In 2017 I took a road trip around the American west with my girlfriend. The car that took us on the month-long journey was a red Mazda 3 that we affectionately named “Peppa.” Last month, Peppa’s lease ran out and we had to say goodbye. I wanted to take a moment and recognize Peppa’s contribution to our eventful travels by recapping five of the more memorable drives of 2017.
We were halfway to the interstate when we realized it wasn’t where we wanted to be. We did an about face and headed north on Arizona 77. Our decision was immediately gratified as the deserts of Tucson gave way to the lush river valleys of the northern Coronado National Forest. The roads were deserted and we tempted the local authorities with our pace. A construction detour took us through copper country where we saw strip mines beyond description, with piles of waste rock larger than most mountains in New England. The winding road spat us out onto Route 60 and the Pinal Mountains of Tonto National Forest. Taking the S turns at 50 MPH, we plunged over crests and canyons. On the former we’d catch startling vistas of craggy mountains. In the latter were cacti, emory, gambel, and silverleaf oaks.
That night, as the sun set at our backs, we sped north out of Sedona. Once again, we spurned the interstate and took 89A up the crooked switchbacks of Oak Creek Canyon. In the light of the setting sun, the rocks burned red and we leaned out the windows to peak over the precipitous drop offs. When we emerged onto the high planes near Flagstaff, we were treated to a world of towering pines. Straight ahead, the snow capped slopes of Mount Humphries were blood and magenta against the deepening sky.
We arrived at Yellowstone to find the park partially blocked by late season snows. The south entrance, which we had hoped to take to Grand Teton, was still closed. We decided to change course and head east to Cody.
Late in the afternoon, a roving bison herd had us sitting in awe in the middle of the road. The massive beasts prowled around us, unimpressed by our reverence. With our windows rolled down, we could have reached out and touched them, but instead just stared into their eyes as they moved past.
This encounter proved to be just the beginning. As the golden light of evening came on, the cars accompanying us thinned and disappeared. Meanwhile, the beasts of the country emerged. We drove over rolling plains, sharing the road with bison, and looking out into fields at elk and bear. The country was wild and unadulterated and we felt beyond privileged to be experiencing it on all sides. Just before darkness hid the world, we caught sight of a moose in the middle of the roadside stream. Then all was darkness and we could only imagine the creatures beyond our headlights.
We took Peppa off the beaten path more than once during our trip. Pictured here in Sequoia National Park before ascending into the cloud-capped mountains.
Leaving the park around 9 PM, we almost immediately saw the sign: “Highway closed beyond Cooke City-Silver Gate.” Our hearts stopped. We were three hours from Bozeman, four hours from West Yellowstone, and a staggering 5.5 hours from Cody. We realized that while the park map showed road closures within the park, it didn’t say anything about road closures beyond.
Pressing on, we found Cooke City-Silver Gate to be a seasonal town still in hibernation. We rolled past darkened windows and empty parking lots. Our thoughts turned to a week earlier, on a boondoggle to Mount Rainier in Oregon, when we traveled an hour out of our way before the road just ended, blocked by a ten foot wall of snow. There had been no signs or warnings ahead of time. Now we had warnings but didn’t want to accept what it meant.
The Beartooth Highway tops out at 10,947 feet above sea level, the highest of our road trip to that point. As we climbed, the snow on the side of the road got deeper. They became sheer ice walls, slowly pinching in on us until the road became one lane. Finally, reflecting off the snow, we saw the flashing yellow light, the telltale sign that this was the end.
The barrier was only 50 yards ahead when, as if by divine providence, a side road cut south. We stopped in the middle of the road as if it were a trap, unsure if we were going deeper into the wilderness or not. We decided to take it.
The road was Wyoming Route 296, one of the most scenic and dangerous byways in the state. The biggest hazard at night was wildlife, which we experienced almost immediately. We were less than a mile on when we swerved to miss a black tailed deer. 20 minutes later, there was a near collision with the rump of a mother black bear, her two cubs scurrying before her. Then it was a moose, standing languidly on the center line until we were ten yards away. Finally, a pair of elk, together the size of our car, jumped the guardrail and nearly cut us in two. Locking up the brakes, we flew forward in our seats with hearts stopped. I don’t even want to think about the consequences if they had made contact.
Beyond the local fauna, the road itself was doing its best to throw us off. We were doing half the speed limit and still white knuckling around hairpin turns. Dropping in elevation (it’s a 5,000 foot difference between Beartooth and Cody), I stayed off the brake as much as I dared.
It was nearly midnight before we reached the valley and breathed a sigh of relief.
I struck out solo across west Texas, returning the car to Tucson after 7,500 miles of road trip. The city gave way to suburbs and beyond that endless space and isolated towns. I switched between public radio and my thoughts, the windows rolled down to let in the July breeze. It felt good to drive.
I got an early start and was tired by midmorning. Stopping in a small town gas station, I grabbed a coffee and the proprietor waved off my money. “Drive safe now.”
The weather improved as I went further into the desert. The slate overcast went to crystal blue, with friendly white beasts patrolling the expanse. I hit my stride in the early afternoon, fueled by the caffeine buzz and the nonexistent traffic. This was livin’.
I stopped for a sandwich mid afternoon in Fort Stockton and watched the afternoon thunderstorms build, darkening the quiet town. The wind was blowing and my mind went to dust storms, which can be deadly out in these wilds. Back on the highway, I blasted on. Above me the thunderstorms were isolated and I could see the blue behind the black.
Then I got slammed. The water came on so quick I thought I’d driven into a river. Headlights on, wipers thumping, and I couldn’t see a thing. I was immediately hydroplaning at 75, too afraid to hit the brakes and terrified that another car would emerge from the deluge in front of me. All I wanted to do was pull over, but I couldn’t see the side of the road. I was driving by feel alone. Then, in a flash, it was behind me and I was driving through silent sunshine, the rain quickly evaporating from the pavement. This happened twice more and each time survival seemed questionable.
To my left emerged the jagged Los Lamentos mountains, hung with blue and mist. For the first time I felt lonely on the road. The highway pointed to El Paso, the sprawling strip mall of a city, tangled in knots of concrete and powerlines. Everything was covered in dust and the rush hour traffic choked out the road as I squeezed my way to the other side. Beyond was the pastel stucco of Ciudad de Juárez, a different world across the Rio Grande. Finally came the olive groves of Las Cruces, mountains that bore the fingerprints of God, and the deserts beyond.
It seemed like Peppa was made to cruise the gypsum maze of White Sands.
The alien landscape of White Sands National Monument lends itself to barefoot hikes and film photography. But I found the driving to be the most underrated. White Sands is a living organism, constantly in motion, and despite the efforts of plows and graters, the dunes creep over the paved roadways. The shift to baby-powder sand is quite sudden, and marked with an amplified and unsettling silence. Forcing my eyes away from the speed limit signs, I pushed my foot down and drifted around the empty curves. Behind us, the white dust shimmered like diamonds in the afternoon sun.
White Sands was so stunning that we visited twice during our road trip. The first time had been Easter weekend, and revelers were out in force picnicking and sledding. The second time was midweek, late in the day, when even the guard booth was unmanned. The tires gripped as I hugged each turn and the only indication that I was no longer on the road was a gentle blast of sand against the wheel well.
Unlike the harsher sands of Arizona and Colorado, the gypsum seemed to buff Peppa’s soul red metallic hue. When we stopped, the car looked resplendent against the dunes. I wondered if they filmed car commercials here, it would have been a terrific spot.
On both our trips to White Sands we left in a state of elation, cruising through the maze of dunes back to the highway. There was no other place like it in the world, and the fine powder that we tracked in on Peppa's carpet will be a testament of that for a long while.
Valley of Fire
Exit 78B on U.S. 15 only goes to one place. A lonely stretch of rumpled and unkempt two-lane road that shoots to the mountains, with no sign of humanity besides as far as the eye can see. Through a winding mountain pass is the Valley of Fire, smoldering in the late afternoon sun. We arrived to find the entrance blocked and signs saying the park was closed for the night. However, there was no gate on the exit and the guard shack was deserted, so I swerved out of my lane and continued in.
The valley looked like an over-saturated photograph, the brick red rocks juxtaposed against a true azure sky. The formations leapt and twisted against a stoic mountain frame. We sped around, running from the lengthening shadows and the park rangers that were surely sweeping out the straggling visitors. We weren’t alone either. A Lamborghini darted over the dirt roads like a dream, the engine noise ripping through the otherwise silent landscape.
When the sun went down we retraced our steps back to the highway, leaving the Valley of Fire behind and pointing our headlights towards the Vegas strip just over the horizon.
Whey Peppa Was Right for Us
Our home on the road, Peppa provided all the necessities for quick hikes and boondoggles throughout the trip.
Peppa proved to be a top notch road trip vehicle. Although not overly spacious, it was more than enough for Hillary and I. We set up the front seats with plenty of legroom and piled the backseat with easy-access snacks. Everything necessary was within reach, so when opportunities for adventure came we didn’t have to turn everything inside out before heading off.
I was pleased to discover that Peppa drove like a sports car, low to the ground so you almost felt part of the road as you drove. Cruise control came in handy during the 8,000+ mile trek, particularly in the lonely flats of Wyoming, New Mexico, and Texas.
Though I touched on some of our more colorful driving experiences, there were a few omissions. I left off the Pacific Coast Highway because we only did LA. to Santa Barbara on our 2017 trip (we hit Big Sur in 2016).The mountain passes and thunderstorms of Colorado have been touched on in an earlier article. So too was our second Arizona road trip that took us through the Catalina Mountains and once more to Sedona.
In retrospect, many of the roads we traveled have redundancies when recounted. But that doesn’t do justice to the firsthand experience of driving the American west. In the moment, every mountain is the most spectacular mountain you have ever seen. Every sunset is shocking. Every vista jaw dropping. Wherever you are seems like the center of the universe. That’s the best part about road trips, the journey is without a doubt the destination. And that makes the value of Peppa all the more pronounced.
Post Script for the Perspective Road Tripper:
If you’re planning on hitting the open road, I recommend driving a small, comfortable, fuel-efficient vehicle like Peppa. While there is an allure to an RV, I believe the cost effectiveness and prevalence of Airbnbs has made them obsolete. If you’re going to be spending the majority of your days in the car, you might as well enjoy the driving experience. Small cars also don’t have the parking limitations brought on by height or weight (in some cities, RVs aren’t allowed to be parked on the street). You’ll also be “a bit more nimble” on the curving mountain passes of the Rockies and Sierras. While I do have the utmost respect for the van-lifers and see their merits, I wouldn’t recommend anyone investing in a Winnebago if they truly want to get the most out of their road trip experience.