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Sunday, September 06 2015 @ 11:00 PM EDT

American Adventure: U.S. 50 Coast-to-Coast

U.S. 50 Coast-to-Coast
U.S. 50 Coast-to-Coast

I and my family have lived in Easton, Maryland for the past 34 years and one of the fun things that we get to do is go to the beach each summer. We normally spend most of our time at Assateague Island National Seashore, but we sometimes drive into Ocean City to have lunch or to just stroll along the boardwalk. Something that has intrigued me and my wife, Linda, for many years is a sign over the highway that goes over the bridge from Ocean City’s barrier island across to the mainland. The sign reads “Sacramento Ca 3073.” We both thought that it might be fun to someday drive that highway – U.S. 50 – all the way across the country, and we both agreed that it would be most doable after we were both retired. When Linda retired on July 1 of this year (I retired three years earlier) we had our opportunity.

Our plan for the trip was simple: we had no plan.  We were going to drive along U.S. 50 the entire way, even if it took us right through the middle of cities and towns, rather than take beltways or bypasses.  We would drive for as long as we wished each day, stop whenever and wherever it was convenient, and stay as long as we wished at any location.  We would camp in our tent whenever possible and stay in motels if the weather got nasty, if we needed showers, or if we just wanted a break from camping.  After reaching Sacramento our trip home would take us down the eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains to Death Valley, and then to Las Vegas and Arizona, from where we would follow I-40 most of the way across the southern tier of states.

We chose to start our trip on a good weather day soon after Labor Day when all of the kids would be back in school and most of the other tourists would be back to work.  We left our home at 6:00 a.m. on September 4 and drove to Ocean City on roads other than U.S. 50, which passes less than a mile from our home.  We wanted to be “purists” about this trip and make it a true end-to-ender.  This first day would turn out to be the longest driving day of the entire trip - 11½ hours – as we made our way to Maryland’s western shore, through downtown Washington, DC and northern Virginia, and into the middle of West Virginia.

Camping at Tygart Lake State Park, West Virginia

During our trip we camped for 16 nights and stayed in motels for 12 nights.  When we camped we chose mostly state parks and KOA (Kampgrounds of America) campgrounds, but also stayed in one other privately run campground, one state recreation area, and two national parks.  We suffered through one uncomfortably hot night near St. Louis and two uncomfortably cold nights in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park and another in Bishop, California.  We had, at most, three nights of camping when it rained, and two windy nights that hampered our ability to sleep.

Before the trip even started we planned to stay in a motel for two nights near Lake Tahoe since the average September nighttime temperature is 35°, and we planned to stay in a lodge in Death Valley National Park for two nights since the September nighttime temperature can exceed 100°.  We spent six other nights in motels because of excessive cold, heat, rain, or wind.  When Colorado Springs was suffering from its devastating flash floods we were in a motel in Pueblo, just 40 miles south.  We spent a night in a motel because there weren’t any campgrounds convenient to Vicksburg, Mississippi, and we spent the last night of our trip in a motel in Bristol, Virginia.  We had planned to camp near Chattanooga, Tennessee that night but the two national military parks that we wanted to visit that day – Chickamauga and Lookout Mountain – were closed because of the government shutdown.  We chose, instead, to continue driving.

While things generally went very well for us on this trip, we had our share of mishaps, the worst of which was the failure of our tent after our second night of camping.  To be fair, the tent was 30 years old, and it served us extremely well.  The failure occurred when a door zipper wouldn’t close.  We had the zippers replaced twice before, and we recently replaced four of the aluminum pole sections that had split and we had new shock cord installed into four of the pole assemblies.  Now it was time to make a change because a repair was impractical.  Luckily we were not far from a Cabelas store.

The other equipment failures that we experienced included a DC to AC power inverter that we used in our truck to charge phones and camera batteries; my Mini Maglite flashlight; our queen-size inflatable camp bed; and, Linda’s Nikon point-and-shoot pocket digital camera.  We were able to replace each item quickly by using the Walmart edition of our Rand McNally Road Atlas to find nearby stores.

My camera gear for the trip

Speaking of cameras (this IS a photography website after all), I use Sigma cameras and lenses.  My travel kit included two Sigma SD14 DSLR bodies; 18-250mm super telephoto zoom, 10-20mm wide angle zoom, 400mm prime, and 105mm macro lenses; accessory flash; circular polarizer and two-stop graduated neutral density filters; spare memory cards; spare batteries and charger; carbon fiber tripod; and, assorted other items.  (By the way, I never took the opportunity to use either the 400mm or 105mm lenses.)  The 400mm lens and the tripod both have their own carrying cases.  I carried everything else in a Lowepro rolling photo backpack.

U.S. 50 is a surprisingly good road in most places.   It was also very lightly traveled.  For me the worst part of the highway was through West Virginia, where its narrow two lanes wind around, up and down steeply through the mountains.  The prettiest part of U.S. 50 was through Gunnison and San Isabel National Forests in western Colorado.  There were long stretches of straight, flat, lonely roads through most of Kansas, eastern Colorado, Utah, and Nevada. Even though the highway was only two lanes in parts of those states, the speed limit was usually 70 or 75 mph.  The highest speed limit that we saw was in Utah where U.S. 50 and I-15 are the same highway for a few miles – 80 mph.  I think we drove in or through rain during no more than four days (maybe only three); the rest of the time the driving weather was great.  The only times that we drove when it was dark were when we started driving a little before sunrise a few times, and the one night when it was so hot that we drove around in our air conditioned truck and stopped at Hardee’s for milkshakes.

Monk's Mound, Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site

Although we had no set itinerary for this trip, there were certain places that we wanted to see, as long as they weren’t too far away from U.S. 50 so that we could quickly and easily make it back to the exact spot where we left the highway.  On the return trip that wasn’t as much of a concern, since we had already met our objective and all we wanted to do was drive home.  National parks are always high on our list of places to visit, so we were definitely going to stop at Black Canyon of the Gunnison (Colorado), Death Valley (California), Petrified Forest (Arizona), and Hot Springs (Arkansas).  I also hoped to see Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site (Illinois), Jefferson Westward Expansion National Memorial (and Gateway Arch in St. Louis), Dodge City (Kansas), Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park (California), Hoover Dam (Nevada), Vicksburg National Military Park and Natchez Trace Parkway (both in Mississippi), and Chickamauga & Chattanooga National Military Park (including Lookout Mountain) in Tennessee.  Linda especially wanted to see the Harry Truman and Bill Clinton Presidential libraries, and Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site (I think the Social Studies teacher was coming out in her).  There were several places where we stopped on a whim just because we saw them on the map.  Those included Colorado (Colorado), Devil’s Postpile (California), Sunset Crater and Wupatki (Arizona), and Petroglyph (New Mexico) National Monuments, and Manzanar National Historic Site (California).

I think that Death Valley National Park was my favorite site on this trip.  I had read so much about the place over the years that it was great to actually be able to associate real places to the names in the books and magazine articles.  The photography experience was fun because of the great variety of natural features and land forms.  I especially wanted a chance to take some of the iconic photos of sand dunes and shadows at sunset, which is why I selected to stay at Stovepipe Wells, very close to the Mesquite Flat dunes.  The photos that I took there are perhaps my favorites from the entire trip.  It was also great fun to be below sea level at Badwater Basin and to photograph the changing landscape at Zabriskie Point during sunrise.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison

Not long ago I read a book called People of the River by Kathleen O’Neal Gear and W. Michael Gear.  It’s a fictionalized account of Mississippi River mound builder Indians, so it was a thrill for me to visit Cahokia Mounds State Historic Park and walk among the mounds and to actually climb to the top of Monk’s Mound.  I was surprised to learn that Cahokia Mounds is the largest prehistoric Indian site north of Mexico.

A fun and whimsical place where we stopped briefly was Cadillac Ranch just outside of Amarillo, Texas.  If you don’t know about this place, it was a public art project where the artist buried a row of ten classic Cadillac automobiles halfway into the ground standing on end.  Over the years people have taken the opportunity to festoon the cars with spray painted graffiti, so the vehicles are quite colorful.  Unfortunately many of the graffiti artists are also slobs who toss their empty paint cans onto the ground.

One of the disappointments during this trip was the lack of wildlife.  We saw a handful of mule deer, some squirrels and chipmunks, two coyotes, and some ravens, hawks, doves, and Stellar’s jays.  Oh, yeah.  We also saw a tarantula!  It was the first that we had ever seen in the wild.

Perhaps the most emotionally moving site that we visited was Manzanar National Historic Site, which is the site of former World War II Japanese-American internment camp.  It was heartbreaking for me to learn about and actually see how all of those loyal Americans had to live.  I’m the grandchild of European immigrants who came to the U.S.A. to make better lives for themselves, just as those Japanese immigrants did, so I suppose it’s easy for me to sympathize.  My last name, Maki, has sometimes been mistaken for being Japanese, even though it’s not (it’s Finnish, by the way), and I feel a special relationship to immigrant groups.

Western terminus of U.S. 50 in Sacramento, CA

The biggest highlight of the trip, of course, was reaching the end of U.S. 50.  It’s actually located in West Sacramento.  Our challenge was to find the sign that read “Ocean City, MD 3073.”  I had already seen others’ photographs of the sign, so I knew that it existed.  I have a copy of DeLorme’s Topo North America 10 software on my laptop computer, so I zoomed in closely to where U.S. 50 actually morphs into I-80 and made my best guess as to where we might find the sign.  The most likely spot appeared to be along a highway ramp that took people off of I-80 and onto U.S. 50 east.  One thing that I couldn’t tell from the mapping software was whether or not there would be room to park along the shoulder of the road so that I could take some photos of the sign.  I plotted a route and navigated while Linda drove.  You can’t imagine the pleasure and relief that we felt when the sign appeared exactly where I had predicted, and there was a very wide shoulder to park along.  Actually, it looked as if many people had parked there in the past to take the same photos that I took. 

Altogether we drove 7,709 miles, passed through 22 states, and visited four national parks, five national monuments, six national historic sites, two national historic parks, one national memorial, one national military park, one national recreation area, one national parkway, two Presidential libraries, and more.  Time wise this was definitely the longest trip that we have ever taken.  We saw many great sights and had a wonderful experience, but Linda and I were both glad to get back home.  For us the essence of this trip was definitely the journey, the act of driving along U.S. 50 from coast to coast.  Everything else was just icing on the cake.


Editor's Note

We all have our bucket lists. Thanks to Roger Maki for sharing one from his list with us so that we all can experience such a journey from coast to coast across America on US Route 50. You can see several dozen images from Roger and Linda's round trip in his album "American Adventure: U.S. 50 Coast-to-Coast".


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