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Thursday, January 30, 2014

Road Trips: Passing Time in the Passing Lane

Some of our favorite places are really far away and finding things to pass the time as we roll along can be a challenge. Over the years we've found a few things to combat the monotony of the road.

Almost every trip we take starts at sunrise.
(Richmond/San Rafael Bridge)
We start out with the radio: flipping through to find the local stations is always interesting. We had the blue and red states pegged back in the 80s, long before Fox News, just by listening to the local talk radio in the areas we traveled. Country music and Spanish stations are the most prevalent in the central valley of California as they are in most of the agricultural areas on our side of the Rockies. Utah tends to drift more toward religious programs and pop music, Arizona (apparently) loves a talk show. A trip through Canada once revealed a fantastic station that we theorized was broadcast out of some guy's garage; Benny Goodman's "In the Mood" was followed by the Eagles "Take It Easy" which was followed by Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love" and Beethoven's "Pastoral" symphony. We were on the edge of our seats waiting to hear what he'd play next and were pretty upset when we lost the signal.

Sadly, it seems local radio programs are disappearing across the country. On our road trip home from Nebraska last summer, it was hard to find anything that wasn't part of some kind of national programming, another casualty of conglomeration and homogenization. Some of the more remote places we've been don't have any radio reception at all; because of this, we've resorted to podcasts saved up for the trip. One of our favorites is Wait Wait Don't Tell Me, an NPR news quiz show. They're funny and help pass the time, although sometimes it's a little strange to hear "breaking news" questions from six months ago. Books on tape are always good, and I've always wanted to try learning a language. Then maybe we could understand those radio stations in the valley...

Teakettle Junction, on the way to the Racetrack, Death Valley
We play little games we've made up over the years. One, called "Hard Questions" we stole from our niece: "Would you rather go blind or deaf?" or "Would you rather eat a rattlesnake or a scorpion?" is always a good one when we're getting hungry. And there's always the double barreled "Would you remarry after I die or pine away for me the rest of your life?" Silly, I know, but it can get pretty interesting when you have to justify your choice.

One particularly long and boring drive we made between Minnesota and California we resorted to flipping through the atlas and quizzing each other on the capitol cities, official state 'things' (birds, minerals, flowers, etc.) and population sizes. Out of desperation we actually learned something, dredging into our 7th grade geography memory banks to help find the answers.

What counts as traffic on many of the backroads through the desert.
Exercise is hard to come by in the cab of a truck, and keeping the blood flowing (not to mention to keep from falling asleep at the wheel) requires creativity. Foot flexes (the driver is required to set cruise control first to avoid sickening the passenger with the acceleration changes) are always good, as are arm stretches and ab crunches. We choose landmarks for the start and finish, and make rules about the duration of the exercise. On one memorable trip on a particularly straight stretch on California's Highway 5, our rule was "start at the next sign and keep going until the next exit." Little did we know we would be doing butt squeezes for ten miles (exits are few and far between on some sections of that road.) That was one of the few trips we had muscle soreness from the drive and not the hike.

Always keep an eye on the road. You never know what you might see.
Of course, just sitting back and watching the scenery roll by has it's attractions. You never know what you might see along the road; we spotted a rare wolverine on the Dalton Highway in Alaska, and we've seen countless bear, deer and moose along the roads in the northern states. We've seen a cow tied up in the bed of a pickup truck, one frayed rope away from falling onto the street; a goat in the back seat of a Crown Victoria; horses pooping out the back of their trailers, road apples bouncing along at freeway speeds. We've even had an 18-wheeler blow a tire right next to us on the freeway (that's enough to wake you up in the early morning.)

Our fellow travelers are sometimes the most entertaining; we've passed (or been passed by) people we eventually meet up with at the next rest stop. Once in a while we find ourselves camping next to the very same people. It's fun to hear how far they came and where they're going; the added benefit is getting a few great tips about things we otherwise would have missed from these folks.

The official start to the Alaskan Highway,
Dawson Creek, BC
1523 miles later at the other end,
Fairbanks, AK

All of this is a small price to pay to get to the marvelous places that can be found in North America. We're lucky enough to live within a few hundred miles of some really fantastic parks, and within a two-day drive of even more. I'd trade a little boredom for outdoor adventure anytime.

So here's a Hard Question for you:
Would you rather go on an eight hour road trip, or go to work and sit in front of your computer all day?

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