This is not a hardcore off-roading story. I didn’t thrash-build a vehicle against an impossible timeline and then hit the trail against all odds to tackle the most insane obstacles in the country. There are no heroics, unless you think spending quality time with your offspring and honoring your parents qualifies. My mom and dad were big travelers. A couple years in southeast Asia on the government’s dime notwithstanding, road trips were his specialty, and we had plenty of long-distance adventures when my siblings and I were young. Some went smoothly, some were disasters, but all were memorable. There was one more cross-country trip they had been looking forward to making after he retired that hit many of their bucket-list destinations. Just stuff they were interested in, enjoyed, or just wanted to see for the first time or for one more time on their way out to see their grandkids in California. Something always came up to push the trip back a year. Then declining health intervened and ultimately my dad passed away before they made the journey.
My mom wanted me to arrange to get his ’01 Tacoma 4x4 to the dump because the frame had gotten so bad it wouldn’t pass Massachusetts’ annual vehicle inspection. He bought the truck brand new and put every one of the 321,000 miles on it. Other than normal consumables like tires, brakes, and tune-up items, everything—and I mean everything—on the truck was original. No way was I gonna let it go to the wrecker. In my mind, what to do with it and how to get it to my home in California were foregone conclusions. I’d grab my oldest kiddo and the same tattered Rand McNally Atlas I’ve toted for 20 years and trust in Toyota’s legendary longevity (and maybe a little spiritual help from my dad) to see us back home along the route my parents had planned.
However, by the time I finally made it back to Massachusetts to retrieve the truck, 7 months had gone by. The battery was dead, the mechanical fan stayed engaged all the time, and the frame was way worse than my cursory inspection in the winter snow and slush earlier that year led me to believe. It was evident the whole truck would fold on the first good Midwest pothole or dirt road I hit, so I towed it down to Auto Rust Technicians in Cranston, Rhode Island, to have the really scary areas of the frame made safe. In the interests of time and budget, I didn’t have the company do the full mambo repair—just install its Safe-T-Cap system with the understanding that if it made it back to the West Coast, I’d transfer the body and drivetrain to rust-free SoCal frame.
With the truck idling a bit rough and the only test of the questionable little vehicle, a 40-mile drive from my mom’s to my in-law’s, I loaded up my 11-year-old son (Charlie), stuffed our gear in some plastic totes to keep the weather off, grabbed the same tattered Rand McNally Road Atlas I’ve used for 20 years, and pointed the grille west toward adventure and some memories that’ll last us a lifetime. Even if you don’t have crazy-hardcore wheeling planned with mountains to scale or several days exploring off the grid, just get out there and do it. Any trip can be an epic trip. Just do it for the right reasons and with the right attitude.
We pulled out of Norfolk, Massachusetts, with 321,476 miles showing on the Tacoma’s odometer. The 2.7L four-cylinder idled a little rough, the exhaust rattled at idle, and the parts store replacement fan clutch I installed before leaving engaged way too readily when the A/C was on, but the auto tranny shifted smoothly and the brakes worked well—it’s a Toyota after all. Change the oil and it should keep running ’til the earth stops spinning.
A late start meant we had to dispense with most of the backroads I wanted to take and hit the I-90 turnpike through western Massachusetts if we were going to make Niagara, New York, by dinner. Despite the freeway drive, there were tons of cool old barns to see, and Charlie found the Eerie Canal’s lock system interesting.
A few hours into Day One’s drive, my wife called to ask what the big puddle of oil in my in-law’s driveway was from. D’oh! Mild panic turned to relief upon discovering it was just the rear shocks puking oil. The shocks continued to spit fluid for the rest of the day’s drive. By the time we pulled into Niagara that evening, the rear of the truck was proposing and bobbing, but the drivetrain was rock-solid and delivering about 23 mpg.
We got up early on the morning of Day Two and hit the touristy stuff at Niagara Falls, taking in the “Maid of the Mist” boat ride and some other attractions. Charlie saw his first Amish family. Unfortunately, ’80s Kelly McGillis wasn’t with them. Darn.
Leaving Niagara, the rear of the truck started getting pretty flamboyant over big bumps and potholes, as the worn springs and (by now) complete lack of shock damping let the rear axle do whatever it pleased, but we had a schedule to keep if we wanted to make our next destination. This massive steel factory right on the Cuyahoga River was really something to behold. It must’ve been a sight when it was alive and belching 24 hours a day.
We arrived at A Christmas Story House Museum just in time to catch one of the last tours. If you’re a fan of the movie, it’s honestly worth a trip to Cleveland, Ohio, by itself. As a bonus, some of the backroads leading up to the street are so steep and rutted they almost qualify as a 4x4 trail.
Skunked again! No Little Orphan Annie secret decoder ring!
They actually had pink bunny outfits you could put on, but I couldn’t talk the boy into yucking it up for the camera. The interior of the house wasn’t used for many of the movie shots, but the exterior and living room were in most of the movie scenes.
“Hot-damned Olds would freeze up in the middle of summer on the equator!” The museum has a few of the original movie cars (including the firetruck seen in the movie) as well as a ton of original props, costumes, and toys used during filming.
We spent a little more time than we planned at “Ralphie’s house” and only had an hour or so before the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame closed. Lesson learned: your iPhone’s GPS knows better than you. I ignored the GPS and headed straight to a building we passed earlier in the day I assumed was the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Whoops. Guess we’ll have to leave that one for another trip. On the plus side, there was plenty of parking at the archive annex, especially considering it was closed.
With Cleveland’s big attractions quickly closing down for the day, we again hit the Interstate westbound, stopping for the night in the beautiful town of Middlebury, Indiana. Cleveland’s horrible pavement had nearly sent the Tacoma chattering into the ditch a few times and the drive from Middlebury to South Bend wasn’t any better. I capitulated and coughed up $40 for new shocks and busted out my $100 Costco tool kit for a quick repair the morning of Day Three.
Walmarts are usually good for a-seeing grown men dressed like Kaitlyn Jenner; discovering how many piercings the human body really is capable of enduring; and a parking lot where you can wrench on your junk without getting hassled by The Man. Miraculously, despite the extreme undercarriage rot, the shock swap took 10 minutes and we were down the road to visit the Notre Dame campus. I also discovered the exhaust rattle was nothing more than a broken rubber exhaust pipe isolator—one less thing to worry about.
After dropping more money than sense in the Notre Dame giftshop, we bee-lined it for Iowa, hitting as many off-interstate backroads as possible. We lost count of Amish horse and buggies and soon trees and forests gave way to familiar fields of corn. We arrived in the sleepy little town of Storm Lake, Iowa, where I used to live back in the ’70s, and where I planned on subjecting my boy to countless (and probably excruciating) reminisces of my childhood haunts.
I often I get tunnel vision during a road trip, obsessing on schedules and focusing on the final destination. Really, the trip itself should be the destination and the schedule about what you get out of the moment, so this time we enjoyed Kings Pointe Water Park before loading up and exploring my Storm Lake memories.
Multigoogleplex Cinema? Not here, bub. Small-town America is getting smaller, but it’s still there. Don’t believe me? Travel coast to coast off the freeways and see for yourself.
Somewhere around Seneca and Cuyahoga Street while searching for the house I once lived in, I heard a very loud metallic “snap” followed by a lot of clanking and banging. I’ve never been so relieved to see a broken shock mount. Heck, one rear shock is better than none and a lot better than the severed framerail I envisioned. Westward-ho!
We left Storm Lake for Rapid City, South Dakota, hitting mostly dirt farm roads and cruising through little towns and communities. At every new state, we pulled over so Charlie could get out and snap a photo to add to the journal I was making him keep of his days on the trip. Maybe one day he’d share it with his kids or more importantly, make a similar trip to spend some quality time with them. Time is the only thing you don’t get back, and memories can’t come from somebody else. You have to spend one to get the other.
Eventually, the sheer distances involved meant we did hit the Interstate from time to time. The little Toyota seemed happiest cruising at a modest 65 mph and sipped fuel at a rate of 21-26 mpg, depending on the hills and headwinds. Around dinner time we hit the world-famous Wall Drug Store in Wall, South Dakota. The place is massive and full of tourist-trap kitsch that would make P.T. Barnum blush. Make sure to grab a cup of their 5-cent coffee, the same price as when the drug store opened in 1931.
Day Four ended with a late-night arrival at the Big Sky Lodge just outside of Rapid City. After all, if you’re gonna avoid Interstates as much as possible, you may as well avoid chain restaurants and hotels, right? I prefer putting my vacation dollars in the pocket of mom-and-pop businesses whenever possible and exposing my kids to a world outside the usual mega-corporate conglomerates. We got up at the crack of dawn on Day Four so we could hit Mount Rushmore before the crowds arrived.
We arrived at Mount Rushmore right as the monument opened and pretty much had the place to ourselves, taking in the walking trail and hitting the gift shop for some souvenirs for the rest of the family. As we mounted the Tacoma with Deadwood, South Dakota, square in our sights, the tour busses started arriving in mass. Have fun knocking elbows, suckers!
The drive from Mount Rushmore to Deadwood on Highway 385 takes you through the heart of the Black hills and some breathtaking scenery. The little 2.7L was somewhat reluctant on a few of the steeper climbs, but by kicking the Overdrive button off and letting the tach settle in around 3,200 rpm, it pulled the grades handily. Mileage was a solid 23.5 mpg in the Black Hills despite the grades and increased altitude, and the idle was even starting to smooth out.
Deadwood, South Dakota, was a mining boom town in the 1870s and 1880s, which was made most famous as the place Wild Bill Hickok was gunned down in 1876 while playing poker in a grungy bar. Gambling is still a popular attraction at Deadwood, but Charlie and I mostly took in the touristy things like the Mount Moriah Cemetery at Deadwood’s Boot Hill to see the grave of Hickok and Calamity Jane. The town’s Adams Museum hosts weapons, mining gear, gambling paraphernalia, and even a locomotive among its displays and is another can’t-miss nugget of history.
From Deadwood, we took two-lane roads and meandered through the Northeastern corner of Wyoming and into Montana. The Black Hills transformed into rolling prairie, and we began spotting Bison and Antelope, as well as plenty of vintage American pickups languishing in fields and farms. We arrived at the Little Big Horn Battlefield National Monument with a massive thunderstorm looming way off in the distance. The remains of the 7th Cavalry, including George Armstrong Custer’s (black headstone), were memorialized by headstones where they fell during the 1876 battle.
The Ranger “Battle Talk” explains from the patio of the visitor center in detail how the events of that day unfolded. From there you have an overarching view of most of the battlefield, where the Indian camp was, and where combatants from both sides fell. If you’re lucky, your Ranger may bring out some period weapons as visual aids.
Although it was about 100 degrees when we pulled into the Little Big Horn Battlefield National Monument, this approaching thunderstorm soon cooled things down by a good 20 degrees. Miraculously, the rain held off just until we loaded back into the Tacoma for our hotel in Livingston, Montana. My dad always loved a good thunderstorm. Coincidence? I like to think not.
Livingston, Montana, is roughly an hour north of Yellowstone National Park and hotels are much cheaper and easier to be find than in Gardiner, which is right at the park’s North Gate. We plied our patented “get up early and beat the crowd” method to our day in Yellowstone, arriving in Mammoth Hot Springs at the crack of dawn.
You could spend a week in Yellowstone and still not hike, drive, and view everything it has to offer, but Charlie and I did the one-day speed version, stopping at the big points of interest and hiking fast to get around the crowds. The one thing you can’t rush is Old Faithful, which erupts only once every 40-120 minutes. The times are posted at the visitor center, so while we waited for the next eruption, we explored the 76-foot-tall lobby of the 112-year-old Old Faithful Inn.
Crowes are smart vermin. We watched this one unzip the bag on this motorcycle and chuck the contents on the ground before helping himself to a snack when Charlie shooed him away. We returned the contents to the bag and left a note on the bike so the rider wouldn’t think some scumbag had been rifling through his gear. Honestly, what would you think if you read, “Nobody was stealing from you. A crow opened your bag and started pulling stuff out of it to get to your Ritz Crackers.”
Although we beat most of the morning rush, Yellowstone is crowded by the afternoon during summer, so plan on sitting in lines of traffic and waiting for road construction. Despite this and some decent climbs including crossing the 8,391-foot Continental Divide on our way to the South Entrance of the park, the Tacoma was hitting its stride. By now the idle was smoothed out and the truck delivered 26.2 mpg from Livingston, Montana, to Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
The Toyota 2.7L four-cylinder has a reputation of head gasket issues that, even if unfounded, I was unwilling to test. My driving style was to let the engine rev higher under lighter loads to minimize cylinder pressure rather than try to pull Overdrive with heavy throttle. With a picturesque view of the Grand Teton National Park in the background, I did a quick chassis and fluid check to make sure everything was kosher and then we continued on into Jackson Hole for a late lunch.
We arrived in Jackson Hole between lunch and dinner time. After searching out some food and fuel, we hit the road with San Diego as our target and no particular destination for the night in mind. We meandered through southwestern Wyoming on two-lane roads until dusk, counting the antelope, which almost outnumbered oncoming vehicles. When nightfall came, we hit the Interstate and made some real time southward toward Commiefornia.
We finally pulled into St. George, Utah, early morning to let the Toyota cool its tires after covering roughly 800 miles on Day Six. Crossing the border to California on Day Seven was bittersweet. In all, we covered 3,741 miles on our epic cross-country trip with the odometer registering 325,217 miles as the Tacoma hit the driveway. Other than losing the rear shock on Iowa’s dirt roads, the truck performed flawlessly and Charlie is already talking about taking it again when he gets his license. Who knows—maybe he’ll put another 325,000 on it and take his son on his own Epic XC. A dad can only hope.