At what point does a relocation became a classic road trip?
Moving is a lot of work. We all know this. We pack what we can into our vehicle – our own or a rental truck – and head off. It takes a high level of effort to ensure that nothing is broken, destroyed or stolen.
When I moved out of California, I packed what I can in four bags and flew out on a red eye from Los Angeles International Airport to Dulles Airport near Washington, DC. That was two days after Thanksgiving in 1996.
Four years later, America as about to go to the polls to vote for George W. Bush. The Clinton era was effectively over in Washington. The white gloves of contract officers were wiping up enough dirt to re-compete contracts and lay off semi-essential workers. I left my IT procurement contract position at a defense agency in September of 2000 and hoped for the best.
I had no intention of leaving Washington. I was dating someone. My friends from GenX DC (a group of friends who left the overarching organization that took over the movement I created in 1995 – just 25 years ago!) and I were closer than ever. Everything was fine.
That was until my closest friend at the time told me the following: "DC is robbing your soul."
Washington, DC was a great place, no question. It still is. The Nation's Capitol gave me a chance to become a professional. It also taught me a lot about challenging my own California sensibility to stretch out the possibilities. I finally grew up.
On the other hand, DC could challenge the patience of people. Depending on where you live, your degree of liberty according to the law varied. I lived in Virginia where, at the time, I was considered less than a fully legal citizen. I simply had little or no rights as a gay man. Even the form of intimacy I enjoyed was considered illegal.
The same friend who told me that "DC was robbing my soul" figured that I could better my writing career by relocating to a much more tolerant and free-thinking place – Madison, Wisconsin. He was right…somewhat.
There was an odd draw to Madison, fueled by a twist of genealogical fate. In the 1920s, my mother's parents settled into the small southern Wisconsin town of Beloit. My grandfather made his living in the scrap business. My mother was their first child, but she was not born in Beloit…or anywhere in Wisconsin. It is unknown the circumstances to this day why my mother was born in what is now called Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.
In late October of 2000, I left Northern Virginia for Wisconsin. I had no clue what will transpire in the Upper Midwest. All I know that in the midst of this geographic shift, my life will change again.
The week of my move, I put my bed out for the sanitation department to pick it up. Everything else was thrown into a some rented vehicle for the 851-mile trek into Upper Midwest.
The plan was to take said vehicle from my place in Falls Church, up and over the mountains and onward to Madison. I also planned on an overnight stop in Columbus, Ohio as a halfway point between Washington and Madison. It was a one-way, week long rental from Washington's Reagan National Airport to Dane County Airport…and I was ready for the challenge.
The pickup day at National Airport was a crazy one. I was simply ready to go, but I needed to pick a vehicle from National's lot. I did look at full-sized four door sedans at first. Yet, the few they had were not going to cut it. I went back to the counter and asked for an upgrade. The counter person was nice enough to give me the upgrade at my current rate. Good thing she did – there were plenty of SUVs to choose from. I settled on the Virginia-tagged green 2001 GMC Jimmy SLE for the job ahead.
Up until that time, my automotive mindset was not in favor of the SUV. I saw them as thirsty and uncomfortable. Consumers saw these softroaders as the proverbial replacement for the family station wagon. I saw them as a political tool to make us drink more gasoline than intended. I have since changed my view on SUVs.
The Jimmy had the 4.3-liter V6 under the hood with a full-time four-wheel-drive system. I noticed the automatic transmission had a trailer button – which adjusted the shift points to compensate for the additional weight behind the vehicle. This would come in handy on the journey.
I spent a couple of days getting acclimated to the Jimmy. Wanted to make sure that I could do this trip in this thing instead of having it defeat me en route to Wisconsin. What surprised me was the ride on the Jimmy – it didn't buck or throw you around like the SUVs I've driven to that point. It was just so smooth and solid. Yet, I wondered what kind of behavior the Jimmy would have once I start throwing my stuff behind the driver's seats. Would the engine be taxed on the mountains through West Virginia and Pennsylvania? Would this SUV sag in the rear?
To my surprise, the loaded rear end did not sag a much as I thought. I had things in big containers and large duffle bags stretched from the driver's seat to the tailgate. Things did peek over the beltline of the SUV, but not much. I also took my comforter and used it as a cargo cover. A smart move, I suppose.
After saying my final "good-byes," I attempted to get some sleep for an early morning departure. Instead, I could not sleep. I decided to forgo sleep and head into the mountains in the middle of the night. Around midnight, I stopped off at a nearby 7-Eleven before hitting the Beltway for enough caffeine and sugar to keep me awake at least until the Pennsylvania Turnpike.
Needless to say, loading up on caffeine and sugar would have long term effects on my health. It did get me going, however. Back to the story…
My journey in the middle of the night took the entire length of Interstate 66 until I reached Interstate 81 at Strasburg, Virginia. My plan was to cut up to Interstate 70 all the way into Indianapolis, then head northwesterly through Chicago. I was familiar with some of the route having visited Harrisburg, State College, and Pittsburgh during my time in the Nation's Capitol.
The intake of caffeine and sugar kept me going right when Interstate 70 split with Interstate 68 just west of Hagerstown. The Turnpike offered some opportunities to rest, relax, and get more rotten stuff into my system. During the middle of the night, some Service Plazas seemed to be closed in the wee hours of the night. Not to mention, the Turnpike is usually well patrolled ensuring no one tried to use a Service Plaza as a free motel en route to wherever. The only way to survive this part of the trip was to pace myself – even as the air became colder in the higher elevations.
The mountains began to challenge the Jimmy. I figured I needed more power to climb the upgrades. That was when I pushed in the Trailer mode button. By doing so, the engine woke up. I found more torque to work with through the toughest parts of Western Maryland and South Central Pennsylvania. I knew I had quite a load in back, but I figured that the Trailer mode would be needed when the going gets tough. I was right.
Pittsburgh came into view around 5:00 AM. If there were a place to stop and take an extended break, it would be in the city where the three rivers meet. Still, it was dark – the sun starting peek over Newfoundland by the time I reached the northeastern suburbs of the city. I decided to get off the Turnpike and drive into the city itself. I was entertained by the shimmering of the towers just before Fort Pitt. From my rearview window, a lighter hue of blue appeared over the mountains.
After my brief affair with Pittsburgh, I made my way back to Interstate 70 by the way of Interstate 79 and crossed into Ohio. My goal was to make my way towards Columbus to sleep off the night's journey. I had a few hours of road left before hitting a friend's apartment just west of the campus of The Ohio State University. A surprise revealed itself in few miles into Ohio. I heard about this luscious section of Eastern Ohio – full of woods and elevations. I was miles away from the confluence of rivers that forked in Pittsburgh, yet this rolling sea of greenery to my left was unlike anything I imagined after my times visiting the state.
Normally, I would stop for a fortnight while doing a long drive. I wound up spending two nights. The extra time helped me acclimate from the overnight haul over the mountains back in Pennsylvania. The Jimmy was emptied so I could use the back seats, letting the SUV breathe a bit around town. While in Columbus, I was able to catch up with a few friends in town before going onto what would be the second toughest drive I ever took in my life.
On an interesting note, my love-hate relationship with Columbus gave me some perspective on what would lie ahead in Madison. Thoughts raced in my head during my two nights in Columbus as to the places I never been that I would finally reach en route to Madison. One thing was certain that I have been to my new home once before. I also knew people in that town – some of whom would continue to be friends of mine today.
It was an early call when I woke up in Columbus on the day of the big drive out. I tried hard not to wake my host up, but I failed. I figured a dawn departure would be apt to get enough time to cover 510 miles. Once I drove past Dayton, I was indeed uncharted territory. The only thing I had to concern myself with was simply stay on Interstate 70 until I get to Indianapolis and to make my way northwesterly.
Indy fell at about 9:00AM. Maybe it was a good timing or simply sticking to a good clip into Indiana. My excitement began to grow. Having never been to Indy, I did not want to leave. I wanted to see the Brickyard – amongst many things! But, I needed to press on.
On Interstate 65, I felt lost. It was simply too flat and uninteresting. It's been years since I traversed Interstate 5 in California for my epic North-South runs between the Bay Area, Los Angeles and San Diego. In the DC Area, I was spoiled by lovely topography with rolling bucolic countryside and epic skylines greeting me every hour along the way. Once I was in the Midwest, the scenery changed dramatically. I feared I would hate this part of the country.
After lunch in West Lafayette, I inched towards the Illinois border. The scenery changed again. From farmlands, Northwest Indiana yielded development – and industrialization. I was within distance of Chicago. My mapping told me to avoid the city altogether. What I was not prepared for was the constant toll crossings where either I pitched a few coins into a hopper or gave a bill for change.
I was also not prepared for the traffic and driving habits of Chicagoans. Los Angelinos go fast, but they do so in almost perfect timing. People merge in Los Angeles – an art forgotten elsewhere. Los Angelinos understand traffic better. They know to give themselves a proper amount of time before getting somewhere. I reminded myself of where I learned how to drive and to try to find a happy medium between my own upbringing behind the wheel and the driving habits of the natives.
In the afternoon, I found myself fatigued on Interstate 294, also known as the Tri-State Tollway. Just like other toll roads in this country, there are places to refuel and relax. On the Illinois Tollway system, they are called an Oasis. These service areas would be a Godsend during my time in Madison for the times I went back-and-forth to Chicago via a car.
O'Hare Airport appeared on my left just ahead of rush hour. This would be a significant landmark since I only have one huge leg to conquer – Interstate 90. That road would take me right into Wisconsin and to my new home. The Jimmy was behaving very well. I was already acclimated to the SUV as it never failed in its job to haul my most important stuff with me to my new life.
The final push was on. I was racing against sundown as I fought the bright orb towards Rockford. Rush hour was somewhere behind me as I kept pace on this final section of the Illinois Tollway. At this point, I was sick of tossing coins into hoppers at every opportunity the state of Illinois could give a neophyte like me. I knew that once I see the Wisconsin border, my roads were free from instant taxation.
That moment came as the sun was halfway down into the horizon. Wisconsin had an orange hue remaining somewhere west of Beloit. To the east was a darker shade of blue. Somehow, I knew I had a slight chance to make it to new home before the sun disappeared for the day.
The Jimmy needed one more push. After a call to my soon-to-be-roommate, I pushed towards the junction that brought me to the most vital piece of roadway I would use during my time in Madison: The Beltline.
This piece of roadway frames the southern and western parts of the Madison area. Since I would live nearby it, it would be my direct route to and from the Interstates for adventures to Milwaukee and Chicago. The Beltline would house up to four US Highways (12, 14, 18 and 151), all splitting to various parts of the Midwest. The Beltline made things a bit easier to make up time to the new home – an apartment complex not far from the northwest shore of Lake Monona in the suburb of Middleton.
This was not the first time I have been to Madison. I flew there in February of 2000 on the invitation of my roommate to check it out. It was a nice town, I thought. Driving out there helped to get a feel for another approach to the city. There were too many mental pictures of my previous trip to calculate as I tried to concentrate on my drive on the Beltline towards my new home. I know I would not be a stranger in a new town once I arrived.
Arriving there, I emptied out the Jimmy of my worldly goods. After conquering over 500 miles of highway, I still had plenty of adrenalin to move in, and party a bit afterward.
Relocation is usually all fun and games, especially if you have a rental truck full of everything you claim as your own. In my case, carrying a lighter load across half the country in a mid-sized SUV became an adventure and a delight over the miles covered along the way.
Looking back at this road trip/relocation, it sparked a significant shift in my trajectory in my life and career. I wanted to be a writer before I moved to Madison. If I kept on working on it, I'd be published – so, I thought. Since my arrival in Madison, my poetry had been micro-published into two chapbooks, got my first job in digital media as the Managing Editor of a small website based in Chicago, and have been featured on several other websites. My time in Madison began a 19-year journey in the world of online media and the literary arts.
Then again, I also have a love-hate relationship with Madison. My time in the Wisconsin state capitol was dictated by the smallness of the metropolitan area. Having been born in the Los Angeles area and lived in the San Francisco Bay Area and in Washington, DC, Madison and South Central Wisconsin felt too claustrophobic. I needed a large city to balance out this feeling. I was lucky to have both Milwaukee and Chicago at my disposal.
However, there was one more destination that my life and work would take me. After three-and-a-half years in Madison, I would eventually do one more permanent relocation to the Twin Cities – my home for the past 16 years. Prior to my relocation to Minnesota, I took more than a few road trips up to see my growing number of friends up in The Cities from Madison. Back in 2000, I had no idea I would become what I am today or have the experiences during that time in Madison to prepare me for my life here in Minnesota.
A trip such as this should be about the discovery. It should be about embracing change. Twenty years later, I can honestly say that the drive from Northern Virginia to Madison was worth every mile. I certainly changed since arriving in the Upper Midwest and find myself evolving every day. Perhaps this is the legacy of my relocation across the mountains of the east and into the heartland.
All photos by Randy Stern, except otherwise noted.