The holiday season is a time for family. It is also peak travel season for any of us who seek family anywhere humanly possible. The roads are jammed with vehicles full of people and the presents they'll give to one another. The lyric is right when they describe this as "the most wonderful time of the year."
When families gather around, they're on the road involved in an epic drive to their destination. Or, they're sitting down for a story or two. Of course, I am reminded that things have changed since I was a kid. Television and video games have replaced stories of Santa, the birth of Jesus and the oil lamp at the temple in Jerusalem. Forza 4 and Gran Turismo 5 yield to no religious tradition or fable of a magical chubby bearded fella in a red velour suit.
So, let me tell you some stories…
I've already put in some epic drives in my time. Some of them already chronicles on here, such as a full Wisconsin weekend in a Toyota Avalon along with a return of the recently reviewed GMC Terrain back to its base in Chicago. But, there are still some epic drive stories that I'd love to tell…even on cold winter nights like these.
What tales do I have left to tell from my driving past? I've got five of them…are you sitting down with a mug of cocoa and the fire roaring in the living room?
INTO THE COLD, FOGGY DELTA: Regardless of what section of the state you're in, winters in California are not like the ones elsewhere in the country. Snow is encountered in higher elevations, while rain is the only precipitation you could expect that time of year. The air is cooler, but well above the freezing point. Yet, a 45 degree (Fahrenheit) morning may seem like a 20 degree (Fahrenheit) one in Washington, DC. One winter day, I decided to take an adventure onto the Sacramento River Delta. From my home in Concord, I set off looking for a road that ran along the lowland. I found it somewhere in East Contra Costa County and followed it into the fog. I also had the means to handle this murky terrain – a rented Mazda MX-6. The sporty four-seat coupe had just 2.2litres of power to manage through the uncharted territory.
On the map, my eyes were trained on a winding road along the Sacramento River – California Highway 160. All I have to do is take California Highway 4 past Antioch and turn left to Rio Vista. It was that simple…right? At least that part was, but what would come afterward would be simply epic.
Once I crossed into the delta's plain, the clouds became thick. I've driven many times on the Golden Gate Bridge into the soupy air, but I never thought I'd see the same thing further inland away from the bay. The Mazda was patient, though it wanted to play in the fog. I was a bit nerved as every turn became an adventure of guessing where the road might go next.
One would hope things would improve once I got past Rio Vista. I was wrong. Though the clouds opened up as the morning wore on, I was still too close to the Sacramento River to see absolutely nothing but low clouds on my right. The conditions were already wet, but the Mazda and I soldiered on. I also forgot to factor in the cold air. The temperature was already 50 degrees (Fahrenheit). I might as well been driving along the New England coast in late fall.
Eventually, I made it up to Sacramento. Fog still lingered close to the river, but I was away from it to actually see where I was going. By noon, the clouds went back to the upper atmosphere where they belonged. Still, it was 48 degrees (Fahrenheit) and I felt as cold as a December day in Minneapolis. That Mazda was nothing short of a trooper…as was its pilot.
DANCING ON SNOW: It has been less than ten years since I first drove on snow and ice. The Californian in me hated road surfaces that were neither dry or wet by rain. Snow was something I avoided even through my time in Washington, DC. Then, I got the courage to take on the snow for that first time. A friend in Rochester, Minnesota and I ended up hanging out together for the weekend. To get there, I would pick up the rented Ford Taurus at Chicago’s O'Hare Airport before taking it to my home in Madison and for my eventual departure after work to Rochester. The air was a bit cold, but no sign of the white stuff falling anywhere. I hoped for good driving in Interstate 90 to beat the storm’s line into Minnesota. I made just in time.
The next morning, we set off to meet some friends for brunch in Edina. Snow already fell throughout most of the state overnight. The Taurus was covered with the white stuff already. I figured I get my courage up and head up U.S. Highway 52 towards The Cities. My friend was with me as I took on the leftover snow on the wet highway. At first, I figured to stay in my lane and ride the "grooves" left by tires that warmed the road. That’s now how I exactly drive. I tried a few lane changes – gingerly, at first – and felt fine about snow driving. I didn't spin out or lose control. Nor did I put myself at the mercy of an electric nanny (it only had ABS on it – nothing else).
We made it to Southdale and the Cheesecake Factory safe and sound. I believe half of the people set to meet us there showed up – thanks to the snow. Nonetheless, our time in The Cities was limited and I had to get the Taurus back to Chicago the next morning. I dropped off my friend in Rochester and proceeded back to Madison. The early call to Chicago was on the agenda after a restless night.
After that run, I figured I could drive on anything. I could handle the snow. It's been eight years now. Still, I'm not fond of snow driving. It is an absolute necessity that I would prefer to avoid, if possible.
INVADING IOWA: My time in Madison yielded a lot of firsts of my perpetual wanderlust. It was a good hub to go practically anywhere in the Midwest – which I exploited through trips to Chicago, Minneapolis-St. Paul, other parts of Wisconsin, Grand Rapids, Michigan, Springfield, Illinois…and Iowa. The idea was that a friend in Rochester, Minnesota and I would meet in Iowa City for a one-night weekender. We would use a hotel outside of town as our base of operations. I rented a Ford Focus out of Milwaukee's General Mitchell Field as my way into Hawkeye land. After an evening at home, I set off early on U.S. Highway 151 to the southwest. Once I got past Dubuque, it was uncharted territory for me. US-151 yielded farmland never seen by my eyes. Cedar Rapids grew closer, which meant "civilization." A stop in CR meant it was simply a short drive down to Iowa City. Once I met up with my friend, we parked and toured downtown Iowa City for a bit. He came up with an interesting idea to see a play. Not just any play…it was The Laramie Project at nearby Cornell College.
We came upon Cornell in the dark as we drove onto the small Catholic liberal arts campus. Suddenly, we were surrounded on both sides of the street with groups of protesters. On the side where the theater was located are a group of students. The other side, were members of the Westboro Baptist Church. I decided to ask the students why they were there. It was plainly obvious that the showing of the play at Cornell College provoked the church to picket the normally quiet campus. I will say that the play was well produced and worth the adventure outside of Iowa City.
The next morning, my friend and I parted ways after breakfast, but I had an even larger challenge ahead of me. The Focus was due in Milwaukee by 4:30PM. The odds on me getting there on time were slim to none. I also had no time to fuel up. Luckily, I purchased the prepaid fuel option for the Focus. It was a race against time as I steamed through the Quad Cities into Illinois. I knew the fastest way to Milwaukee was to go through Rockford, taking Interstate 43 out of Beloit. I gave the Focus a much welly as possible on Interstates 80, 88, 39 and 90 until I reached the split for Milwaukee. I checked the clock nervously as I steamed through southeastern Wisconsin. Moments later, I made it to General Mitchell Field – only a few minutes late and the tank almost on fumes. I deserved that snooze on the Badger Bus back to Madison. That was one hell of a drive…
INTO PAUL BUNYAN COUNTRY: Some of my adventures from my current Minnesota home had been chronicled on this site – except for maybe a few. One particular adventure came just after my 'round 'Sconnie run in the aftermath of my 2009 layoff from my job of four years. I continued to have time on my hands and made sure to scale down my travel planning to just petrol bills, so I planned another run out of town to see a friend I haven’t seen in a long time. He lived in West Fargo, North Dakota and was set to move to where his partner lived in Southern California. I figured a trip to see him and some adventure afterwards was in order. In a rented Chevrolet Impala, I headed up Interstate 94 to spend some time with this friend. We did a few things in Fargo and Moorhead until it was time to head out the next morning.
As the sky lightened up, I decided to point the Impala northbound on Interstate 29. My first stop was Grand Forks, downstream on the Red River. There, I ran into a farmer's market downtown before heading across the Red back into Minnesota. I followed U.S. Highway 2 through Crookston as I meandered towards Bemidji. Along the way, I was treated to a couple of visual treats – the bucolic northern farmland and the northern woods. These were parts of Minnesota that I never had the chance to experience in my time in this state. It was as I conquered a new world.
A coffeehouse in downtown Bemidji beckoned my want of good food, Wi-Fi and a needed rest. My stop in Bemidji soon became a dash through the woods towards the Brainerd Lakes. I knew that once I cleared Brainerd International Speedway, I had two hours to go before home.
By that time, I was already tired. It wasn't because of the drive, but the Impala couldn't respond well enough to my foot to make it more exciting. Still, I made it back to home. I don't think I woke up until the next morning…after the somewhat leisurely drive through the northern parts of our country.
HOW TO TRULY TEST A VOTY: During the same layoff period, the time on hands afforded me new places to see within hours of home. Wisconsin and parts of the northlands of Minnesota and North Dakota were accomplished on weekends that were plentiful in time. Yet, one day trip yielded more than I truly asked for. It would yield a Vehicle of the Year award.
The car in question was the 2010 Buick LaCrosse – a CX sedan with a 3.0litre V6. Where I took it was something I never thought I'd make considering my luck in planning a run there – Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Granted, it was a four-hour run from Minneapolis, but mathematics always nixes such a run out. The rented LaCrosse gave me an excuse to accomplish the run and check it off my "to-do" list.
The start was early enough to find a way towards Sioux Falls. I figured I head towards Mankato and see what’s what. Then, a brilliant idea popped in my head: I never visited the place where some of Laura Ingalls Wilder's stories took place – the ones translated onto television. In Mankato, I took U.S. Highway 14 west to the town of Walnut Grove. If you're wondering – it looks nothing like the television show. It was flat, small and surrounded by acres of farmland. Yet, I took in the place where "Half-Pint" got her inspiration for the books I read as a child – and an innocent childhood crush on Melissa Gilbert.
The morning wore on and I needed to make the South Dakota border. I was south west of Sioux Falls and decided to open up the Buick for a zig-zag blast to Interstate 90. Hunger motivated my right foot as all I can think of is where to have lunch in Sioux Falls. Just before 1:00PM, I arrived in downtown Sioux Falls for a Saturday lunch. Afterwards, I explored around town and checked out the falls before heading elsewhere.
Onto Interstate 29, I saw that the speed limit was 75MPH. I dialed the Buick to 80MPH and decided to hit Brookings before heading back into Minnesota. Somehow, I got lost on the campus of South Dakota State University. I figured that if I could find a place to turn around, I'd head back towards Minnesota. I was wrong. I ended up at their football stadium just before kickoff where some traffic control guy yelled at me for trying to turn around in their parking lot. In short, I did get out of there and made tracks out of South Dakota – eventually.
At dusk, I took dinner at a roadside diner. I was calm, cool and collected, even if I was downloading photos from my camera onto my laptop. Still, it gave me a good overview of the LaCrosse and the feeling that I might have to pass that way again.
All photos by Randy Stern