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October 21, 2006

Long-Distance Driving

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Yesterday I drove 900 miles. Plus or minus 10 or so.

It was from central California to Seattle averaging 60 miles per hour, including all stops, until I hit the Portland Friday afternoon commute and was reduced to a crawl. Total time was 16 1/2 hours, but if it had been a Saturday I would have missed the commute traffic and might have made the trip in 15 hours.

I don't much mind long-distance driving, but other people hate it. My wife hates it. My father was ready to throw in the sponge after six hours behind the wheel.

I've lost track of how many times I've driven between Washington and California. But I do know how many times I've driven between West Coast places such as Seattle or San Francisco and East Coast locales such as Albany and Philadelphia.

Twenty times.

All of that took place between 1965 and 1982. Nowadays I normally fly if the trip is more than 400 miles or so.

Why did I do it at all, let alone so many times? Some of it had to do with fear of flying; until my children were born, I was a sweaty-palms flyer. Another factor was cost. In the days before deregulation, flying generally was expensive and my budget was limited, especially in the late 60s when I was in grad school. In at least four cases I drove because I was moving between coasts and had to transport my car as well as possessions.

Thanks to the Interstate highway system drives of 500 and more miles a day are fairly easy for many drivers. At the 60 mph pace I maintained the first ten hours of Friday's trip I could have reached New York City in three 16-hour driving days.

Things were tougher when I did most of my transcontinental driving. When I made my first trip in 1965 I was able to use toll freeways such as the Pennsylvania Turnpike for much of my driving east of Chicago. Farther west the Interstate system was pretty sketchy, but growing year by year.

Because new Interstate mileage was being rolled out annually, I found myself buying a new road atlas each year to keep up. I recall spending hours planning trips -- looking at alternative routes in order to to find the optimal low-driving-time solution.

A typical transcontinental trip would take me four, sometimes five days. In the 60s I was held back by having to share two-lane U.S. highways with trucks, travel trailers and other items that slowed things down. By the 70s, the freeway system was largely complete, but then the post-1973 55 mph speed limit kicked in. The difference between driving 55 and 70 matters little on trips of an hour or two. But on, say, a ten-hour driving day that 15 mph translates into 150 fewer miles covered.

My experience is that the limiting factors for a driving day are hours driven and how difficult the driving is. In 1965 I drove a Volkswagen Beetle from Seattle to New York and return. As noted, the Interstate system was only partly in place, and driving off freeways was taxing. I had to concentrate more. There was the continual problem of passing other vehicles in the face of oncoming traffic. Slowing down for each small town was trying. On top of it all, the Beetle was not a relaxing car to drive. Result: I did well if I could make 650 miles on a 14-hour driving day and I was pretty beaten up by the time I quit.

By the end of the 60s there were more miles of freeway and I was driving a Volvo 142, much better for long distances than the Bug. But I never cracked 1,000 miles a day in the Volvo. The best I could manage was around 950 miles.

Then I did it! I got some thousand-mile days under my belt in the pre-55 mph limit early 70s in my Porsche 914. Plenty of freeways. 75 mph speed limits in many states. A car that steered easily and had a large gas tank that allowed a (theoretical) 600-mile range between fuel stops.

Once I drove from from Albany to Seattle in three days, two of which were 1,000+ milers. On the return trip I drove more than 1,100 miles one day (Evanston, Wyoming to Columbia, Missouri), but my effort was unproductive because I was so pulverized that I slept in till 11 the next morning, shortening that day's drive considerably.

How did I hold up yesterday? Surprisingly well. I didn't get fatigued until the Olympia-Seattle leg, and that was partly due to two accident-related slowdowns. In my favor were (1) freeway driving for all but the first 15 miles of the trip, (2) speed limits generally in the 65-70 mph range, and (3) my smooth-cruisin' Chrysler 300.

But I'm curious about you. Do you think long-distance drivers are nuts? Have you any high-mileage tales to tell? Feel free to comment.



posted by Donald at October 21, 2006


My long distance drives were roughly along the route of Lewis & Clark -- between Browning, Montana, and Portland, Oregon -- because I was teaching and then married in Browning and had grown up in Portland. I traveled with a gas card and a minimum of money, so for a while I didn't take the toll bridge at Tri-Cities where the Snake joins the Columbia, just to save a couple of bucks. The drive West had the advantage of gaining an hour in the time-zone, but the disadvantage of the last part being along the Columbia River with fierce side-winds and much truck traffic. Driving was sometimes like trying to land a huge fish.

The drive East took that hour back and the last part was through Marias Pass, which could be tricky in winter, but the worst passes were the ones in Idaho.

I had the fantasy once that if I were seized by an alien who somehow had the power to rewind my memory like a tape deck and play through the whole thing, fast-forward, they would have to sit through days and days of a yellow line unspooling through the windshield.

From 1982 to 1985 I was a circuit-riding minister in Montana, serving four towns at intervals of one month or two weeks. Both time periods were long enough to notice the evolution of the seasons: one trip there would be buds, the next week leaves, the next week bigger leaves, and so on.

I liked it. I did it. I'm over it.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on October 21, 2006 11:17 PM

I made about fifteen round-trip drives between Connecticut and Florida from the mid-1980's until a couple of years ago. The first few times were okay, but as I became more and more familiar with the route it became less and less tolerable. I wouldn't mind making a long road trip, but only if it's a route I haven't driven before.

Posted by: Peter on October 21, 2006 11:34 PM

In my 20's I used to hitchhike or drive all over the country. My longest non-stop drive was from San Francisco, Ca to Houston, TX, just a hair over 2000 miles. Needless to say I was toast by the time I finally got out of the car. I sure did like the driving adventure, though, and I eventually took a job as a Greyhound bus driver. Eventually that job and even the driving got too tedious and the adventure had long before passed into annoyance. When I finally moved from CA to TX, I took the drive in three days. Having put over a million driving miles under my butt so far this life, I figure the appeal of long distance driving has been thoroughly extinguished for me.

Posted by: TxBubba on October 21, 2006 11:42 PM

I drove from Charlotte, NC to Bellingham, WA (north of Seattle) in two and a half days. That's a bit over 3,000 miles.

Remind me not to do that again. I think I actually died in the 300th mile of Montana, and was reborn as a ghost of my former self.

That's how rough it was.

Posted by: Mike on October 22, 2006 1:58 AM

I lived in Los Angeles for the last 15 years, and during that time we drove up to Olympia a couple of times a year. We'd have flown, but we were always either too poor, had too much stuff to move, or had kids (which would mean more seats in a plane). During the first five years or so, I would drive the entire way in a single shot. That was 1120 miles, and it usually took about 18 hours. My strategy was usually to leave around 8pm, after the traffic through LA and the valley had subsided, and drive through southern and middle California in the dark. Sunrise came in Redding, and it was usually a beautiful dawn driving through Lake Shasta. A good breakfast in Ashland, Oregon came around 8 or 9am. Then we'd get to Olympia around 2pm or so.

Later my wife was less comfortable with me driving all night, and I couldn't listen to loud music or audio books with the kids sleeping, so we'd leave at the same time, but get a place to stay around 1am, somewhere an hour or two shy of Sacramento. Then we'd leave around 9am and end up getting to Olympia after dark that evening. Aesthetically, I preferred the former.

This last August we relocated our lives up to Olympia, and since we were shipping our belongings up, we decided that we would drive to Olympia via Brooklyn. So we took a 35-day road trip that took us through Flagstaff, Albuquerque, Dallas, St. Louis, Dayton, Brooklyn, Buffalo, Ann Arbor, Chicago, Minneapolis, Sioux Falls, Yellowstone, Boise, Bend and Portland. Our longest legs were between Albuquerque and Dallas and between Sioux Falls and Yellowstone. I bought a GPS with Microsoft Streets and Trips for the trip and the planning was extremely easy. I was even able to tell what sorts of eats where in towns we passed, rather than rely on the fast food places that get posted on the signs before the exits. We also subscribed to Verizon's Broadband Wireless access, and I was happy to find that for 90% of our trip I had a good internet connection. I remotely manage customer servers for a living, and I troubleshot several problems while my wife drove 80mph on various interstates. We were in a Mazda MPV van.

Last Friday I drove down to Los Angeles again in my in-law's Suburban to get some things, and I practiced doing the speed limit since I knew I'd be driving back towing a trailer and I'd need to get used to going slower than the flow. I left at 8pm going south and slept three hours at a rest stop near Grant's Pass. Took another hour nap just south of Sacramento and got into LA around 8pm. Drove back up here Wednesday night and got in at 1:45am. During the last 45 minutes I was blasting Paul Simon's Graceland and trying to sing along, but I still had a few momentary blackouts coming up through Centralia. I was sorely tempted to spend the rest of the night a half an hour from home. Both ways I was able to listen to an unabridged audio book, which redeems the whole trip for me. On the way down it was Jim Wallis' God's Politics and on the way back it was Rob Bell's Velvet Elvis.

Posted by: Dave Shackelford on October 22, 2006 3:02 AM

Wow, you folks are impressive. I've had enough at the 350 mile mark. But then, I'm uncomfortable going much over 60mph.
The logistics of these long distance drives fascinates me. Let's see: 10 hours at 75mph =750 miles, and that's not taking piss calls and meals into account. Add 2 more hours and we're up to 900 miles. Isn't the body screaming for a motel room at that point? If not, I can't imagine this being done by the over 25 year old set, over 35 at the outside.

Posted by: ricpic on October 22, 2006 7:14 AM

My wife (principally) and I live outside Cincinnati and show Borzoi, usually in a region west to Chicago, north to Ann Arbor, south to Nashville and east to Pittsburgh.

We've made some longer trips for Westminster and specialty shows. Team driving, we've driven home from Goodland, Kansas (about 1000 miles) after leaving Denver the previous evening. Picking up a dog around last Thanksgiving, I made a one-day trip from Cheyenne, Wyoming about 120 miles up to Medicine Bow, turned around and got back to Des Moines, Iowa for the night, some 900 miles.

Two observations: 1) this is a magnificent country; 2) to paraphrase Robert Benchley, there's two ways to travel: first class or with dogs.

Posted by: Greg Hlatky on October 22, 2006 8:29 AM

I can remember someone boasting about driving off from one of the Swiss ski resorts, haring across to one of the Channel ports, not even catching up with his sleep on the ferry, and then racing up to Edinburgh. Just in time to perform an operation. Glad I wasn't the patient.

Posted by: dearieme on October 22, 2006 10:27 AM

When I was in college I drove from the north rim of the Grand Canyon all the way to Daytona Beach, Florida in 24 hours. I had a friend with me and we swapped off each time we grew tired. Why? Because we had run out of money and needed to get back because we could only afford fuel.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on October 22, 2006 11:19 AM

I did Route 66 with a friend a few years ago. We had 2 long days, 600 miles each day. That was enough for me. I adore road trips but that was a lot of mileage for me. Am I a wimp?

Posted by: Rhea on October 22, 2006 11:23 AM

Donald, you've inspired me to write about my cross country trips on my weblog.

Check it out, if you've got the time.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on October 22, 2006 12:06 PM

I often drive between Eugene, Oregon and Kellogg, Idaho, a small town in North Idaho's Silver Valley. Recently, under the title,"Just Leave Me Alone" I wrote this passage at my blog, :

When I leave Eugene and come back to the Silver Valley I enjoy the trip alone. When I leave the suffocating dampness and claustrophic closeness of the Willamette Valley and start east along the Columbia River with the whole basin widening and widening in tans, deep purples, and barren splendor, I feel liberated. The traffic on the Columbia River is light. The landscape is open, barely inhibited by mountains or trees. I want the stretch from The Dalles to Boardman to the I-82 interchange, north to the Tri-Cities and up and down the golden hills of the Palouse into Ritzville and on to the black pines of Cheney to last forever. I am alone with the grand open spaces of eastern Oregon and Washington stretching my mind and giving my spirit room to roam.

I'll probably make this drive again at Thanksgiving and at Christmas. I'll be with my dog. That makes the drive first class.

Posted by: raymond pert on October 22, 2006 12:10 PM

I've travelled from NYC to Detroit in 12 hrs trips numerous times. And from said NYC to Montreal and to Toronto - twice each. No motel, only service stops.

As a sleeping passenger.

Posted by: Tat on October 22, 2006 12:44 PM

My record is a hair over 800: Albuquerque to Redondo Beach.

Nowadays, I take ginormous road trips - 4000 to 5000 miles - but I spread them over two and a half weeks.

Posted by: CGHill on October 22, 2006 1:24 PM

I have a strong though inexplicable urge to drive the Trans-Taiga Road. It obviously is not a trip for the faint-hearted and would take about a week counting the time I'd need to get from Long Island and back. And there's really nothing to see. So logically, there's no point whatsoever in making the trip. But I still want to do it.

Posted by: Peter on October 22, 2006 3:09 PM

Geez, that's crazy. I would not want to be behind the wheel unless I am completely alert. That is why all my cross-country driving has always involved a second driver in which we alternated four hour shifts.

Posted by: sya on October 22, 2006 3:56 PM

My longest single day was from Houston to Denver, something like 1100 miles.

This summer I drove about 9000 miles in a 5 week roadtrip, hitting points between Vancouver, Calgary, Salt Lake City, and San Fran.

Posted by: ptm on October 22, 2006 9:07 PM

I'm impressed by your mileage, Donald. I think my solo max is around 500. I've driven coast to coast 4 times (3x solo), up and down the West coast a few times and up and down the East coast more times than I can count.

I'm actually in the midst of blogging one of my coast to coast treks now. Michael linked one of the days in 'elsewhere' a while back for my photos. In each x-country case, I was moving with a car full of stuff, but I loved the chance to explore. Those trips ranged from 6 days to 6 months.

I can drive for 12 or so hrs, but I prefer to keep it around 8. When I have several consecutive days of driving to do, I like to take a short day (say 3-4 hrs) every 3rd day or so to check something out along the way.

My most difficult drive was from Tallahassee, FL to Atlanta, GA (google maps says over 6 hrs, but I think we did it in 5). Then we did 10 hrs of pickup shoots and then we drove back to Tally. Even splitting the driving with my friend, it was tough. At one point he told me he thought he'd just fallen asleep while driving, so I struggled through the last hour while he crashed out.

Posted by: claire on October 22, 2006 9:24 PM

Tomorrow (Monday) I head south to California. This time I plan to break the trip into two segments because I have some business to attend to in Olympia and possibly Portland. Since I might be out of blogging action for a day or two, here are replies to some of the comments.

Mary -- Sounds like all of your driving was on secondary roads. I'm cautious of them and exclude them from "fast" trips whenever possible. But they're usually more interesting to drive.

Peter -- Yeah. I used to get pretty bored with I-5 back in 1980-95 when I drove four or so round trips on it per year. At least I finally memorized all the decent places to stop en route. Imagine being a Greyhound driver doing routes over and over and over.

TxBubba -- I mention Greyhound driving and up you pop! Your million miles has me beat by close to 400K.

Mike -- I know the feeling.

Dave -- There are too many trucks afoot in CA nowadays for this to work well, but my fave strategy on transcontinental trips was to hit the road each day before 5. That way I could zoom along in light traffic till I stopped for breakfast around 7. Then I'd grind all day and find a motel before 7 p.m. (before they filled). I did do an all-nighter once, but don't like doing it for safety reasons -- it's easier to stay awake in daylight.

BTW, I just moved from Oly a couple months ago after spending 31+ years there.

ricpic -- I'm ages and ages past 25, but still manage it so long as I'm on freeways, the speed limit is high and I have a good car. Absent those factor and I'd likely crumble pretty fast.

Greg -- Team driving is a great help. Glad you love seeing the country.

dearieme -- I'd say the story was farfetched except that one day I left the south side of Lake Geneva at 7 a.m. and dropped off the car at Paris' CDG airport six hours later. So, in theory, if I left Switzerland at 4 a.m., I could drop a car and catch a noon Chunnel train that would put me in London by 1:40 p.m. (time zone change gives back an hour). On the road by 3 p.m. from London would allow arrival in Scotland before midnight. So he could have done the trip if he'd had all the details arranged.

Charlton -- Reminds me of the time I rode a 2nd Class coach from Kyoto to Yokohama. I had just enough Yen to get me from the Yokohama station to Kishine Barracks on a commuter train. So I starved the entire day, not being able to afford food.

Rhea -- You likely have more sense than I do.

Thomas -- I'll check out the link when I finish my trip. Thanks for the tip.

raymond -- I'm a wet-sider and all that semi-arid landscape is a little scary.

Tat -- Now you're a gal who knows the best way to travel. Do you sleep in airplanes too? And if so, what's the secret of doing it? -- I wish I could do better than cat-napping.

CG -- Ah, yet another sensible traveler.

sya -- Ditto.

ptm -- 5,000? In 5 weeks? You must be retired. That sounds fun to me, but perhaps not to my short-range-loving wife.

claire -- Years ago returning to Ft. Meade, MD from NYC I nodded off twice during the same drive through the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel. Talk about being nuts...

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on October 22, 2006 10:25 PM

May, mid-1990s: upon finishing my last senior-year college final exam, jumped into my already-packed car and drove from DC-area Maryland to Carlsbad, NM to visit then-girlfriend's parents (she flew there a few days later).

Because of the prior two nights of little or no sleep (papers to hand in) I pulled over in on I-66 in Virginia to catch a nap, but woke up after an hour as the early afternoon sum heated up the car's interior.

Then, somewhere east of Knoxville, TN, pulled over around 2 a.m. after I caught myself nodding off. Woke up after two hours with a chill as the nioght got quite cold.

Memphis by sunrise, northern Oklahoma by early afternoon to stop at a cemetary as a favor for someone. Finally, in north-central Texas, indulged in a motel stay. Carlsbad the next afternoon.

Posted by: PA on October 23, 2006 8:41 AM

My 13.5 hour drive (11pm - 12:30pm) in March 1982, returning from a college spring break in Wilton, Connecticut (while staying with a high-school friend, I paid a visit to the then 87-year-old Henry Hazlitt across town) to Hillsdale (Michigan) College, chewing a Vivarin (TM) caffeine tab at the giddyap - "God, this is bitter," I thought as I chewed the acrid yellow tabs en route to shooting great Niagaras of caffeine fumes from my nostrils, comparing my presumed expression years later to William Blake's "Head of a Damned Soul" (after Fuseli). As dawn broke across the Pennsylvania Turpike stretch, I found sitting "Indian fashion" (now styled "Native American fashion" among those shaving with Rebarbasol [TM]) while driving in the right lane quite to my liking, amid hundreds of passing trucks.

In September 2001, I drove 20.5 hours (6:30 pm Mountain - 5pm Eastern) from Golden, Colorado to an early exit off the Ohio Turnpike (I-80).

In March 2002, my planned drive from Lansing, Michigan to Golden, Colorado (en route to an interview further northwest, in Port Townsend, Washington) ended at about 4am on I-80 about two hours west of Des Moines when a belt on my 1993 Toyota Camry snapped at about the end of its appointed 60k-lifespan, leaving me to enjoy for about six hours straight the very cream of the trucker's and ag portions of the AM band, while rationing heat amid fugitive catnaps prior to a phone-company van's stop around 10am and call for a tow-truck, which resulted in a two-hour tow east to Greater Des Moines after the local garage proved bereft of the required belt upon diagnosis.

In October 2002, I drove 30.5 hours straight (11am Mountain - 6:30 pm Central), from somewhere in Nevada to Fergus Falls, Minnesota, after a drive to Nevada from West Hollywood the day before. I remember the desert interstate being a Martian landscape of discarded carbon-based (in shell and in content alike) beverage bottles.

In early 2003, Jim Bohannon devoted a segment of his late-night AM radio chatfest to the subject of long-distance drives, and, suffering from LDD myself and bungful of the crossbone-taunting episodes above, I phoned JimBo. His on-air skepticism toward my sanity was memorable. I told him I did those drives to save a night's motel bill each time. He informed me that funerals are more expensive still. I wish I had taped that call.

In April 2004, I drove again about 30.5 hours straight (about 12 noon till 6:30 pm), from Marquette, Michigan to Manchester, New Hampshire, including a few hours of local housing reconaissance once in New Hampshire on the second day.

I used to stop for food at whichever Wal-Mart beckoned from the interstate, picking up canned mackerel ($.69) or pink salmon ($1.19) and canned turnip greens ($.69), three of the most nutrient-broad-and-deep food bargains extant, and eat them while driving with the aid of a cheap can opener, plastic spoon and cruise control.

I resolve to stay put in future, get in touch with my inner front-porch anarchist/crunchy-con - and put Big Oil, Big Highway, Big Canned-Omega-3-Fish-and-Veg and Big Caffeine's OTC Division out of business forever.

"So. Now vee may perhaps to begin. Yes?" - "THE PUNCH LINE," Portnoy's Complaint by Philip Roth

Posted by: Scott Lahti on October 23, 2006 8:58 AM

My brother in law and his wife live in Salt Lake City, we live in Central California. We did the drive there and back in one day, each, with our 3 kids last Thanksgiving. That's 650 miles, about 11 hours with multiple stops. Since the roads are so straight and desolate, we were going 90 most of the time.

900 miles, though, is nuts.

Posted by: the patriarch on October 23, 2006 10:40 AM

It dawned on me that in the year I've owned my current car (a 2006 Subaru Forester), the most distant point to which I've driven has been LaGuardia Airport, which is maybe 45 miles from where I live. And the next most distant point is probably about 30 miles. Yet I've mananged to put on just about 15,000 miles in this year.

Posted by: Peter on October 23, 2006 11:15 AM

Donald, there is no secret. Sometimes I sleep because I trust the driver, sometimes - out of pure exhaustion of being alert if I don't trust him. Sleeping in planes goes along similar lines.

In both cases - nothing depends on me and I can't change the outcome, so it does pay to simply relax and enjoy the ride.

You know, like in that old joke, advice to women being raped.

Posted by: Tat on October 23, 2006 11:40 AM

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