Road-trip reminder: The scenery gets bigger out west

PORTLAND

Growing up on one the flatter parts of the East Coast, I got used to a certain scale of roadside scenery: no snowcapped mountains, no wide-open prairies, no long distances without seeing a city or at least a city’s post-industrial outskirts. I didn’t see the other roadside side of America until my first cross-country drive in 1992, when I spent much of the trip with my mouth agape at the scenery towering overhead and looming in front.

The view from a highway viewpoint off I-84 in Oregon spans hundreds if not thousands of square miles of prairie.

This week’s itinerary–courtesy of my second year in a row of doing drive testing for PCMag’s Fastest Mobile Networks project–has reminded me of what I’ve missed.

After landing in Boise Sunday and doing my share of the network testing there, I drove from there to Pasco, Wash., Monday. This roughly 270-mile haul took me up and over the Blue Mountains on Interstate 84 and then treated me to the view at right (from the colorfully-named Deadman’s Pass rest area) of what must be thousands of square miles of plain. After that, a shortcut on local roads past endless stretches of farmland took me to a last stretch alongside the Columbia River. Tuesday’s 220-mile drive from Pasco to Seattle started in flatlands, above which the first mountain peak came into view like some sort of trapezoidal moon. Then I-90 aligned me closer and closer to the Cascades up, through and down the Snoqualmie Pass… and I don’t know how people can stay focused on the road with those alpine views.

(If only I’d had a co-pilot to split the driving and let me take photos out the passenger side!)

Unlike that drive 30 years ago, I had the advantage of a vastly more modern car. PCMag rented a Tesla Model 3 for this trip–part of their agenda is assessing the charging infrastructure available–so gas prices aren’t a concern and neither is getting up to speed on a highway on-ramp. This battery-electric rocket is also a vastly more comfortable ride than the 1977 Toyota Corolla that figured in that summer trip.

The other thing that’s changed from 1992 is all the wind power in sight. And not just in the form of rows of wind turbines gently turning on ridgelines but on the highways, which have treated me to the spectacle of tractor-trailers towing wind-turbine blades. The scale of those is larger than life too, with each gently curved airfoil–longer than a 747’s wing, going by recent averages–stretching far past the back wheels of an already-oversize trailer.

Not all of the American West is blessed with epic scenery, though. Thursday, an already-slow drive from Seattle to Portland on I-5 that offered no exceptional views came to an unsettling halt when every car and truck in front lit up its brake lights–a sudden hailstorm had led to a series of crashes that, I learned later, killed one motorcyclist. As I crept past these wrecks and emergency responders caring for their drivers and passengers, I spotted at least four more vehicles that had skidded off the highway and down the wide, grassy trough splitting the northbound and southbound lanes.

I could only think about the random chance that had brought me to this scene then and not 10 minutes earlier–and about how much I will appreciate being home, smaller sights and all, Monday.