I'm Driving Across The Country in November
October 16, 2010 5:47 AM   Subscribe

How do I prepare for a drive across the country (probably on I-80) in early November?

I'm driving from Lambertville, NJ to Mountain View, CA from Nov 5 - 10 or so. I have plans to stop in Chicago and possibly dip down to Boulder. I also could drop down to Phoenix and then drive to Southern California and then up to Mountain View if going south helps me.

Do I need to purchase chains for my tires? Should I expect trouble crossing over the Rockies?

Would it be better to head south at some point? (Keep in mind I've gotta go through Chicago).

Are there any places to eat I should check out along the way? I won't have time for a lot of tourism, but don't mind stopping off for some roadfood (and yes, I know about roadfood.com, which is why I'm stopping off again for a loose beef sandwich in Iowa).

Any tips for how to put together an emergency bag just in case?

I assume early November is probably a bit early for bad snow, but I don't know. I've also heard horror stories about the wind in Wyoming. Any and all advice appreciated.
posted by JakeWalker to Travel & Transportation (21 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Might help if you let us know what kind of vehicle you'll be driving...
posted by HuronBob at 6:16 AM on October 16, 2010

Best answer: I've done the I-80 drive, and if you plan on doing it in five days, you really won't have a lot of time to sit down and wine and dine. I would suggest staying north rather than dipping down to Boulder and certainly not going down to Phoenix just to go back up to Mountain View. I've driven through Wyoming and the wind was pretty harsh, but my car was pretty loaded down and NOT top heavy (I was driving a car with a low center of gravity) and didn't have too much trouble, other than the gradual lull of the wind made me pretty tired.

When I drove (last week of October through first week of November) I encountered only a dusting of snow in Nebraska, but you're only in Nebraska for a few hours, so I wouldn't worry about it. I didn't need chains for my tires over the Rockies, plus, if you've never driven with chains on your tires, driving on a big trip is not time to start.

Omaha has great food, you'll be driving through about six-ish hours after Chicago, and also where I had some of the best tacos ever at Taqueria Tijuana.

As for the emergency pack, have an entire case of water, and some sports drinks. Have a variety of dried fruits and nuts, a few quick pick-me-ups (Pop Tarts and individual baggies of Frosted Mini Wheats). Don't drink too much soda and try to keep your sodium level low so you're not constantly battling dehydration in such elevated climates. Bring chapstick (even if you aren't the chapstick wearing type), lotion, sunscreen, and two pairs of sunglasses. Have a rope that could be used to pull your car out of a ditch, a pair of jumper cables, and two quarts of oil, oh, and some of those roadside flairs. Oh and a solar powered cellphone charger in case you get stuck/stranded.
posted by banannafish at 6:40 AM on October 16, 2010

Check out Ole's in Paxton, NE. Good food, surrounded by taxidermy. What could be better? ;)

I seriously doubt you'll have any need to head south due to weather, even having to go through the Rockies. Chains would be a waste of money. Interstates are the first roads to be cleared when there is snowfall, and I doubt you'll see anything too bad (if anything at all) at that time of year.

While Boulder is a cool town, it's kind of out of the way. I personally wouldn't waste my time on it. Just head straight through Wyoming.

As for emergency gear, a cell phone is your best bet, which you probably already have. You could pack a small gas can if you're worried about running out, but if you have GPS that shouldn't be a problem.

Omaha is a good place to stop for the night coming from Chicago. There are a couple of reasonable hotels at the 72nd street exit (Holiday Inn, Comfort Inn), or if you take the 144th street exit you'll find some real cheap-o accommodations. (Disclaimer: I live in Omaha, so I'm biased ;)

Enjoy your trip!
posted by wwartorff at 6:50 AM on October 16, 2010

Best answer: The good thing about driving through places like Nebraska and Wyoming in the wintertime is that they are used to bad weather and prepared to deal with it. Unless you are driving down the interstate and a freak blizzard hits at that very instant, you won't run into any problems. The highway department clears the roads very quickly, and if conditions are bad enough that you won't be able to drive, they'll be very clear about that on the local radio stations. You really don't need any special precautions, especially taking into account that November is just the very beginning of winter and the chances of serious snow are small. Just pay attention to what's going on around you and you'll be fine.
posted by something something at 6:53 AM on October 16, 2010

Best answer: some of those roadside flairs

Both roadside flairs and roadside flares will get you attention in an emergency; it's up to you which sort of attention you are after.

I've done that drive plenty of times, and it's not that big of a deal. Five days isn't enough to do much off-freeway exploring. For food, I've always either just taken an exit and looked for the best option (hint: if you are tired of fried truckstop food, every Super Walmart sells fruit, yogurt, and other decent stuff in amounts small enough for a one-person lunch); alternatively, it can be fun to sit in your motel room the night before, figure out where you'll be at lunch, and see what sites like roadfood recommend.

I'd only deviate south if you get to Chicago and look at the weather forecast and see a huge storm coming in. I'd only bother with the tire chains if you really need to go over a pass that requires them in winter; otherwise it's usually easier -- if you have the time and forewarning -- to just deviate around the bad weather. If you do buy chains, practice putting them on in your driveway a couple of times, and imagine putting them on on the side of the freeway, in the dark, crouching in the slush. Some chains are a lot better designed than others, and you will thank yourself if you buy the better ones.
posted by Forktine at 6:58 AM on October 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

If you're sticking to I-80 I wouldn't worry about anything except perhaps carrying a little extra food and water and a cell phone just in case. If it were January or February I'd say winterize your car, particularly in regard to checking the antifreeze/water ratio so you don't have a frozen engine at some motel in Wyoming, but in early November there shouldn't be any real issues.
posted by crapmatic at 7:02 AM on October 16, 2010

Best answer: If you decide against the loose beef sandwich, you should check out the blog Des Loines, which is devoted to documenting and reviewing the pork tenderloin sandwiches of Iowa.
posted by craichead at 7:29 AM on October 16, 2010

Response by poster: I'm driving a 2009 VW Jetta w/ about 35,000 miles.
posted by JakeWalker at 7:38 AM on October 16, 2010

Best answer: For the record, Iowans generally call it a "loose meat sandwich," or a "Maid-Rite," not a loose beef sandwich. People are pretty friendly so nobody should give you a hard time, though.

The Iowa 80 truckstop, which claims to be the world's largest, is probably worth stopping at just so you can say you did.

If you're gonna spend a night, you could probably do worse than the Quad Cities. There's some cool bars in Moline and Davenport, as well as casinos, if you're into that sort of thing. There's some decent local restaurants there too, and it's right off I-80. Or stop in Iowa City--a legit cool place with lots of great bars (extra fun if the Hawkeyes are in town).

#1 piece of advice: Watch out for deer. I hit two in a ten-day period in early November a few years ago; they are everywhere in Iowa, and I hit one that was sitting in the left lane of I-80 near Des Moines at 2am. I'm lucky I juked and managed to graze it instead of hitting it full-on--those things are dangerous.
posted by j1950 at 7:38 AM on October 16, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks for the tips so far... It sounds like sticking on I-80 in early November ought to be okay... I did the drive to California from Michigan last summer, but did it by dipping down to Denver and heading through Vegas, and the climb through the Rockies there is what scared me. Sounds like staying on I-80 lets me avoid a lot of that worry. I saw all the pull-off and apply snow chain areas on that drive, which is what got me thinking about not being prepared for this trip.
posted by JakeWalker at 7:42 AM on October 16, 2010

I'm baffled at all the suggestions against chains; it's unlikely that weather will be that bad in November, but I-80 in California requires snow chains on 2WD vehicles several times each winter.

It's a good idea to have snow chains (you'll want them anyway if you ever want to go to Tahoe or Yosemite in the winter).

The last two times I made the trip, it was very hard to find lodging in parts of Wyoming because tons of people had moved into the area to work the shale oil. I don't know if this has gotten better; just be prepared that you might have to try 4 or 5 hotels before you find a room.
posted by base_16 at 8:00 AM on October 16, 2010

Oh, and this is probably obvious, but, bring some CDs or an iPod or something, because you're not going to get any radio stations in parts of Nevada.
posted by base_16 at 8:10 AM on October 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm in Omaha. There is a massive difference here between early November and late November. If you're coming through early in the month, I really think show tires are overkill.

Honestly, you are giving this more thought than is really warranted. You are not driving through the frozen unvisited Arctic tundra. You are not exploring uninhabited regions. You are driving on the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways, as you do anywhere else in the country, and the only real difference between there and here is that our gas stations and fast food joints are spaced slightly further apart.

If you do anything, bookmark each state's department of transportation's road advisory (e.g. Nebraska), and follow advice about road conditions. People say that we know how to drive in bad weather in the midwest. But really, that means that in bad weather, we know when not to drive. If you are packing a badass emergency kit, and are ready to fight your way through a storm, you are doing it wrong. If you bring your credit card and budgeted some extra money and are prepared to pull over and find a hotel and wait out bad weather, you are doing it right.

Also, don't stop at the world's largest truck stop in Iowa. I swear to God it's the most depressing place in the world. Basically you will walk in and observe shelves and shelves of crappy imported gift-shop trinkets, and then struggling to find purpose in your visit, you will order something from Wendy's, and then you will walk out and get back in your car, and you will feel no more knowledgeable yet somehow more empty than you did before you got off the interstate.

(This advice is valid for the period from Denver to Chicago; I don't know anything about driving in the rockies.)
posted by Sfving at 8:26 AM on October 16, 2010 [4 favorites]

I'd recommend a couple gallons of gas in an approved can. There are few feelings worse than being stranded out of cell phone range with an empty gas tank. Or the last 50 miles in Nevada where you're just waiting for the car to shut off and there's no gas close enough to save you.
posted by jz at 8:55 AM on October 16, 2010

I'd recommend a couple gallons of gas in an approved can. There are few feelings worse than being stranded out of cell phone range with an empty gas tank. Or the last 50 miles in Nevada where you're just waiting for the car to shut off and there's no gas close enough to save you.

Or better yet, just fill up whenever the tank gets half empty -- you probably need to pee and stretch your legs, anyway. The longest stretch of interstate with no gas stations in the continental US is only about 100 miles; you are not driving into the wilderness. You will only run out of gas if you don't pay attention to the gauge.

And, in the winter, you want to make sure you have gas in the tank in case there is a huge slowdown or a storm and you are stuck for hours, running the engine intermittently for heat. There's no need to carry extra gas, but there are very good reasons to not let your tank get empty.
posted by Forktine at 9:14 AM on October 16, 2010

Two things you probably won't need, but should have just in case
1. Blankets or sleeping bags, so you can survive being stuck with the engine off.
2. A shovel. (not a snow shovel). For those times when you need a shovel.
posted by hexatron at 11:07 AM on October 16, 2010

Best answer: You're about to do one of my favorite things, the solo cross-country dash -- enjoy!

By all means include Boulder if it's a mission objective. For some real fun, head west afterwards into Utah on I-70 and then pick up Route 50, where it becomes the Loneliest Highway in America -- take it across the Great Basin of Nevada. Incredibly empty territory, but with your car you'll be having no trouble. Take 50 to Reno and back on the I-80 and after Sacto, a triumphant entry into San Francisco across the Bay Bridge, before heading south on your final leg. (Best on a weekend or maybe noon, but abort this and use a 580-880-237 approach if your entry time to the Bay Area's anywhere around rush hour.)

I think SFving's truckstop advice applies to many of them, not just the world's largest. Don't avoid 'em entirely though, you'll definitely see some curious items for sale inside.

My advice to avoid or minimize the aches and pains (back and shoulders) associated with long-distance driving is to stop the car every hour or so and do something. (This isn't so important if you have cruise control.) Even if it's the middle of nowhere, just get out, stretch and walk around the car -- maybe walk away from it for a piece, and lie down (I guess November's the wrong month for you to be doing much of that, however). Enjoy the sounds or silence of wherever, then back into the machine and on your way. Maybe to continue listening to an appropriate book-on-tape, like The Grapes of Wrath, or even On the Road!
posted by Rash at 1:10 PM on October 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Podcasts on CD, an unlimited voice plan, and an ironclad law of stopping every 90 minutes to do something would have made my trips on I-80 (between Ohio and Utah, to and from) much happier. I swear, I thought the trip between LA and Vegas was the epitome of boring, but now I know better. Definitely stop in Cheyenne before you start going through Wyoming - my gosh that state is empty (at least on 80.)

Have several blankets and flares and extra water, but more for peace of mind and because paying $2 for a bottle of water is silly when you could have bought a case for $5 at the start of the trip. I'm also firmly of the belief that you can't have too many spare pairs of socks in your trunk, and that you should never remove your mid-weight coat from the car.

I enjoyed swinging by Fort Bridger. But I'm a Mormon history geek who thought the trip (theoretically about transporting my sister's worldly possessions to SLC) was an excellent excuse for touristy hijinks. Oh, and we didn't know that we have a buffalo farm near the family house in Ohio, so we made several detours in an attempt to see some, which was fun.

In the unlikely event that you care about Mormon history, MeMail me.
posted by SMPA at 1:16 PM on October 16, 2010

Forgot to mention: Cracker Barrel restaurants act as a sort of lending library for audio books. Pick one or two up at the one near home (you do pay for them). But then as you continue your trip you can turn them in for new ones at other Cracker Barrels. When finally at your destination, turn in the last one for a full refund.

Just stay away from the meatloaf.

posted by wwartorff at 3:36 PM on October 16, 2010

I'm from Iowa! Yay Maid-Rite! I can't tell you much about traveling on I-80 past the Iowa/Nebraska border...But!

I recommend eating at Taco John's, if you happen to see one (which you likely will). There you will find Potato Oles! They are delicious "tater tots" with special seasoning. They may not seem like they should be, but they are most excellent! Especially with sour cream! I also recommend their churros and soft beef tacos.

Also Steak 'n Shake. Get a shake (you may choose the flavor... :P) and a frisco melt!

Regarding The Iowa 80 Truckstop. It is near where I grew up, and is honestly not THAT impressive... at least in my opinion. But if you want to go to a really big truckstop. By all means. I also agree about bringing a reliable source of music/audio entertainment for when the radio fails you... and it will.

P.S. This is also a bit specific and localized... but in Eastern Iowa (at most gas stations and supermarkets), look for Sterzing's Potato Chips. They are a regional chip that my grandparents mail to relatives outside of the area because they are to be craved, apparently.
posted by RogueHolly at 4:08 PM on October 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks, all! I feel better now ;)
posted by JakeWalker at 5:27 PM on October 16, 2010

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