Cross-country road trip: Benton Harbor MI, to San Diego CA

map showing the full route from benton harbor to san diego

01. Introduction and Day 1: Benton Harbor to York Nebraska
02: Day two: York Nebraska to Vail Colorado
03: Day three: Vail Colorado to Barstow California
04: Day four: Barstow California to San Diego

The days leading up to this road trip were the worst. There was nothing more in life that I was looking forward to than getting the heck out of Michigan and back to San Diego, and the freezing cold temperatures and wintery conditions were just toying with me. It’s like Mother Nature herself was making me miserable on purpose – for what reasons I do not know. All I could think about were palm trees and warm breezes, but the reality for the moment was sub-freezing temps and icy roads. I was so ready to get out of Michigan.

The morning of the departure finally came, and I finished up the last of my packing. I was moving to San Diego for good, which meant that anything I couldn’t fit in my 2002 Toyota Celica would have to be shipped via UPS. And given the cost of shipping stuff cross-country, that meant that only the absolute essentials would be given to the man in the brown uniform. I was pretty ruthless getting rid of all my stuff, figuring that there were indeed stores in San Diego, and I could (re)buy what I needed once I arrived.

I ended up taking two car loads of boxes to the UPS store that morning, and then I stuffed my Celica with whatever else I could for the cross-country journey. Anything left over would be given to neighbors or thrown in the trash. Ah, the simplicity of being young and single.

Day 1: February 11, 2004

first day route
My route for the very first day: Benton Harbor, MI to York, NB

I rolled out of town around 11:30am, only stopping to give the car a quick wash at the local do-it-yourself place. My poor car hadn’t been washed in weeks, and it was covered in road salt and other grime. I knew that it would get really dirty during this drive, but I wanted to start out fresh – and besides…the weather forecast looked pretty good all the way across the country assuming that I wouldn’t run into any delays. Just to let you know how desperate I was to start out with a clean car for this journey, the temperature still hadn’t reached above freezing. That meant I had to wash fast – but I still ended up with a layer of ice on the car once I was done. But it was clean! Sort of…

It felt so good to roll onto I-94 West out of Benton Harbor. I felt free, energized, and highly excited about the trip west. This was going to be great!

I was on the road for two hours before I made my first stop for gas. I wasn’t running low or anything, but by now I was west of Chicago and things were starting to get sparse. I also wanted to stretch my legs a bit and grab a bite to eat. Taco Bell was the establishment of choice for this stop, and I loaded up on Taco’s for what would probably be my last meal until much later in the day.

Continuing west, I ran into light snow in eastern Iowa. It was actually starting to accumulate and blow around a little, which had me worried – I hate driving in snow so I was really anxious to push on and get through it. Luckily, it didn’t get very bad and it eventually tapered off. Around 6pm, I stopped for dinner at a roadside Subway for a healthy sub – yeah, I was still feeling guilty as heck for that Taco Bell lunch. Back on the road shortly thereafter, I was feeling a second wind of energy come over me and I felt like I could drive all night. So far so good.

Trouble began around 11pm in eastern Nebraska. Shortly after 10pm, I had decided to push on at least until 1am – I wasn’t tired at all, and I wanted to get through the northern plains ASAP. There wasn’t much to see in these parts, and traffic was really light – so cruising along at 80-85mph was really easy.

Then I started to notice an abnormal amount of cars in the ditch along side the freeway. I didn’t think anything about the first two, but number three several miles west gave me a moment to pause – what the heck was going on? Then, it hit me. Black ice! Yep, those dark spots in the road that I had been noticing had been getting larger and larger, and driving over them made the Celica squirm and slide like crazy. Whoa. Time to slow down. By the time I got to York Nebraska, it was bad. Cars were all over the freeway, down in the ditches and stuck in the snow. I nearly ended up there myself and I was scared to death of sliding off the road and damaging the car. I had slowed to 15mph at that point, desperate to find an exit with a hotel so I could stop for the night. I pulled off onto the next exit, and I was elated to find a room available. Most places were full with other drivers who had the same idea, so I felt lucky to grab a room – especially with the chatter I overheard in the lobby of the hotel. It seems that hotels for miles in each direction were booked.

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