Go West, Young Man

It’s been nearly a year and a half since I embarked on my first journey out west. At the time, I was desperately needing to get away from just about everything. Many things in my life weren’t going as smooth as I would like and knowing that I’d never really been out that way, I decided to see parts of this beautiful country that I’d never seen before. Over the course of about a week, I drove 3,776 miles that took me to Iowa and Nebraska, Denver, Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon, Albuquerque, Oklahoma City, Kansas City, and so many places in between before returning home. Who knew southern Utah was so beautiful? I do now. But I wanted more. It was immediately after that trip that I made it a personal goal to see all fifty states at some point in my life. That trip put me at exactly half. That’s twenty-five for those who are reading this and still can’t figure out common core math yet.

However, this new adventure to the west was not at all like the one I took last year. Last year, as I said, I was looking to just get away and drive with no real purpose. This trip had a very big purpose. My younger brother, Matt, had decided to take the biggest leap of his life and move to Portland to attend law school at Lewis & Clark University. When he finally made his decision, I immediately offered to ride along with him, not just to check off a few more states which was merely an added bonus, but to be there with my brother as he made this life-altering move. He’d been living in Chicago for quite a few years, was looking for a change, and ultimately decided on Portland with Seattle coming in at a distant second. As someone who once moved from central Illinois to central Florida, I could certainly understand the desire and the need to leave home. Sometimes, you just need to try something new. I got it and I’ve been in his corner my entire life, so I certainly wasn’t going to try and change his mind, even though I know that not everybody was on board with this decision, at least not at the start. But I listened to him talk so passionately about wanting to do this, to really finally leave the nest and start his new life. It’s always inspiring to watch somebody, especially somebody you care about so deeply, take charge of his or her life and just go for it, no matter what anybody else thinks. So I got to spend five days with my brother as he transitions to his new life and see more of this beautiful country. Sounds good to me. Let’s ride.

I knew the first leg of the trip wouldn’t be overly exciting, but it’s obviously necessary, so we rolled up I-74 through west central Illinois to I-80 over into Iowa. As you might guess, there’s not a lot to see around here that I haven’t seen before. It’s cornfields and other types of farms for miles and miles and miles, which doesn’t bother me as I’m aware of how necessary it is to the country, but it’s obviously not the most aesthetically pleasing thing in the world. Seriously, the biggest attraction once you hit Iowa on I-80 is “The World’s Largest Truckstop”, which is basically a food court from a shopping mall, only a little bigger. Exciting stuff. I’ve driven past it on numerous occasions in the past, but I’d never stopped in. Boy, am I glad we did. Okay, maybe it’s just a very big gas station. But it’s Iowa and it’s not the “Field of Dreams”, so I’d go ahead and skip it unless you actually need gas, which we did. Normally, most people would keep on I-80 going west towards Denver, but we had a different agenda this trip, one of which was to completely avoid driving through Nebraska. Because let’s face it….it’s Nebraska. I’m sure there’s plenty of nice people that live there, but that state is just the worst. So, mission accomplished. As we hit Iowa City, we headed north on I-380N/IA-27N and US-218N towards Minnesota, stopping in Waverly, Iowa for lunch. What an experience that was. It actually wasn’t a bad little town, but the Iowa stereotypes were abundant, including three guys walking around in 95 degree heat in denim overalls with no shirts. Classic. And speaking of classic, that fourth picture you see below is my brother wearing the classic Burger King crown after a quick lunch. And we’re still hoping that the old lady we saw in the parking lot asleep in her car is alive. No, seriously, we weren’t really sure for a few minutes there.

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It was more of the same as we took I-35 North before we hit I-90 West in southern Minnesota. More farms, more windmills, more flat land. As we entered South Dakota that evening, we weren’t sure if we would see much before dark. But then all of a sudden, we came upon a rest stop in Chamberlain, South Dakota, a river town along the Missouri that was absolutely beautiful. And we happened upon it just as the sun was setting. I don’t believe I’ve ever spent that much time at a rest area. It was just so absolutely beautiful. Can’t you tell?

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We stopped for the night in Wall, South Dakota. Our original plan was to get as close as we could to Mount Rushmore that first day, and Wall was less than an hour and a half away from there so we called it a good day. We had started playing the license plate game in Iowa as well. That’s right. Two grown men were staring at license plates and actually writing them down to see how many we could get on our trip. That’s how much there is to see in Iowa. But we had collected quite a few thus far. I’ll share the total with you later, but we had a great first day and after we passed the Missouri River, it was easy to tell, even in the dark, that the scenery we’d get the next day would be a little different than what we’d experienced on day one.

We woke up in Wall and checked out of the hotel to make our way into town to Wall Drug, a roadside attraction that we’d seen signs for for hundreds of miles. We decided to see what the big deal was. Apparently, this place had once been just a lone drugstore in the 30’s, and now it attracts more than two million people every single year. It really is an adorable little spot with restaurants, shops, bars, and more, including a great breakfast buffet that I can personally vouch for. And the Zoltar machine from Big. I’m calling that a win on its own.

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It took a minute to get out of town, and I just took the first right I could to get back to the interstate and I ended up here. Just wanted to throw this out there.

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Another great thing about this trip was the fact that the 75th annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally was just starting up as we made our way through South Dakota. We saw hundreds upon hundreds of all different types of bikes as we made our way west. It was just an added bonus. And added license plates to boot. Anyway, our main objective on Thursday was to head to Mount Rushmore. Neither of us had ever been, and this was actually the main reason we chose to go this route in the first place. We continued on I-90 West towards Sioux Falls before heading south towards Mount Rushmore, driving through Keystone, which is small but very nice. It was a great little drive between Wall and the monument itself.

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There’s really not much to say about Mount Rushmore, as it really speaks for itself.

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Believe me, I took so many more pictures than what you see above. I tried to get it from as many different angles as I could in the time we allotted ourselves. But then I noticed there was a flag on the stage of the little amphitheater that resides there, so I took a walk down and just looked up, getting this great shot of the American flag and the monument.

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And of course, I made my brother take this ridiculous shot of me as well.

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And there’s always time for a quick beer at Mount Rushmore. South Dakota is “buffalo” everything, so what better beer to drink in the state than a stout called “Buffalo Sweat”, which was quite good. Overall, we were there for about an hour and it was worth every single minute.

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Now, the original plan was to just make our way back to I-90 and get as far as we could that day. The interstate basically wraps itself around the Black Hills National Forest into the state of Wyoming. And much like I felt with Utah last year, who knew that Wyoming would be as beautiful as it was. As we exited into Sundance for a quick rest, we noticed signs for Devil’s Tower, which my brother had heard was very cool, so we veered from the plan and hit the back roads towards the country’s very first national monument. See, you learned something today.

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We hung out there for a little while before getting back on the road to get back to the original plan, which is to drive as many miles as we could into Montana before resting for the night. The beauty of driving west is that each and every night, you’re given a beautiful sunset, and wouldn’t you know it, we happened upon this one at yet another rest area. This one actually had a deck on the back of the building so people can enjoy the view.

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We decided to stop in Billings for the night, but not before stopping off to take this hilarious picture at an abandoned gas station. Does everyone see the irony?

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We knew that Friday was going to be a long day of driving. Montana is just a very big state. Luckily, we were treated to so many great views throughout the day.

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There’s not a lot of big towns in Montana, but Butte is one of them and this is the view coming in. It doesn’t look that big from the interstate until you get closer, but it was a very cool town to see.

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The best part of Montana, however, I don’t even have a picture of. I had a conversation with this biker earlier in the day and we discussed where we had been and where we were going after listening to him talk about his 10,000 mile trip he was returning from. He also wasn’t shy about poking fun at all of the folks heading to Sturgis, explaining that really wasn’t his scene because he wasn’t one to just hang around the Harley-Davidson shop all day. It actually was quite comical, but I digress. He told us that if we were driving through that we needed to stop in Missoula. He told us that was his favorite town in Montana and that we’d enjoy ourselves. And he was exactly right. Missoula, Montana is fantastic. It’s just this little pocket in the western part of the state, and it’s actually home to the University of Montana. But it doesn’t even really feel like a college town. It’s just beautiful. Outside of the views, it’s got some great little breweries and restaurants and everyone we talked to was just so damn nice. If you’re ever out that way, do yourself a favor and check it out. Even my brother remarked that if things didn’t work out in Portland, he was moving to Missoula. Great stuff.

But as much as we wanted to stay and hang out, we needed to put some more miles in, so we jumped back on I-90 for some for fantastic Montana scenery.

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We only caught the panhandle as we entered Idaho, but what we did see was magnificent. There is one spot up there that is unbelievably beautiful. We didn’t take the time to stop, but Coeur d’Alene is definitely on my list of things to do if I ever get back out that way.

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After maybe an hour in Idaho, we made our way into Washington and hit Spokane pretty quick. We noticed a red hue in the sky, and after thinking it wasn’t normal, we soon found out there was a wildfire over the horizon, so that’s the first picture you see below. Spokane is also the home of Gonzaga, which was on my brother’s short list of schools. But after driving through, he’s quite certain there was a reason that he turned them down. I will also say that drivers in the northwest are just awful. There’s little regard for turn signals and safety in general, so we zipped through as quick as we could before happening on yet another beautiful sunset before stopping for the night in Kennewick, Washington, just a few miles before the Oregon border.

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We awoke on Saturday with only just over 200 miles to go before reaching our final destination. It was actually quite exciting to finally see mileage signs for Portland. You could see the excitement on my brother’s face and it was very cool to watch. Add to that the absolutely amazing drive along the Columbia River with Mount Hood in the background and you’ve got one hell of a Saturday morning.

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There’s also a little exit for “The Bridge of the Gods”, which gives you one of the most breathtaking views you’ll ever see in your life.

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Once we arrived in Portland, I will admit that I didn’t take any pictures. We went to his new apartment and got his lease signed, his things moved in, and met some of his new neighbors. We took a walk around his beautiful neighborhood and down a few blocks to check some things out before heading to the store to pick up a few things he’d need the first couple of days. But that night, we’d already decided that we were heading to the Pacific Ocean. I’d actually never set foot in it, so it was actually quite exciting for me. I’ve always been a water kind of guy and the sound of waves crashing is one of my favorite sounds in the entire world, perhaps only second to the sound of my children laughing. It was another 90 minutes each way in the car, but as you can see from the pictures below at Cannon Beach, it was worth the extra miles. We ate dinner at a great little bar and watched the sunset before heading back. And if you’re wondering why we just didn’t find a place there on the beach, believe me, we tried.

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We spent Saturday night at his place after numerous failed attempts to secure a decent hotel, but apparently Portland was booked solid. Out of the 224 options we were given, there were three available, none of which had a room under $400. Now, I like a good night’s sleep, but it was almost midnight on the west coast, so it felt like 2 a.m. to me. I knew that one night on the floor of my brother’s apartment wouldn’t hurt. And it actually was a really good night of sleep. Exhaustion was catching up to the both of us.

But I still had one more day there and we certainly weren’t going to waste it. We spent that Sunday taking a tour of the area. After walking down to get some coffee, we went for a drive around town, hitting each and every corner of Portland, which is just booming right now with growth, maybe even a little too much for the locals. We drove through this wonderful park, which was absolutely huge, but full of picturesque gardens, playgrounds, and views. We had lunch downtown where more than sixty food carts are lined up each and every day. And of course, we had to go to Target to pick up a few more essentials. We then made our way to the law school itself, which is tucked into a forest, making for a very quiet learning environment. We stayed there for about an hour walking around the law school and the undergraduate campus as well before heading back for our final evening.

We made our way back to Kells, a great Irish pub that we had actually hit up on Saturday night when we returned from the ocean. Sure, we had other options but we had liked it so much, we decided just to go back. The food is fantastic. The drinks are reasonably priced and they make a few of their own beers on site, which are very tasty. Yes, I could have taken pictures of all the things that we did in Portland, but I just wanted to be there with my brother as he explored his new home. I know I said it before, but just to watch his face fill with excitement as we drove around Portland and the surrounding areas was priceless. He would comment constantly that “I’m only an hour from this” or “I could go there and read”. After all these years, I truly believe this is where he’s supposed to be. He’s had to deal with so many things in his life just to be who he is. He’s had to face obstacles that I’ve never had to. But I can honestly say that I’ve never seen him look so comfortable in his own skin. He knows what he’s there to do. He’s there to start fresh. He’s there to live a new life. Sure, it may be a little more difficult to see him as often, but this is something that he needed to do. I’ve always been in my brother’s corner. No. Matter. What. That’s the way it is when you truly love somebody.

As he dropped me at the airport late Sunday night, we tried not to draw it out too much. We had five days to say the things that needed to be said and I’m quite certain we said them all. As we hugged it out, I simply told him to stay focused and that he was going to do great. I didn’t need to lecture him. He knows what he has to do. And I have no doubt that he’s going to do it. As I watched him drive away, I couldn’t help but get a little emotional. As a lone tear started to form, I knew it wasn’t because I was sad. It was because I’ve never been happier for him. And although it’s something I felt every single day since he was born, I’ve never been more proud that Matt is my brother.

As for me, I took the red-eye from Portland to Chicago, arriving back in Illinois on Monday morning at 6:26 a.m. I took the train into the city and walked about a mile to my sister’s house, where my mother had spent Sunday and was waiting for me. I spent a little time hanging out with my nephews before getting back in the car for yet another three hours back home. Over the course of five days, I had traveled nearly 5,000 miles via plane, train, and automobile. I had seen forty-four out of fifty state license plates. See, I didn’t forget to throw that in there. I think it’s actually quite impressive, and we also saw D.C. and four different Canadian provinces as well. I had taken my state total to 31, so there will certainly be more trips to cover the rest. But it was time to go home. Unfortunately, I have to deal with five-day stretches without seeing my daughters every two weeks, but this one seemed longer. It was amazing to be able to witness my brother start a new life, but I know that he’s going to be okay, so it was time to get back to mine.

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