the old rate and they had to honor it. That’s why I start planning early; similar thing was happening in Reno and drove both flight and rental car prices up.

So now what? Granted, I hadn’t actually committed to this trip other than saying I’d be out there once; I really wanted to do it. I still hadn’t researched all the nitty gritty details I would wind up doing…like studying maps of all the airports and reading forum after forum for travelers. I found myself in what felt like a catch-22; I didn’t want to start plunking money down on things because I felt like I needed to do more research, but I also started feeling like I didn’t want to get too caught up and watch all my options soar above my income level. I did after-all have most of a plan worked together; fly somewhere, rent a vehicle, get to ranch. It was where I’d be flying, renting the vehicle, and leaving for the ranch from; that I had to figure out.

I think part of me wanted to ignore Vegas because I assumed it would be this expensive tourist trap. It, sadly is only a shell of that right now; but at the time….boy did I learn a thing or two. It started when I found a flight that was cheaper than my original flight. Like, the number really got me. So I started pricing rental cars there and was once again impressed. I was able to get the type of vehicle I needed for an entire week for less than what it would be in Reno for fewer days. Was it the closest option? No. Was it the cheapest, yes. Driving across the desert probably has as much of an exciting mystique as driving cross-country. Ok..I wasn’t going to be taking a lot of drugs while driving across the desert, as is the setup to a number of things; I was starting to get as excited about the prospect of that as the trip itself.

I tacked on a couple of days to my trip since the now inclusion of a rental car just added to things I wanted to do “while I was out there”. I flew in the day before, drove to Reno the next day, went to the ranch the next, drove back to Vegas, and was there for about 2 days. I was absolutely stunned at the vast expanse of the entire area. The stupid stupid low humidity was also really nice. Putting all the hatred and jokes aside to the whole “it’s a dry heat” thing. It seriously is…it abso-fucking-lutely about the dry heat. I spent 34 years of summers in the mid-atlantic before stepping out of McCarren in June of 2017 to a record-breaking 112. It was was glorious! Oh yeah…it was like opening an oven when those doors first opene and I felt that blast of hot dry air; but it was dry air. I was not in a thick soup of moisture with a “feels-like” of 112; it was just straight up “this is really warm”.

Anyway….I drove all over the fucking place and put 2000 miles on that rental car in about the 9 days I had it. I did the same thing in 2018; except more time in Vegas and rounding out to 3500 miles on that monstrous SUV. So now it’s time for the 2019 trip; which I guess I should talk about since this post is supposed to have been about that cross-country drive.

So toward the end of 2018, about the time I started glancing at plans; they would take a drastic change when I acquired a 2011 Hyundai Elantra. Now an Elantra was not my first choice; but for how much it cost me it wasn’t horrible. I’d driven large sedans, pickups, and SUVs for most of my years of driving. I wasn’t going to turn down something that wasn’t already pushing 20 years old with over 100k on it. It’d been well maintained and after driving it for a while; I liked it. It was probably the most “fun” I’d had driving in a long time. Corners were amazing. Getting close to 40mpg helped to.

This thing was in such fantastic shape that my plans changed. I was finally going to take that drive cross-country. I was going to hop in my Hyundai, drive that bitch to California, then drive it back home. I started planning this to probably an insane degree; down to attempting to figure out exact time frames. This was not the first time I planned to this degree; I once had almost every mile of a trip to Philly mapped out. I love reading maps and enjoyed looking at all the random resources I could find online about rest areas and per-exit services. I spent probably a good month working all of this out. In the end I figured out that, excluding sleep; I would lose approximately one hour to pee/gas/food stops, for every 12 hours on the road; 15 minutes every 3 hours. It would damn near work out to that. I really wish I had actually kept all the notes and references for how I figured that out. The other crazy thing is this also worked out well with the time-zone differences. A 36 hour drive would take me 39 hours by my calculations; but I would get those hours back with the change in time-zones. Ok…my body was going to have a screwed-up schedule for a day or two; not a big deal.

So I had it mostly figured out; I’d leave really early Saturday morning, drive as much as possible, and hopefully make it to Vegas before 10 or 11 Sunday night. I was really aiming for earlier; in fact I think I had it worked out that I could make it by 8pm or something. So I mostly studied the routes and decided on taking I-81 to I-40. I woke up about 1AM after having tried to sleep since 6PM the previous evening; but by 1:15 I loaded up the last small shit in to the car, filled up with gas and coffee, and by 1:30 I was officially on my way.

Tennessee is a bitch to drive through. You’re literally closer to Canada when you get to the VA/TN line; than you are from the AK/TN line on I-40. I think out of just about every state, TN was probably the one I spent the most time in. I also had some car problems; an omen I’d ignore. At this point I was too excited and had worked far too hard to turn back. So I crossed the Mississippi River and started making my way through AK as the sun went down. I was stopping in Van Buren; picking up some things from one of the guys that needed some last-minute ground transport. I don’t think I really slept more than 4 hours; like I was a bit embarrassed to be checking out just 4 hours after getting the room; but I was probably a little wired and excited when I checked in. But as long as I was fine paying full rate for the room for just a nap and a shower..who cared. I didn’t. I just filled up with gas, coffee, grabbed some breakfast after crossing in to Oklahoma, and around 2:30 was making my way toward Vegas in the middle of an epic OK thunderstorm.

Hey, Texas! I was a bit excited about this because it meant I was more than halfway there…especially considering I-40 runs through the panhandle. It was overcast, but it was now just drizzly. I snapped this burst animation crossing the state line. I did not know I was just minutes from running in to the shit pile.

Just a few miles and a couple of minutes down the road, the engine in that thing would decide it no longer liked life. Idiot lights came on, speed started dropping, and it took a lot just to get it to the next exit to get off the interstate. So it’s sometime just after 8AM in the small Texas town of Shamrock, on a Sunday. Tow guy wasn’t interested in doing anything but hauling me to town, dropping me at a motel, and having his guys look the car over in the morning. I was 99.9% sure it was fucked; loud banging noises when trying to rev it combined with the lack of ability to idle….I’m not sure what broke…but I was pretty sure it wasn’t going to get fix or fully diagnosed in this bumfuck town.

The events of the next 24 hours felt like days; largely the effect of a lack of sleep, excitement, and over-caffination meeting this wall I hit. I can’t blame the motel guy for anything; I say it was a piece of shit largely because I’m angry and largely because it’s an old Rt. 66 motel. It was clean, it was comfortable, and the guy had one room he allowed smoking in. I started doing what I had been doing; planning. I planned, I over planned, I planned for all the possibilities I could think of. At first it all included going home; but getting home from Amarillo wasn’t going to be fun. It was easier for me to cut my losses, figure out a new way to keep going, and instead just use it to cover the wounds of losing my fucking car. I also had a box or two of someone else’s stuff; and while having to ditch it would not have been a problem given the circumstances, I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to get it out there; I wanted to hang with the guys; I wanted to do my vacation.

Plus, I was 1500 miles away from pretty much everyone…so what were they gonna do about it?

The problem is even after I worked all of this out….it was barely Sunday afternoon. I hadn’t eaten much out of excitement, and I wanted food even less now. I think part of what screwed my time up was I’d go walk the 3 miles somewhere, come back, stress, freak out, nap, and repeated this a couple of times that day. I don’t remember what time I went to bed; I don’t remember what time I woke up. I just remember it felt like multiple days when it was barely over 24 hours.

So, the car was fucked; tow guy also had salvage and offered salvage money…which he basically stole by charging $400 for a 90 minute drive to Amarillo. Seriously could have gotten an Uber to come from there and picked me up for less. Like…I could have rented a UHaul box truck and driven it empty for less; but knowing that scumbag his family owned the only U-Haul Neighborhood place in town and was in cahoots.

Anyway, I had called an Enterprise in Amarillo and after explaining the pile of shit I drove in to; I got a one-way rental to Vegas for something that wasn’t total high-way robbery. I didn’t even know what time I’d be getting there and they were like “just call when you’re on the way”. I think I got there about noon; flipping the tow-driver off while waving as he drove away. The people at Enterprise were nice. I brought in boxes and piles of stuff that were in my car and they gladly let me stack it in the office; even helped me load it when the car arrived.

My total delay before getting back on the road was about 30 hours. Yeah, broke down about 8AM Sunday morning; and I was back on I-40 about 3PM Monday afternoon. I was actually at the Enterprise by noon; but I stopped at Wal-Mart to buy a few things I knew I wanted to replace before hitting the road. But I cannot stress enough that I don’t have many memories about that time period…other than it felt like days.

So in a now rented Nissan, I stopped at Tucumcari after being back on the road made me feel a bit better and grabbed some food. Mostly what I remember here is driving. Lots and lots of driving. At some point I put on Weird Al’s Running with Scissors so that, if it all worked out; Albuquerque would come on…about the time I hit Albuquerque. I stopped for gas at some point; but I paused it while I was filling the tank and emptying the bladder. I was in Zuzax, NM at this point. Albuquerque did come on at a point that felt like “Hey, you’re in Albuquerque”; and despite the traffic, it got me through most of the stretch of I-40. With that out of the way I stopped again in Gallup to call and make hotel reservations. I somehow got sucked in to a time-share thing the parent company of the hotel chain ran…so that cost me about 20 minutes bullshitting with this nice sounding lady on the phone…before I hung up during the transfer.

The sun was going down as I entered Arizona. I stopped at the Meteor Crater rest area for about 20 minutes to stretch the legs and check up in chat. I filled up in Flagstaff before making a final pee-stop in Kingman.

It was about midnight as I started taking US-93/Future I-11 toward Vegas. Totally pitch black and not really anyone else on the road. I wasn’t exactly done with driving…but I wanted to get there solely because it was getting late and I didn’t want the place to think I wasn’t coming. I mean; I told the lady I made the reservation with that it might be 2 or 3 AM…but it became apparent that it was a call center and I had no clue if they would actually relay that message. If you think Hoover is something to see at night; I don’t remember it. I could tell I was getting up in to the mountains; but you can’t see the dam from the bridge. But at that point I wasn’t expecting any climatic scenes. It was damn near 2AM Tuesday morning; I felt like I’d been through the wringer; and I just wanted to get checked in to my motel.

But there was one…and oh boy was it a big one. As I came over Railroad Pass on I-11, you start getting glimpses of the valley; all the street lights in the distance. But then…at a point; there it is. The tiny skyline of the strip, this huge sea of lights. It’s Vegas baby! Despite driving in to shit pit; here it was, Vegas. It was so beautiful I cried a little. Nothing. Else. Mattered. I made it. I made it to Vegas. It almost felt like I was coming home. I never knew how badly I needed to get there; till that moment. The car, shitty Texas, asshole scumbag tow-guy….it all melted away.

I got to my hotel room at about 1:58 AM, pre-paid the pickup I was renting for the rest of the trip, tossed my clothes on the floor, and just fell in to bed. As long as I didn’t sleep more than 12 hours; everything was absolutely peachy.

But I did not sleep anywhere close to 12 hours, or even close to eight. I would once again be wide awake after about 4 hours; the excitement of Vegas rushing through my veins. But since I was losing a day; my plans were a hell of a lot more condensed. In fact this wasn’t even the first picture I took that day; that was about 6:30 A.M. probably not long after I woke up and brought some stuff in from the car. I do remember taking this before I went out to start taking care of business. I actually went out to iHop and ate the first full complete meal I’d had in days, picked up an order from an Amazon locker, visited one of those special stores in Vegas, and finished unloading the car.

Mostly what I had to do was take inventory of what I had left, what I needed to replace, clean the car up, return it, shuttle myself down to the second rental location, and pick the truck up. I still had to make a run to pick up the stuff I had planned on picking up to start with. But I didn’t have to have the rental car back until 5; the second pickup was at 6. It was only 10:30, so I goofed around for a couple of hours; washed the car; detailed it; then dropped it off around 4pm.

I had intended to wait for a bus not but a quarter-mile from dropping the rental car off; but it was a nice 102 degrees out, so I walked for about a mile and a half. I had plenty of time to kill anyway. When I finally did catch the bus, I had enough time to grab some dinner at the stop where I had to transfer. The end result is the second bus dropped me off 5 minutes before my pickup. With the LDW and all that and the fact this place was close to my hotel; I was back by twenty after six. I made my walmart run about 8, loaded the car; took a nap; and hit the road to Reno at about 1 A.M.

What guys thought was crazier than me actually making it despite what happened and the amount of continuous driving I’d done; is that I only got to Reno 18 hours after I said I would; despite a 30 hour delay.

My plans originally had me leaving Vegas earlier than I did; so I ultimately stayed at two hotels downtown; 4 Queens and Plaza. I had originally booked Plaza for the two nights at the start, as it was someplace I always wanted to stay. I decided to book my second half there to make up for it. I put a ton of miles on that rental pickup; especially since I drove out to Carlsbad to deliver a ham radio I was selling. I’m trying to remember where else I drove that thing. I don’t think I took any of the same routes I did in 2018 since the situation was different.

Obviously with all the shit that happened; I didn’t get much further on my planning this year’s trip than deciding I’d just take United since it was actually cheaper and non-stop from my airport. I mean..they had a bad rep; but even the premium economy was cheaper than what I’d pay on SW w/ Early Bird; and most people told me I’d probably avoid the horror stories. I hadn’t even fully figured out how I was doing the rental car stuff; since the cheap pickups stopped being available at the start of 2020 in Vegas. Funny how that shit went downhill quickly.

But, there is always next year; I suppose. I doubt Vegas will be the center of a party I largely just admired for about 5 minutes from a distance; but it may not be too horrible. Like much of the touristy shit I could do without; I wasn’t a fan of the strip and I was actually mildly disappointed by downtown a little more each year. There are other reasons I like Vegas…and a lot of them has to do with the proximity to stuff.

While it’s crazy enough to start trying to plan a trip for 10 months in the future; it’s stupid given the situation now. But I can try; because if I look at all the angles and can make it work, it’ll be nice to have them worked out. It will largely depend how shitty/expensive air travel is. Ideally I fly out that way and then rent something; but if flying is total shit, then it may not be worth the risk/expense/hassle.

So Cross-Country Round II? Sure! But not in my car. I’ll rent something and pay for the extra insurance; so if it blows up, it ain’t my problem! It’s hard to guess what that would cost right now; given that entire industry is busy shitting itself to death. I do know one speculative quote I looked at was somewhere around $1500 for 2 weeks; probably closer to $2000 with the insurance and everything. That alone is more expensive than what flying with a rental has been; and I’m not even putting gas in that SUV. An economy car would be a lot cheaper on both rental and gas; and while I can’t get one all the way to the ranch, there may be a be way around that.

But, of course, I won’t be trying to take that one in a week-end; and probably won’t even have Vegas on the route. If I do have to rent something and drive; then I’ll probably just head toward Reno via I-70 or I-80. The suck part is these are questions I may not be able to answer next year.