Callaghan: The Great American Road Trip in just three days

Staff WriterApril 10, 2014 

I don’t know why I hadn’t made this road trip before now.

Perhaps the idea of three-plus, eight-hour days in a car with young — or, worse yet, adolescent — kids stopped me in the past. Perhaps the joys of our actual trip to Yellowstone that was half as long as this one were washed away by the less-pleasant memories … and smells.

The best excuse for not seeing the Mountain West of the United States through the windshield of a car rather than the window of a jetliner is that I didn’t have to. That changed when one of our daughters accepted a post-graduate (and paid!) fellowship in Santa Fe, N.M. The extra car I was planning to sell and get off our insurance had a new mission. We carved out three days to get there.

Early April can bring unpredictable weather in southern Idaho, Utah and southwestern Colorado. But the alternative — Interstate 5 to Southern California and then east through Arizona — is boring and best avoided. As our departure approached the forecast stayed good and we headed inland.

There are things you can see and learn on roads less traveled. For example, there are still lots of people in Washington who don’t know about the Teapot Dome gas station in Zillah. And the strip club in Umatilla is hiring, no experience necessary.

I’d worked for a time in Northern Idaho but hadn’t gotten to Boise. As we approached, I was tempted to veer off to Weiser, if only to see where Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher Walter “Big Train” Johnson was discovered as the ace of the Weiser Kids just after the manager of the Tacoma Tigers told him he’d never make it as a big league pitcher.

We stayed on course, though, as Mountain Time put us off schedule. Boise brags that it is the third-largest city in the Pacific Northwest, which must hack off Spokane. That alone is enough to make me like the place. It also has a historic downtown with the type of retail and nightlife that Tacoma has always hoped for.

It is south of Boise, though, that you begin to confront two very important truths about the West. The first is that everything isn’t near anything. We’re so tainted by sprawl that long stretches with farms and ranches and openness take some getting used to.

The second is the variety of terrain. High desert, wide plains, mountain roads, flat stretches with elevations of more than 7,000 feet above sea level. The most-beautiful place I’d not yet seen came as we approached southern Utah where red sandstone formations appeared on the right and snow-capped mountains were on the left.

On the drive down into Moab, the two merged — with the snowy La Sal Mountains rising just above the reddish-orange bluffs of Arches National Park. Though in a hurry, we splurged on an hour there. While surprisingly satisfying, I still felt a bit like Clark Griswold at the Grand Canyon (“OK, let’s go.”).

The biggest question for the coffee shop workers in Monticello, Utah, was whether to take the scenic route to Santa Fe that passes through Durango, Colo., or the scenic route that runs through Farmington.

We opted for the former because it sounded like the kind of place “Bonanza” would have been filmed and because it is home to Fort Lewis College. I figured the only way finally to distinguish that Fort Lewis from our Fort Lewis was to see it.

Santa Fe is redeveloping its old railyards with a combination of adaptive reuse and sympathetic new construction. Tacoma’s Prairie Line Trail designers could get some tips from the way the historic tracks are blended into new parks and plazas. And Dave Burns, who is trying to save and display a century-old Northern Pacific dining car, would be thrilled to see that Santa Fe recognizes that historic rail yards and rail lines need historic rail cars.

Six states, three state capitals, three days. Better to take it slower but worth taking either way.

Oh, and one last thing: The Mormon Tabernacle looks a lot bigger on TV.

Peter Callaghan: 253-597-8657 peter.callaghan@ @CallaghanPeter

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