Driving NYC to Seattle
August 4, 2004 8:00 PM   Subscribe

I want to drive solo from New York City to Seattle, taking a northern route. I am female, 35 years old. My family thinks I am absolutely insane to do this alone. The thought of having to make small talk for 2800 miles makes me want to weep. Is this trip really that dangerous? I have driven to Florida solo many times, and I have made a cross country trip (LA-NYC in 1991) before, so I have some idea what I am in for. I will have AAA, a cel phone, and probably a CB radio to stay in touch. Also, anyone offering any advice, tips, routes-- it would all be appreciated. Thank you!
posted by astruc to Travel & Transportation (43 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Dangerous? How? I'm serious -- are you planning to drive all the way up to Yellowknife or something? Why would it be any more dangerous than any other stretch of road in the US?
posted by aramaic at 8:20 PM on August 4, 2004

Your family is completely paranoid.
posted by ook at 8:21 PM on August 4, 2004

Bring a lot of very good tunes, a couple of packs of cigarettes and don't pick up any hitchhikers. There's nothing like a good smoke and great music on a road trip.
posted by ashbury at 8:22 PM on August 4, 2004

Response by poster: They're worried that I'll break down on a deserted road and be mauled by a pack of wild dingos. Or something equally wonderful, I suppose. (Do we even have dingos in the U.S.?)
posted by astruc at 8:23 PM on August 4, 2004

no dingos : >

it'll be fine...promise you'll call them each night from a safe motel (next to a police station or something). I'd stay on the interstates.
posted by amberglow at 8:24 PM on August 4, 2004

Check out this thread. It has some great tips for long drives, with which I've become quite familiar.
posted by Scottk at 8:42 PM on August 4, 2004

I've driven to and from Minneapolis to the Jersey shore, Minneapolis & Atlanta, Minneapolis & Chicago, Tucson & LA, and a bunch of other long stretches alone and without a cellphone on many of the trips. You'll be fine, but you already knew that.

Make it fun for your family too by calling them when you see or meet someone/thing interesting.

I'm sure that I don't have to tell you things like only take car-naps in well lit, heavy traffic areas; don't pick up hitchhikers, etc.
posted by Juicylicious at 8:44 PM on August 4, 2004

Can I come? I'll sit in the back with my headphones on. Seriously - you won't know I'm there unless you get bored and wanna break out the travel bingo. I'll warn you though, sara: I can spot random roadside miscellany with the best of 'em.
posted by Hankins at 8:46 PM on August 4, 2004

I've had good experience with Craigslist passengers. It's nice to have someone to trade off driving with after six hours when your butt goes numb, and it's also nice to have someone else pony up for the gas every other pitstop. Just nap while they're driving, and turn the music up if they try to chat while you're driving. Your milage may vary, of course.

Seriously though, if you want the solitude (and numb butt), I say just go for it. Tell your family that you're smart enough to pull over when you get sleepy and that you won't pick up any dangerous-looking hitchhikers. Just harmless-looking ones.
posted by bonheur at 8:46 PM on August 4, 2004

Get a tuneup before you go; get a car stereo that plays MP3 cd's, second the smokes... US 2 through Montana is really pretty. your family *is* paranoid.
posted by notsnot at 8:52 PM on August 4, 2004

I took a solo trip on I-90 and I-94 from Chicago to Seattle in 2001, with a few off-interstate forays to Mount Rushmore and Devil's Tower on the way. Traffic was quite light until Western Montana where it bumped up to moderate around the major cities and on the plateau west of Spokane.

The only real hazard I can recallf is herds of largish wildlife (pronghorn and deer) wandering on the road after dark in states like Wyoming and Montana. If you stay at a respectable chain motel and keep to the interstates, the experience should be quite mundane and not much of an adventure at all.
posted by cardboard at 8:52 PM on August 4, 2004

Roads are generally safe, but here are a few precautions: take a cell phone (and keep it charged); get AAA or see if your car manufacturer offers road-side assistance; don't pick up hitchhikers or stop for stranded motorists --- just note the next mile marker and call it in to the highway patrol (*11 in many areas will get you right to them); and if you break down, call for road-side assistance and keep inside your car with your doors locked and your windows rolled up or just cracked --- if someone stops to help, stay in your car and from behind the closed window smile, tell them you've just called the highway patrol and that they'll be by in a minute... then thank them and wave them on.

As for route: from NY, definitely go to Chicago and taken in the sights. Then from Chicago you can go south(ish) on I-80 and go through Salt Lake City (beautiful country) then to Lake Tahoe (wow!) and up I-5 to Seattle through the _extremely_ beautiful Oregon Cascades and Portland. This southerly route will also take you within side-trippin' distance of Jackson Hole and Yellowstone. Or take the northerly route on I-90 which will take you through road-side attraction heaven of the Northern Plains, and within striking distance of Glacier National Park (wow!)... from there it's a couple hours to Spokane, then through the desert (really... check out the Grand Coulee Dam) and over the mountains to Seattle. Once you're in the area, day trip down to Mount Saint Helens and/or up to Vancouver BC (short trip). If you have a little cash, take a tour of the Orcas Islands... very pretty.

Have fun!

PS... If you're worried about deer, then I'd suggest getting whistlers (little ultra-sonic whistles which attach to your car with suction cups and whose "silent" whistle supposedly keeps deer at bay).
posted by silusGROK at 9:00 PM on August 4, 2004

Traffic was quite light until Western Montana where it bumped up to moderate around the major cities.

Heh...considering the largest city in Western Montana only has ~60,000 people.

Back on topic: first, I understand your family's concern -- if it was one of MY daughters, I'd be freaking out to some degree, too. But that's not exactly rational -- but parents are allowed to be irrational about their children. Second, follow all of the advice above -- have a cell-phone, and even consider getting a cheap "pay-as-you-go" cell phone just in case your primary phone dies/breaks/etc. Third, consider having a weapon of some sort in your vehicle: gun, taser, crowbar, or *something* -- just in case.

And if you have any friends/relatives/trustworthy acquaintances between Point A and Point B -- call them and arrange for a meeting in their location when you hit their town. Just another layer of safety.

Best wishes -- be safe -- happy trails.
posted by davidmsc at 9:08 PM on August 4, 2004

Just do it...you'll have a blast.
posted by rushmc at 9:34 PM on August 4, 2004

If your route takes you through states where tourism is a significant industry (such as South Dakota or Wyoming), try to schedule your drive after Labor Day. Less traffic, gas and lodging will be cheaper, fewer speed traps.

You can pick up I-90 in New York and it will take you all the way through to Seattle. If you haven't seen them before, I suggest side trips to the Badlands in SD, Mt. Rushmore (stay overnight at Custer Game Lodge -- get a cabin), Yellowstone, and Utah if you have the time. The intersection with I-94 is not deja vu -- the two interstates actually cross 6 times. If you like bridges, you'll love crossing Lake Washington into Seattle (two of the longest floating bridges in the world carry I-90 east and west).
posted by joaquim at 9:35 PM on August 4, 2004

I'll go North when I make the trip again. What is your time frame? What do you want to get out of the trip? If time is not an issue, why not skip the big cities?
I had a great time in the Dakotas - the Badlands are amazing, the people are quite nice, the food was good and there was more to do and see (although some of it was very touristy) than I expected.
Montana, Northern Idaho and Wyoming are all quite gorgeous, with nice hearty meaty meals and nice folks all around. Orygun has its share of nice sites - the Coast, Mount Hood, lots of great little towns and gas you can't pump yourself. Mount Saint Helens is amazing too!
Gear: satellite radio or loads of music for the times the scan button can't find a station for miles, several cameras if you can, lots of water, calling cards for the areas a cell is good only for taking up space...
As for the music and books on tape and all that: on one of my trips, my music time decreased every day until I just used the radio to check the time. There's too much scenery and viewing and areas to stop and poke around that are too damn good for any music whatsoever. That's the best time to pull out some Whitman and have a church session of your own.
posted by TomSophieIvy at 9:47 PM on August 4, 2004

Not dangerous.

Good advice so far, especially getting a general inspection of the car.

Only thing I'd add is making sure you bring clothing such that you'd be fine if you had to be outside for an extended period of time. This is less of a concern if you're not driving in the winter.
posted by rudyfink at 10:03 PM on August 4, 2004

Not dangerous unless you skimp on sleep and aren't at all careful about the condition of your car.

Get 8 hours of solid rest at night, don't drive more than 12-14 in a day. In fact, I'd consider at least one 24 hour break from driving period sometime during your trip.

Get your car checked out by a trusted mechanic before you leave, check the tires and oil periodically, and chances are slim something will go wrong. Having AAA and a cell phone can't hurt for backup, tho'.

And, of course, audiobooks. I might add, though, that sometimes I find it helpful to up your cell minutes for a month and call friends/family frequently while you're driving... the interactivity helps.
posted by weston at 10:04 PM on August 4, 2004

(Oh yeah -- do check on the weather. I've had some very scary winter moments on Interstates. Warm clothing and probably even a good low temperature sleeping bag just in case are a good idea if travel falls then.)
posted by weston at 10:07 PM on August 4, 2004

Deer Whistles. And have fun. Remember, thousands of slack-jawed truckers* do this every day of their underpaid lives. It ain't rocket science. Also, books on tape/CD/mp3 are your friend.

*I used to drive truck. I am therefore allowed to say this.
posted by stet at 10:09 PM on August 4, 2004

I crossed the country alone once, and with another person another time, on I-80 and I-70, respectively.

Most 'dangerous' events: there wasn't a hotel room to be found in Des Moines or Omaha and I had to keep going till Lincoln till I finally found a room at 4 AM; once, I was really, really low on fuel when I pulled into the station.

In other words, not dangerous. Follow the good advice everyone's given above and have fun.
posted by Zed_Lopez at 10:53 PM on August 4, 2004

In May I drove my wife and infant child from Seattle to Ohio and back. We pulled a travel trailer and took the southerly route (I-84-94) east thinking the weather would be nicer, but crossing the continental divide was difficult. I recommend bringing a c.b. with weather radio. The weather radio worked everwhere and warned us of some scary storms.

The trip back was easier. We followed I-90 all the way to Seattle. I don't think that it was as scenic overall, but we really enjoyed the Black Hills and the wildlife in Custer State Park.

We never drove more than 10 hours in a day and usually avoided driving at night. We stayed in campgrounds, both private and public, and always seemed to find decent accomodations. We found the "2004 Trailer Life Directory" to be very useful with accurate descriptions and ratings.
posted by laptop_lizard at 11:31 PM on August 4, 2004

You'll be fine. Ditto all the above advice, but I would be very careful about what kind of "weapon" I had in the car. Cops tend to be jumpy if they see things like guns and tasers, and it's something you'd have to keep secure, et cetera. Much better to have a heavy wrench or something with you, if you feel like you have to have some means of self-defense.

Have a decent emergency kit in case of breakdown: blanket, fix-a-flat, maybe an MRE or two, plenty of water, a quart or two of oil, some coolant/antifreeze, duct tape, pair of pliers, jumper cables, tire gauge, et cetera.

Read Car Talk's Trip Planner and Summer Driving Tips.

And a GPS can be useful, but certainly isn't essential. Have fun!
posted by Vidiot at 11:42 PM on August 4, 2004

I did a similar trip during college on a motorcycle by myself. It is still one of the most memorable experiences of my life. By all means, do it.

If you want to read my travelogue, please search my weblog or email me and I'll send you the link.
posted by gen at 12:00 AM on August 5, 2004

> no dingos

Yeah, but we got some pretty in-your-face armadillos in south Georgia and Florida. If y'all made it past them going north-south, the east-west trip should be a piece of cake.
posted by jfuller at 4:59 AM on August 5, 2004

Okay - here's my question: what's with all the "don't pick up hitchhikers" advice? Do we have any confirmation that hitchiking is proof of membership in ASKA (American Serial Killers Association)? Or is this one of those "better safe than sorry" bits when the chance of being sorry is so vanishingly small as to be negligible?

And what kind of paranoid freak lives by this advice: "if someone stops to help, stay in your car and from behind the closed window smile, tell them you've just called the highway patrol and that they'll be by in a minute... then thank them and wave them on" That's a pretty unpleasant mental space to be living in Grok.

Here's my advice - get the car checked out, take the trip. And, if the point is to see some of the country, DON'T stick to the Interstates - there are lots of nice bits of the country to be seen from old country roads. Trust your instincts when it comes to people, but don't be paranoid. Most people are better sorts than the media would have you expect.

Oh, and tell your family to STFU. You're 35 for heaven's sake. Aren't you old enough to run your own life?
posted by Irontom at 5:18 AM on August 5, 2004

Response by poster: Everyone, thanks for all the advice. I'm going to go ahead and do it. Irontom: I had a stroke a few years ago so my mom worries about me more, I think. She's a mom, what I can I say?
posted by astruc at 5:48 AM on August 5, 2004

Best answer: I am a 35 year old woman and I have done this trip solo many many times. I have even slept in rest areas which I don't recommend for absolute safety but it worked for me. It's basically no more dangerous than the subway, meaning the random crazy thing might happen once in a while but there's no sense staying home worrying about that. You are taking every precaution you could reasonably be expected to take. The only thing you didn't mention which might up your safety level is a basic toolkit including duct tape [which saved my ass on the side of an Idaho highway once] and maybe an adjustable wrench, can of fix-a-flat, a few spare fuses and a screwdriver. Make sure you have a spare tire and jack and know how to use them [though AAA will also know how to use them if you don't]. A spare gas can is helpful, so is a spare gallon of water, for many reasons.

As far as driving advice goes: 84/86 across southern NY is really pretty lovely. The Badlands in South Dakota are really astonishing if you've never seen them [and hotels are CHEAP in SD] and there's a scenic route so you don't have to just buzz through them on the interstate. You can go South through Wyoming or make the longer trip through Montana to get to Seattle and I find both routes pretty pleasing. Missoula is a great last night before Seattle since it's a pretty easy 6-8 hour drive from there to the city [hotels also pretty cheap there]. I know an awesome B&B in Glenview MT if you need a recommendation [one day from Missoula].

I have a couple travelogs up in various places. One is here. Feel free to email/IM if you need any more information. Drink a lot of water on your trip -- frequent bathroom breaks make for a less tired driver -- and have fun.
posted by jessamyn at 6:02 AM on August 5, 2004

And what kind of paranoid freak lives by this advice: "if someone stops to help, stay in your car and from behind the closed window smile, tell them you've just called the highway patrol and that they'll be by in a minute... then thank them and wave them on" That's a pretty unpleasant mental space to be living in

Frankly, that's what life is like for a woman. I try not to live there, but any letters sent there will definitely reach me.

However, I wouldn't for a minute tell astruc not to make the drive. Take the already stated precautions, and be sure to listen to your spidey-sense creepy meter. And enjoy the scenery.
posted by JanetLand at 6:12 AM on August 5, 2004

A friend of mine, a 24 year old female, recently drove from the Carolinas to San Francisco by herself over a few days, and she did great. She even managed to get on the Internet most nights and get in some exercise at the gym! As long as you aren't tagging the backest of the back roads, remotest America is actually pretty developed ;-)
posted by wackybrit at 6:18 AM on August 5, 2004

what's with all the "don't pick up hitchhikers" advice? Do we have any confirmation that hitchiking is proof of membership in ASKA (American Serial Killers Association)?

Actually, picking up hitchhikers isn't the problem.. it's people who aren't hitchhikers and who are pretending they are who are the problem. ;-) There is absolutely no reason to put yourself at risk by picking up strangers unless you really want to. It's good advice not to pick up hitchhikers as it reduces the risk just a teeny-weeny bit.

Anyway, I'd love to do that drive one day. A lot of people seem to worried about the whole solitary thing, but that's why I'd do it!
posted by wackybrit at 6:32 AM on August 5, 2004

Lots of good tips so far, but no one has mentioned tunes. I highly recommend getting an XM or Sirius (Sirius is my choice) satellite radio setup. Nonstop music & talk programs all the way across the country--no fading out as you drive along.

Also take a decent camera and have people take pictures of you at cool places along the way. You might end up with some neat new shots to frame for your desk.
posted by Tubes at 7:15 AM on August 5, 2004

I second jessamyn's suggestion of Duct Tape in the toolkit. It comes in handy if, say, your wheelwell decides to partially detach itself from the rest of your car on a highway in the middle of Wisconsin. {true story}
posted by ScottUltra at 7:26 AM on August 5, 2004

Yes, women have to be more paranoid about driving solo. Just be careful which rest stops you stop at, remember the busier the better! In the absence of a rest stop, try to stop at a restaurant to pee - there are usually more people around. And do pay attention to who might be watching you. Don't let paranoia get to you, but it never hurts to be alert.
posted by agregoli at 7:33 AM on August 5, 2004

Response by poster: Don't worry, I've lived in NYC most of my life. I have a finely tuned sense of radar for trouble. Also, I plan to avoid driving much at night, mostly because I think 7 hours in the car per day is about all I am good for. And then there's the fact that I'm bringing my cat, so that will slow me down some as well.

I'll make sure I have a toolkit, and I'm looking at iPod mounts as we speak for the tunes. Jessamyn, thanks for the links to your trip stories, I plan to read every word.

I probably won't do too much in the way of sightseeing, mainly beacuse of el gato, but I hope to squeeze in the Badlands somehow.
posted by astruc at 7:43 AM on August 5, 2004

Lots of good tips so far, but no one has mentioned tunes. I highly recommend getting an XM or Sirius (Sirius is my choice) satellite radio setup. Nonstop music & talk programs all the way across the country--no fading out as you drive along.

Funnily, as a European, this isn't something that would have come to mind. I can get my favourite radio station everywhere in the UK :-) (on FM!)

If I were in the US, I'd probably just listen to the local stations or have an MP3 player with me. Surely listening to the local stations is part of the experience.. you get to suck up the accents as you go.
posted by wackybrit at 8:55 AM on August 5, 2004

I have even slept in rest areas which I don't recommend for absolute safety but it worked for me.

Rest Areas are the free motels/campgrounds of the Interstates! Highly recommended for catching a few z's, stretching legs, washing up & salty vending machine snacks.

Bonus: Trucks and truckers but no lot lizards.
posted by birdsong at 9:05 AM on August 5, 2004

For inspiration, I recommend William Least Heat-Moon's Blue Highways (named after the small state and county roads marked blue on maps). After his marriage broke up and he lost his job on the same day, he traveled back roads all around the country and met interesting people in obscure places.
posted by kirkaracha at 9:15 AM on August 5, 2004

I'll add afew more thoughts. Get your car checked out a week before you leave rather than the day you leave. That way if the shop forgets to tighten your rad cap or something you'll know and have time to deal with it. Make sure to have your wheels retourqued if the check up includes take them off. With such a long trip it would be good to have your oil changed before you leave.

Also learn how to check tire pressures and buy your own guage for your car. Way more dangerous than a hitch hiker who may be a serial killer is an underinflated tire at highway speeds. Most of the exploding tire/SUV roll overs you hear about start with a tire blow out caused by underinflation.
posted by Mitheral at 9:30 AM on August 5, 2004

You've already taken some solo trips. Why stop now? Go for it.
posted by onhazier at 9:50 AM on August 5, 2004

Cat! Why didn't you say so? I have also travelled from NY to Seattle in a Geo Metro with two cats. Here is some road-trip-with-cat advice.
- Litter box in back. You probably know this but it's good to repeat. Cats will rarely use it, especially at the beginning of a trip, but they will use it. Put it on the floor behind one of the seats. You can get a smallish one that's disposable and won't take up too much room.
-Get a dorky harness for your cat if he or she is running free, the kind with the clip-on leash. It's much easier to clip a leash onto an already harnessed cat than it is to put a harness on one. Then you can open the door without freaking out that the cat will escape.
- There are some really good pet travel bowls that have lids so you can unlid it and food and water are right there, re-lid it and food and water are safe and separate. They are useful.
- Have a strategy for how to keep kitty from wedging themselves under the brake/gas pedal.
The cats I was travelling with would whine like hell for the first 30 minutes of the trip and then would lay down and sleep or cuddle for the remainder of the day. Having a box or somethign that is window level sp that the cat can see out seems to make them happy. Also remember that free cats in the car means no wide open windows so think about that for toll booths, air flow and whatever other reason you might have to open your windows [toll booths were the real bite-you-on-the-ass part of our trip because we were never prepared for them]
posted by jessamyn at 11:01 AM on August 5, 2004

Response by poster: Jessamyn, thanks so much, but Umlaut and I are road trip pros by now. We've gone back and forth to Florida together at least four times from NYC. She's very road-worthy. Though I am going to take your advice about a smaller litter pan, since I am tired of trying to cram the behemoth on the floor behind the passenger seat.

I think, though, if I tried to get her into a harness she'd give me the little kitty finger.
posted by astruc at 11:36 AM on August 5, 2004

Surely listening to the local stations is part of the experience.. you get to suck up the accents as you go.

Not unless you like listening to Clear Channel or the sixth straight hour of Morning Edition. Local radio, unless you have a particular station in mind, sucks badly in the United States. Bring your own music unless you find Radio Disney to be the best music on the radio.
posted by calwatch at 9:27 PM on August 5, 2004

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