Richard and Steve Drive Across the Country

There is a much larger story that will not be related in detail here:  At the beginning of this year, my family, along with many other parents, started a new rowing club on Vashon Island.  It took a lot of time, effort and perseverance to bring the Burton Beach Rowing Club (BBRC) into being, but that intrigue is for another time.

Our new club was lent boats by other area clubs to get us going, but those loaner boats were not ours forever.  Our coach, Richard, found some Sykes boats to buy in Baltimore and got a good deal on a boat trailer with which to haul them.  At about the same time, we found some used Hudson racing shells for sale in Boston.  Used Hudsons, available in good condition, are hard to find, so we decided to act on the opportunity.

In the middle of February, I set out with Richard to drive across the country in his Acura MDX to go get three boats in Baltimore and then three more in Boston.  Unlike Western Washington, most of the rest of the country was still very much having winter at this time.  We wanted to make the trip in less than a week, and this was our planned route:

We set out driving from Seattle to Iowa City in one long stretch.  Richard is friends with the head women’s crew coach at the University of Iowa, and we would stay with his family for that one night.  Things started off well when we left The Island on the 5:20 am ferry, but we got stuck at the Snoqualmie Pass when it was shut down for two hours.

It was still dark when we got to the pass but was very much light when we finally got moving again.  This leg of the journey wasn’t terribly exciting because we just . . . drove.  Our first stop for gas, in Coeur d’Alene Idaho, came out to exactly $50.  That’s about as exciting as it got.  There was snow.  Lots and lots of snow (and one Loversize Dad).

Somewhere between Idaho and Montana, I took over driving and stayed in the driver’s seat all through the night.  We had satellite radio, and I listened to Forensic Files on HLN for much of that time.  We were very lucky in that Richard’s musical taste and mine overlap by about 80%.  And we’re both big Beatles fans, so that helped immensely with those long hours on the road.

By the time the sun was coming up on our second day, we were in Iowa.

Our host family was incredibly gracious, but I was ready for a shower and bed.  Instead, we took a tour of the incredible boathouse for the women’s crew program at UI.  Here we have Title IX in action, and the UI has a bit of a men’s football program (some basketball too).  So women’s sports get a tremendous amount of money.  Among other things, I got to see the largest motorized indoor rowing tank in the world.

After the tour of the school, we took a quick look at Iowa City (the most exciting college town in Iowa!) and then went back to the house for a generous dinner and dessert that included raw cookie dough served in a bowl with a spoon.  After dinner, we got that much-needed sleep and shower and then hit the road again, just before dawn.

We made it across Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and then Pennsylvania just like we’d hoped to.  Western Pennsylvania was pretty at sunset.

We rolled into West Baltimore after dark and pulled into a Motel 6, a mistake I will never make again.  Perhaps when you walk into a hotel lobby and the front-desk person is sitting behind bullet-proof glass, you might want to find another place to sleep.  We stayed there anyway, and I swear my bag still smells funny just from being in that room overnight.

The next day, we accomplished our first main goal:  We picked up Richard’s three boats and the trailer.

For the rest of our trip, we’d have that big trailer behind our car.  Before leaving the boatyard, a harbinger of things to come was the fact that one of the headlights went out.  It would have been some feat to get to the auto parts store with the trailer attached, so one of the super friendly people working at the boatyard drove me to get a new bulb.  We got that put in and were on our way North.  The plan was to drive up to Boston and then spend the night there.  We’d get up early the next morning and meet the coach at Tufts University to buy my three boats.  This was supposed to be a relaxing day with an easy drive, but that was not what happened.

Our mood soured as we drove up I-95.  We’re not used to toll roads out on the West Coast, and we knew we’d have to deal with them.  We also knew they’d be even more expensive with the boat trailer.  We were not prepared, however, to have to stop every 20 miles or so to pay another $15-$20.  Crossing the George Washington Bridge alone cost us $50.

And it was crowded.  We were in heavy traffic the whole way.  And it was, to our eyes, ugly.  We came from the Pacific Northwest, through the Mountain States, and then across the prairies and plains.  It’s not like I’d never been in a big city before; I’ve actually spent time in these exact cities.  But there was something particularly unpleasant about this stretch of road.  The service plazas were dirtier and smelly.  The people working there seemed hopeless and lost.  There just seemed to be so many people living right on top of each other in this expensive part of the country, made entirely out of old concrete.

Every time we had to stop for traffic or to pay another toll, our spirits sank just a little bit more.  We did get a glimpse of Manhattan, and I finally saw the Atlantic Ocean on this trip.  Then, somewhere in Connecticut, the A/T Temp light came on.

We pulled into a disused service area to let the engine cool and find out how serious the problem was.  Turns out it was quite serious.  We drove a few more miles, and the light came on again and stayed on.  We ended up parking on a terrible side street to have a boat trailer on and called a local Acura dealership that also had a service garage.  It was 4:00 pm, and we were in Norwalk Connecticut.

It was starting to rain as we pulled into Devan Acura of Norwalk.  Imagine what these guys must have thought when they saw our rusty old boat trailer pulling onto their lot.  Normally they would have been getting ready to go home at this time, but they stayed late and checked out our situation.  They even called in their transmission specialist while we waited across the street at Dunkin’ Donuts for the prognosis.  It was bad.  Richard’s car needed to have the transmission entirely rebuilt.  It would take at least a few days, so we ended up checking into the Norwalk DoubleTree.  I felt homesick and helpless and wondered when I was going to get to see my kids again.

This was the dark time.

At this point, helpful people made suggestions about renting a truck and going to Boston to get the boats.  Some even suggested driving the boats back home with a rented truck and then having Richard fly back to get his car.  We didn’t know how long it would take to rebuild the transmission, so we were looking at potentially several days of lost time.  We found out, though, that no rental car company would allow us to tow anything (and none of their vehicles would even have a trailer hitch), and moving truck companies will only let you use their trailers, which only haul cars, not racing shells.  We were stuck again and reduced to asking strangers (the hostess at the hotel restaurant, the front desk people) if they knew anyone with a truck that had a trailer hitch.  We would have paid someone to borrow their truck for the day to go get the boats in Boston so we wouldn’t lose all this time.

Eventually I made the right comment to the right person.  Steve, from the Norwalk AAMCO, was the transmission specialist from the previous night.  The following day, we were in his shop to assess the damage.  I mentioned our plight to him, and he got right on the phone and made a bunch of calls.  It was dizzying to watch him work out the situation.  I don’t know how many people he actually spoke to in his no-nonsense, big-East-Coast-city accent, but eventually he handed me a piece of paper with instructions scribbled all over it.  We were to go to the Enterprise in the lobby of the Crown Plaza in the next town over, in Stamford.  There they had a Ford F-250 with a trailer hitch that we could rent for the day.  It was incredible.  We were making positive progress again, but it was the last time we’d ever see Steve.

After getting the truck in Stamford, we had to drive back to Norwalk to pick up the boat trailer from the back of the Acura dealership.  The hitch on the F-250 was much higher than the connection on our little trailer, so we had to enlist some muscle from among the mechanics.  They even let us use their tools to hook up the trailer.  It took some time, but we finally got on the road to Boston.

To get to Tufts, we had to drive right through the city of Boston.  This is challenging in the best of circumstances, but hauling the boat trailer took it to a whole other level.  We also got a little lost trying to find the boathouse and ended up on a construction site.  These things, coupled with a developing migraine and the surprise cost of a new transmission, put Richard in a somewhat beleaguered mood.  It was already starting to get dark when we pulled up to the Tufts boathouse and began the process of selecting and purchasing boats.

Coach Brian is a super laid-back and nice guy.  Eventually we got things sorted out and purchased the three boats we’d planned on and got them lashed to the trailer with the three from Baltimore.  By the time we pulled away it was dark.  More importantly, it was rush hour in Boston when we drove back down to Stamford Connecticut to return the miracle truck.

Of course, nothing could be totally straightforward.  First we had to drive the truck and trailer to the Norwalk DoubleTree in order to unhitch the trailer, this time without the aide of the Acura mechanics.  Then we had to take the truck down to Stamford to return it to Enterprise.  But first we had to transfer all the boat stuff, like the riggers, to Richard’s loaner Acura (which we’d left in Stamford).  Fortunately, the good folks at the DoubleTree, who were also aware of our plight, offered to rope off a bunch of parking spots for us to put the trailer.  Not only were they willing to do this, but it was their idea.  We would have been screwed without that because their lot was totally full by the time we got back from Boston.  Here’s how things looked the next morning:

We still weren’t 100% sure when Steve at AAMCO would have our car done, but he indicated that he would be finished that afternoon or evening.  That would be an incredibly short turn-around-time to rebuild a transmission and install a transmission cooler, but it turned out to be accurate.  Richard and I tied all our new stuff to the trailer and prepared it as best we could for the cross-country trip.  We bid farewell to the folks at the DoubleTree and then to the folks at Devan Acura.  At about 4:00 pm, roughly 48 hours after the beginning of this little side excursion, we left Norwalk in our own car.

Of course, it was the beginning of rush hour, and we were still among the big East Coast cities.  Neither Richard nor I would breath a sigh of relief until we were at least into Western Pennsylvania.  One bit of excitement was the driver-side windshield wiper that kept snapping out of the arm.  Imagine driving at night on a busy interstate in the rain, and the windshield wiper stops working.  And it’s not like you can make any sudden movements with a boat trailer attached.  Later in the night, we were made aware that we had no taillights, neither on the trailer nor the car.  We replaced the fuse as soon as we could.

We drove through the night.  The further West we moved, the colder it got.  By the next day, we were moving through the middle states of Ohio, Indiana and Illinois again.  We felt freer and less claustrophobic.  There were fewer cars on the road, and we made fairly good time.  But we had to dive much slower than when we came out, and the weather really was getting worse and worse.

As evening fell, and it started to get dark, the roads were getting slippery, and the snow was falling harder.  Richard made the executive decision to stop for the night, so we pulled into a Holiday Inn Express in Northwood Iowa.  Within minutes of pulling into the parking lot, one car hit another and knocked it into a ditch.  This happened right in front of us, so it was probably a good idea to stop for the night.  Logic aside, I still wanted to get home a see my family again.

Before you ask, we did analyze our route home several times.  We thought about getting on to I-84 West and going to Portland and then North to Seattle from there.  Every option we considered had its own challenges, and we elected to stay on I-90.  From Northwood, we headed North and got to Luverne Minnesota.  At a gas station there, the young lady behind the counter informed me that Luverne was 30 minutes from everywhere – 30 minutes from Iowa and 30 minutes from South Dakota.  That was just fine for us.

The highway changed from mostly clear to somewhat slippery, but the worst weather was the wind.  We had big, light boat shells behind us that acted like sails.  The worst wind would be in Montana, but moving across South Dakota definitely had its terrifying moments.  We saw lots of cars in the median and even a semi-trailer on its side.  We also saw billboards, lots and lots of billboards.

For 300 miles from Sioux City to Wall, there are countless signs for Wall Drug.  But those certainly aren’t the only ones.  There’s signs for the Corn Palace in Mitchell and Firehouse Brewing Co. in Rapid City, the later of which all feature real fire engines.  It got so we were disappointed when we’d pass one of these landmarks because there wouldn’t be any more signs.  They definitely kept us entertained as we moved across the state.

Although we were tempted to visit Wall Drug, we only got to within 4 blocks.  Our desire to get home superseded our curiosity about this mecca of Americana.  From South Dakota, we drove into the northeast corner of Wyoming at just about sunset.

Once again the weather was getting worse at it got dark, so once again we stopped for the night.  This time it was at a Hampton Inn & Suites in Buffalo Wyoming.  The next morning we were up before dawn and into the great (great BIG) state of Montana.  We had to be careful of driving conditions at all times.

Montana was beautiful, even if it was covered with snow.  It was beautiful, but it got a little tedious after awhile.  We passed mile after mile of snow-covered hills and pastures and farms.  MileAfterMile.

It was George Harrison’s birthday weekend, so The Beatles station was playing mainly George Harrison songs, which both Richard and I got a little sick of.  His voice sounds a bit nasally after awhile.  Mile after mile we drove across Montana, which looked a lot like South Dakota, at least along I-90, except there were no entertaining road signs.  What we did have was the Clark Fork, which runs along the interstate most of the way across the state.

When we stopped for gas in Livingston Montana, we noticed two things.  One was that it was really cold outside, especially with the wind.  The other thing we discovered was that one of our boats had become dangerously loose and on its way to flying off the trailer.  We bought the store’s last roll of electrician’s tape, which works well to reinforce the straps that hold the boats on.  It’s just that you can’t tighten the straps or apply tape with gloves on.

After getting that sorted out, we got back on the road and continued across the seemingly endless state of Montana.  Eventually we crossed into Idaho at Lookout Pass, but by then it was getting dark again.

We had some planning to do since we wanted to tackle the Snoqualmie Pass in daylight.  We decided to stop for the night at a Holiday Inn in Spokane Washington.  Richard delivered the bad news to me the next day, as I was eating my 100th hotel waffle – the pass was getting several feet of new snow, and winds were dangerously high.  He wouldn’t risk driving through the pass that day, even though we were so close to our destination.

We’d been on the road for 9 days at this point, and this is where Richard and I parted ways.  After some discussion, we decided together that I would fly home from Spokane while he drove the rest of the way the following day.  I felt a little bad about leaving him alone, but there were only a few hours of driving left, and I really wanted to see my family again.

The next day I heard from Richard early in the afternoon.  He had made it to the Vashon Island ferry after what he described as the easiest driving of the previous five days.  So that worked out fine.

After a fairly grueling ordeal, we’d made it back home with six new boats for our fledgling rowing club.  The Burton Beach Rowing Club would be rowing its own boats for its first regatta.

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