Out West & Back Again: A Moving Tale

Just over a week ago, I was waking up in Mojave, California. Today, I woke up in Catawba, North Carolina. As far as reality-shaking life events go, a road trip to move across the country ranks pretty high on the list. 

My husband, Ryan, and I had been mentally and emotionally preparing to leave California and our home for the past nine years, but there’s only so much a person can do to manage the endless to-do lists, packing, and waves of sadness and second-guessing that are inherent to this process.

After considering the options for moving our belongings as well as Ryan’s 16 foot enclosed trailer, we settled on the least expensive (relatively speaking) but most labor-intensive option: I would drive the Honda with our two year old cat, Steve, and Ryan would drive a 20 foot U-Haul and tow his trailer. At the last minute, we decided to bring a stray kitten with us who also rode in the moving truck with Ryan.

We didn’t quite retrace our steps when we moved to California nine years ago from Atlanta, Georgia. For that trip, we drove to Indiana first and stayed with Ryan’s family for a night of two, then south to catch I-40 in Oklahoma.

One of our cars broke down in Moriarty, New Mexico and we also spent two nights there. While that trip was an adventure, it wasn’t quite the same epic cross country travel experience that driving over 2,300 miles – almost the entire length of I-40 – in five days turned out to be.

Moving across the country with all of your worldly possessions and two cats in tow is a serious undertaking. We prepped for weeks. Ryan put new tires on the trailer and carefully strapped down his shop workspace inside while I obsessively researched miles between cities and cat friendly hotels.

When we left Mojave, we were as prepared as we felt like we could be. We had spent the last few days feverishly packing since our 500 sq ft apartment didn’t have room to both pack boxes and live there. The U-Haul needed to be returned in nine days, which meant four days to pack and five days to drive. Our belongings got wrapped, boxed, and somewhat unceremoniously tossed into the moving truck.

I should mention at this point that Ryan had never driven with a trailer. We purchased the trailer when he had to move out of the previous shop space he was renting. Tired of having to uproot his personal workspace, he decided to buy a 16” x 8” enclosed car hauler. Inside are shelves, work benches, tool boxes, boxes of books, and other stuff like that. It all got strapped down, including a 1972 CB 400 four (that’s what Ryan calls it) motorcycle. It held together fine when we went for a test drive with the U-Haul.

The next five days would test everything: nerves; physical endurance; driving and navigation capabilities; relationships; and the U-Haul’s towing capacity. What follows is the day by day breakdown of our journey and a few other things.

Day 1: Mojave to Flagstaff (420 miles)

On our last morning in Mojave, we packed the last of our items into the U-Haul and sprinted through some last minute errands. We snapped one last selfie in front of our apartment in the desert, and at 11:30am, we were turning on our walkie talkies and pulling onto the road.

Leaving Mojave, the sun was high above us as we went east towards Barstow to pick up the western end of I-40. We drove through Kelbaker, Needles and the Mojave National Preserve. I said goodbye to the desert and the Joshua Trees as we wound our way through the mountains and high valleys.

We followed I-40 east, alongside the railroad and historic Route 66. Exits are sparse here, and the ones that exist take you to the historic road. The few gas stations are typically backed up with people getting gas, stretching, or browsing the Route 66 memorabilia inside.

Traveling through the desert is harrowing. There are vast stretches of road without any visible life, aside from the creosote bushes, occasional trains, and passing cars. My phone cheerfully let me know each time it lost GPS signal, and that happened frequently. 

As we drove into Arizona, the roads degraded noticeably. There were so many potholes and intense inclines, it felt like California was trying to pull us back down into it. As we crawled over the chewed up roads, I mentally rehearsed how to change a tire. I didn’t know when we left that the first day’s drive would take us to the highest elevation on the entirety of I-40 at just over 7,200 feet.

I watched the semi trucks in front of me bounce (because the fully loaded U-Haul and trailer behind me couldn’t go over 65 mph or so) and tried not to think too much about the load that Ryan was hauling.

As we continued to climb to Flagstaff late in the evening. I noticed Ryan was slowing down more than he had been on the steep climbs. Shortly thereafter, he came in on the walkie talkie and said he needed to find a gas station. 

Thankfully, gas stations were slightly more plentiful as we approached the city and when we pulled over, Ryan checked the oil on the U-Haul. I was holding my phone as a flashlight, trying not to shake it too much while I shivered in the cold air, and the two of us inspected the dipstick. It was dry. 

Ryan poured in a quart of oil, which somehow brought the level on the dipstick to overfull. It was a mystery that was not going to be solved at 9:30pm on the side of a mountain. Thank goodness for that $7 U-Haul roadside assistance.

We made it the rest of the way to Flagstaff, to the Comfort Inn we had booked a room with at an earlier gas stop. 

By the time we got to the parking lot, my nervous system was shot. I was exhausted, worried about the cats, worried about Ryan, and starting to understand the deep stupidity and hubris that made this drive seem like a good idea.

I stood in the parking lot, crying and unpacking the car while Ryan checked in. Several minutes later, he walked back, shaking his head.

“They said we can’t stay here with cats.”

I needed a room. I needed to cry. I needed to eat. I was beyond my ability to reasonably communicate.

“WHAT THE FUCK? We CALLED and ASKED on the PHONE and they said it was FINE.”

Ryan adopted the posture of a person negotiating with a very angry zoo animal. Hands up, he backed away slightly. He tried to counter my shrieking with calmness as he explained that the guy behind the desk tried to call and tell him.

“He tried to CALL? There’s NO GODDAMN SIGNAL FOR MILES, what the FUCK is this guy’s PROBLEM?”

“He said one time they had a cat that…”

“I DO NOT GIVE A FUCK”

‘I know…”

“LET ME TALK TO HIM”

“That’s not a good idea”

I pointed to a hotel next door, “THEN PLEASE GO GET A ROOM OR I WILL.”

Ryan walked off without another word, and came back holding the room keys up so I could see them from a distance.

Finally in a room, I collapsed and sobbed on the bed while Steve cried and the kitten ate dinner. Ryan brought back food for us, and we got to sleep around midnight. 

At 3am, Steve woke me up crying. He was not happy, and he needed me to know it. I started crying because I didn’t know what to do. I woke Ryan up who listened to us both cry, then shoved Steve in his carrier and put him in the car with the windows cracked. I cried more and we slept for another couple of hours.

Day 2: Flagstaff to Amarillo (600 miles)

The second day took us through the remainder of Arizona, all of New Mexico, and into the Texas panhandle. 

I-40 passes just south of the Navajo Nation, the largest reservation in the country, through some truly spectacular landscapes. Mesas jut upwards from the desert floor as you weave through less intense elevation changes. In the valleys,you can see the trains from miles away as they arrive and disappear over the horizon.

As we drove, I noticed that Arizona and New Mexico looked shockingly green. There was grass covering much of the desert floor, and the bushes all seemed vibrant. In my memory from when we moved to the west, I remember these states as beautiful, but largely brown, barren desert.

I wondered if it only looked brown to me on that trip because we were leaving Atlanta, a comparatively lush and green place, or if it looked greener now because we were leaving Mojave. Do we ever see things for how they truly are? Or are we bound to understand the world around us compared to what we’ve already seen?

The roads through New Mexico were in pretty good shape until we got to Albuquerque. We drove through the city in rush hour traffic, through some tight construction spots that made me sweat when I checked Ryan’s trailer in my rearview mirror. There was a stretch of road that was so rough, I almost bit my own tongue as I got shaken around in the Honda.

We kept driving eastward, through more rolling desert with scattered bushes and cacti. The sun was setting as we crossed the state line into Texas. The roads were mercifully smoother, and the gas stations were more plentiful and easier to navigate with the U-Haul and trailer. 

It was unfortunate then, to realize at this point just how poor my nighttime vision is. In Mojave, I didn’t drive at night, and I was fine with that. As the darkness settled around us, I leaned forward into the wheel and squinted to make sense of the road in front of me.

It was getting late, and Ryan needed one more fuel stop for the night. I tried to check my phone for upcoming gas stations, but I was down to 5% battery. 

Of all the complaints I could make about Texas, this one is trivial, but needs said: their exits are not well marked. In the distance, I saw a tall, illuminated sign for a Pilot truck stop. A short while later I saw signs for an exit and thought that had to be the exit for the gas station.

I pulled us off the exit ramp to discover that I was wrong. The ramp was extremely short and went exactly nowhere. I think Ryan may have locked the trailer brakes a bit to not hit me.

In front of me was a road that may have been paved at one point, but was now mostly potholes held together loosely by gravel. Not ideal.

I eased us onto this road, praying for an entrance ramp back to the interstate. What I found instead was a sign saying a cemetery was to the left and a turn that looked like if we took it, we could end up the wrong way on the interstate. 

I stopped the car and grabbed the walkie talkie.

“What the hell do I do?”

“Are we going to take that ramp?”

“The one that says cemetery? And looks like it goes the wrong way? I don’t know, maybe this road keeps going?”

Ryan could hear me starting to panic. He looked at the cemetery ramp and said, “Ok, the yellow line goes on the left and white line goes on the right. That ramp will get us back to the interstate.”

Bless the person who taught him that rule because we were not wrong way drivers that night.

We got gas and even though it was late, the person at the pump next to me struck up a friendly chat. Back on the road, I grabbed my walkie talkie to tell Ryan that we were getting back to the land of small talk with strangers.

We drove into Amarillo. There were more incredibly tight construction squeezes, more lane shifts, and one very spooky person standing on the interstate, between left lane traffic and the concrete barrier.

We made it to the city and settled in at a Motel 6, and their front desk attendant was pleased as punch to have us and our two cats. Whoever decided to shift the Motel 6 marketing away from “cheap and dingy but consistent” to “bring your pets, we don’t care,” is a genius.

Day 3: Amarillo to Little Rock (600 miles)

We checked the trailer that morning before we left. Maybe we shouldn’t have. When Ryan opened the side door, I could hear the sound of heavy objects falling and breaking. 

I walked around the trailer to find him heartbroken, standing over the broken remains of an antique glass exit sign from his college he had hung in his shop. I peered around the door to see an absolute avalanche of upside down boxes, books, papers, and tools.

The most important items were still in place: the motorcycle was upright and strapped down, his 3D printer and computer were somehow still on their shelf. One of the other main shelving units had wrenched itself away from the wall, probably in Albuquerque, tearing its anchor hooks right out. Another shelving unit had failed completely with shorn and twisted metal. It’s a good thing we have our tetanus shots.

We had to pull stuff out of the trailer and into the U-Haul to close the door. Sweating, running late, and more stressed than we’d been, we set off towards Little Rock.

Thankfully, the roads in Texas continued to feel smooth like butter. The landscape was starting to transition from more desert-like to more plains-like, and I started to see actual trees dotting the landscape as we approached Oklahoma.

We had more radio stations to choose from, but they were mostly country, western or Christian stations. I was struggling with fatigue, which was unfortunate since we were only a couple of hours into the drive. I found a conservative talk radio podcast and found that to be surprisingly engaging. Although, it was bizarre to hear two Republicans from New York and New Jersey talk about the Los Angeles mayoral election.

We crossed the Oklahoma state line and I stopped at the welcome center where they had free and absolutely life changing coffee. Back on the interstate to catch up with Ryan (who didn’t stop), I discovered that Oklahoma drivers go fast. With speed limits of 75 mph and the best roads along I-40, it’s hard not to.

We continued through the state without too much issue besides increasing boredom and body pain. We were passing through Oklahoma City around lunch time and about two miles from our next exit when we encountered the worst driver in Oklahoma.

Up to this point, the entrance ramps had been long and extremely visible. In the city, we came up on an entrance ramp that was a short U-shape and there was a car sling-shotting around to enter.

We were in the right lane, and I checked my mirror to get left. A silver SUV was just behind me, no time to change lanes. I stepped on the gas to let the incoming red sedan zipper between me and Ryan, but the red sedan sped up too. 

I let off the gas to slow down, and in that moment, the silver SUV didn’t pass me, they got between me and Ryan and hit their brakes.

Now, the red sedan was boxed in on my right, and Ryan was breaking hard. The trailer brakes locked but Ryan kept control and took the U-Haul into the entrance ramp as the silver SUV served back to my left. For a moment, I was axle to axle with the red sedan and silver SUV. I have no concept of what lane any of us were in, but it was tight. 

The silver SUV and red sedan both got the hell out of the way and Ryan got back on the interstate behind me. I do not know how we all drove away from that, except for Ryan’s excellent response time and judgement. Certainly no thanks to the jerk in the silver SUV.

We stopped for gas and to breathe. We still had several hours of driving ahead of us.

The rest of the drive that day would be lost to a haze of anxiety and adrenaline, if it weren’t for a gas station in Arkansas where I learned my new favorite pick up line.

I was wearing my usual go-to outfit of leggings and a tank top, and I noticed a woman checking me out in the gas station as I looked for the bathroom. I was honestly concerned that I was going to get a comment about being inappropriately dressed or something (considering I haven’t worn a bra since 2019).

I was turning a corner, and I heard from behind me, “Those pants lie.”

Confused, I turned around. She said, “I got a pair of those leggings, but my ass doesn’t look anything like yours.”

I started laughing, told her she would be fabulous in these leggings, and had a lovely and highly unexpected chat. I am grateful to that woman for completely upending my expectations.

I barely remember getting into Little Rock, except that I took a wrong turn and pulled us into a tiny little parking lot that mercifully had another exit. We got to the Motel 6 in North Little Rock and Ryan went to check us in.

“I got us a room. You won’t believe it, there’s a guy in the lobby propositioning a sex worker.”

“You know, I absolutely do believe that.”

“I heard her say she had her own protection and she patted a gun holster in her bra.”

“That sounds smart. What room are we in?”

We entered the room to a thick and sticky smell of cigarette smoke. Every surface had cigarette burns, despite the available ashtrays. I could feel my head swimming. It was 10:00pm.

“I don’t think this is gonna work.”

Ryan took this with remarkable pluck, and immediately went and got us another room, this time non smoking.

The new room however, was next door to the gentleman who was still negotiating with the sex worker. We tried to enter quickly, and I saw that the door to our room had clearly been kicked in at one point, with wood splintering from the jamb. I was still feeling that natural high that comes from avoiding an interstate collision. This would work.

We sat in the parking lot and confirmed for each other that yes, that was a messed up day of driving, and yes, we were lucky to be alive. 

We ate Waffle House waffles in the hotel bed, and I fell asleep laughing.

Day 4: Little Rock to Knoxville (530 miles)

It was raining when we left Little Rock and kept raining pretty much until the Tennessee state line.

I-40 is the only east-west interstate corridor in Tennessee, and Tennessee is the longest state along the whole of I-40. Called “Tennessee’s Main Street” it goes through Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville, weaving through mountains, wetlands, and rolling hills.

If you want to experience I-40 but only have one day, drive through Tennessee. The elevation changes are less intense than out west, but the twists, turns, and traffic make up for it.

Up to this point in our trip, traffic would die down between big cities, but not in Tennessee. Entrance and exit ramps became shorter and much sharper. Gas stations were smaller.

Getting into the state was tedious and we had more stops than we wanted. Ryan jackknifed the trailer at one gas station that called itself a truck stop but obviously was not. He was concerned about hitting a parked car, cut it too tight, and clipped the trailer into the back bumper.

He got the trailer un-jackknifed and a kind person in the lot let him know he had space to leave.

A mile down the road, my walkie talkie died. Another stop. Another small, shitty gas station. 

Back on the road. More traffic, more construction, more aching muscles.

We needed to eat, so I thought aid use one of those “parking areas” on the interstate and make sandwiches. They’re for semis, but the ones in  Texas were like rest areas without bathrooms, paved and easy to access.

Tennessee could take a lesson here. I pulled into a parking area onto a ridiculously short exit ramp to a cramped gravel area with a semi backing up directly where I was needing to go. 

The way through this parking area was ridiculously tight, and there was a truck driver standing and yelling up at another driver. Not a great sign.

Back on the interstate, hungry and tired.

Somewhere between Nashville and Knoxville, around 4pm, we finally found a Love’s truck stop with the best damn Arby’s I’ve ever eaten.

Back on the road, a 2-3 hour drive turned into 4-5 hours with traffic.

Exhausted, we pulled into a Motel 6 and I looked at the full parking lot with some alarm. Indeed, there was no vacancy. 

We called other hotels. One was charging over $200 a night, even though we weren’t buying the room, just staying there for the evening. Others wouldn’t take cats, which is laughable considering that hotel rooms are routinely torn apart by human beings, and they still get to book rooms.

We found a room down the road. Google decided to navigate us through a series of parking lots that frankly had more curbs than necessary. Knoxville parking lots are also full of craterous potholes, their depth disguised by the puddles from the rain.

We were so close to a room when Ryan stopped the U-Haul. He wouldn’t fit under the entrance facade at the hotel. He couldn’t go the other way. He was gonna have to back the trailer up.

In the parking lot, guiding Ryan back so he didn’t hit anything, I put my hands on my knees and almost lost the contents of my stomach. 

I spent the evening coming up with my list of complaints for Google. Foremost on my list, why is it so hard to find an actual truck stop when searching on Google Maps?

Day 5: Knoxville to Catawba (220 miles)

Over coffee, Ryan and I caught up about the driving. He had the kitten with him, who had spent most of the miles curled up in Ryan’s lap. I’m grateful for the amount of company and calm that the kitten provided, considering the rest of Ryan’s driving experience.

Somewhere in Tennessee, the U-Haul rolled over to 130,000 miles, and the steering was just as loose as you might expect. Which is to say, it was very loose. As he described driving the U-Haul, and all of its various sounds and shudders, he started laughing. “I am absolutely thrashing that truck across the country.”

We left Knoxville, and I barely felt the pain in my back and neck as we started the last leg of our trip.

We had some more intense twists and turns, but mostly downhill through the Pisgah National Forest into North Carolina. This traffic was also quite dense, and I was sandwiched between Ryan and the U-Haul behind me, and a Frito Lay semi truck as we wound our way down the mountains. 

We made it into North Carolina, and about twenty miles west of Asheville, we had our last fuel stop. I was going to suggest we get a biscuit for breakfast at the Country Kitchen next to the Travel Center when I saw Ryan shaking his head.

“I locked the keys in the U-Haul.”

“Say that one more time, please.”

I couldn’t even be mad. I’ve locked myself out of so many cars, I made sure to carry my own extra set of keys for the trip, but the U-Haul wasn’t so well equipped.

The kitten was in the uhaul though, and the windows were up. It wasn’t a sunny day, but I was still worried, and not to mention, we were so close to home. We had just driven through a solid hour of mostly stopped traffic, and I assumed any locksmith would have to drive through the same.

Ryan was trying to apologize, and was sounding pretty frazzled. I handed him my phone to Google something, since he locked his in the truck.

I walked around to the truck driver entrance and proceeded to ask everyone in the vicinity if they had a slim Jim or any way to open a locked at door. 

Within a few minutes, I met Joe, who followed me to the U-Haul and proceeded to vigorously jam things down the window. He didn’t have any specific tool he was using, so I kept asking.

I rustled up a couple of wire cost hangers from the truck repair shop behind the gas station, and brought these to Joe. I found another truck driver who took one hanger and one door while Joe worked the other.

I eyed the bricks that lined the landscaping, and considered how much Uhaul might charge us for a broken window.

Thankfully, within a half hour, Joe had us back in the U-Haul. It was just in time, too, because I had found someone who was very confident that he could snap off the U-Haul’s antenna and unlock the door in a jiffy.

We were about an hour and a half away from our destination, and the traffic in North Carolina thankfully died down as we entered the foothills. This area of North Carolina, between the mountains and the piedmont region, is the definition of quaint. Networks of country rounds take you through rolling hills and mixed deciduous forests, punctuated by homesteads and small farms.

We exited the interstate and made our way through ten miles of very narrow, very curvy roads to our new address.

I tried so hard not to miss the driveway, but I did. We would have to turn around. Thankfully, there are plenty of churches with large lots so we got back on the road, going even slower, to not miss the house.

Unfortunately, Ryan pulled the U-Haul into the wrong side of the yard. The right side of the yard would have had room for the U-Haul and trailer to circle around. The wrong side of the yard did not.

Now, we were going to need to back the U-Haul up, into the road, in the middle of two blind curves to figure this out.

Ryan had that frazzled sense to him again, so I called for help. We have friends an hour away in Charlotte with trailer-backing experience who immediately got in their car to help us.

Luck had it that Kendra, another friend whose mom owns the house we’re renting, called to check on us. I explained the situation, and she said her husband might be free to help.

It hadn’t occurred to me that the house we’re renting is less than a mile from a lake, and you’d be pressed to throw a stone in any direction and hit someone who hasn’t hauled a trailer.

Kendra and her husband arrived, and he backed that U-Haul up, whipped it around, and backed it up again to put the trailer next to the house.

Unfortunately, while that was happening, Kendra’s mom drove her car over a tree stump and got it stuck in the yard. I can’t say that nobody needed a tow truck on our journey, but the person who did wasn’t either of us.

Despite a somewhat chaotic first few hours in our new home, the hospitality and kindness we have enjoyed here has been overwhelming. It took a few days for us to know what time zone, state, and general state of being we were in, but we’ve been glad to orient ourselves to this place.

This is an enormous and beautiful country, and driving I-40 is an excellent road trip to see it. I can’t recommend the U-Haul part, but if you’ve got five days, I can’t think of a better adventure.

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