Jul 5, 2005

The Trip Report

This trip started with me picking up Mikey at the Denville NJ Transit station a few miles west of I-287 on I-80. He works in the city, and I knew that the best option for getting on the road as fast as possible is to have him take the train out of Penn as soon as he gets off work at 7pm. He works in Tribeca, so it's a pretty quick train ride on the 2/3 from Chambers to 34th street, so all he has to do is grab a 7:30 train out of there and have me pick him up at a good place along the route where we were to drive. We had tried this once before, and the town we chose was called Boonton. The trainride for him, however, took forever because he had to switch trains twice. This time I chose Denville, which is a couple exits out on I-80, because it looked like a more direct route and it was an express stop. Turns out that this was a much better choice than Boonton because of its relative ease without any stops and straightforward street directions. It only took him an hour; we were on the road by 9PM.

The first stop for gas was right before the Delaware Water Gap in New Jersey. Mike ran in to get something to eat and I waited for the guy to come pump gas. He wasn't coming. Now, New Jersey has a law where you're actually not allowed to pump your own gas - I attempted to break this stupid law but it wouldn't let me because our missing attendant had shut off the pumps when he left. So I went inside to take a leak and meet with Mike, who had ordered a mini pizza from a pizza hut inside. Well, understaffing seems to be a problem at this station because it took about 15 minutes for him to get his pizza - the woman, who was by herself, merely had to put the thing on a conveyer belt. I went outside to see if the gas pumper had returned; he had not. So I figured I would go someplace else to get gas. Now I was in a hurry to get as much done as possible and therefore eager to get this disaster of a stop over with, and I found myself waiting for Mike's pizza to be ready. So as soon as we walked outside, the gas attendant came back and turned the pumps back on. We were able to get gas there after all and I was set to accomplish my first goal of the trip: driving across Pennsylvania without stopping on I-80.

Now this sounds like a strange goal, and the reason it sounds that way is because it is, in fact, strange. However, don't ask me why, but stopping for whatever reason, even if it's just for a few seconds to take a piss, seems to add hours to the time it takes to complete a trip. So the best way to speed up the time to finish a roadtrip is to stop as seldom as possible. One way to accomplish this is to have a goal when entering a state to avoid stopping until you've crossed over into the next state. This is particularly useful when the crossing is on an interstate that spans several hundred miles while crossing the state, and requires endurance and luck - luck because by my rules, even slow traffic would count as a stop. This had happened a few years ago while on a roadtrip with Landis. We were driving back from Cleveland, and I had this same goal of crossing PA without stopping on I-80, this time westbound. The total distance is about 310 miles. We had gone about 270 before a traffic stop that had momentarily closed the highway screwed up my goal. Now, with the intent of getting to Campbell Hill before dawn, it was crucial to me to log miles quickly and PA's 310 were as good miles as any.

Nothing bad happened and we were in Ohio by 2:00am Saturday. I was going strong when we made a stop a few miles inside the Ohio border for gas and munchies for Mike. I was hoping I wouldn't need any coffee the first night, because drinking some would make it less effective on the second night of driving. I woke up at 7am on Friday morning and wasn't able to get any sleep during the day - otherwise normally I would have no problem making it through that first night of driving, and I never have problems driving in the daytime. This night, however, I thought I might need something and, sure enough, at about 4AM I made a stop for some coffee about an hour outside of Columbus. Not normally drinking coffee, this turned out to be a shot of jet fuel for me - I felt like I just had a runner's high-esque endorphin rush and it was almost frustrating to be just sitting there driving instead of going for a run. Unfortunately, this came at cost of reduced endurance the next night.

Ohio

It wasn't completely dark by the time we arrived in Bellefontaine (pronounced Bell Fountain). The first bits of twilight were upon us, but for all intents and purposes it was still nighttime. I had a bit of a mixed reaction to this - It was later than I hoped it would be, but it was also going to be enough light to have some decent photographs. Bellefontaine is in the western part of the state, so I couldn't complain too much, so if I needed a rationalization for the tardiness, that was it. It wasn't until we left that there was enough light to get decent photos, but the flash photos weren't bad.

So this highpoint is located at a vocational school called the Hi Point Career Center, and there was some concern as to access. The author of the highpointers coffee table book, Joel Glickman, wrote under the heading for the Ohio entry as "highpointing Monday to Friday." There is a fence surrounding the center and a gate at the vehicular entrance, which is locked on weekends. If you want to come here during the week, but if you're coming on the weekends you're supposed to call ahead and ask them to leave the gate unlocked. When I called at 3:10pm on Friday, they had already left for the long weekend. In my research, however, I had read about a pedestrian gate that was not locked somewhere else on the campus. So I was prepared to walk around the perimeter of the place looking for this gate. When I arrived, I found that the main gate was locked. It turns out that this pedestrian gate is about 100 feet to the left of the vehicle gate. It's hard to make out in this photo, but the open pedestrian gate is on the left and the vehicular gate is on the right. It didn't look as though the pedestrian gate had been locked in a while. We proceeded up the hill and started shooting photographs. At the summit ,there is a benchmark, a flagpole, a veteran'hs monument, two signs saying that you're at the highest point of Ohio, and a summit register contained inside a brick column with a very smelly and loud generator running something other than the lights that were attached to it.

Mike was starting to show signs of fatigue. He had slept a few hours during the overnight drive and had coffee when I did, but because of other commitments, he was starting out after a week lacking sleep. He would have been happy to nap on the grass outside fence - but the passenger seat of my car had to do because we had to scurry on over to Indiana. I, on the other hand, was still on my 4AM caffeine high. The time when we left was before 6am, and the sun was just about to rise.

Indiana

As his eagle scout project, a boy scout from Kentucky named Kyle Cummings had recently taken on the task of renovating Hoosier Hill, the highest point in Indiana. Apparently, it was in pretty bad shape. There was a pathetic fence surrounding the area, with an old, rusted, dangerous stepstool-like staircase going up, over, and back down over the 3-foot high fence. The 50-foot access road was unmaintained, and the summit area was a mess. Kyle had completely cleaned up the area. The fence and staircase were removed, a new sign was erected, a short nature trail was cut, a register was installed, picnic tables were added, and the driveway was covered in gravle. He had most of the materials he needed donanted, had friends helping out, and really made Hoosier Hill a pleasant place to visit.

When we arrived at 7:30am, the sun was rising behind the small group of trees surrounding the highpoint. Endless acres of farm surrounded the trees. The rise to the summit from the parking area was about 5 feet. The length of the walk was maybe 30 feet. The air was crisp and cool, and I was still energized from my 4am coffee. Mike was hurting.

It didn't take long to get to Hoosier Hill; it's within 5 miles of the Ohio border. Rural farmland is something that is completely new to me, so the drive went by quickly. Kyle did a great job renovating the highpoint, but it's still a nondescript hill in Indiana that nobody would ever notice if not for the fact that it happened to be the state's highest point. This point is just not interesting. There is no energizing hike to get to it, no whimsical monument, no reason to hang around. Mike wrote in the log that he wants a heavenly bed, referring to the ultra-comfy bedding at Westin Hotels. A more interesting highpoint would have distracted him from his fatigue. We spent maybe 20 minutes there and moved on.

Illinois

Warning to any highpointers that want to make the humble trek from Indiana to Illinois in their highpointing adventures: though it doesn't look that far on a map, it takes a LONG-ASS time to drive between them. I think my GPS told me it was 333 miles as the crow flies between the highpoints, and we drove most of it on relatively direct interstates. Yet for some reason it took about 7 hours to get to Hoosier Hill to Charles Mound, and our only long stop was for about 30 minutes. That was neat; we set up a backpacking stove, boiled water and ate camping food. If this trip did anything for me, it gave me an appreciation of how large the states of Illinois and Michigan are (more about Michigan later). Plus it's pretty mundane - this is a part of the country that is pretty flat, and all farm. I must have seen a million acres of corn alone on this trip. I wasn't feeling particularly tired at this point in the trip, but the sleep deprivation was definitely affecting my sanity. The part of my brain that considers a possible threat as safe stops working - and I start to mistake objects on the side of the road - rocks, mailboxes, trees - as things that can potentially make the trip bad. For example, from a distance, before you can positively identify it, a mailbox sometimes looks like a deer. Now I saw plenty of real deer on this trip (almost hit one - see Michigan for that story), but I saw a lot more mailboxes that I thought were deer. I got to the point where I became a nervous wreck because every time I saw a mailbox - which was every ten seconds - I would scare myself into thinking a deer was about to jump in front of the car. As time went on, this condition got worse - and a worst-case scenario mindset took over. At one point, I thought that a tree on the side of the interstate was a green bigfoot - and in the 2 seconds before I realized that I was going nuts, I was about to panic.

Well, at times like these, there is one solution: Red Bull. I used to drink Red Bull before anyone knew what it was. I was first exposed to it circa 1997 when a friend told me about the awesome benefits of drinking a Red Bull when programming a computer late into the night. I tried it and was quickly hooked. Within a couple of years, everyone was drinking it in California. When I moved to New York in 1999, Red Bull hadn't arrived on the scene yet - so I would mail order it from web sites such as getredbull.com - a resource for Red Bull drinkers living in areas where it was not available. Within a couple of years, however, Red Bull made it into the New York market and soon everyone was drinking it. Now Red Bull is available everywhere, even in gas stations in tiny crack-towns in northwestern Illinois. Well, to preserve it's potency, I treat Red Bull like caffeine. I almost never drink it unless I really need it - that way when I really need it, it really works well. This time was no exception. I was on a red bull high for hours - and I was sharp as a tack. There were no hallucinations anymore, I was wide awake, and energized like a hummingbird. I also felt a sense of euphoric happiness - almost like the sensation of being drunk, except without the disorientation and lack of judgement. My Red Bull high was awesome. So back to Illinois:

One of the surprises about this trip to Illinois was Dixon, an otherwise unspectacular farming town among dozens of unspectacular farming towns in Northwestern Illinois. Here is how these towns work: in between them, everyone drives about 70MPH. In them, everyone drives 25MPH. So driving through the area is an exercise of a few minutes of fast driving, followed by a few minutes of slow driving, followed by a few more minutes of fast, ad infinitum. What made Dixon different, besides it's unusually large size (it had at least 2 main streets instead of one) was the sign at the edge of town that said it was Ronald Reagan's birthplace. Now I'm a YAFer and to a YAFer Ronald Reagan is a pretty cool guy. I remember that he had been born in a rural town somewhere in the midwest but I had no idea that I would accidently drive through this town on my travels to a highpoint. So to me, this was a pleasant surprise, actually worth briefly stopping for. We went to the boyhood home of Ronald Reagan, took a few pictures. Spent maybe 10 minutes - we would have liked to have gone inside but the reality of the time it was taking to get to Charles Mound was really setting in. We made a quick stop on the way out of town to take a picture next to the sign and then we were out of there.

Charles Mound is a privately owned highpoint. It is one of only two highpoints that are closed to the public most of the time; the other is Jerimoth Hill, Rhode Island. It only is open on the first weekend of the four summer months, and the timing of this particular trip was set to coincide with this restriction. Another rule they've imposed is the requirement that you must park at the end of their driveway and walk up to the house. Not a big deal, except that their driveway is about a mile long. To a guy who had been sitting in a car most of the last 20 hours, I was eager to go out and get some exercise - though anxious to keep going to get to the next highpoint. It's not a long walk - less than a mile, maybe 300 feet of gain, so it probably was perfect. Just enough to give us a little exercise, but not so much that it delayed us too much.

Not that the I didn't enjoy this highpoint, but this is one that I have absolutely no desire to go back too. Joe Glickman wrote in To the Top that when he was on Sassafras Mountain, his quest to climb the 50 state highpoints felt "contrived." That is how I felt when I finally arrived at Charles Mound. Too remote, too much time, too unspectacular. Not that I didn't like the highpoint itself. It had a nice view of Wisconsin, the border being less than a quarter mile north. The hike up was short but invigorating. There were some chairs set up to relax. There were some great photo opportunities. And we had the summit to ourselves. I thought I'd see more people here, this being an open access weekend. I did see some people there - an truck with Washington plates was there when we arrived, I can safely assume it belonged to the two gentleman walking back down the hill on our way up; we didn't talk to them. On our way down we saw a woman who must have missed the memo about parking at the end of the driveway; she was parked almost all the way up by the house and had two cameras with her. It was clear that english was not her first language. Then a little further down, we passed a family - two parents, two kids - who thought that we had a pretty good chance of making it to Timms hill, Wisconsin by dark. They were really cool. Then, closer to the bottom, we chatted with a slightly older couple from Wisconsin who loved highpointing, but had no desire to climb Rainier. My wife wishes I was more like them. Then at the bottom, I freed the last available parking spot for a group in a van with Colorado plates. I noted that he had traveled as far as we had, and that was it. We were on our way to Wisconsin.

Wisconsin

When I was planning this trip, the only thing I knew for sure was that I was going to go to Illinois and Indiana. I wasn't so sure about Ohio because of the weekend access issues at Campbell Hill, but I did think I was going to go to Iowa. After we would go south to Missouri, and then maybe to Alabama - it's the last state in the south that we don't have. But since the drive to Illinois was taking so damn long, I wanted to go someplace that wouldn't take us as far from home. We decided to go north to Wisconsin, leave Minnesota's 8-mile hike for another time, and pick up Michigan instead. We are advised while on Charles Mound that we could possibly make it to Timm's Hill by dark, but I knew that we had to go fast to get there in time. We briefly stopped for lunch outside Madison Wisconsin, then got back on an interstate (after all the farm roads, I missed the fast driving on interstates) and hightailed it up to Tomahawk, WI, where Harley Davidson manufacturs their Tomahawk motorcycles. I really would have liked to get a picture of that, but the sun was not too high above the horizon and we were still 30 miles from Timm's Hill. We were in a terrible rush.

When we finally arrived the park, the sun had set, but the twilight was such that there was still plenty of light to take pictures - but that wasn't going to last long. With the low light, high pressure, and unclear map, we had a couple of turnarounds on the way to the hill. It was frustrating. We finally got there, rushed out of the car and up the hill.

This was neat for me - the walk up was about the same length and gain as the walk up to the summit of Mt. Mitchell from its parking area - but I had lost about 40 lbs since I visited Mitchell - and I practically ran up to the top without hardly breaking a sweat. I would even had time to put on some DEET and don the headnet, but since I didn't, I was eaten alive up there. There were a couple of people walking down when we arrived at the top, but we didn't talk to them other than to say, "hi." On Illinois, you know that everyone you meet is a highpointer, on Wisconsin, they might just have been locals - you don't know. The summit contains an enourmous observation tower, probably 100 feet high, with really nice views of northern Wisconsin from the top. Mike, afraid of heights, was scared but he made it to the top for some photos, just like Pennsylvania. The light was getting low, so we didn't spend much more than the time it took to shoot the photographs and get out of there. The actual highpoint, marked with a USGS benchmark on a short concrete column, was underneath a microwave relay tower adjacent to the observation tower. We took every appropriate photograph we had time for, and left, in much less of a hurry than when we arrived.

Michigan

A little more advice: when sleep-deprived in Rhinelander, Wisconsin, an hour from Timm's Hill, and you want to pull over to take a nap, please pull over on the side of a road, or maybe at a gas station - but don't do it at Pioneeer Park. That is what the police officer told me after a midnight knock on my window. When I had pulled into the playground's parking lot, it was after 11:00PM, I had been up for about 40 hours, driving for 28 hours straight, and covered about 1600 miles. If you will, join me in my noodle for a second, because here is how I remember it. At some point, I woke up enough to look out the indow and see a white car parked on space away from mine in the same park. There was a hand pressed against the back window. I remember waking up twice, seeing that both time, and saying to myself, "a car with a hand pressed up against the back window", and in a tired stupor, not considering anything about it or recognizing its significance. The next thing I remember is the police officer knocking on my window. I turned the key and opened the window, noticing that Mike was already awake. She said that I can't sleep here, and asked for our ID. I didn't know where I was, but I shuffled through my wallet and gave it to her - and cringed because I thought that I was only a few miles from home in Suffern, New York and was about to try to come up with an exuse as to why I was sleeping in the car instead of driving home. SHe took the IDs and went back to her car. Then Mike said something that started to put my brain back on track. 30 seconds after being woken up, I finally remembered that I was in Northern Wisconsin, 1000 miles from home. I then looked over to the white car to my left as Mike mentioned that the two high-school aged kids chain-smoking in the front seat were caught having sex - Mike apparently witnessed the cop talking to them before coming to our car. This was starting to get amusing, and if I wasn't so tired I might have tried to talk to them for laughs. Maybe it was a good thing I was so tired - I couldn't think of anything to do but just look at them while I was sitting there waiting for the cop to return with our drivers licenses. When she finally did come back, she said "You're not from around here so you just go up that road and turn left and you can find a gas station to sleep at." I then noticed the picture on Mike's license - which was from before he cleaned up. It's unfortunate that I don't have a scan of his old license, but lets just say he looked like someone out of Requiem for a Dream in his photo. Without hesitation, I went to a gas station, topped off the tank, pulled into a parking spot, and went to sleep.

It was 3:30AM when I woke up, turned the key, and took off. This is why I like sleeping in the car, instead of hotels, while on these roadtrips. There's not much room for procrastination. 4 hours of power-napping is plenty for another long day of driving - and this day would be long. We were headed for Mt. Arvon, Mighigan, a spot outside a town called L'Anse, which is located on L'Anse bay on Lake Superior. It was over this bay that we saw the sun rise that morning, and it was unbelievable. Now Mt. Arvon has a reputation for being kind of hard to find, because the area its located in is frequently logged and the roads around it change a lot. The guidebook I had was also a bit outdated, so I was worried to say the least. Thankfully, the directions I had weren't bad, and we drove to the parking area easily.

Since I was eaten alive at Timm's Hill, and since I had time to kill at 7:30am when we arrived at the trailhead for Mt. Arvon, I took the time to don a headnet and to coat myself in DEET. Predictably, since I was prepared, I didn't need either. The book said that it was about a 1-mile hike from the parking area to the summit, and I was so tired that I was dreading it. There was a sign on the ground at the parking area that said "4 miles to go." This had me worried - 8 miles of hiking wasn't what I was interested in this morning. I wasn't too worried, though, because my GPS was telling me the summit was less than a half-mile away. Still, I expected at least a mile's worth of hiking before we got to the top. So when we arrived after a quarter mile, I was really happy. The summit area of Mt. Arvon has seen its share of visitors. There was an aluminum fire ring filled with burned beer bottles and cans. There were a couple of old picnic tables. There was an interesting-looking summit log container installed by area boy scouts. There was a cheap grill. And there was a USGS benchmark. No views, although I'll bet that it would be amazing if there was one - Lake Superior to the north, Lake Michigan to the south, Bay of L'Anse to the west, endless forests to the east and everywhere in between and beyond.

Driving back was an adventure. The dirt road had a turnoff that pointed to Mt. Arvon in one direction, Big Bay in the other. I looked at the map and saw that there was a road from Big Bay to Marquette - and if I could get to Big Bay, it looked like it might take a whole hour off the drive! So of course, I took it. It was a mistake. I should have my head examined for not loading mpas of the areas around the highpoints on my GPS before leaving, and you wouldn't believe how far we had driven before came upon a fork in the road - and didn't know which direction to go in. We guessed. Then we found another fork. So we guessed again. It wasn't long before we were lost. Now I knew how we could get found - my GPS is good for one thing and that was backtracking. So that wasn't a big deal - but I persisted and tried to keep going in the general direction of Big Bay. I was all for naught - after about an hour of this I found a road that I knew would lead me back to L'Anse and took it. When I got home and looked at the maps, I was amazed at how many roads there were in the area - and how hopelessly naive I was that I would find the way to Big Bay. Oh well.

The UP of Michigan is an interesting place. It is a long way from Detroit. The only interstate in the UP runs for about 10 miles fro the strait of Mackinac to Sault Ste. Marie, about 150 miles from where I was. The major road that traverses the north part of the UP is 28, and that's what we took. It is a 2-lane road - that is, one lane for each direction. I spent a lot of time passing people in between the towns. It went quickly, however, because there was something about the UP that kept me interested. For the first time in the trip, we ate a real meal at a real restaurant - pancakes, eggs, and toast - rehydrated backpacking meals were starting to get old, plus I was just so amazed that people live in such a remote part of the country. How remote? Detroit is the nearest city big enough to have a baseball team, and it took all day to get within an hour of it. Most of the driving on the UP was at about 80 MPH, and, like I said, there was a lot of passing going on. There was one stretch of 28 that was completely straight for about 25 miles - and completely flat for most of it too. It was a bit of an illusion because it looked like we were going downhill, but according to my GPS our elevation hadn't changed my more than 5 feet in about 10 miles. Cars were coming up on the horizon, actually appearing from behind the curvature of the earth, several miles away. It was difficult to judge distance of oncoming cars at first because they were always so much farther than I thought.

The other thing about the UP were the tiny towns scattered around. One place, called Trout Lake, was having their fourth of July parade when we arrived and felt compelled to block all traffic coming through the town on its one main street until the parade was over. Mike and I kept repeating to each other about how pointless parades are and how much we hate them, but there we were stuck watching kids with flags walking down the street. After getting through Trout Lake, there was a concentration of cars that had built up waiting for the parade to finish up. Before this, cars were miles apart and one could drive 5 minutes before seeing a car coming the opposite direction. After Trout Lake, there was a feeding frenzy of cars passing each other on the way to the Mackinac Bridge. Now a corvette was hanging out behind me, passing as I did but not passing me. I thought this was kind of cool and didn't really think anything about it, except that my honda was keeping up with a 'vette. Well the vet an us had just passed a truck towing a motorboat and some other car, had pulled back into the driving lane and cruising at about 85 MPH when disaster almost struck. At 85MPH, with a 'vette tailgating him, and a pickup truck towing a boat not far behind the 'vette, a deer suddenly jumped out across the road in front of us. Instinct took over. I honked, which I hoped would warn the Vette, and which I also hoped would tell the deer in no uncertain terms that he was a stupid moron. Since the deer came from the left, I braked and turned to the left, into the oncoming traffic lane. Thank god there was no oncoming traffic. The deer's quick trot turned into a complete sprint. When I had passed him at probably 60MPH, he was inside my lane and I was halfway into the opposite lane - I missed him by less than 6 feet. The 'vette apparently saw the deer too and had slowed down to avoid rear-ending me. Everything was good again. But it scared the shit out of me.

The rest of the drive home was pretty uneventful. We drove over the Mackinac bridge and down I-75, turned east at Flint (which reminded me of Jaws, which reminded me of my brother), then across Ontario and into Buffalo. At the duty-free I picked up some wine from France, scotch from Scotland, tequila from Mexico, and bourbon from Kentucky at about half the price I could get it in New York, proving that highpointing is good for more than just checking off lists. I found that taking the southern route through Binghampton from Buffalo to downstate instead of the Thruway not only saves about $15 in tolls, but it also saves about 60 miles of driving. At a rest area outside corning, a very nice boyscout leader was giving out free coffee, and we hung out there for the better part of an hour chatting with him in the wee hours of the morning. I drank 5 cups of delicious coffee. By Binghampton, my hallucinations of sleep deprivation were starting to return, so I pulled into a truck stop and slept for a couple of hours. Woke up at about 5:30am and continued driving. Got home at 8:30am and went to bed.