The 2016 Great American Escape
The great American interstate highway system, officially named for its promoter, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, criss-crosses the continental United States in every direction. We no longer need to plan our route across as carefully as the pioneers in their Conestoga wagons did, but we still have many options for driving the 3,000 miles from coast to coast.
The interstates tend to be boring and uniform, but they are typically the fastest routes. State highways go through many towns and therefore offer a slower, but far more interesting experience. And then there are the back roads on which one can meander in and out of states and counties, looping up and back through rural areas, offering the potential to meet locals and experience landscapes, vistas and conversations that are lost to most automobile travelers.
For our upcoming nationwide odyssey, we plan to make use of the directness of the interstates on the way to the east coast, then follow a combination of approaches for a more leisurely sightseeing trip on the way home.
Opening my large road atlas, I see that there are four primary through routes from the Pacific to the Atlantic. From north to south, they are as follows:
- Interstate 90 is the most northerly through route, extending from Seattle to Boston. Although not particularly accessible from California, it has the advantage of traversing a number of the northern states that I wish to visit (such as Montana and North Dakota). We’ll be seeing a fair bit of the 90 on the way back, particularly since it cuts across upstate New York as part of the Thruway from Albany to our planned stop in Niagara Falls. After that, I-90 will take us through Erie, Pennsylvania and across the Shocknessy Ohio Turnpike as far as Toledo, where we will turn north for a tour of Michigan and Wisconsin.
- Interstate 80 extends from the Bay Bridge in San Francisco to the George Washington Bridge (over the Hudson River from New Jersey into Manhattan). This is the through route closest to home, as it runs right through Sacramento and the nearest entrance is less than two miles from our front door. We plan to head out of town on the 80, through Reno and then the Nevada desert, Salt Lake City, Wyoming, Nebraska and Iowa. In Iowa, we will head south on Interstate 29 en route to Missouri.
- Interstate 40 is almost as convenient a way in and out of California as I-80 is. From Sacramento, shoot straight down the 99 to Bakersfield, then head east on Highway 58 to Barstow. I-40, which roughly parallels the old Route 66 of Americana fame, extends from Barstow through Arizona, New Mexico, the Texas Panhandle, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Tennessee on the way to its terminus near the Atlantic Ocean in Wilmington, North Carolina (a place I have visited on numerous occasions). While most of the 40 runs farther south than we plan to travel, we will see part of it as we travel from Oklahoma through Little Rock, Arkansas and on into Memphis and Nashville, Tennessee, where we intend to visit the Country Music Hall of Fame.
- Interstate 10 is the southernmost of the through routes, extending from near the Santa Monica Pier in Los Angeles to the Atlantic beaches of Jacksonville, Florida. On the way, I-10 traverses Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama before cutting through the Florida Panhandle to its terminus by the ocean. Prior to living in Sacramento, we spent more than three years residing in a town directly on the 10 near the California/Arizona border. Having done thousands of miles of back and forth on Interstate 10 during those years, we are pleased to be able to avoid it completely on this trip. Its far southerly location, with its lengthy route through Texas from El Paso to Houston and beyond is nowhere near the places we hope to visit. Also, I did a cross-country trip solo on the 10 right about this time of year in 1996, so I’d like to see some other parts of the country this time around.
So what’s the goal of this trip? Other than to satisfy some good old American wanderlust, we plan to cross off the remaining ten states on my list of the continental United States I’ve visited. If all goes according to plan, we will arrive home with nothing but Alaska and Hawaii standing between completion of my list of the full 50. Hopefully, we’ll be able to make special trips to those outliers within the next few years.
Also, I’ve wanted for years to show my wife my old stomping grounds in New York and New England. I am sure the nostalgia will be nothing short of unbearable, although perhaps tempered by the unfortunate truth that nothing is ever as wonderful as you remember it.
Ultimately, it’s true that you can’t go home again.