On Rhode to California

IRA ATHALE gets behind the wheel and takes a 3,500-mile trip across the US

I  WAS on a road trip across the US with my friend Amy; we drove 3,500 miles from Providence, Rhode Island to San Francisco, California.

Our journey across plains, deserts, mountains and cornfields was dotted with the odd snowstorm and the odder characters that we stumbled across in little mid-Western towns.
Amy was moving to San Francisco and I was accompanying her so that I could see more of the country I’d lived in for two years. Our goal was to arrive in California in six days, driving along Interstate 80, apart from sightseeing detours in South Dakota,  Chicago and Salt Lake City.
One bright day, Amy and I left Providence in a 1998 Toyota Corolla. The boot and rear of the car were packed to capacity with my bag and most of Amy’s worldly goods, leaving us only the side mirrors for visibility. After the initial euphoria of crossing our first state boundary into Connecticut died down, no major achievement given that Rhode Island is the USA’s smallest state, we drove steadily through Pennsylvania’s winding roads, making the tiny college town of Bloomsville our first stop. 

If it’s raining it must be Ohio
I took the wheel for the first time. After a while I got used to relying on side mirrors and assuming that there was no one in my blind spot. 
Our stop for the night was Kent, Ohio, where Amy grew up. The next morning, our plan to avoid chains was foiled by the many breakfast chains scattered outside town.

The Mid-west
We continued westwards, through Indiana into Chicago. Trucks outnumbered cars and Amy’s imported Corolla was the exception among the-made-in-America Dodges and Fords. The mid-western accent appeared, everyone speaking in a slightly nasal twang. Indiana was flat, the occasional rolling slopes and cornfields stretching into the horizon. The low-point was the smoke-belching town of Gary, the poster child for a declining industrial area.
Chicago, however, appeared majestic even 50 miles away, with its skyline boasting the Sears towers, amongst the world’s tallest buildings. Chicago’s art galleries and museums, its view of the Lake Michigan, as large as any sea and its tour of architecture make it an important stop on any tourist’s map. 
Scenic Wisconsin
A stroll around town later, we headed back into the great unknown. Moving quickly through Illinois, we entered Wisconsin, my favourite state. Wisconsin was everything I dreamt it would be. The dells were green and verdant, the cows were plump and content, the cheese was nutty and the women were apple-cheeked and friendly.
We drove past scenic vistas without stopping, hoping to avoid the snow that had been forecast. We then entered Minnesota – the land of a thousand lakes, all, unfortunately, invisible from the highway. The miles ticked on, but featureless Minnesota continued.
We entered South Dakota in the dark and my cell phone lost signal almost immediately, regaining it three days and five states later. Our next stop was the Corn Palace since it was made of corn, unlike the Cheese Chalet we passed in Wisconsin. As it turns out, the palace was not actually made of corn, just decorated with corn murals.

High desert
We drove across the arid plains of South Dakota, termed “high desert”. We stopped next in the Badlands, a lunar landscape formed by wind and water erosion, and once the haunt of all sorts of desperate characters.
They arose out of the plains, almost menacing in the bright sunshine. Petrol stations and helicopter tour shops abounded, all deserted in the off-season. Luckily, we found a petrol station where we tanked up – being stranded without petrol or phone signal in the Badlands was an adventure we weren’t keen on.
Over a bison burger in the town of Wall, Amy and I discussed how people seemed to be friendlier as we moved westwards. I pointed out that speed limits were also higher — from 55 mph outside Chicago, to 70 in Minnesota and 75 in Wyoming. Montana, which we didn’t enter, did not have a speed limit.
Windy in Wyoming
We arrived in Cheyenne in an advanced state of exhaustion and drove into a motel outside town.
The next morning, the wind speed was up to 70 miles an hour and the car was swaying and swinging around in gusts. The remainder of Wyoming was desert, wind and not a soul in sight, as far as the eye could see.
Mormon country
The wilds of Wyoming gave way to the red mountains of Utah. All of a sudden, we were in heavy traffic and could see the bright lights of Salt Lake City in the valley below us.  In the heart of Salt Lake City were the Mormon convention centre and the Mormon tabernacle.

California dreaming
On the last day of the trip we made an early start, as we had 13 hours of driving ahead of us. The bad weather finally caught up with us, and we drove straight into heavy snow. After a glimpse of Salt Lake, we drove on into Nevada.
The sun was shining in Tahoe, which presented a contrast to Nevada’s desert, with its green slopes of forests, volcanic lakes and ski resorts. Not surprising then that the radio stations changed too, from country we were in the land of hip hop. The traffic grew thick, the driving reckless, and as we entered San Francisco the fog rolled in over the Golden Gate Bridge, telling Amy she was home.