Some places are harder to leave than others. Great Sand Dunes is one of those places for me. Toss in knowing that the next week of our trip was going to be urban rather than outdoors and you can imagine that it took tremendous effort to squash notions of bagging the rest of our trip and staying out west. So with much reluctance, we packed up camp and got down to the business of hauling ourselves back east. After two weeks on the road, it was time to set Toronto and TBEX in our sights… and we had to move quickly. (And yes, I’m dating myself, but the theme song to Cannonball Run is playing mercilessly in my head right now.)
The first of many detours…
Just when we had no time to spare though, we had to make the first of many detours on this trip. First was a stop in Pueblo to get Blubaru an overdue oil change. Next was blasting through the Colorado Springs REI to pick up our new tent, or at least part of it. We’d have to head through St. Louis to get the remaining pieces. Under different circumstances, having to do a tour of REI stores could be fun. Under duress, not so much.
I endured some nasty storms through Arkansas and Oklahoma on the way to Overland Expo but all had been clear since then. Arizona, California, New Mexico, and Colorado were on their best behavior, giving us maximum outdoor play time. Kansas, however, decided the game was over. Little did I know there would only be a handful of dry days for the next four weeks.
After high-tailing it out of Colorado Springs, we began the cross-Kansas trek. Interstate driving was a time-saving necessity at this point so I set Blubaru loose on I-70. No sooner had we crossed the state line when the downpour began. The deluges continued for the entirety of the state, leaving me feeling like I’d swam the breadth of the Kansas.
Obviously the storms slowed our pace tremendously but we forged on. Fortunately even though I was the sole driver, George happens to be a talented navigator. He diligently checked weather reports for me as I drove but as my fatigue grew, the storms worsened, and tornado warnings reached emergency status, I knew the gig was up. By the time we reached Hayes it was time to find a hotel to hunker down in. Since showers were long overdue for all of us after many days at Great Sand Dunes, it wasn’t necessarily a bad thing to call it quits earlier than planned and rediscover our humanity with things like shampoo and beds.
Turns out this was one of my few good decisions on the trip. Upon checking in we found the hotel to be full of tornado-chasers eagerly awaiting twisters to form. After being briefed on tornado procedures, we set off to our room to de-stench and hope we wouldn’t be wakened by tornado sirens. There was no tornado-induced drama that night and by morning the storms had at least subsided enough that we’d still be driving in the rain but not trying to outrun tornado cells.
REI tour continued…
With intense focus, we barreled towards St. Louis. When we arrived, the good folks at the St. Louis REI set us up with the remainder of our tent, we grabbed an early dinner to minimize stops, and set out once more. And guess what? I couldn’t have planned it better if I tried… we were just in time for rush hour.
As I sat parked on the highway, looking down into Busch Stadium, I found my zen place with the entire situation. In an unfamiliar city at rush hour, there was no rerouting or fancy travel tricks to get us out of it. We just had to listen to our podcasts, talk, and laugh at ourselves. We crossed back over the Mississippi River at a snail’s pace and caught a glimpse of the Gateway Arch as traffic slowly eased back to cruising speed.
It was in that time of waiting that I slowed down enough to do some more travel math. Our original intention was to swing wide and head far east through Louisville and Lexington, then into West Virginia. One of our goals (and by “our” I mean George’s), was of course the no-state-left-behind geocaching objective. The longer route would give us West Virginia finally. From there we had planned to head through Pittsburgh and into Toronto via Buffalo.
With some time to slow down and consider the realities, I had to rethink that notion. We’d already lost a couple of days by delaying in Taos and with the slow-down of storms and tent-buying detours, we were losing time fast. Trying to take the long way and complete geocaches was simply not going to put me in Toronto in time.
In true George form, he was a good sport when I told him we’d have to reroute. I promised him we’d still get his West Virginia caches, we’d just have to find a way to do it after TBEX. And with that I pointed Blubaru to Indianapolis and Detroit.
The push continued. We drove and drove and drove. I think we were somewhere in northern Indiana when I hit another decision point. Do I try to drive through or stop for a few, albeit expensive, hours sleep? Common sense won I’m happy to say and we pulled off for a very short overnight lest we become some horrible traffic statistic.
Getting up and out the next morning was painful. Our stores of energy, both emotional and physical, were becoming more and more depleted. But with Toronto within reach, we made one last push. Keep in mind we knew this would be tough and we were banking on being able to slow down for Stage 2 of this expedition. Was the time in Great Sand Dunes worth the price we were paying now? You betcha.
Border Crossing #1…
The first of our many border crossings went smoothly. We handed over our passports, answered the requisite questions, and were on our way. Being able to say I was on my way to a conference was an infinitely more agreeable purpose to the border guard than last year’s geocaching one that required a lengthy explanation.
The irony of being back at this crossing is how far out of our way we went last year to grab some Canadian geocaches. Of course we had no way knowing we’d be back again so soon and we actually ended up driving right past the places we explored only one year earlier.
Brace for impact…
With calming breaths, I braced for what I knew would be the sensory overload of Toronto. Unlike the granola-groovy setting of last year’s TBEX event, this venue was entirely out of my comfort zone. But I’m not one to shy away from a challenge or an opportunity to expand my experience, so I put myself in urban mode as much as possible to enjoy my time at the conference.
I managed to successfully navigate my way to the hotel which was no small feat for me in general and, in particular, after the ordeal it took to reach Toronto. I pulled up to the required valet at the hotel, prepared to nearly-completely unload the car on the street corner. One of my stressors about the logistics of this trip was that I knew in advance that the hotel couldn’t accommodate the height of my roof box on Blubaru. I’d researched my options though and managed to find an open parking lot somewhat nearby.
You can imagine what the innards of the car looked like after over two weeks on the road, much of that in camping mode. The smell alone was not to be trifled with but the general debris and chaos left the valet with his jaw on the ground. As I chatted with him, hoping to distract from the three-ring circus I just unleashed in his life, he took a good look at the car and assured me it would fit in the hotel parking deck. And with that simple comment my travel life became so much less complicated. I unloaded only the basics, knowing I could easily get to anything else I needed later on.
You know that feeling when you’ve finally arrived at your destination after a long day? Quadruple that and you’ll come close to understanding the relief of collapsing in our hotel room knowing the hardest days were behind us. Normally I have Fred and George help with a lot of unpacking and such but they’d been such troopers the entire way I let them off the hook.
My original intent was to arrive in Toronto in time for Friday night’s TBEX social event. You’re not going to be surprised that didn’t happen. Technically we arrived in time but I would have had to have turned around and walked right back out of the hotel. My brain was mush, even more so than my entrance into Overland Expo. Three days of driving and all of the time zone changes left me not feeling very sociable.
After a little time to collect my wits, I set off to deal with laundry and the disaster in the the car that awaited me in the bowels of the hotel parking deck. Trash, a skanky cooler, and smelly shoes were the tip of the roadtrip iceberg.
Yet I was relieved. I’d done it. It wasn’t fun but I’d done it and I was looking forward to what lay ahead on this journey. It is a testament to the intensity of this leg of the trip that I have not one photo to share with you. Not even so much as an iPhone shot. But knowing the worst was behind us left me optimistic.