U.S. Route 20

A few years ago, I read Pete Davies’ book American Road (2002) about Lieutenant Colonel (later General and President) Eisenhower’s 62-day expediton in 1919 to coax 69 military motor vehicles some 3,250 miles from the White House to San Francisco, on the narrow agglomerations of dirt, mud, rock, and sand that laughingly passed for transcontinental “roads” in that bygone era. It was this experience that apparently made him such a strong champion for the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act of 1956, the enabling legislation for today’s transcontinental system of controlled-access highways (freeways).  This book started us thinking that, someday, it would be fun to do our own transcontinental road trip (but in less than 62 days!) [in truth, this whole road trip thing is quintessentially American, and for us traces way, way back to Jerry & Renny Russel’s On the Loose (1967) or possibly Kerouac’s On the Road (1957)].

Over the years, we’ve done a lot of road trips around the U.S., both for fun and for work, but never one in a line from one coast to the other.  The freeways – urban traffic jams aside – are a great way to get from A to B but not necessarily a good way to see what’s between A and B.  But the U.S. Highways, organized after LTC Eisenhower’s epic 1919 journey and before the 1956 Interstate system, do go from A to B but at ground level, so you can see some stuff as you go along.  So when that “someday” for our big transcontinental road trip finally rolled around this month, we decided that U.S. Route 20 (US20), which runs 3,365 miles – through 12 states – from Boston, Massachusetts to Newport, Oregon, would be our guiding route (we say “guiding” because we used US20 to keep us heading West but were not trying to follow every piece of it, particularly the stop-light strewn sections through the larger cities).

Why US20?  First off, it ends in Oregon, so we’d almost be home at the end of the journey.  Second, it’s (per the Federal Highway Administration) the longest road in the U.S., so it would be like summiting the Mount Whitney of roads.  And third, it passes through Yellowstone National Park, so we’d get to visit our first national  park (1872), on the centenary (1916-2016) of the National Park Service.  Triple play!  Some would say that a road trip should also embody loftier intellectual goals (this one does start in Boston after all), such as feeling the pulse of America or some such, but we’re not intellectuals, or journalists, or pundits, so this one didn’t.

You could easily spend a month or more wending your way along US20 but our practical realities said we needed to get it done in two weeks or less. So we flew to Boston, got a one-way car rental, and drove west toward the Pacific Ocean and home. We planned on about ~350 miles per day, which was easy out West, but not so easy in the East, especially if we tried to go through a bigger city at street level (we only did this once).  So, what follows, in some subsequent posts, is a synopsis of this non-hiking, very motorized adventure, enlivened by snapshots of a quality only obtainable by being taken through a windscreen graced by dead bugs or raindrops or glare or some combination of these.  So, we’re not expecting a call from National Geographic.  Sigh.

Our journey in five parts: