My youngest daughter, Lauren, who is 24 is entering medical school at the University of Minnesota. Since graduating from Stanford two years ago, she has been working at an upscale Napa winery. As school begins the first week of August, Lauren needed to relocate from Napa to Minneapolis. Who better to help her move than her doting father?
I had committed to this trip with Lauren about a year ago, as I wanted to help her pack up her belongings and help her with the move (as only a father can) plus spend the non-distractible one-on-one time with her. Per our iPhone app, the drive would be 2030 miles from Yountville, CA to Minneapolis, MN and would take 31 hours of driving time. We had to be in Minneapolis by 3:00 PM on Thursday to move into her rented condo where the freight elevator had been reserved, so our plan was to depart California late Sunday afternoon, which would give us four full days to make the journey.
I also wanted to do this with Lauren, because it would re-trace part of the driving trip I had made from Seattle to Ohio when I was a bit younger than Lauren is now, which was a prelude to me moving from Seattle to Connecticut after college. As this would be Lauren’s first cross-country driving trip, I had Steinbeckian images of an epic, father-daughter journey across the Rocky Mountains and the vast plains filled with cavorting deer and amber waves of grains. Like her older sister, Lauren was now traveling in the deliberately contrarian Horace Greeley direction in order to seek fame and fortune, just as their father had done a generation ago. We were completing the passing of the baton from one generation to the next. Ah, what a fertile imagination!
I flew from Seattle on Saturday, July 19 to Oakland, where Lauren picked me up at the airport. It had already been a hectic day for me, as earlier in the day, Jill and I had arrived home on our boat after an eight-day cruise of south Puget Sound. I basically just had time to moor the boat, unload the boat, shower, then hop on the ferry and light rail to the airport.
Lauren picked me up about 8:00 PM. In the car she presented me with a thank-you card and a big wearable button that proclaimed “My daughter is #1”. As we had about an hour and half drive north and had not eaten, we stopped in Vallejo for dinner at a pizza/Italian place. Even at the late hour of our arrival, the restaurant was packed. As we entered, we thought we were out of luck, but surprisingly the hostess found us a table in the back. We both ordered personal pizzas and beer. Not bad!
Proceeding northward, Lauren dropped me off at “Steve’s house”. As Lauren had a full apartment with three roommates, it was not an option to stay there. I had earlier booked an Airbnb room at Steve’s house for the one night I needed to be in California. Steve had informed me that he went to bed early and got up early, so he was going to leave a key for me under the front door mat for me to let myself in. I assumed he had an early-starting job and would be gone when I awoke. It seemed a bit questionable to me that a perfect stranger would be allowed into one’s home, sight unseen, while the master of the house slept. Nevertheless, I went along with the program and without too much trouble we found Steve’s Napa home in the moonless and street-light-less dark about 10:00 PM. I instructed Lauren to wait curbside in her car until I safely entered the house, as a contingency against not finding the key or worse, finding some frightful horror within the house. Luckily the key was there as promised and upon entering the house, there was a night light on and the house appeared quite safe and presentable.
I tried my best to be noiseless as I walked down the hallway to the guest bedroom, but the floors creaked and just as I was opposite Steve’s bedroom, my non-silenced phone loudly (or so it seemed to me) announced a text from Lauren – still waiting in the car – asking if I was OK. I texted back that all was well and Lauren departed, leaving me all alone with my unseen and presumably sleeping host. It was a classic case of “the bear is more scared of you than you are of the bear” situation, as Steve, by all rights, should have been more wary than I of letting a potential murderer into his home with only minimal vetting.
I opened the screened windows to let the cool nighttime air in, then settled into my bed reading “Columbus – the Four Voyages 1492 – 1504” and was shortly lulled into drowsiness. Awakening the next morning and to my great surprise, there was Steve. It turned out that he did not have an early morning job as I assumed, but instead he was just an early-to-bed, early-to-rise kind of guy. He made me a cup of coffee and we sat and chatted for about an hour until Lauren came to pick me up. I learned that Steve was my age and also a former engineer. He had been “downsized” about six years ago and had failed to find replacement employment in the engineering field. He was making do on Social Security, a sideline business and Airbnb income. He proved to be an interesting conversationalist and I learned a bit about water treatment, which had been his area of expertise while working.
Day 1: Yountville, CA to Reno, NV
Lauren picked me up about 9:15 AM, slightly behind our pre-arranged schedule. We were operating under a bit of a deadline, in that we had to get breakfast, swing by the U-Haul rental place and Lauren had to meet with her former boss Carol to give her a going-away present. Lauren had worked at the winery for only about 15 months while she applied to, and interviewed at, a number of medical schools. In that time the winery owners had grown to like (dare I say love) her dearly, having nearly doubled her starting salary, flown her to various enological events and showered her with gifts of appreciation.
Basically, they had treated her in an unbelievable fashion, the likes of which she will probably never again experience from any other employer. In gratitude, Lauren – who is a fantastically gifted artist – had constructed an ink drawing of the winery’s logo in black ink medium. Lauren had the drawing framed and wanted to personally hand-deliver it to Carol, who was only available until noon that Sunday. While I was not present at the meeting, Lauren reported that Carol was moved to tears and they both hugged and cried together. I, being Lauren’s father, was obviously grateful and touched to have this couple “adopt” my daughter in such a heartfelt fashion. Thank you Fred and Carol!
Continuing onward, I drove the U-Haul truck to the Wal-Mart in American Canyon in order to to purchase rope, a lock, sunglasses and other necessities for packing and the trip. By the time I arrived at Lauren’s apartment in Yountville, she had finished her rendezvous with Carol and we began the truck packing. It was almost exactly noon when we started. By about 3:30 PM, we finished loading the truck and headed south to the U-Haul facility once again. The U-Haul place closed at 5:00 PM and we had to get the car-towing trailer hooked to the truck and complete the paperwork. The very friendly and even older-than-me proprietor took care of us. He went by “Eddy”, but it turned out that he had originally come from Iran in the late 1950’s as a refugee. While slowly processing our truck rental, he regaled us with his story of escape after the revolution, travels through the mountains to Turkey and subsequent refugee displacements until he ended up in California with his wife and children. Eddy gave me a hard time (in a friendly fashion) as he was quite obviously smitten by lauren’s charm and youth. He advised me to give her all my money while I was still alive, rather than having her wait for the inheritance. I told him I would think about it. Ha!
At last about 5:00 PM we departed American Canyon, CA and hit the open road hoping to make it as far as Reno, NV before quitting for the night. We made a dinner stop in Sacramento at a Chipotle Mexican Grill at Lauren’s recommendation. I had never eaten at Chipotle’s before (I know, I know – pretty unbelievable!), but I had been aware of the company from a stock market perspective. I have to admit that I was pretty impressed with both the business operation and the food. I can definitely see why they have been so successful.
Leaving Sacramento, we climbed through the Sierra Nevada mountains. The U-Haul truck labored mightily and our fuel efficiency meter was constantly pegged deep in the red zone, but the little truck was up to the task. About an hour out of Reno it started raining fairly hard. The rain and the vanishing daylight made it hard to see, so that slowed us down even more.
As we approached Reno, Lauren investigated the hotel situation from her phone and we discovered, much to our surprise, that we could book an overnight stay at any of the big casinos for less than the traditional budget motels like Super 8. Evidently the casinos discount their rooms to attract the high-rollers who will drop much more in the casino than the room rate differential. Boy, did we ever fool them!
We checked into a perfectly acceptable room at Circus Circus for $59. Lauren talked to her mother by phone, who authorized Lauren to spend up to $30 in the casino. Much to Lauren’s credit, she cut herself off at $20 after losing this amount in the slot machines in about the same number of minutes. We had a fun, bonding time walking around the casino for a bit, then headed back to our room for our first night on the road.
Day 2: Reno, NV to Ogden, UT
The next morning we had to refuel the truck and get breakfast. Rather than spending time doing a sit-down breakfast, we elected to get an early start and head to McDonald’s for a quick in-and-out meal. There was a McDonald’s close to Circus Circus in the downtown core of Reno, but without any nearby, handy parking. I dropped Lauren off about a block away. She texted me several minutes later that the line was immense she didn’t want to wait. Evidently that McDonald’s is a favorite spot for the all-night gamblers, is what we concluded.
We gave up on breakfast until we could find a more convenient McDonald’s and instead decided to refuel the truck first. I pulled into a gas station which required me to make two sharp, opposite direction turns to line up with the pump. Unfortunately, due to the car trailer, I had to swing wide in order to avoid having the trailer smack the island. This left me too far away for the gas hose to reach the fueling spout. I tried jockeying the truck and trailer to get closer, but due to cars behind me and in front of me, it proved to be a quite challenging maneuver. Finally, though, the truck was fueled and we were again on our way! By now it was close to 9:00 AM, and our “early start” had completely evaporated.
Heading east on I-80 out of Reno, Lauren consulted her map and declared that just ahead was the “last McDonald’s” for many miles. So we pulled off the freeway and wound our way for a couple of miles through the suburbs before finding the “last McDonald’s”. We then wound our way back to the freeway and sure enough, about a mile down the highway, we spotted another McDonald’s with easy, on-off access. The last McDonald’s is like extra money – no such thing.
Our goal for the day was to make it to Salt Lake City, which was about 550 miles. As we were only moving about 60 miles per hour on the flat stretches and less than that going up hills, it was going to be a full day’s drive. The terrain quickly settled into mile after mile of parched land and mountains, and the driving was uneventful. Lauren and I talked about a wide range of subjects and I really appreciated the captive time I had with her. I can’t recommend a better way to really get some quality time with your daughter!
For lunch, we stopped in Elko, NV at a deli appropriately named “2 Dames and A Deli”. The deli is only open until 3:00 PM and we arrived around 2:00 PM. Both of the owners were working there and Lauren and I ordered two very delicious lunches. If you are passing through Elko, two thumbs up for this deli! We learned that Elko is “famous” for gold and prostitution. We didn’t see either, but spotted several mining-related businesses as we left Elko in our rear-view mirrors.
Approaching Salt Lake City, I-80 brought us alongside extensive stretches of vast salt ponds. We saw huge piles of salt that must have been 40 or 50 feet high and, appropriately, a giant Morton Salt processing plant. We exited the freeway at the Great Salt Lake State Park, parked the truck and trailer and walked towards the Great Salt Lake. The wind was blowing steadily and fiercely off the lake – like a hot wind out of the Sahara. Not only that, but the smell was truly unpleasant. Undoubtedly some combination of the nearly molten mineral salts and dead bird carcasses.
We had read earlier that the level of the lake varied considerably year-to-year and seasonally, as it is quite shallow and unregulated other than by Nature. The water was a considerable distance, perhaps a quarter of a mile, from the original shoreline. Lauren and I picked our way across the mostly dry exposed lake bed, but occasionally stepped into shallow pools of brine that were almost indistinguishable from the dry sand. The brine was actually hot, not just warm. We made it all the way to the edge of the water, where I dipped my finger to taste it – very salty indeed!
On the walk back to the truck we spotted a formation in the sand that resembled the fossilized remains of a dinosaur’s spine – or so we thought. At first we were all excited that we had stumbled across an ancient artifact that had been recently exposed by the receding water and the wind. On closer examination, and based on some finger-poking, we concluded that it was more than likely just a formation of dried salt brine that had created the intriguing shape.
Back at the truck it was now about 7:00 PM, but we decided to push on to Ogden, UT in order to avoid the Salt Lake City morning rush hour traffic. We found a reasonably priced Comfort Suites Inn off I-84 and checked in. As it was quite warm in the room, the first thing I examined was the A/C unit. Sure enough, all it did was blow room-temperature air. I immediately called down to the front desk and a hotel employee came up and moved us across the hall to another room. This room was already cool the second we entered and the A/C was functioning fine.
The room was nicely appointed, clean and definitely more upscale than the Circus Circus room we had stayed in the previous night. We immediately headed down to the hotel restaurant for dinner and a couple of cool brewskis, as it was approaching 9:00 PM.
Day 3: Ogden, UT to Gillette, WY
The next morning I woke up and Lauren was still sleeping. I decided to go outside for a jog, as it was a pleasant morning – warm and sunny. I ran along the road for a distance of perhaps a mile, then the street crossed a river and I noticed a paved path along the river. It looked to me like I could join the path to head back in the direction I had come. The path, which was on the wrong side of the river relative to the hotel, started out bringing me back in the direction I wanted to go, but then it began diverging further and further away from the hotel. I probably should have turned around and retraced my route, but instead I kept going – hoping there would soon be a bridge to allow me to cross over to the hotel side of the river. To make a long jog short, I eventually came to a bridge, but a lot further out than I wanted. I got back to the hotel about 45 minutes after I left. At least I got plenty of exercise that morning.
After I showered, we departed our room and rolled out bags out to the car. I say car, rather than truck, as we had been keeping our suitcases in the car’s trunk, so that we did not have to deal with the padlock and heavy door of the truck to access our luggage. After stowing our bags, I noticed that I did not have the truck key. I concluded that I had probably left it in the room, so we ate breakfast at the hotel restaurant and I went back to the room, leaving Lauren in the restaurant to finish up her third cup of coffee for the morning, having had two in the room before breakfast.
When I got back to the room, the two maids were just finishing up the room, much to my surprise that they would have jumped on it so rapidly. Neither of them spoke much English, but since I am reasonably fluent in Spanish, I told them I had left my key in the room. I quickly scanned the desk and counter-tops and just as quickly realized it was nowhere to be be seen. The two maids then started helping me look under the beds and in the closet and all over the room and bathroom, but no luck. I was beginning to get worried, as I was sure that I had not packed it in a bag and it was definitely not on my person.
I went back down to the restaurant to retrieve Lauren and she had the brilliant idea that perhaps I had left it on the desk in the first room that were were given last night at check-in. Bravo! Thinking that was surely the only scenario that explained the mystery, we went to the front desk, explained what was going on and asked to be let back into the original room. The clerk was quite cooperative and she coded a new door key for us.
As we entered the room, we could immediately tell that someone had been in the room since we left, as the A/C was running, the room was cool and the bathroom light had been left on. We searched high and low, but had no more success than in the second room. Now what? I was definitely starting to get a sinking feeling. We went back to the front desk and informed the lady that the room appeared to have been entered after we left it last night. She said the A/C repairman had been in there, but when asked, informed us that nothing had been turned in in the way of a lost key.
By now, not only had a considerable amount of non-driving time passed, but we faced the prospect of much more lost time, as I was thinking we would have to call U-Haul and have them bring us a replacement truck key. The next step was to go out to the truck, get the pertinent information and call U-Haul. I had parked the car alongside a curb and vegetation that left it oriented so that it had to be entered from the passenger side. As we got close to the passenger door, guess what? Dangling from the door lock was the missing truck key! I had inadvertently left it in the door lock last night when I exited the truck with my backpack in the dark.
Lauren was quick to point out that anyone could have come along, started the truck and driven off with not only all her worldly possessions, but also her attached car! Yikes! She was of course absolutely correct. Can you imagine how dumb and chagrined her father felt? Me, the all-wise, always careful parent who never misses the opportunity to warn my children about potential hazards and lurking dangers. Boy, was I ever humbled. But all’s well that ends well, as the saying goes, so thankfully my massive screw-up caused no harm other than lost time. Luckily for me, Lauren went easy on me and only reminded me of this incident a couple of times during the remainder of our journey. So much for being the all-wise father!
With Ogden behind us, we continued eastward through some surprisingly fertile and verdant countryside before the landscape transitioned into the mostly barren (perhaps even moonscape-like) vistas of Wyoming. Now in all fairness, we only saw Wyoming from the window of a relatively fast-moving truck, but what we did see did not look all that enticing in terms of a place to live. We stayed on I-80 until reaching Rawlins where we stopped for lunch at a Subway. From Rawlins, we left the interstate taking State Highways 287 and 220 towards the northeast corner of the state. One notable curiosity we spotted throughout Wyoming was mile after mile of wood slat fences, braced and tilted at about a 45 degree angle running alongside both the interstate and the state highways. In checking Google, we learned that these were built to catch drifting snow so that the snow will pile up other than on the highway. Nothing like that in western Washington or California, for sure!
Our route was taking us northerly and easterly with the goal of connecting to I-90 for the remainder of the eastbound trip. Lauren had her heart set on seeing a live buffalo and according to the reports we read on the web, the Badlands National Park in South Dakota was a good place to spot buffalo. As the state highways were mostly two lane roads, I was a bit apprehensive that the relatively slow-moving U-Haul would be holding up car traffic, but it turned out to not be a problem. The traffic was very light and the occasional car that caught up to us passed without difficulty.
En route, we stopped at Casper, WY for fuel, where we switched drivers and Lauren took over. Casper looked pleasant enough and is a good sized town. As we continued northeasterly, we started seeing a lot of oil drilling rigs in operation along the road. We had seen some throughout other parts of Wyoming, but they became abundant in the NE corner of the state.
We made it to Gillette, WY where we decided to stop for dinner. Lauren checked Yelp and found a restaurant called Humphrey’s Bar and Grill that intrigued her. I was a little dubious just based on the name, but thought what the heck. Humphrey’s turned out to be a family friendly place that was well lit and well managed from what I could see. The staff was plentiful, energetic and attentive. Their menu is extensive and we both thought the dinners were pretty good.
During dinner we decided that we really didn’t want to drive anymore that night, so while waiting for the food to be served I searched for a local hotel/motel. The first thing that jumped out was the lack of available rooms. Gillette has a healthy number of lodging places, but most of them were fully booked for some reason. Using Expedia, though, I found a room at a Days Inn, so I booked the room and we finished our meal and headed to the hotel. After jockeying the truck around the Days Inn parking lot, we rolled our bags in to the office and announced to the desk lady that we had a reservation. She very calmly informed me that they were full. I showed her my Expedia confirmation and she said that Expedia had been sending people over all evening, but she had sold out hours before we made the booking. Just to underscore her comments, several other people walked in while we were there, all having been sent there by Expedia.
It was now about 9:00 PM and things weren’t looking good for a room that night in Gillette. Very luckily, the desk clerk told us that she had a friend at the Rodeway Inn in town and she thought they still had a few rooms. She called over and confirmed that there were two rooms available, so we jumped in the truck and headed to the other side of town. When we arrived, I left Lauren in the truck rather than dragging all our luggage in until we knew we had a room. It took quite a while, but the desk lady at the Rodeway Inn was actually able to use the Expedia reservation to book the room, so in the end we did not have to pay anything extra.
I need to mention that while we were waiting for a resolution at the first hotel, I called Expedia for assistance, as they had clearly booked us into an already full hotel. Disappointingly, all I could get was an automated answering system that told me that my reservation was non cancellable. In other words, no help at all. Needless to say, I was not feeling too good about my Expedia experience. Several days later I received an email from Expedia requesting that I rate my experience and provide feedback. I explained in my response what had happened in a polite and gentlemanly fashion. I never heard anything back from Expedia, so I had to conclude that no one had actually read the feedback I provided. I also discovered the evening after the debacle that it is safer and better to call a hotel directly, rather than use an online booking service. I was able to get a lower rate than the online booking services were offering by using my AAA card. From now on, I will search online, but telephone the hotel directly to book.
Day 4: Gillette, WY to Oacoma, SD
The next morning (Wednesday), we departed Gillette after the usual morning breakfast at Micky-D’s. In about two hours we had crossed into South Dakota and reached Sturgis. Lauren was not familiar with the annual Harley Davidson rally that Sturgis is known for, so I told her what I knew, then she looked it up online. We found out that the rally was in its 74th year – quite the record! Luckily we were passing through one week before the rally officially started, so our travels were not impacted. We did see a plentiful number of motorcycles, as evidently some riders were coming to town early. We wondered if perhaps the rally was the reason for the unavailability of hotel rooms in Gillette, but had no way to tell for sure.
Wednesday was our fourth day on the road and we targeted it for some sightseeing. The first stop was in Cedar Rapids, SD – at the Museum of the American Bison. This is a fairly small, free-admission establishment that does a great job of chronicling the story of the bison in North America. Lauren and her older sister, both being of a scientific mindset, got an immense kick out of learning that the sub-plains species of the American Buffalo goes by the clever taxonomical name of “Bison bison bison”. As Lauren put it: “Lazy scientists!”.
Anyone with even the slightest amount of empathy for animal rights cannot help but be appalled and disgusted by the near extermination that took place in the 1800’s. We learned that the US government purposely encouraged and facilitated the extermination of the buffalo as a deliberate strategy to weaken the position of the free-roaming plains Indians. We heartily endorse this museum for anyone visiting Cedar Rapids. lauren left there with a stuffed buffalo souvenir, which ended up playing a prominent role in our remainder-of-the-day travels.
The next stop was Wall, SD and the world-famous Wall Drug Store. I was telling Lauren that I remembered in 1971 that the road was thick with signs announcing the approach to Wall Drug. And sure enough, just as I finished telling her, we spotted the first of hundreds of signs. We learned that Wall Drug is now about a $10 million family business that does a good job of snagging a substantial amount of the passing I-90 traffic. The store got its start during the Depression era when the wife of the couple that owned the drugstore had the inspiration to place signs along the road offering travelers free ice-water. That simple marketing inspiration saved their business and the rest is history, as they say.
From Wall, we headed south through the Badlands National Park along highway 240 in the search of buffalo! At the park entrance we asked the ticket-taker for tips on spotting buffalo. Much to our disappointment, she said she had not received any reports of buffalo sightings that day. Nevertheless, we set off optimistically fully expecting that we would be the first to spot some. I am sad to report that after a couple of hours of slow driving through the Badlands, including on paved and non-paved roads, our truck and trailer did not scare up any buffalo. We did have a lot of fun, though, staging Lauren’s stuffed buffalo and snapping pictures to text to our “followers”. I am sure that some of them were convinced that we were up close and personal with real buffalo.
We decided to push on a little further and we targeted Oacoma, SD for our next stop. You have probably never heard of Oacoma and you probably will never remember it, even if you drive through it. There is a Quality Inn there that we stayed at and one restaurant – Al’s Oasis. We had crossed into the Central Time Zone in mid-South Dakota, so we “lost” another hour and didn’t get checked into the hotel until about 8:00 PM. After a celebratory glass of wine, Lauren and I ambled over to Al’s Oasis about 9:00 PM to find them on the verge of closing. Luckily they served us a couple of hearty mid-western meals and we closed the place down about 10:00 PM.
Day 5: Oacoma, SD to Minneapolis, MN
As we still had about 400 miles of driving, we hit the road early (for us) about 8:00 AM in search of the nearest McDonald’s. Luckily we found one right across the Missouri River in Chamberlain, SD, so we were off to a good start. Lauren and I had noticed that our two mapping apps were sometimes yielding substantially different best-route suggestions and drive times. For the final run into Minneapolis, one app suggested a northeasterly course along state highways, while the other suggested doing the two sides of a right triangle route by staying on the interstates. We elected the latter and aimed eastward to the town of Albert Lee, MN, where the junction with I-35 was located. We stopped for our last meal on the road at Albert Lee and ate in a Mexican restaurant. As the server was clearly of Hispanic origin and spoke with a noticeable accent, I launched into Spanish with him. He brightened considerably and we had a pleasant exchange.
As we approached Minneapolis, we decided that the best course of action was to stop at a U-Haul facility to drop the trailer off, so that maneuvering and unloading the truck at the condo would be facilitated. It turned out that the U-Haul facility where we needed to leave the trailer was an easy off-and-on the I-35. After dropping off the trailer, we arrived in rush-hour traffic at Lauren’s new home just slightly past 3:00 PM. Mission accomplished!
We met Lauren’s new roommate, Leah, who turned out to be very friendly, helpful and outgoing. In short order we had Lauren’s things unpacked and moved into her new lodging. Leah is also starting medical school at the University of Minnesota, so I was glad to see that Lauren was starting her new life in a new city with such a friendly and compatible roommate. We made it – and what a great trip! I may never have the same opportunity to spend as much time with one of my precious daughters. What a wonderful gift!
A couple of weeks later the entire family came to Minneapolis for Lauren’s White Coat Ceremony. This included her older sister – now Dr. Warner – who was a “surprise” visitor from Boston. She had just started her residency and was ostensibly too busy at work to attend the ceremony – at least that’s what she had told Lauren. We all went to great lengths to make it a real surprise for Lauren, but Lauren claimed that she saw through the charade all along. Needless to say, though, it was great for all of us to be reunited with our two “baby girls”. We are all extremely proud of Lauren (and of course, her older sister!) and it was a memorable event and celebration for all of us. Lauren is now off and running as a first year Gopher and medical student, soon to follow in her big sister’s footsteps. Go Lauren!!