Through nearly seven years of chronicling road trips on this blog, long drives mean exploration. Whether it was a thousand mile tour of New England, a cross-country summer adventure, or our yearly drive to the Midwest, my wife and I break up long distances behind the wheel by stopping and exploring museums, hiking in public parks, photographing roadside oddities, and dining at great restaurants. However, this year, our annual 1,100-mile holiday journey to Wisconsin was dictated by one factor: the weather.
Driving westward on the heels of Winter Storm Elliott, our usual 17 hour drive to western Wisconsin turned into a three day ordeal that saw us arrive at our destination exhausted and frazzled. At the end of our vacation, rather than take our time on our return drive to New Jersey to explore, we instead put the pedal to the metal and made record time home.
I was tempted to not even post this trip – as you read, you will find no world’s largest ducks, clocks, or pennies. You’ll see no car museums, You won’t experience cool sunset photos. However, as I looked through my photos, I did find some experiences I wanted to share: good food, cool birds, pretty holiday scenes… and a dinosaur.
So come along, then, on one of the stranger posts I’ve ever written. I hope you still find it entertaining!
The 2022 Holiday Road Trip:
In an ideal world, the drive from New Jersey to the Midwest takes 17-18 hours – a day and a half with stops for gas, food, and a stay at a hotel. We will call this timeline the “aspirational” map.
Our initial plan was to leave after lunch on the Friday before Christmas and arrive at my wife’s family home in Wisconsin on Christmas Eve. However, we were delayed by Winter Storm Elliott. The massive system slammed into the Pacific Northwest and then proceeded to march across the country, snarling traffic, canceling more than 18,000 flights, and bringing biting cold temperatures with it (via Wikipedia). Checking the forecast, we opted to leave in the late afternoon, trying to get out of New Jersey before falling temperatures brought icy roads. We packed up the Jeep and began our journey.
In past years, our first day of driving saw us make it all the way to central Ohio. This year, we only got as far as King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. A normal drive from our house would get us to King of Prussia in a little more than an hour. Instead, after two and a half hours, we arrived at our hotel.
During the drive, temperatures dropped into single digits. Before we retreated into our hotel, we stopped to pick up takeout at Plaza Azteca, a nearby Mexican restaurant. I enjoyed the Baja Fish Tacos, but my wife got the best meal of the night: carnitas enchiladas (pictured). After watching a fun holiday movie (“Spirited” with Ryan Reynolds and Will Ferrell), we headed to bed, planning on awakening early and heading west.
The next morning, we were up before dawn and on the road. The weather was miserable. Don’t be fooled by the sunny skies at this rest stop along the Pennsylvania Turnpike – temperatures never got higher than 9 degrees, and the strong winds were bitterly cold.
Twice on Christmas Eve we had to detour off interstate highways. A car crash had closed a portion of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, and we followed a series of two-lane country roads until we rejoined the highway an hour later. Then, a significant portion of the Ohio Turnpike was closed due to a 50-vehicle accident the day before that was still being cleaned up. GPS suggested we take Route 2, which runs along Lake Erie. A good friend who travels Ohio frequently urged us to head south instead, as blowing snow near the lake would make conditions challenging. We opted to take Route 20, assisted by these hand-written directions given to us by the manager of a service plaza along the Turnpike. We made it safely to our hotel near Toledo, but the next day we would still have miles to go to reach our destination.
On Christmas morning, we left Ohio before dawn and reached Indiana, which was the most stressful drive in recent memory. Pictured is one of the few stretches of cleared highway. Numerous signs warned of icy roads. We passed at least 75-80 wrecked vehicles along the sides of the road and in the median, including a semi flipped on its roof, numerous jackknifed trucks, and countless damaged cars, trucks, and SUVs. Long stretches of the highway were untreated, and at points our speed dropped as low as 10 mph. I was grateful to have the Jeep, along with a good set of Nokian tires.
Never have I been so happy to see the Chicago skyline. With clear skies, little traffic, and well-treated roads, I would have gotten out of the Jeep and kissed the ground… if not for all the road salt.
The drive through Wisconsin was long, but uneventful. I-94 was clear, and we made great time as we crossed the state.
After all of the driving, we were relieved to arrive at our destination in time for Christmas dinner. Our nerves were spent and we were exhausted… which was nothing that couldn’t be healed by a delicious home-cooked meal of prime rib (still in the oven when I took this shot), potatoes, and asparagus. So very, very good! Wisconsin Winter!
After a day to recover, we were back on the road, visiting friends and family in and around the snowy Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area. I could imagine David Attenborough narrating this scene: “Here we see the Jeep Grand Cherokee, at home in its natural environment.”
Lakefront Park in Hudson, Wisconsin, was all decked out for the holidays.
The park was so pretty, I almost forgot I was standing outside in 15-degree temperatures.
Here, dear readers, is your humble author engaging in a classic winter activity. I had not been on a sled since I was in elementary school. Two thoughts: first, the sled goes really fast. Second, pine trees are not an ideal way to stop your sled. Ouch. The Birds of Winter!
As I have shared before, my wife’s family home abuts a tract of undeveloped land. A large number of birds can be seen right off their back deck, including this common woodpecker.
I watched in fascination as this red-headed woodpecker plucked peanuts from a bird feeder.
This eastern bluebird stopped by to hang out on a heated birdbath, and graciously posed for my camera. It’s uncommon for bluebirds to be in Wisconsin in the winter – they typically only migrate this far north during breeding season (via All About Birds). I doubt this little guy got lost on his own, however. He was one of several bluebirds we saw during the week.
Perhaps it was the cold temperatures, but we saw less birds than usual. Still, this northern cardinal made for a cool photo. The Food
On the way to meet some friends for dinner, we picked up dessert from Nadia Cakes. Founded by Abby Jimenez, the winner of Food Networks’ Cupcake Wars, Nadia Cakes has been voted “Best Cupcakes in Minnesota” by CBS Channel 4 in Minneapolis.
Did we sample the cupcakes? You better believe we did! Nadia Cakes even has a selection of gluten free cupcakes in a separate case to minimize cross-contamination. Pro tip: the cookies and creme cupcakes are absolutely fantastic.
Whenever I arrive in the Minneapolis area, I have a few “must visit” destinations, and one of them is to get lunch from my favorite Midwestern fast food restaurant – Taco John’s. That’ll be an order of street tacos,and a side of potato oles. It’s a recipe for happy taste buds and a full tummy.
And of course, no trip to the Midwest is complete without a stop (or several stops) at Caribou Coffee, my favorite coffee shop chain. Heading Home
After a fun week with my wife’s family and friends, we got up early on New Year’s Eve and began our long trek home. Aside from cold temperatures, clear skies and dry roads made for a much easier ride back east.
As we passed through the Wisconsin Dells outside of Madison, we stopped for a quick caffeine fuel-up at a Starbucks. The Wisconsin Dells is home to numerous theme parks and resorts – even in winter, tourists from far and near stop by to check out places like Buffalo Phil’s, a restaurant where food arrives at your table atop model trains! We didn’t have a chance to stop there this time around, but you better believe we will stop there for a cheeseburger delivered on the model Santa Fe Railway Super Chief!
We could have filled up at any of the numerous gas stations in Lake Delton, Wisconsin, but our money was absolutely going to be spent at the gas station with the life-size dinosaur! This Citgo was once home to a Sinclair gas station. Sinclair, founded in 1916, chose the Brontosaurus as its mascot. When Sinclair folded, Citgo took over this unique gas station (via Silly America).
On New Year’s Eve, we stayed at a hotel outside Toledo, Ohio and were asleep well before the ball dropped in Times Square. The next morning, awake and well-rested, we finished our drive home to ring in the New Year. Along the way, we passed one of my favorite spots along I-80 in Pennsylvania: the exit for the town of Jersey Shore! Someday, we’ll have to stop by and check it out!
Home! After driving almost 2,700 miles over a week, it felt good to pull into our garage. Grace, our 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee, was an absolute rock star, handling cold temperatures, ice, snow, and gusting winds with no problem. 100,000 miles is getting closer and closer. Onward! Wrapping Up
Starting Mileage: 91,611
Ending Mileage: 94,240
Miles Driven: 2,629 Miles
States Traveled: NJ, PA, OH, IN, IL, WI, MN
Fuel Efficiency: 21.3 mpg
While this year’s holiday road trip lacked some of the exploration and adventure of years past, it still was a fun, enjoyable time with family and friends. We here at The Open Road Ahead hope that you had a wonderful holiday season, and are having a great start to the new year!
Thanks, as always, for coming along on another journey down the open road ahead.
‘Til next time.