After our trip to Vancouver Island, we decided to head east and go down the east coast this fall – the question was what route we wanted to take to get from west coast to New England. Interstates 90 and 94 were already waaaay too familiar and boring to us, so we decided to try old Federal Highway 2.
The federal highways are numbered low to high, top to bottom, and even numbered ones go east-west, so Highway 2 is as far north as you can go. We were already familiar with its counterpart along the Gulf coast, Highway 98, but had not explored this northern tier yet in our travels. Highway 2 has two sections, the main one from Everett, WA to the Blue Water Bridge connecting Michigan’s upper peninsula to the rest of the state, and another section east of the Great Lakes from upstate New York to Maine.
We started out going north of Highway 2 through Washington, hitting the North Cascades and Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia, and then south of Highway 2 through Idaho to see Coeur D’Alene and Flathead Lake, but we rejoined it in Columbia Falls, Montana, the western portal to Glacier National Park. We noodled around town for a couple of days, exploring the park area, including a memorable trip along the north fork of the Flathead River on a washboard road. It was only ten miles, but seemed a lot longer than that.
Highway 2 goes over the continental divide at Marias Pass, topping out at 5200 feet, the tough part of the Northern Pacific railway route surveyed and built in the 1890s that opened up this part of the country to development. This railway is called “The High Line” in local parlance, and we saw many Hi-Line cafes and other businesses as we traveled east. Large snow-covered mountains flanked the road, which abruptly flattens out onto the northern plains east of Glacier Park. After a night in Cut bank, Montana, a small town which frequently wins the contest for lowest temperature in the continental US, we headed east through the dryland wheat and cattle operations that form the basis for the economy up here.
Wildlife out in this section of highway consisted of antelope, which stare at you from afar as you drive by, and deer, which, like all deer everywhere, try to run across the road in front of you. Luckily, out here on the open grasslands you can see them coming literally a mile away, so you can slow down and wait for them to flirt with danger.
This is a two-lane highway, and you occasionally encounter the locals going about their everyday business, with giant combines bouncing along the shoulder at a leisurely pace. But it’s all what i call “howdy country” – your infrequent fellow travelers wave at you as they pass. And you wave back. Something about this vast landscape makes people value human contact more than city folks do.
We crossed Montana and overnighted in Williston, North Dakota, the heart of the Bakken oil patch. The Walmart there is once again allowing RVs to overnight after they had to clamp down on oil workers who were basically homesteading the place due to the housing shortage – oil companies are more diligent about providing housing for their workers now. You see all these modular dormitory type buildings out in the middle of nowhere. And time has passed me by – the old jack pumps are being replaced by these new vertical towers, with the counterweights enclosed in the structure instead of out on the end of the jack.
As luck would have it, we got to see the geographical center of the North American continent, a distinction discovered by the town of Rugby, North Dakota, which capitalized on its unique status by building a stone obelisk and this abstract steel structure on the spot. Well, not exactly the spot – they had to move if a few feet when the highway was widened. But you get the idea.
As we headed east in North Dakota, the trees reappeared. We filled our fuel tank at the border to avoid Minnesota’s 10% biodiesel, which does not agree with our Sprinter’s motor. And I finally found out what an Itasca is. The name Itasca has been used for marketing RVs for a long time but was meaningless to me – turns out it’s the name of the lake region of Minnesota where the headwaters of the Mississippi River are. People have been spending the summer up here on these lakes forever- there are many mom and pop “RV resorts”, which were all closed up for the season as we went through in late September.
At Duluth we crossed into Michigan’s Upper Peninsula area, going back and forth between Wisconsin and Michigan as the road continued east. This old iron mining area was also pretty much closed for the season as far as summer recreational activities go, but we saw many colorful trees in their fall foliage. We spent two or three days at the Chippewa casino in Manistique, MI, waiting for the weather further south to clear, and then said goodbye to Highway 2 at the northern end of the Blue Water Bridge over the Straits of Mackinac. It was a nice ride across the country.