I have a vacation coming up in a few weeks, my first on the Gateway’s dime. I share this information not to gloat about escaping the Northwest for sunny Arizona at the height of March’s drear, but rather to impart a couple of the lessons that I’ve learned in preparation for my 10-day, 3,500-mile road trip.
You see, I’ve never been on a road trip before, or at least not one where I was responsible for planning timing and lodging and generally making sure our car doesn’t run out of gas in the middle of the Mojave Desert, to name one hypothetical catastrophe. If you’re a road-trip veteran, please excuse my novice tone and also feel free to email me with your well-traveled suggestions.
If you’re like me, though, and you’re nervously anticipating your first excursion onto the expansive highways of the Great American West, here are a couple pointers I’ve discovered during my planning.
The first: Google Maps thinks that you are a very fast driver. That’s been my experience, at least, as I virtually simulate my upcoming trip in an attempt to discover how long it’ll take me to get from, say, one part of Utah to another. Since I’ve never driven through that particular stretch of Utah, I’m entirely relying on what the nifty travel-time estimator on Google Maps has to say.
The problem becomes clear, however, when you plug more familiar geographic points into Google’s matrix. Seattle to Portland, in the middle of the afternoon? Two hours and 45 minutes. This, as any frequent traveler of the scenic I-5 corridor can tell you, is a very optimistic timeline. Plugging in a Gig Harbor-to-Spokane route nets an even more hopeful guess of 4 1/2 hours.
The point is, Google expects you to really book it on your trip. If you’re planning to drive at a sensible speed, and to stop now and then for bathrooms and coffees, you’ll want to factor in some more driving time than whatever Google has to say.
The second tip: Remember that snow and mountains exist. That seems obvious, but again, I’m a novice. In planning our return route from the Phoenix area, I thought we might casually swing by Yosemite National Park. You know, while we’re in the area.
I forgot, however, about the small obstacle of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The Internet was only too happy to inform me that my desired route would necessitate driving over a mountain pass that’s extremely closed in March due to the massive amount of snow that accumulates at that altitude throughout the winter and spring.
Redirecting our route to accommodate for the weather required a detour of several hundred miles.
As a side note: If you’re planning a road trip through the West, a region with a not-insignificant number of mountain ranges, it might be best to wait until the summertime. Don’t blithely assume, as I did, that our modern highway system can get you wherever you need to go, regardless of the season. Mother Nature doesn’t care about spring break.
My last point is something of a reiteration of the first two: Thank God for smartphones.
The Internet has made road-trip planning for dummies infinitely easier than it’s ever been. My ancestors once had to brave the Rocky Mountains in the snow in covered wagons. Now I can gameplan my entire trip on Google ahead of time, and then download the Oregon Department of Transportation’s app to see what the weather’s like as I drive toward Deadman Pass.
If you’re going on a road trip, don’t be afraid to embrace technology. It might seem romantic to strike out on the open road without a plan — and it still is, to some degree. But you still want to be safe, and it’s easier to do that than ever.
There’s nothing wrong with checking Yelp to make sure that fleabag motel on the side of the road really does have clean sheets.Reporter Will Livesley-O’Neill can be reached at 253-358-4152 or by email at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter, @gateway_will.