Road America Blitz – There and Back

It has been my habit for these road trips to give some details of my route and the sights and points of interest along the way in a more or less chronological fashion. We’ll go about it a slightly different way this time.

I spent two days driving, each way, for my day of driving in circles in rural Wisconsin. The terrain between Denver and Elkhart Lake is not the least interesting that can be crossed in these United States (the caprock of west Texas is both boring and desolate, while Nebraska and Iowa are just boring), but it’s close. So we won’t go into excruciating detail of the trip.

I laid out my route a few weeks in advance, keeping in mind my two rules: no Interstates and no night driving. I’m splitting the trip almost exactly in half by staying with Frank in the suburbs of Omaha, so avoiding night driving is trivial. But I did do some pondering as to whether I should break Rule #1. In the end, I stuck to it, and I’m happy I did.

I’m not always able to entirely eliminate Interstate travel, but I do try to minimize it. On this trip, I began with about an hour on I-76 and had another hour or so navigating around Des Moines. But that was it. That first hour was not a problem; it was a holiday and traffic was light. However, both passes through the Des Moines area were no fun.

On Thursday I found myself two cars behind a truck. The truck was periodically dropping clods of dirt which broke up when bouncing down the road. These clods could have rocks in them for all I know, and even if they’re just hard dirt I didn’t want to run into any of it. I managed to avoid him, for a while at least. I’d almost forgotten about him until about thirty miles later. I was in the left lane and in heavy traffic. People started moving out of the left lane, which became increasingly covered by tire debris. My clod dropping friend was half off the left side of the road with a blown left front tire.

In contrast to the traffic and peril of the Interstate, on the first two hundred miles of US 34 starting in Ft. Morgan, I was passed by a motorcycle and passed one truck. I encountered no other traffic going my direction. And passing through those first few small towns I got to see men in pickup trucks putting up flags along the main streets in preparation for the celebration of Independence Day. I may not go quite as fast on the back roads, but there’s a lot less tension and traffic and I see a lot more real life.

Both Nebraska and Iowa are wall-to-wall corn. People call it “America’s bread basket”, but that connotes wheat to me and I saw none. Two sections of road in Iowa stand out, though. First is the Covered Bridges Scenic Byway which goes through Madison county. I didn’t make any of the side trips as I was feeling short of time and besides, all these bridges were three or four miles down dirt roads.

The other interesting stretch of Iowa is the Iowa River Bluffs Scenic Byway. For the most part, everything east and north of Des Moines is flat. I always remember Iowa as rolling hills, but not this part. It’s the tyranny of straight, flat roads. Except for the Bluffs, where grids of corn farms are replaced by forested bluffs with rolling, curvy roads. A nice interlude.

I entered Wisconsin at Prairie du Chien. This looks like a place that deserves more exploration. Effigy Mounds National Monument sounds interesting. I also noticed a sign for Pikes Peak State Park. I can’t help but be curious about that, given that it’s along the banks of the Mississippi River at an elevation of roughly 650′ above sea level.

On these trips I prefer to do a loop rather than retrace my steps. On this one, though, Saturday was the reverse of Thursday with only a few miles variance. Part of that variance was through Amish country where I passed a few horse-drawn buggies on the roads and even saw one tied to a hitching post in front of a general store.

On Sunday, though, I managed to improvise a variation in route. Rather than returning the way I came (along US 34 and US 6), I decided to head south into Kansas and follow US 36. It provided a bit more variety than I was expecting. As I said, Nebraska is unbroken cornfields. Kansas at least has a variety of crops. The road was straight as an arrow for the most part, but it offered something other than corn to look at.

My only real excitement on my four days travel was once I got back to Colorado. US 36 passes through a number of small towns. It turns out that none of them has a gas station. And the highway department didn’t see fit to warn travelers that they would be unable to refuel until they reached Byers. I was about forty miles east of HPR when the low fuel indicator illuminated. I was thinking it was touch-and-go making it to the track. Being a weekend, I figured it was near certainty that the track would be open and I could grab a half gallon of race fuel to get me to Byers. I made it without incident, but I was pretty tense and nervous for half an hour.

So I put seven tenths of a gallon in the tank (for seven dollars) and when I filled up in Byers I was able to pump only 8.9 gallons of gas. I have a ten gallon tank, so that means I had plenty of sufficient fuel to get me there without the splash of 98 octane. But it was probably worth the seven bucks saving my nerves.

Frank and Mary kindly put me up both Wednesday night and Saturday night. Frank is an old family friend who is also passionate about cars. He has quite the collection of old English cars and used to do quite a bit of SCCA club racing. He doesn’t have any Lotus, but does have a variety of Triumphs, Minis, MGs, and Jaguars. He has an interesting TVR, a couple of Alfas, and the occasional American car thrown in for good measure. It was a pleasure visiting with them.

Now, on to the reason for all this driving across America’s heartland…

Laguna Seca Trip: Day 3 – Bryce to Ruby Mountains Wilderness

Monday, July 11

Another good night’s sleep: I woke up a bit before 6 but managed to stay in the sack until 6:15. Got everything packed up and was on the road by 8:15 or so.

Red Canyon is the first stretch of road; half a dozen miles or so from the summit (where the campground was) to the floor of the Sevier River valley. Made my way to UT 21. Left a small town with about 3 or 3.5 gallons left in the tank, saw a sign that said “No services next 83 miles”. I can easily make 100 miles, so onward!

The road goes generally east-west. The valleys it goes through generally north south. The Sevier River valley has a river (obviously). The next several had no rivers, not even sign of flowing water – no gullies, the road has no culverts. The valleys are shallow and wide – the road goes straight across. At the top, a couple of curves then straight road nearly to the top of the other side, then a few curves again. Repeat several times.

It’s tempting to put the hammer down and go like mad. But the road isn’t exactly billiard table smooth, and there are cattle guards periodically. I didn’t want to hit any of them at more than 30 or so. Not much traffic on this road, and most of it passed me.

These are valleys of theoretical cattle. Plenty of cattle infrastructure: there are cattle guards and signs warning of free range cattle, even a holding pen and well. But no sign of any actual cattle, valley after valley. No deer or antelope warning signs, either, so one would think there’d be fewer of them than cattle. If that’s possible.

Not much plant life here. In many places it doesn’t reach more than a few inches off the ground. But the terrain does seem to support a healthy rodent and rabbit population, judging by the roadkill. Based on how little traffic seems to use this road, it must mean a fair probability of hitting an animal.

It has been a while since I passed that sign, “No services next 83 miles.” In fact, it’s been about a hundred miles and still no sign of an an open gas station. Needless to say, I was feeling quite anxious. I passed through two towns, both looked like ghost towns. Either I missed the gas station or the sign was wrong. When the fuel warning light had been on for 30 miles or so, I went from anxiety to resignation. I no longer had any doubt I’d run out of gas.

This would not be a happy experience, but I was thinking it wouldn’t be much more serious than a delay of a couple hours. Although not heavily traveled, there were cars passing in both directions so I shouldn’t have to wait long. Also, I was confident that the car gets so much attention nobody would fail to stop if I was out there waving my arms.

Topping the next ridge, the road was quite steep on the down side: 8% grade next 5 miles. I shut off the ignition and coasted at speeds sometimes over 80mph. Probably coasted 4 miles. Going up the other side of the valley I see a billboard in the distance. Perhaps there’s a gas station there? By now I was thinking I wouldn’t even make it that far. I did manage to get there, to find a country store. Only it wasn’t a store, it was a bar. A sign next to the door said “Plan your next party here!” This place is 50 miles from nowhere. I stopped and went inside. It’s dark as night; a bar with a pool table. A gal comes out of the back room, dour and smile-free.

“How far is the nearest gas station?”

“25 miles.”

“I’m not going to make it.”

“He can sell you some gas, 5 gallons for $40.”

“Take a credit card?”

“He prefers cash.”

I have no idea who “he” is, but it doesn’t matter. Eight bucks a gallon is a bit much but I’m not really in a position to bargain. Not the most expensive gas I’ve ever bought, but close to it. She tells me to pull up to the pump and exits the back. The pump is on one of two white tanks on stilts, without labels. Hopefully, one is gas and the other is diesel. “Can I buy two and a half gallons for twenty bucks?” “No.”

Her dog, penned nearby, is excited and barking. “Oh, shut up! You’ll get the goats excited!” Sure enough, a drove of goats arrives to see what the dog is all excited about. She’s pumping gas, but the meter isn’t running. She’s clearly done this enough to know how long it takes to pump five gallons and when I start the car, the gas gauge reads as close to half a tank as you can imagine. I’m soon back on the road, anxiety in the rear-view mirror.

I find Ely the described twenty five miles up the road and stop for fuel and food. Here I leave US 50 until tomorrow and head up US 93. When I arrive at the junction of US 93 and ALT 93 confusion sets in. I seem to remember needing to take an ALT route. Memory tells me I want to keep going straight, which ALT 93 does here, but it’s not in my notes. I stop here and fire up Navigator, but of course there’s no cell coverage. I throw the dice and take ALT 93. This turns out to be wrong – I end up in Wendover. I get a nice view of the salt flats, but I’m farther from my destination.

No big deal, hop on I-80 and head to Elko. This eliminates the need to use the offline maps I downloaded last night as I easily get service in Elko and have navigation right to my camp site.

Snow Lake Peak, 11,142'

Snow Lake Peak, 11,142′

Ruby Mountain Wilderness is a neat little hidden gem, shall we say. When I was researching camp sites I found this oasis of green on an otherwise drab and barren map of Nevada. Alpine, snow capped, and glacial, it’s out of character for the area.

I get camp set up. It seems I’m not in a tent site but one for an RV. There’s room for a small camper and a short, steep path to a concrete pad where a picnic table and fire ring stand. I have no suitable place to pitch the tent. I make do, but I’m on a bit of a slope. We’ll see in the morning how it worked out.

I hiked up to a little lake. Pond, really, or perhaps Puddle. It’s two miles each way. I’m almost always starting my hikes in early morning so it feels a bit odd to be starting a hike at about 5pm. I’m usually done hiking by then. This little glacial valley is oriented north-south, so it’s already partly in shadow. By the time I get to the lake (surrounded by vegetation, no suitable place to sit and take a break) it’s fully in shadow and starting to get a bit cool. I turn right around and head back.

I was back in camp by 7:15. Now I finally get to try my camp cooking. I grab a package of Basmati rice and Spicy and Sweet tuna. This dang stove heats up so quickly, I burn a layer of rice to the bottom. It’s not a bad meal, though. Even though it’s two servings of rice, it might be on the light side after a strenuous day of hiking.

It’s 8:20 and the sun has basically set. Still too light for stars, but a bit different than the last two nights. Here, we’re on the eastern side of the Pacific time zone while in Bryce we were on the western edge of the Mountain zone. Should be getting dark soon. Time to select some tunes and get ready for the show.

Settled on Ronin for sunset. But it was getting too cold for me to sit in my chair, so I retreated to the tent. Through the flap I had a view of the sunset. An SUV pulled into the next spot and four people piled out – mom, dad, two teen-aged daughters. I thought they were getting set up; they made a fair amount of noise. One of the girls walked up the slope behind their site, not realizing she ended up right next to my fire ring and picnic table. Once she saw me she sheepishly said “hello” before retreating.

Not being a camper, mosquitoes were not much on my mind when planning this trip. It wasn’t until tonight that I gave them any thought at all. They were a minor nuisance here, but I guessed I might want to stop somewhere before pitching the tent tomorrow for some bug repellent.

I turned in, expecting an uncomfortable night.