Sep 25, 2007

Chicago to Portland

I set this down in writing mostly to cement my own memories, but also to share the experience with anyone who might be interested. I had intended to blog/journal every day, but I never seemed to have the time. So it goes, travelling with a newborn, I guess. As I write this tonight, all in one sitting, the trip is not quite completely over.

Eleven days ago, we said goodbye to Chicago and set out for the West. We had sold all of our furniture; returned anything for which we happened to have a receipt; donated to Goodwill anything without resale value; and sent everything else across the country via Amtrak freight, at the extremely reasonable rate of 41 cents/pound.

To transport ourselves, we paid a hundred dollars for a pop-up camper, dirty but in good working order. We spent a week customizing and cleaning it: discarded superfluous racks, brackets to nonexistent accessories, a pair of rusty propane tanks; from the interior, temporarily removed the cabinetry, tore out the linoleum flooring and ragged panelling; put down new pad and carpet (taken from Markie's bedroom), installed new paneling (the only out-of-pocket expense); re-installed the pair of bench cabinets, ditched the rest; replaced the decaying kitchenette tabletop with one from our patio furniture (which J stained to a shade of mahogany); scoured every surface inside and out; and laundered the curtains and upholstery; did not have time to follow through with our plans to paint it. Perhaps in the future.

Some befores:


As you may well know, moving can be a chore. The final stages seem absolutely unending. My mom came up from St Louis and watched Markie while J and I focused on our projects for the final forty-eight sleepless hours leading up to our departure. Our goal was to pack light as possible and bring along nothing unnecessary, but at a certain point, we gave up on doing it all perfectly and just wanted the hell out of our apartment. We crammed everything into the trailer, the trunk, the back seat, left the house keys by the fridge, and hit the road, pulling a trailer for the first time.

Day 1. Sunday, September 16

As the sun rose, Mom tailed us to Dunkin Donuts for 5 a.m. coffee and sugar charge up. We all exchanged hugs, and then Mom drove South for St Louis, and we peeled off onto the 294 tollway, westward. We tried to work up some nostalgic sentiment for our last views of Chicago, but the thrill of being done with it all was too great. That excitement was enough to keep us from conking out for approximately twenty minutes. Eyelids crashing, heads lolling, we exited the highway and pulled into a hotel parking lot where we slept deeply, upright in our seats, for five hours. Not even beyond the city limits, the liberated sensation of travel was strong. The randomness of our spot made us invisible, and after the car nap, J put a blanket on the grass and laid down with Markie for a while. The dogs roamed. Markie burped up; we changed her outfit and diaper. Someone had dumped out a cooler on the lawn, and so I scooped the free ice into our own cooler.

Getting out of the apartment had been our final responsibility. No job waiting for me in Portland, no rent due (We'll be staying with my aunt and uncle, once we arrive in PDX), no school, no homework. Huge, unnatural freedom. Furthermore, at just ten weeks old, the demands made by Markie are at their lifetime minimum, and her capacity for sleep is at its max. No schedule, no plans, no itinerary. Watch the weather, check the atlas, drive when we're in the mood, stay an extra night when we find a good spot, so on, so forth. See how Markie handles long stretches of driving, see how livable the camper is, see what the Volvo is capable of.

Concluding our heavenly pit stop, we promptly found ourselves disoriented and confused, choosing between poorly marked on-ramps, atlas locked in the trunk under the fully loaded bike rack; little dog Murphy spontaneously vomited a stomach-full of dog food and putrid scrounged mystery liquid, coating car seat and Markie, now squirming and screaming. On the shoulder of the freeway entrance, I ineffectually wiped off the car seat with paper towels while J changed Markie's clothes for the second time in twenty minutes.

Markie didn't seem to mind the stench of her car seat, so we trundled off, frazzled but not disheartened, all the more eager to get some miles behind us.

We used the De Kalb Oasis free wi-fi to make reservations at a KOA just beyond Des Moines. Made it there around ten pm, set up the camper, took showers, bathed Markie, decided to spend the next day organizing the camper and car, examine atlas and guide books, enjoy the campground. Slept with the “windows” open, let the night air blow through the mosquito netting.

Day 2. Monday, September 17.

Slept late. Cooked a breakfast of bacon, eggs, and toast on the Coleman stove. Organized the living space, consolidated boxes. Loaded the trunk with all items that didn't have to do with the trip. Patched a tube. Drank coffee, read the New Yorker in the shade. Once the sun reached its full height, we zipped the rubber windows and tried out the AC. It works.

Day 3. Tuesday, September 18.

Got in touch with J's friend Liz in Omaha, made plans to meet for lunch on our way through. Liz invited us to stay the night, so we did.

Day 4. Wednesday, September 19.

Ate a ridiculous complimentary breakfast at the French delicatessen where Liz works. My first time eating caviar, I think.

Headed North for the Badlands. Sunset rest stop.

Arrived at the Badlands around 1:30a.m., found a campsite, tried to set up quietly.

Day 5. Thursday, September 20.

Toured the Badlands by car. Lured prairie dogs with gravel.

Wall Drug.

Day 6. Friday, September 21.

Woke with the sun.

Mt. Rushmore. Refused to pay the $8 parking lot entrance fee, so these are the pics we got. Watched the landscape change from pure farmland to wooded foothills of pine.

Crazy Horse.

Set up for the night at a mediocre RV Park in Worland, Wyoming. Fixed chili dogs on Coleman stove.

Day 7. Saturday, September 22.

Woke early, romped with dogs in nearby field. Forecast in Yellowstone called for snow, so we decided to skip it.

Crossed the continental divide.


Drove South through ridiculously beautiful Wyoming. Stopped at some anonymous body of water for a picnic roadside brunch of pancakes, bacon, and eggs.

Looked around after brunch...

Found this. I'm not sure—does the graffiti date itself? King Diamond, Bon Jovi, KISS, Judas Priest...

As the below pictures make clear, hips and berms aren't my everyday terrain, but this discovery was perhaps the peak experience of my bike riding life. Thanks to J and Markie for enduring the blowing sand and for snapping the pictures.

Sweaty back and torn jeans, onward to the next stop: Preston, Idaho, the real-life setting of Napoleon Dynamite. Arrived very late in chilly Preston, rang the motel doorbell, and got a room. Cast and crew for Napoleon stayed here while shooting, turns out.

Day 8. Sunday, September 23.

Napoleon sightseeing all morning. I wouldn't call myself a Napoleon “fan,” but I also wouldn't say my taste in movies is very sophisticated. Sad to report that the restaurant where Kip and Uncle Rico eat is no longer extant.

Preston High School:

Summer's house:

Napoleon's house:

...I couldn't believe Idaho's natural beauty. Large-format Hasselblad would be appropriate, but I just went ahead with my compact digital point-and-shoot and fired away through filthy windshield. These shots were all taken while driving, as J and Markie slept.

Tumble weed. Temperature dropping as we climb.

Made camp in Mountain Home, Idaho. Coffee pot ramen noodles. Did laundry.

Rented a dvd to watch on the computer. Here's a hot tip—sign up for a new account at Video Gallery, get a free rental!
Day 9. Monday, September 24.

Started the day with an oil change for the Volvo. Perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not, the transmission gave us trouble for the first time ever. The automatic transmission just didn't want to upshift or downshift, had to go way above or below the usual shift points. Checked the fluid (as I had at every other gas station stop), and it was fine, as I knew it would be. Checked with four local mechanics, none of whom had a spare second, and none of whom knew anyone that worked on Volvos. I decided that since the transmission wasn't actually slipping, maybe it wouldn't hurt it to continue driving. Got back on the road and the car was normal within thirty minutes. Fixed itself. I'm planning to share my story with Car Talk this weekend...

Beautiful day, beautiful Eastern Oregon, beautiful wife.

Arrived in Medford at 11p.m.
Day 16. Monday, October 1.

We lingered in Medford, Oregon, had a fully satisfying visit, and made sure that Markie got plenty of Grandma time.

After a week, we packed up and said our goodbyes. Rather than a straight, five-hour shot North to Portland, we opted for Highway 101, the scenic two-lane that hugs the coast. We dipped down through the California Redwoods and then hit Brookings, the southernmost town on Oregon's coast. It was already mid-afternoon when we stopped to check out the Brookings public beach. When we found that the park included a campground with vacancies, we happily concluded the day's driving.

This was the greenest campground of the trip, and the spot we chose proved the shadiest, soggiest of them all, appropriate for our official arrival in Oregon.

Set up camp, watched the gray sunset.

At just $17/night, we decided to stay the next day, too. Hung out, edited video, let the dogs run.

Rather than spend $8 on two cans of Coleman fuel, I bought an electric skillet for fifteen; only wish I'd done it sooner. Sausage links and french toast for dinner.

Day 17. Tuesday, October 2.
Drove north. Pit stop at the Oregon Dunes, ocean visible in the distance.

Couple hours later, stopped for a cold-water swim. J stayed dry.

When it was time to find accomodations for the night, we decided not to stop. Instead, we called our family in Portland and let them know that we would be arriving late that night, and they said they'd have our room all ready with clean sheets.

So we drove and drove, made a late sunset photo stop in Depoe Bay, where we honeymooned three years ago.

Arrived in Portland just before ten.
Day 18. Wednesday, October 3.
Slept happy, woke happy. And this is home now, for the next long while.