Coast to Coast USA: An Interstate 40 Odyssey

March 8, 2021
Coast to Coast through the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Imagine your first day on the job as a bus driver. Now pretend you’ve received no training whatsoever.  Lastly, picture you’re on the other side of the country, somewhere you’ve never been before, and you’re about to embark on a 3,700 mile coast to coast odyssey across the USA.  This was my situation.

I’ve met some folks who claim they’ve driven coast to coast just to do it. It always sounded nutty to me, to just drive across the country for forty or fifty hours without purpose.

Well, we had a purpose. Our family had been searching for the perfect motorhome for months. We had a price range, manufacturer preference, and mileage requirement that ruled out most of our options, plus we needed a bunkhouse for the kids. Such tight specifications meant we needed to be game when the right one came along.

Poquoson, Virginia doesn’t sound like the furthest possible point from Seattle, Washington, but it might as well be. For perspective, Lubec, Maine or Miami, Florida (the corners of the country), are only an additional 300 miles away. This is where we found the perfect coach.

Because it was February and there are several snowy mountain passes in the western US, we thought it was wise to take the southern route.  The temps down south were much warmer and the passes were free of snow.  This added 700 grudge-filled miles to the trip.

Coast to coast across the USA from Poquoson, Virginia to Seattle, Washington.

If you’re motivated enough to drive across the USA, you have a couple of routes from which to choose. There are two literal coast-to-coast freeways: Interstate-90 from Seattle to Boston, and Interstate-10 from Los Angeles to Jacksonville.  The other two freeways that extend (mostly) coast-to-coast are Interstate-70 and Interstate-40. Those were our “options”, but only I-40 made sense.

Interstate 40 extends from Raleigh, North Carolina to Barstow, California for 2,400 miles. If you’re in the mood to head north to Seattle from Barstow, it’s a brief, 16-hour jaunt up the I-5 corridor from there.

All in all, the “coast-to-coast” errand lasted five full days at about 730 miles per day.  It involved lots of sitting and sleeping and not much showering.

Coast to Coast Day 1:  Not actually on the I-40

Virginia is just north of the I-40 on your coast to coast adventure.

We consummated our deal for the motorhome around 1 pm.  The last thing the seller said to me was, “Would you like me to pull it out of the gas station for you, or do you think you’re up to it?”

To which I replied, “If I need you to do that, we’ve got serious problems.”  

We’ve driven the leg of I-40 from Raleigh to Asheville, NC before.  It was pleasant and relaxing with many Waffle Houses along the way.  This time we started in the Norfolk area, which is 2.5 hours north-east of Raleigh.  The more direct route to Seattle took us through Roanoke, and eventually the I-81 joined up with westbound I-40 in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Driving coast to coast in a motor coach is a trial.

After pulling out of the gas station without incident, I parked in front of a department store, said a prayer, then pulled onto the highway like a boss. An hour away in Richmond, I exited onto the I-81 and headed toward the Blue Ridge Mountains.  

Because it was winter the trees were leafless and everything was brown.  This would become a theme.

Large, white crosses were seen along the freeways on my coast to coast odyssey

That first night was spent at a Walmart in Salem, Virginia, 260 miles from where I started.  The drive was benign.  The only challenge was exiting the freeway and driving through a town for the first time.  I remember those trusting faces in the cars around town, oblivious the man turning his massive motorhome around the nose of their vehicle was a complete noob.

After finding a quiet corner in the Walmart parking lot I fired up the generator, set the heat pump to 72 degrees, and went to sleep by 8:30 pm. I woke at midnight shivering like a dog. In a stupor I fiddled with the thermostat, manipulating zones and cranking the temperature, but nothing got the heat going.  It was 22 degrees outside.  Eventually I found the propane and switched on the furnace.  It took over an hour to warm up the rig. By 02:00 I was asleep on the couch, but it was garbage sleep and I woke up ornery.

Day 2:  Friggin’ Tennessee

Blue Ridge morning sunrise on a coast to coast adventure.

Let me start by saying that I absolutely love the idea of Tennessee.  I’ve heard nothing but good things about it and am excited to visit in the future.  

Driving into the state was like meeting a highly-recommended blind date.  I couldn’t wait to experience this wonderful state!  Perhaps someday we would start a life together.

The morning was pleasant.  Sunrise was beautiful, traffic was light, the mountains serene.

There was just one thing the matchmakers didn’t mention: Tennessee has potholes.

Tennessee has bad roads on your coast to coast drive.

Somewhere west of Knoxville the potholes arrived.  It was a simple line of pits at first, about a foot in diameter, perfectly round, maybe fifteen in succession.  I’d never seen anything like it.  The rig made a horrifying shudder as the cabinetry shook on the walls.

When the second group of divots arrived a moment later, I was ready to dodge them.  They weren’t lined up as neatly, so it was impossible to miss all of them.  

Then the pothole problem subsided and was forgotten. Nobody is perfect. All was forgiven.

Tennessee is a full-day drive on the I-40 coast to coast trip.

Two hours later, I got excited as Nashville approached.  It is always cool to see a city for the first time, especially one you want to visit.  Sometimes they are spectacular like NYC, San Francisco or Seattle.  Sometimes they are like Nashville.

The town of Nashville looked bad from I-40.  Downtown wasn’t noteworthy.  Barren trees failed to obscure run-down housing.  I’m sure leaves are on the trees help the ambiance.

All of this, too, is easily forgiven.  I want to love you, Nashville!

But then came the miles and miles of potholes.

coast to coast potholes in Tennessee.

California doesn’t have potholes like this. They see infinitely more traffic and they are notoriously imprudent spenders.  Where is your money going, Tennessee?

As my motorhome slammed its tires into the earth, the cabinetry shuddered and shook like it was the end of days. If a band of demons joined in it would sound something like this.  

Dear Tennessee resident, Hello! Maybe your sedan handles the potholes well. Maybe the banging and thumping doesn’t strike fear in your heart. BUT IN A MOTORHOME it sounds as if nothing structural will ever be the same.  It sounds like job loss and debt.  It sounds like when doves literally cry. Can you vote to end this? Warmly, Ryan Hoffmann.

I remember one patch of potholes about ten miles south of town where over a hundred four-inch-deep craters appeared across the entirety of the freeway. It was wheel pounding madness.  

And that’s when the blind date turned foul.  This gap-toothed girl wasn’t going to be my soulmate after all.  It was cute when she ordered the lobster, but watching her eat it was pissing me off.

Don’t y’all care you have the worst pothole situation in the United States of America?  

And how come the country music industry isn’t singing about this?  One would think it’s a major theme in y’alls lives. Every song mentions cars and trucks, but no mention of the lunar friggin’ terrain? 

Here’s some song ideas for y’all:

The Devil Crawled From a Pothole

All my Axels Broke in Nashville (that’s why I Tinder date in Abilene)

I got Friends in Tow Places

I wish I could say that potholes were the only problem in Tennessee, but I-40 was jacked-up across the state.  Further west the road construction created a one-lane, gouged-out boondoggle barely wider than the rig.

At one point an orange barrel laid on its side in the middle of my lane.  Just a barrel laying there.  Why not, Tennessee?  

At 65 mph I had a split second to decide if I should drill the barrel and live with the consequences, or if I could swing into the lane to my left and not hit a semi-truck.  I changed lanes without a signal and it thankfully worked. The trucker hung back for a while, surely awaiting my next shenanigan.

It started raining in Memphis and I learned the windshield wipers needed replacing.  Also, there’s a giant pyramid on the north side of I-40.  At one time it was a sports arena, but it’s a Bass Pro Shop these days.  

I stayed the night in West Memphis, which is just over the border of Arkansas.  It cost me $20 to park at the truck stop, and it didn’t include a shower or breakfast in the morning.  It was a fitting end to the day.  After inhaling a Big King Double, I turned on the propane furnace and slept like an angry baby.

Day 3:  Amarillo by Evening

The day began at 04:00.  Western Arkansas was covered in snow, but the roads were clear and the pace was fast.  I blew through North Little Rock shortly after sunrise.  Once the sun came out it was a perfect day with bright blue skies and minimal potholes.

After fueling up in Pottsville, I put on my favorite Jack Johnson mixed CD.  Jack’s music never gets old, no matter how many times I listen to the same fifty songs. My children might disagree, but what do they know? They listen to songs about Minecraft.

For the first time it bothered me how critical Jack is of humans and religion.  I got the impression he thinks we’re all idiots and bad parents.  I wondered if he’s happy.  In my experience, those who crusade for the planet are various shades of miserable because people ultimately become the problem. Viewing people as a problem for the planet is missing the point of life completely, and this thinking leads to misanthropy.

I can be preachy, too, Mr. Johnson. No offense, though. You write the most beautifully crafted songs.

Lake Dardanelle decorated the scenery for a few dozen miles.  This is probably a good place to visit someday.  The stretch of road from here to Fort Smith (the border of Oklahoma) was agreeable.

Not far into Oklahoma the scenery changed for the first time.  From Virginia through Arkansas it was mostly the same – hills full of oak trees without leaves, some pine trees mixed in.  In Oklahoma the landscape started to flatten out.

Monica and I chatted awhile on the phone.  The goal was Amarillo by evening.  I began writing the lyrics in my head as the cows and scrubland flew past.

Amarillo by evening, potholes all the way.

Just finished drinking a red bull.  Ain’t showered in three days.

When the sun sinks low in that Texas sky, I’ll be parking in a Walmart lot.

Amarillo by evening, until I’m there I’m not.

Oklahoma City was smaller than what I expected.  There was one skyscraper, which was odd for the 25th largest city in the USA.  It is sad that even after all these years, when I think of OKC Timothy Mcveigh still comes to mind.

That and how they heisted the Sonics from us.  There is no greater villain in the history of professional sports than Clay Bennett.  Below, former owner Howard Shultz unknowingly shakes hands with the devil (who crawled from a Tennessee pothole earlier that day).

I bought this rig in Poquoson from a man who loved it most.

Left my wife and some children back on the other coast.

I’ll be lookin’ for seven miles per gallon, and I hope I don’t get six.

Amarillo by evening, driving across the sticks.

The scenery gets real unimpressive west of OKC.  There was nothing to see other than the reddish dirt from time to time.  Not much changed when I crossed over into the panhandle of Texas.  In retrospect, this was the worst stretch of road on the entire I-40, just under 260 miles of flat, unattractive earth.

Amarillo by evening, once lived in San Antone.

Spent every dollar we’d saved up on this motorhome.

Well, there’s a rattle here and some humming there, I wish it didn’t make a sound.

Amarillo by evening, Lord don’t let me break down.

Amarillo by evening, I better not break down.

Amarillo is a sprawling, unimpressive town in the middle of nowhere.  I’m sure it’s nice to live here — Texas is full of wonderful people — but I won’t be moving anytime soon. The Walmart was about a mile off the I-40.  Gas was cheap.  Slept well.

And I made it by evening, almost like George Strait said.

Day 4:  Three Dog Night

Well, I’ve never been to England

But I kinda like the Beatles

Well, I headed for Las Vegas

Only made it out to Needles

I’ve sung these Three Dog Night lyrics a hundred times. But where on earth is Needles? Sounds like a nickname for San Francisco.  

Needles is near Las Vegas, barely over the Arizona border into California.  Three Dog Night might have been disappointed coming up short of Vegas, but I would be thrilled if I could traverse 815 miles across the country before sunset.

The scenery immediately improved upon entering New Mexico.  The sun came up in Tucumcari and the day was off to a great start.

Santa Rosa has a interesting attraction called The Blue Hole.  I had half a mind to stop, but when you’re rolling 815 miles in a day it’s hard to convince yourself to pull over for anything but gas and bathrooms.  As the Blue Hole sign went past I wondered when I would make it back this way.  Probably not for several years.

The topography in New Mexico is surprising.  There are stretches of nothingness, and it perpetually feels like going uphill.  However, once you’ve tuned out your surroundings and get lost in your thoughts of baseball and song lyrics (or whatever splendid things you love to think about), something will change in the scenery and capture your attention.

A train alongside I-40 on a coast to coast odyssey

Maybe it is a crevice or sinkhole in the landscape.  Often it is a mountain in the distance, or a multi-colored rock formation along the side of the road. 

Albuquerque was the first significant town I would pass through this day, a whopping 290 miles from Amarillo.  I blew through the beautiful ghetto sometime around 10:00.  The mountains just east of town are attractive, and it felt like all the altitude I’d gained since the border of Texas was lost in a dozen miles or so.

Between Albuquerque and Flagstaff were a lengthy 320 miles.  The interesting topography continued, but it was along here the journey became tiresome.

I’d done nothing except drive, eat, refuel, get in or out of bed, and sleep for three days.  I didn’t exercise, watch TV, cook, or create anything.  There were no animals or children to liven up the trip.  There was no beautiful wife to kiss.  Sunrise and sunset were the highlights of the day, and in between there were energy drinks and music I’d heard over and over for years.

Coast to Coast goes through New Mexico

We had almost purchased a motorhome in Portland, Oregon three weeks earlier.  We felt it a blessing to find a suitable model so close to home.  On a Saturday morning we drove three hours to Portland in anticipation of owning a 2018 Nexus with only 6,000 miles.  

Monica and I knew this wasn’t our rig from the moment we saw it.  The spirit of joy we felt during the drive vanished as we pulled up to their home.  While we went through the motions of a potential sale, we each knew separately that we weren’t supposed to buy this coach.

We drove home confused. Why did we feel so good about this particular coach — it was like a gift that had been set aside for us — to have such a stark response of dread and uncertainty upon seeing it the first time?  Monica felt impressed that it was for our education.

A week or so later Monica found the Newmar in Poquoson, Virginia.  It had a toy hauler in the back, which ordinarily would not have interested us.  However, the toy hauler had queen-sized bunkbeds on motorized tracks that rested near the ceiling until dropped for use.  This would give the children their own space, a back-bedroom with a TV/DVD, and large enough beds to sleep all of them.  It would also give us extra storage space for bicycles and whatever else we decided was necessary to bring on our journeyings.

We each felt very good about it.  I called the owner and he sounded like a solid dude.  Their reasons for selling made sense.  He disclosed all issues with rare forthcoming.  That afternoon I asked my manager if I could have the next week off and he obliged without resistance.

Fly coast to coast on Alaska Airlines

I took a day off work to prepare and flew out the following day.  After spending the night in a gross hotel on the other side of the country, I found myself standing in a freezing cold motorhome with a meticulous firefighter. It was a bit surreal.

Now I was fully prepared to fly home without the RV if the spirit didn’t testify this was the one.  It would have been a waste of a thousand bucks, but we’ve learned to follow our promptings. Thankfully, joy and peace abounded that morning.  The sellers could not have been better people.

So, the journey became reality.  A winter drive across the country was the price we would pay for the perfect rig — low miles, nice price, a great manufacturer, and all the amenities we needed (except the washer/dryer – can’t win them all).  We wired them a chunk of change from our credit union and I picked up the motorhome on Saturday afternoon.

Fifty miles east of Flagstaff a large, snowy mountain appears in the distance.  It is quite spectacular and provides something to focus on for about an hour. 

coast to coast I-40 takes you through Flagstaff

Flagstaff is a beautiful town.  Once upon a time I spent a night in their jail for DUI.  That was 18 years earlier and I remember it well.  I’ve been sober ever since.

The I-40 continues west past Flagstaff for two hundred miles until Needles.  There are three noteworthy towns along the way, Williams, Seligman, and Kingman.  

This is the single most beautiful stretch along the entirety of I-40, and one of the more beautiful drives I’ve ever experienced in the USA.

The first half of this section of I-40 is wooded and mountainous.  The second half is deserty and mountainous.

I-40 west of Flagstaff on a coast to coast adventure

Needles is a desert valley with a river running through it.  They named it Needles because of the pointy mountains (pinnacles) to the south.  As the sun set across the mountains, the pinnacles took on a stunning, purplish hue.

I spent the night in the back of a Shell gas station with a hundred semi-trucks.  I had come to feel safer in truck stops than Walmart parking lots. 

Day 5:  Home Sweet West Coast

It was an amazing morning.  As the sun contemplated an appearance, the horizon was a raging Pikachu (so I’m told by my 13-year-old son).  I spent the first hour of the day staring across the spectacular Mojave National Preserve.

Coast to coast on I-40

Eventually the desert becomes flat and scrubby, but the splendor of a gorgeous morning lingered enough to make it sublime.  Or maybe it was the Bang energy drink.  Either way…

Outside Needles, California, toward the end of the coast to coast I-40 odyssey

Barstow, California is the official commencement of Interstate 40.  To continue west toward Bakersfield and the California coast, one would exit onto the Highway 58 and head over Tehachapi Pass.  Otherwise, the I-15 comes in from Las Vegas and carries southward into San Bernardino and Temescal Valley east of Los Angeles.

The I-40 coast to coast freeway ends in Barstow, California

Officially, this would be the end of my I-40 journey.  Anything accreted to this would simply be off-topic musings.  Which I am not above, so I will continue like this:

Additional Coast to Coast Notes:

Tehachapi Pass is another stunning stretch of mountain road.  However, things get quotidian once you bomb out of the hills into the massive valley that encompasses Bakersfield and the other farming communities. 

Coast to Coast through Tehachapi Pass.

Bakersfield to Red Bluff, California is one of the worst stretches of road in the USA.  It is 400 miles of smoggy farmland along a battered highway.

The 99 / I-5 Transfer in Sacramento wasn’t pleasant.  Not only was this the first traffic I had seen the entire drive, but a massive skid plate spun out in front of my RV from the lane to my left.  I had no time to swerve, so I scooched my brand new investment to the edge of the lane and braced for impact.  It made quite the THUD.  Thankfully there is no visible damage.

The wind north of Sacramento was a menace.  When you drive a 500 sq. ft “wall” down the road, the wind pushes you around like a bully.  It is incredibly stressful in a state of counter-steer preparedness, and to still get gust walloped into the neighboring lane at a moment’s notice.

Once Mt. Shasta comes into view around Red Bluff everything improves — it is always a welcomed sight.   The drive into Redding is beautiful at sunset.

west coast town of Redding.

Redding is a spectacular-looking town at the base of the Siskiyou Mountains.  However, the homeless/meth problems plaguing California exist here to an alarming degree.

I stayed at Walmart.  The walk across the parking lot presented several interesting scenarios:  I saw two carloads of people who appeared to be down and out, probably with drug problems; there was a husband yelling at his wife; a child fell down while crossing in front of a car and was yanked up by her mother.  I saw the longest, most drawn out face of my lifetime attached to a young, homeless man pushing a shopping cart of belongings.

Inside the store I saw two – Two! – men limping dramatically in under five minutes*.  How often do you see someone with a leg-dragging limp?  Not that often.  How often do you see two of them?

*Funny note: I now walk with a leg-dragging limp after tweaking my knee while wrestling with my five-year-old nephew. Oh, the irony.

After I paid for my energy drinks and caesar salad, I stepped into another line where a gal was checking receipts near the exit. I immediately knew the score — the addicts are ripping off the store.

“Walmart started checking receipts? Some town you’ve got here.”  

She muttered something about “progress,” in pitch perfect disgust.

Walmart RV parking

Do you see that blue tower inside the store in the above photo? That’s where my receipt was checked.

Six weeks before my arrival here, a 39-year-old woman shot someone a few blocks away, carjacked a vehicle, drove said vehicle into the Walmart building, then attacked two police officers with knives. She was shot dead by the officers.

I hadn’t showered in five days and my eyes were pretty baggy, but the baggy eye competition taking place in the parking lot wouldn’t even accept my registration.  Now, I’d never expect to win the contest, not with all the meth and heroin abuse going on.  But I wasn’t even considered!  They told me to get a job and produce.

Perhaps these weary pilgrims had traveled from distances further than I, like rock bottom, the end of their rope, or the depths of hell. The boundaries of the USA only stretch so far, but the depravities of a meth encampment extend far into the abyss of human frailty.

By the way, I am a psych nurse by trade. I take care of these very people for a living. It’s funny how when they’re in my care I see their humanity quite clearly, but when they’re congregated in a public space it rankles my sensibilities. Maybe it is a safety thing. Maybe it is a NIMBY thing. Perhaps we are different people in different places. Perhaps it is the difference between hopeful and hopeless.

Coast to coast into the Siskiyou mountains

The next morning was gorgeous driving through the Siskiyou Mountains. It would have been even more spectacular heading the other direction, but that’s just nutty to contemplate at this juncture in the trip. I would arrive in Seattle about 3:00 pm that afternoon.

Coast to coast in the Siskiyou mountains.

The Coast to Coast Conclusion:

Expectations are funny. I fully expected to utilize my time — all 55 hours of it — to contemplate life or write stories in my head. What else would I do propped up at the wheel for five straight days? Honestly, I mostly looked out the windows, sang along with the music, and thought about baseball. By no means was this a life altering experience.

That said, it is always assuring to set my mind to a difficult task and tackle it without fear. The years have taught me this is within my abilities.

Missing family was the hardest part. This is a bittersweet feeling. While it was nice to get a break and be by myself, everything becomes empty without the ones I love most.

When I pulled up at the house, Monica was filming from the driveway. She was probably nerve wracked the entire time, afraid I would have a terrible accident and leave her all alone with the children. That is each of our biggest fear. “Don’t leave me… with them.”

The kiddos were so excited to check out the Newmar. I showed them all the moving parts and we had a movie night that evening to try it out. Tommy Boy was the selection.

Sometimes we go through hell a little bit to get to Heaven. Many years down the road the first 55 hours will seem insignificant by comparison. We are blessed. The purchase of this coach opens another chapter in our lives, perhaps the wildest one yet. We can only hope.

If you would like to read about the less glamorous side of RV ownership, check out our article, Don’t Be Afraid to Buy an RV: Be Very Afraid and Buy One Anyway. It seems more appropriate now than ever.

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