Friday, February 22, 2013

Road Trip (Day 3 of 4): Nebraska, Wyoming and Nevada

On Tuesday morning we woke up at 4:30am so as to have a good start on the day's travel and so were up and out well before sunrise. Along the way we had planned to see a couple of notable landmarks including a tree than seemed to be growing right out of the middle of a rock and a giant head of Abraham Lincoln at one of the rest stops.

Tree (in a treeless landscape) that is apparently growing right out of solid rock.

Abraham Lincoln, Laramie, WY

By midday the scenery was definitely transitioning to more plains with mountains in the distance. The highlight of my Wyoming scenery tour was seeing several bands of wild horses, one of which was right next to the highway, as well as a herd of antelope. Unfortunately, getting your camera out and taking a clear shot while going 75 mph is not easy so I have barely any photodocumentation. 
Wild Horse Band #2 of 4 that we saw, and one of the only ones I got a semi-decent picture of...the first ones were literally right next to the fence, but I completely forgot that the wild horses were in this area so I was too caught off guard to snap a shot before we passed them by and the rest were much farther from the road.
A third larger band, silhouetted on the horizon line

Lots of oil drilling in WY
We also discovered that gas stations out west offer Regular 85 octane gas instead of Regular 87 (so instead of 87, 91 and 93 they had 85, 87 and 91). We only realized this after a couple of "regular" fillups. Ooops! I'm sure it impacted our gas mileage a bit but at least it wouldn't kill the car, and now we knew for the future. At least we didn't make the mistake of filling up with E85, the ethanol-based fuel for FlexFuel cars!

Entering into Utah we started seeing a lot of the flat-topped buttes this area is famous for and as we continued west the scenery became more and more mountainous as we neared the Rockies. These buttes really do look like someone lopped the top off a mountain. It's strange because they seemed to spring up out of nowhere, everywhere else remaining completely flat and barren. When we passed next to some of them you could see the striations of the different red layers in the rocks, which was very cool.

By the time we reached the Rockies we were ready for a scenery change and boy did those mountains deliver! Coming down out of Salt Lake City, Utah we encountered a horizon that looked just like the Coors Light can. Breathtaking! We stopped on the side of the road to look at the Great Salt Lake as well but it was pretty foggy as that winter storm was starting to roll in so no real good pictures of that.
Rocky Mountains

When we reached the edge of Utah and Nevada we came upon some of the most surreal stretches of land I've ever seen. There was a two-lane road in each direction separated and surrounded by completely flat, very slightly flooded plains which made it feel like you were driving out into the middle of a vast expanse of open water. Devoid of any kind of trees or brush, with the only landmark anywhere you looked being the fog-shrouded mountains in the distance, it was a bit creepy. The fact that these mountains never seemed to get any closer nor the scenery change at all even after driving dead straight for 45 minutes to an hour only added to the illusion. The only break from all of this was a random Tree of Utah sculpture just chilling on the side of the road. Weird.

Finally we reached a pull-off in the middle of the Bonneville Salt Flats, which was to be our last scenic stop for the day. Apparently this area is the concentrated salt remains of a huge Paleolithic lake that used to cover the entire area (and is the reason why we were traveling for so long through such a flat basin). Now the remaining salt lies in a concentrated 30 square mile patch anywhere from a few inches to a foot or more deep. In the summer it is actually completely dry (although it was slightly wet when we saw it due to the higher water tables throughout Utah right now) and there is a pure white salt desert as far as your eye can see. They actually do all the official record time trials across the flats because they are so smooth and uniform. I wish we could have seen it during a drier time so we could have walked out on the flats themselves but you can still see all the salt collecting at the edges and accumulating on the rocks. When we were there, if you looked down into the water, all you saw was a ground of salt. Pretty cool.

When we reached the other side of the salt flats we had crossed into Nevada and figured we'd stop soon for the night. We had noticed a small band of snow on the weather radar but it was a thin band, maybe 20 miles wide, that was projected to only drop an inch of snow so we didn't think much of it. Also, we were traveling against the direction of the storm so we figured we'd have to deal with it for 15-30 minutes and then we'd be clear. What we didn't count on was the fact that Nevada highways are not lighted and you're literally out in the middle of nowhere most of the time; the exits are at least 30 miles apart so once you make the commitment to take the highway you're kind of stuck.

The snow started out with thick and wet flakes, which didn't stick to the ground but made visibility very poor as the headlights reflected off of what looked like a solid wall of snow. We were fine going slow with our hazards on and hugging the right side (there was no shoulder), but the trucks that shared the road were not so kind. At one point we almost got run off the highway by an ignorant trucker who was determined to take his half out of the middle while continuing to go 60mph so we decided to pull over at the first exit we saw and wait for the visibility to improve.

After about 30 minutes the snow appeared to let up a bit so, assuming that meant it was almost past, we headed back on the highway. As luck would have it we ended up behind a couple of plows. This was a good thing because although the going was slow, no one could blow by us and pass them and we were driving on freshly plowed pavement. We figured we'd follow them as long as possible and, if it got dicey, we could just follow them off an exit. Slow going, but very safe. Unfortunately after about 10 miles they must have reached the edge of their range so they pulled off in a turn-around and went back the other direction, deserting us in what was now about an inch or two of piling snow on the highway and 30 miles from the nearest exit. Awesome. Since there was nowhere to go but forward, not even a shoulder to pull off on, we had no choice but to keep going. Finally we reached a truck pull-off and, feeling very stupid for trusting the local radar, pulled over to evaluate our options. At this point the snow was starting to drift and stick; plus the trucks were still being jerks since they were heavy enough to drive just fine.

Following the plows
After sitting at the pull-off for a few minutes and consulting our GPS we realized there was a rest stop 9 miles up the road and a town exit about 4 miles before that, so if we got nervous we could pull off there. Rather than wait for it to worsen, we decided that since there was hardly any traffic now we were better off trying to make it to a more stable resting point. Honestly we felt perfectly safe to drive, it was everyone else we were worried about. When we approached the town exit conditions were difficult to see but not super slippery so we opted to push on to the rest stop. Of course, keeping in line with our current luck for the evening, the rest stop was one 42 miles! Seriously!? Of all the rest stops we'd encountered this entire trip, this was the only one that was closed. Now we were getting nervous. It was near whiteout conditions by this point with nowhere to pull over and the snow was getting colder so it was blowing and drifting onto the roadway making things slick. With no other choices, we had to press on. I put on the flashers, kept it in low gear and hoped for the best.

It felt like forever but miraculously after about 30 minutes the snow suddenly lessened, then stopped completely and we were back up to 75mph as if nothing had ever happened. Not even a flake on the road! I was incredibly drained after driving through all of that and we were both really ready to make it to the hotel and into bed. Not only was I mentally exhausted from the stressfulness and extreme concentration needed to drive in the snow, but the difficult weather also added several hours to the total time spent in the car that day (which was already one of our longer days). Winnemucca, like every other town in Nevada, was a cheesy casino town with sketchy lights and even sketchier motels, but luckily our hotel (while nothing special) was at least clean and secure (although the host at the desk was a dead ringer for Milton from Office Space, kinda amusing). After two quick showers we went right to bed, looking forward to starting our final leg of the journey the next morning and hoping our bad luck would have run out by then...

Winnemucca, NV


  1. Gorgeous pictures!! I've only seen the western states from an airplane, and needless to say, it doesn't do them justice! Enjoy the rest of your trip!

  2. very neat! The mountains are gorgeous.

  3. So I definitely keep trying to find a "like" button for your pictures... FACEBOOK HAS FINALLY TAKEN OVER MY BRAIN!

  4. You weren't too far away from me but the road for Portland doesn't quite go through my little town! Glad you were safe. NV has weird snow storms.

  5. I definitely was blown away by all the beautiful scenery we went through, although I felt like I was "one of those people" taking pictures of EVERYTHING. Glad you guys enjoyed the pictures as much as I enjoyed taking them. What an experience!