Lessons Learned: Road Tripping from Iowa to Olympia

Lessons Learned Road Tripping from Iowa to Olympia

We made it!  Are you surprised?  I hope so, because we certainly are!  There were so many times during the trip when we thought we weren’t going to make it to our house sitting job in Washington.  Whether it was being turned away at the border, realizing that we didn’t have the right tires, being chased by bad weather or testing our personal limits during cold nights in the van – we definitely had an eventful drive.

Now that we’ve settled in for a winter of house sitting, I can look back and appreciate all of the ups and downs of the trip.  Here are some of the lessons we learned driving from Iowa to Washington (lessons from the first half of the trip are here).

1) The second half of the drive was much prettier. 

I feel a bit bad saying that because I like to give all places an equal opportunity to shine, but honestly, it’s hard to compete with the simple beauty of the Prairies and the majestic Rockies.

2) Mount Rushmore is worth the detour.

If you’re driving on the I-90, the detour to Mount Rushmore adds about an hour of driving time to your route, plus the time it takes to stop and visit it.  We decided to go for it because we’d heard it was neat and hadn’t had time to stop for any other tourist attractions along the way.  We spent a few minutes flipping through books in the gift shop to learn more about it first, and it magnified our appreciation of the sculpture by a factor of 1000.  Seeing pictures of men dangling from ropes on the edge of a cliff and chipping away at a rock face in order to carve out gigantic portraits of their preferred presidents was really impressive.

3) State Troopers are sneaky.

At the end of a 12-hour day of driving, on a dark deserted highway in Wyoming, going less than 60 km/h (~40 mph), we saw a dreadful flash of lights in our rearview mirror and were forced to pull over by a State Trooper.  We couldn’t figure out why – maybe because we were driving too slow?  The officer asked us a bunch of questions and said he was pulling us over because one of our headlights was out.  That was a surprise to us because we would have noticed if one of them was out while driving in the pitch black night.  After a quick check to make sure they were fine, he concluded that it must have been another vehicle he had seen (impossible!  we were the only ones on the road!), and let us go.  We think he just needed an excuse to pull us over because we had suspicious Ontario license plates.

4) Gas stations are farther apart.

Between Iowa and Idaho we noticed that rest stops and gas stations were becoming farther and farther apart.  After one close call, we decided to top up our tank at almost every gas station we passed by just to be on the safe side.  It made the drive a lot less stressful for us, especially since our fuel gauge lies to us and is permanently stuck on super full.

5) Montana has nice towns.

I was reading Bill Bryson’s The Lost Continent when we first started the road trip, but I stopped partway through it because I felt like he was being too negative about the small towns he was visiting on his road trip.  It wasn’t until we stopped in a couple of really nice towns in Montana that I realized he had been right about so many others we had driven through – they blended together into an indistinguishable sea of McDonalds, Walmarts and people dressed from head to toe in camo gear.  For something different, you should visit Bozeman and Missoula.  They have pedestrian friendly downtowns, cute cafés, health food stores and they even know what a vegetarian is!

6) Idaho borders Canada.

We didn’t know Idaho was on our route until we drove past a sign that welcomed us there – isn’t that terrible?  We actually stopped to check our map because we thought we had maybe made a wrong turn somewhere.  In our defence, it’s an oddly shaped state with a pointy piece that wedges itself between Montana and Washington and right up to the Canadian border.  I can see why they wanted to have that bit though – it’s a stunningly beautiful area with lakes and mountains everywhere.  Definitely worth a visit!

7) Snoqualmie Pass is intense.

With only a couple of hours to go before we made it to our final destination, we thought we were in good shape.  The weather was nice and we were going to arrive in Olympia early.  And then, while quietly pumping gas and minding our own business, a random guy came up to us and said something like “I hope you’re not driving through Snoqualmie today” and then left.  We were like um…wtf is Snoqualmie?  Do we have to go there?  Turns out that we did have to go there, and that Snoqualmie is a high altitude mountain pass that happened to have an intense winter travel advisory with snow, slush and below-zero temperatures at the summit.  We went for it even though our van doesn’t do very well in snowy wet conditions and it was intense but drivable with our winter tires.  We definitely suggest tuning into the AM radio channel listed on the signs leading up to the pass so that you know what conditions to expect.

Then, after traveling for 22 days and 5,150 kms (3200 miles), we arrived in Olympia, WA and our road trip across the country was suddenly over!  Here’s a time-lapse video Mat made of the entire trip + some pics from the road.

Windmills in Iowa - Exploring Alternatives

I-90 West Road Sign - Exploring Alternatives



Mount Rushmore - Exploring Alternatives

Driving West on the I-90 - Exploring Alternatives

Driving between a train and a river on the I-90 West - Exploring Alternatives

Driving through fog on the I-90 West - Exploring Alternatives


Lake Mountains Road and Snow on the I-90 West - Exploring Alternatives

Dirty Van - Van Life - Exploring Alternatives

Snoqualmie Pass in Washington State on the I-90 West - Exploring Alternatives



Coming down from Snoqualmie Pass on the I-90 West - Exploring Alternatives

Greenery in Washington State - Exploring Alternatives

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8 thoughts on “Lessons Learned: Road Tripping from Iowa to Olympia

  1. Jessica Neil

    Danielle, the writing here is both poignant and hilarious, and Matt’s pictures are stunning!! Excellent work. Considering an art show of your adventure when the winter is over?? (Hint hint) :D

  2. Joey

    Just wondering what year and model is your van? Is it a V6 or V8 engine? What kind of MPG do you get?
    Have you had many mechanical problems along the way?

    Thank you !

    1. Danielle Chabassol Post author

      Hi Joey, thanks for asking! The van is a 2002 Ford E-150 with a V8 engine. On the 40+ hour trip we did last week we got 22 MPG when we had the van on cruise control at ~55 miles per hour and 19 or 20 MPG when we had the van on cruise control at 60 miles per hour.

      We’ve had to replace a few things in the van this year: the battery, serpentine belt, idler pulley and belt tensioner, and we also had new front brakes installed. Other than that we’ve just had to do the regular maintenance like changing the oil, fuel filter, coolant, etc. I hope that helps!

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