There was so much nothing in Kansas that I could dedicate this whole article to it. Because it made you more aware of the somethings.
I’m not dissing Kansas. It was uniquely fascinating and beautiful. As we proceeded west on Interstate 70, the prairie gently rolled, only momentarily interrupted by small cities like Lawrence, and rolled some more.
And the nothing was just getting started. The terrain became flatter and the scenery browner as we drove into the western half of the state.
Suddenly, there was a large sign that read, “WELCOME TO COLORFUL COLORADO,” although all we saw for some time was more brown and more nothing.
But the elevation was gradually climbing. The road turned, and I squinted my eyes.
“Is that a mountain I see?” I asked aloud.
The road turned again. And almost out of nowhere, the Denver skyline appeared, along with an endless-looking range of Rocky Mountains.
I was on a road trip from Buffalo to Portland, Ore., occasioned by a job change. Joined by my brother Zack and my friend Tom Gugino, who had one-way plane tickets back home, I left in my Jeep on Aug. 24 and was due at my new office on the morning of Aug. 30. That left us six days to cross the country and see what we could.
The first day was a Saturday, and we drove on Interstate 90 until we reached Chicago, arriving in time to meet Buffalo native Ryan Sullivan, a friend of Zack’s who now works in the Windy City.
He was generously letting us crash at his place in the northern Lincoln Park neighborhood for the night. On the way to his apartment, we gawked at the buildings and the beaches of Lake Michigan as we cruised down Lake Shore Drive.
“It’s the best part of Chicago,” Sullivan said about the downtown beaches, which literally sit along the skyline. “It’s the only place where the beach is that accessible.”
Despite the name of our state, Buffalonians are more closely related to Chicagoans than New York City natives. Chicago is more up our alley – though it is enormous, it is also a “Second City” and its people share our accent, our diet and our dedication to underachieving sports teams.
“It’s just like this unspoken thing, like we kind of get each other … It’s the same thing on a larger scale,” Sullivan said of Chicago.
He added later: “A lot of people who move to Chicago from Buffalo feel connected to it … We share this underdog mentality.”
We walked around the Wrigleyville neighborhood near the famed home of the Cubs, one of the only teams in professional sports that might be more pathetic than the Bills. And the people we passed on the street seemed just as drunk and happy as the people at Ralph Wilson Stadium on Sundays.
After seeing a $15 hip-hop concert at Schubas, a small venue worth a visit, we finished the night at the Owl Bar, a dive with a waterfall behind the counter. It’s one of the relatively few pubs in the city that stay open until 4.
We felt right at home. That was about to change.
The southbound drive down Interstate 55 paints Illinois in a different light than the neon signs at Wrigley. The weather got hotter and the farmland broader as we passed places called Coal City and Funks Grove.
We stopped for a late lunch in St. Louis. We were on a cliché westward journey, after all, and it wouldn’t be right if we didn’t see the Gateway Arch.
The Arch is enormous – much bigger than it appears in pictures. On the western bank of the Mississippi River, it is the tallest accessible structure in Missouri and also would be the tallest building in Buffalo. We marveled at the scene briefly and hopped on Interstate 70, hoping to get to Kansas City that night.
The sight of Kauffman Stadium, home of the Kansas City Royals, signaled our arrival in the “Paris of the Plains.” We’d planned on sampling the city’s renowned barbecue, but – alas – it was a Sunday night, and almost every restaurant was closed.
We ordered take-out from Gates BBQ and brought it to our hotel room. It was good barbecue, with a tangy bite, and cheap ($6.95 for a half chicken and two sides), but nothing to write home about. A trusted friend once told me that a Kansas City restaurant called Oklahoma Joe’s served him the best barbecue he’d had. I’ll have to return to find out for myself.
We weren’t in Denver long, but the little I saw made me want to return.
A mile above sea level, everything looks clearer. The sky is bluer. And it’s easier to hit home runs because of the thinner air, which we found out after buying bleacher seats at Coors Field to see the Colorado Rockies and San Francisco Giants for $10.
From my seat, I had a great view of the field and the Denver skyline, and a glance to my right produced a glimpse of the vast mountains that awaited us.
I was so tired from three late nights and three days of driving that two beers during the game and a sandwich afterward just about knocked me out. I had a good night’s sleep in our room across from Mile High Stadium. I won’t go out so easily next time.
The next day’s drive was the best of the trip. We plunged into the mountains on U.S. Route 40, which would take us all the way to meet our friend Hans Gardner of Orchard Park, in Park City, Utah.
We crossed the Continental Divide at Routt National Forest, a mass of wilderness flanking a mountain.
The stretch through western Colorado and eastern Utah was more desertlike. The mountains were still always in view, but not in the vast, concentrated ranges we saw exiting Denver. As we approached Park City, though, the mountains got even bigger and denser than they were before.
Gardner lives in Park City to train as an aerial ski jumper; he’s hoping to make the U.S. Olympic Team for the upcoming Winter Games in Russia.
Park City is a cozy, Ellicottville-like ski village nestled among giant mountains and lush forests. The Sundance Film Festival is held there, and it’s said that the tourist population greatly exceeds the permanent residents.
Training at Utah Olympic Park, he said, has been a great way to stay focused and meet other athletes – some of whom, like fellow aerialists Alex Bowen and J.J. Boyczuk, are also from Western New York.
The downtown area included free buses and a bar called the No Name Saloon, where we ordered hearty burgers made with buffalo meat (they were good) and 32-ounce beers.
The place was hopping, especially for a Tuesday night. But the giant burger and beer had nearly flattened me, just like in Denver.
Great Salt Lake
The next morning, Gardner showed us his training facility. Aerialists were jumping off ramps, flipping through the air at unimaginable angles and speeds and landing in a swimming pool. Their silhouettes were set against a blinding sun, an expansive blue sky, a sprawling valley and more giant mountains.
We bid him goodbye – watch for him as the Olympics approach – and headed for the Great Salt Lake.
I’ve never encountered water so salty or so flat. We drove across a causeway onto Antelope Island, where we climbed a mountain and saw live buffalo. (They must not have known where we’re from or about our meal the previous night.) They looked exactly like the original Bills logo – calm, standing still, heads down.
A state park, the island was an unexpected detour and worth the $10 entry fee. We drove onto Interstate 84 and were in our final one-night stop, Boise, Idaho, by early evening.
You heard it here first: Boise might be the most underrated city in America. I wasn’t expecting it to be cool, but its lively downtown area is a walkable grid filled with restaurants, bars, music venues and hotels. The blue football turf of Boise State University is in the heart of town. And there is a strip called “Whiskey Row.”
I awoke Thursday morning with one of the worst thoughts that can accompany a splitting headache: “I have to work tomorrow.”
The beauty of the drive along the Columbia River in Oregon closely rivals the trek through the Rockies. The deep-blue Columbia is wide, surrounded on either side by seemingly impenetrable barriers of mountains and the green trees you see on Oregon license plates.
If you like the outdoors, Oregon has it all: deserts, rivers, beaches, mountains, forests, the ocean.
By nightfall, we arrived in Portland, a city nestled in the Willamette River valley whose skyline is set against a sea of green. I still can’t believe we got here without anything bad happening. The things you’ve heard are true: Portland is young and hip, the beer selection is endless and there are bicycles everywhere.
After I got out of work the next day, we drove to the Oregon Coast, an hour west of Portland, and stared at the Pacific Ocean, contemplating the enormity of it all. It was crazy. We’d really made it.
On Saturday afternoon, we drove an hour in the other direction, to Mount Hood, a massive stratovolcano whose peak is at 11,250 feet. We rode the “alpine slides,” a set of concrete tracks accessible by chairlift that allow riders to speed down the mountain in roller-sleds. It was exhilarating.
But our vacation was ending. Zack and Tom had flights to catch.
Suddenly, they were home, and I was out here alone, about to begin something new.
A line from Robert Pirsig’s philosophical road novel “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” came to mind: “Sometimes it’s a little better to travel than to arrive.”
Luke Hammill is a University at Buffalo graduate and former Buffalo News intern. He now works at the Oregonian newspaper in Portland.