The 4,500-Mile Road Trip That Went Wrong

Sometimes the most romantic plans don’t succeed until they fail.

4500 Mile Road Trip

by Stacey McKenna

photo courtesy of Micky Wiswedel

filed under Fun, True Stories

In late September 2015, my husband Mike and I set out to celebrate our water-loving mutt’s tenth birthday by taking her to the ocean for the first time—no small feat, as we live in Fort Collins, Colorado. Always up for the sweep of America’s sprawling West, we planned to turn the drive to the Pacific into a three-week, 4,500-mile road trip, complete with visits to friends, family, and favorite climbing areas along the way.

Mike and I have shared our lives for a decade and have the type of complementary compatibility that makes a couple resilient. We’re not perfect, but we do our best to let go of things we can’t control and avoid simmering in blame or resentment when life goes wrong. We empathize and stay strong when the other needs to be vulnerable, and take turns leaning on each other. Inspired by Bagel, our beloved canine, we also try to revel in small pleasures whenever they come. Good thing too, because the trip would demand all of this and more.

A Rough Start

Southeastern Colorado stretches flat and wide, alternating red rows of sorghum with swaths of scrubby pasture. At mile 344, per Siri’s estimation, we exited the highway toward Comanche National Grassland—443,784 acres of dust bowl reclaimed and managed by the US Forest Service to protect its abundant natural, historic, and prehistoric resources. “In a quarter mile, get out and walk to your destination,” Siri instructed. Mike and I scanned the dirt roads, wire fences and dusty ranch-land. There were no dinosaur tracks, no tourists, no visitor’s center, no campground. The damn voice had brought us to the wrong Comanche National Grassland.

We collapsed in laughter and began retracing our tracks toward the road. Paleontology and camping plans foiled, we decided to keep driving until dark and sleep wherever we landed. But less than a quarter mile after turning around, I caught a flash of movement to my right. A pronghorn antelope was stuck in a fence, its hips draped over the top barbed wire, its legs caught in the strands below.

We pulled over, Mike donned protective gear, and I grabbed the GoPro. Mike tentatively approached and the animal halted its struggles, waiting cautiously as he untangled each limb. Freed, the young buck trotted calmly away, pausing to glance at his accidental rescuers. Blinking back the cheesiest “my hero” tears, I applauded Mike and gawped at the little ungulate, who now watched us from a distant hill. “Siri knew,” I said. “She brought us to the wrong Comanche National Grassland so we could help the antelope!”

Mike chuckled and took my hand. “I love you,” he said, stepping on the gas. We drove on, pushing as far as Canyon, Texas, where a Walmart parking lot became our campground. From Canyon, we swooped south to nearby Lubbock, where we visited my dad before turning west and trading Texas’ stark plains for the sandy swelter of the the New Mexico desert. We planned to pause in central Arizona just long enough to catch up with friends and spend some quality time with my grandmother.


The Big Scare

After wrapping up a long lunch with a dear friend, Mike and I returned to my grandmother’s Scottsdale home. We were eager to get back on the road, ready to get this pup in the ocean. And though we’d only been gone a few hours, Bagel greeted us with extra enthusiasm. She bounced and wagged her tail like she knew it was time to beeline it for the sea. As we loaded the car and said our goodbyes, my grandmother smiled at the cheerful black dog following us around. “She is so funny,” she said. “While you were gone, she led me to the refrigerator. She was hungry, so I fed her … let’s see … I fed her some ham … and something else … a pastry … Now what was it?”

Alarmed, Mike interrupted, “It didn’t have raisins in it, did it?”

“Yes! It was a raisin bagel!” The irony wasn’t lost on us. Bagel will eat anything, including her namesake rings of baked and boiled dough. But raisins can be fatal for dogs.

Minutes later, we sat shaking in an emergency animal hospital as a vet explained that raisins are toxic to about 50 percent of dogs, causing kidney failure and death. Since there was no way to know whether ours was susceptible until symptoms kicked in, they placed her on IV fluids and round-the-clock monitoring for 48 hours.

“But, is she going to be ok?” we asked.

“We don’t know. She could be fine. But if her kidneys fail, she could die within a couple of weeks.”

Mike and I spent the next two days shuttling between Grandma’s quiet townhouse and whichever extra room the sympathetic hospital staff could spare. We hunkered down with books and electronics while Bagel slept in our laps, drip line and all. We left only to sleep and eat, or to relinquish the room to another patient.

Mike could have easily (though unintentionally) blamed me for my grandmother’s error, for the life we might have lost, for the delays that would force us to skip visiting his friends in California. But he didn’t. Instead, he held me when I cried in worry, as I did him. He beamed when I suggested, on one of our breaks from the hospital, we visit a local climbing gym to blow off some steam. When we knew the pup would be ok, as we roved the grocery store aisles in preparation for the trip ahead, he picked up a bag of raisin bagels and joked, “Should we bring some of these along, in case Bagel gets hungry?”

At mile 2,041 we were back on the road, healthy dog on board, in transit to the Pacific Coast at last.

Tiny Disasters and Reasons to Smile

For 4,498 miles, out little family chugged along interstates; hiked in perilous deserts; wound through alpine and coastal forests; and played countless rounds of ocean fetch. Beyond the big scare, so many little things went wrong along the way. Our truck’s air conditioning failed in New Mexico’s trip-digit heat and Bagel ate something unmentionable and diarrhea-inducing at White Sands National Monument. In California, we learned that it’s damn near impossible to camp without reservations and it’s worth asking for an explanation of a hotel’s “dog friendly” policy before booking. At Utah’s Gunlock Reservoir, the smell and sight of dead fish blown to shore were our only warning of the state park’s recent efforts to poison invasive species. We lost all sense of time as our cell phones pinged between towers at the twilight zone borderland between Utah, Nevada, and Arizona. Bagel was pricked by burrs, stung by a jellyfish, and walked right over an oblivious rattlesnake.

But we also finally figured out my tripod while photographing a lunar eclipse in Lubbock, and watched the red supermoon rise over snow-white gypsum dunes. We laughed at tales of my grandmother’s youthful trysts — she was engaged to three men at once! — and were photo-bombed by aliens at the International UFO Museum and Research Center. We sipped cocktails under redwoods and watched dolphins, seals, and pelicans go about their business as we traced the Pacific Coast Highway’s clifftop curves. And we bushwhacked with my mom to find Bagel a swimming hole in parched Mesquite, Nevada.

Eventually, we landed in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, the very town where we’d shared our first romantic getaway nearly ten years prior. There, we swung between horrified retellings and nostalgic reminiscences while relaxing in hot springs, splurging on romantic dinners, and walking Bagel to one of her favorite riverside parks.

As I slipped into the hot spring one evening, steaming sulfuric water sloughed away the past weeks’ stresses. The trip had been exhausting and I was grateful to wrap it up tucked into the Rocky Mountains’ cool air and the lingering gold of autumn aspens.

I sank until my chin skimmed the pool’s surface and grinned at Mike. “I was beginning to wonder if we were gonna make it,” I said. “If one more thing had gone wrong … ”

He shook his head. “What an epic.”

Squatting to keep my shoulders under water, I squinted up at him through the setting alpine sun. “Would you do it again? Knowing everything that would happen?”

He nodded. “To see her face when she saw the ocean? Yeah, I’d do it again.”

“Me, too,” I said. “But only with you.”


International UFO Museum and Research Center — An entertaining and dog-friendly museum in Roswell, NM.

AZ on the Rocks — A Scottsdale climbing gym with heart-of-gold staff.

El Capitán State Beach — Stunning and affordable cliff-top camping outside of Santa Barbara.

Pismo Beach — Piers and pelicans and pups abound at this Central California coastal enclave.

Monterey Bay Aquarium — Sea-related conservation, education, and entertainment at a world-famous California aquarium.

Roberto’s Cafe — Killer Mexican food and a great patio in Mammoth Lakes, southeast of Yosemite National Park.

Glenwood Hot Springs — Relaxation is the only option at the world’s largest hot springs pool in Glenwood Springs, halfway between Denver and Grand Junction, Colorado.

The Silver Spruce Motel — A friendly, clean, and comfy spot to lay your head in Glenwood Springs. Bonus: straightforward dog policies.

The Pullman — Inspired farm-to-table eats in Glenwood Springs.

Stacey McKenna is a freelance journalist covering travel, nature and social justice for print and online publications. Follow her musings and adventures on Twitter or Instagram.

No Comments

Post A Comment