Epic Great Drive: Santa Fe to Seattle

Astute readers may remember the enthusiastic post written in early August detailing my search for the perfect Saab 9-3 Convertible– which turned out to be a 2006 9-3 Aero “20th Anniversary” edition in excellent condition, with just over 27,000 miles on it. Equipped with a 250 HP turbocharged 2.8 liter V6 and six-speed manual transmission, the car’s unique interior and exterior color schemes, limited-edition provenance and its attentive seller made this the right car for me. I posted trip photos that weekend Autosavant’s Facebook page as well as  my own Instagram account, and in my August piece I promised a write-up of the trip as soon as I’d had the opportunity to stretch my legs (and fingers) a bit after all that time behind the wheel.  At this point, time itself has stretched out, and nearly two months have passed since the Saab and I made our way home from Santa Fe, NM, to Seattle. Better late than never, here are the details from my trip.

Day 1:

Epic Great Drive: Santa Fe to Seattle

Day 1 Detail

My Friday, August 2nd,  started with a 6:40 AM departure from Portland International Airport, as I’d been on a three-day business trip in Portland. With a two-hour layover at LAX, I landed in Santa Fe around 2:30 local time. The scenery on the flight in to Santa Fe was very interesting, so many shades of brown and red rock and desert out the window. The Santa Fe airport is the second smallest domestic airport I’ve ever flown to commercially (Coos Bay, OR is smaller); it has a luggage table rather than carousel, and I was able to sit on the airport’s covered front porch to wait for the seller of my Saab, who had graciously agreed to pick me up at the airport. As I stepped off the plane, a passing thundershower dumped fat drops of water on the arid earth.

After a quick drive to the seller’s house in his Jeep (the Saab was waiting, clean, in his garage) I took a test drive- which confirmed the fact that I NEEDED to own this car, it was THE ONE. Good thing, as I’d flown all the way to Santa Fe on a one-way ticket to buy it. We agreed on a price, filled out various paperwork, and then set off to the bank to complete the transaction.

After a quick stop at the garage where I’d had the pre-sale inspection completed the previous day (prior to my arrival), I wasted no time getting my long trip home started. I re-set the trip stats on my old Garmin GPS unit, programmed the first day’s destination into the Saab’s factory nav system (confirming the route was the same one I intended to take), and hit the road.

Epic Great Drive: Santa Fe to SeattleFrom Santa Fe, my route took me about 30 miles southwest on I-25 toward Albuquerque, and then northwest on US 550 for about 170 miles to Bloomfield, with an additional 13 miles to Farmington. This route took me through very few communities, through vast stretches of desert, past mesas and arroyos. I opened the convertible’s top when I exited I-25 in 95 degree (Fahrenheit) heat.  As I drove toward the Continental Divide thunderstorms were increasing, and I drove past areas where heavy rain had just fallen as I observed lightning strikes across the sky. Finally as I drove into the community of Cuba, NM,  it began to rain, so I paused to close the roof before continuing on- it was just in time. Outside of Cuba, the skies opened up with heavy rain which slowed me down as I crossed the Continental Divide at 7380 feet. Eventually I was past the heavy weather, and continued on to Farmington in the growing dusk, after stopping to take some amazing sunset shots of the car.

Day 2:

Epic Great Drive: Santa Fe to Seattle

Day 2 Detail

Saturday morning dawned sunny after heavy overnight rain which left puddles sparkling in the high desert sunshine. Due to the rain and darkness on Friday evening, I had not seen as much scenery as I had expected; I made up for that on Saturday. I fueled the car, got myself breakfast and a large coffee, dropped the top and hit the road. As I set off from Farmington at 7:40 AM toward Shiprock, NM, the spire of rock for which the latter town is named appeared in the distance as an otherworldly apparition. Turning north at Shiprock on US-491, I was amazed by the stereotypically-southwest vistas of rock chimneys and tall mesas, with the two-lane highway stretching off into the distance.

Crossing the state line into Colorado was a scenic vista, where I stopped for some photos and to put the top up for protection against the intensifying desert sun. I  was stopped briefly for road construction before reaching Cortez, where I stocked up with water and snacks while stretching my legs. Leaving Cortez, the scenery changed from the southwestern desert motif as I entered a high plain with surprisingly lush green fields of grasses and rangeland.

Epic Great Drive: Santa Fe to SeattleI soon crossed the border in to Utah, passing through Monticello where I turned north onto US 191. Shortly outside of Monticello, the geography changed from grassland to red-rocked wonderland on the 57-mile journey to Moab, which led me past amazing red-rock formations including Wilson Arch and touristy Hole ‘n The Rock.  While this section of road was incredibly scenic, it was also clogged with weekend traffic, and slowed by several work zones for road construction.

Before embarking on this weekend odyssey, I had talked with a few different friends about joining me for the trip, but due to the last-minute nature of the trip and the expense of airfare to Santa Fe, I ended up making the weekend journey myself. It was around the time I hit Moab for lunch that I really felt I could use a break, so I grabbed a deli sandwich and walked a couple of blocks in the hundred-degree summertime heat before climbing back into the Saab and hitting the road.

From Moab, I continued following US-191 northbound through miles of coned-off construction zones in a long line of traffic before reaching Interstate 70, where I headed east through the Utah desert for 24 miles before heading north on US-6 / US-191 toward Price. That section of highway between was a long, narrow strip of asphalt through a fairly featureless desert, with precious few passing lanes to get around slow-moving traffic. I was relieved when I finally encountered trees and grasses as I rolled through verdant Wellington before stopping to refuel in Price.

Epic Great Drive: Santa Fe to SeattleContinuing in a northwesterly direction on US-6 in Utah from Price toward Provo, I encountered my favorite driving leg of the entire trip. Climbing through a steep-walled canyon past Carbonville and Spring Glen, I passed the town of Helper and found myself in a forested, mountainous area, and suddenly cresting Soldier Summit, whose 7477 foot pass was at a higher elevation than my crossing of the Continental Divide the previous day. From the summit, the highway wound downhill for 37 miles through amazingly scenic valleys (with amazingly light traffic) until reaching Interstate 15 in Spanish Fork- from this point onward all travel would be on Interstate highways.

Upon reaching the interstate, I headed north on I-15 through Provo, Salt Lake City (where I encountered a construction-related traffic jam that delayed me 20 minutes), and northward through Layton and Ogden before breaking out into the countryside. Having spent many weeks in the Salt Lake Valley over the past decade-and-a-half for work, I felt no need to stop and see any of Salt Lake’s sights.

Epic Great Drive: Santa Fe to SeattleIt was at this point of my journey that I was finally on highway I had traveled before; on September 11, 2001, I flew to Salt Lake City for a single-day client meeting, with a flight home scheduled that evening. Upon landing at the Salt Lake airport, I learned of the tragedies that had occurred in New York and Washington DC, and learned I would not be flying home that evening. After my business meeting was finished that afternoon, I hit the road in my rental car (an “upgrade”  Ford Windstar van with Hawaii plates) to drive back to my home in Portland, Oregon. As I piloted the Saab northward from Ogden toward the intersection with I-84, I remembered the somber, anxious drive home I had made twelve years earlier.

The region between Ogden, Utah and the Idaho border (and beyond) is grassland, cutting through miles upon miles of rolling fields used for growing crops. I had been in the car for more than nine hours by the time I reached the Idaho border, and the sun was low enough in the sky that I decided it was time to drop the top, despite ambient temperature till hovering in the upper 80s. With that rationale, I soon found myself rolling in to Idaho with the top open, heading west toward the setting sun.

Epic Great Drive: Santa Fe to SeattleAs I continued westbound, I passed large signs warning of dust storms, cautioning drivers not to stop on the roadway if visibility was obscured by blowing dust. As I passed the intersection with Interstate 86, I noticed dust being kicked up by other vehicles, and soon had dust in my eye and contact lens. As I was in a construction zone whose shoulders were coned off so as to prevent me from stopping on the shoulder, I continued to drive on with incredible irritation in my eye. I eventually made my way to an exit where I found a gas station and convenience store attached to an RV park, where I was able to fix my contact lens and get a snack before closing the convertible roof to get me the rest of the way through Idaho’s dust bowl.

Epic Great Drive: Santa Fe to SeattleJust as I turned onto the freeway onramp from that pit stop, a green first-generation Saab 900 convertible with Wisconsin license plates (and its top open) came from the other direction, merging onto the freeway directly in front of me. I passed the driver shortly thereafter with a thumbs-up, surprised to find another Saab convertible on my drive, especially one with out of state plates.

I had intended to stop for the night in Burley, ID, but was energized and decided to continue onward, refueling in Bliss, ID, (my third fill-up of the day) before stopping for a second night of sunset shots at a rest area, and finally finding a hotel in Mountain Home, Idaho, where I pulled in around 9:30 PM. I had been on the road nearly  14 hours, covering 708 miles on my trek between northern New Mexico and southern Idaho.

Day 3:

Epic Great Drive: Santa Fe to Seattle

Day 3 Detail

Sunday saw me get an early start in a chilly Idaho morning, motoring with the top open to the Oregon border and beyond. As Idaho’s panhandle borders Washington I had discounted both the remaining distance to the Oregon border, and the distance that needed to be covered inside of Oregon before entering Washington State. Having covered more miles than expected on Saturday, I had the mindset that Sunday would be a relatively quick drive, but the eight hours the trip took found me exhausted and irritable, which was confounded by the utter lack of lane discipline among drivers in Washington State, from the border with Oregon near Umatilla until I hit the dense traffic of the Seattle metro area.

Epic Great Drive: Santa Fe to SeattleAside from my exhaustion (which kept me from taking as details of trip notes as I had on Friday and Saturday),  I had  sunny weather, with incredible vistas through Eastern Oregon (including an amazing view from Interstate 84 approaching Pendleton where the highway reaches the edge of a high desert plateau and descends into Pendleton and its valley) and alien-looking desert landscapes between Yakima and Ellensburg, WA on Interstate 82.

To reduce my fatigue, the majority of my trip on Sunday was driven with the top closed (starting about an hour into Oregon), but after reaching the Seattle area on Interstate 90 after crossing Snoqualmie Pass in dense traffic, I stopped to open the top for the final 30 minute segment home. I arrived home on 3:35 PM on Sunday afternoon, having covered 1494 miles.

Epic Great Drive: Santa Fe to SeattleTrip stats from my trusty Garmin GPS indicated that I had covered that distance in a total of 23 hours, 3 minutes in motion., with an average moving speed of 64.8 MPH with an overall average including stops when underway, but not overnight stops) of 54.9 MPH over 27 hours, 14 minutes. The trip was broken down to 204 miles Friday, 704 miles Saturday, and 586 miles Sunday. I won’t disclose the top speed recorded by my Garmin; I will tell you it was not in triple digits, and it was reached on that narrow stretch of US-6 in Utah between I-70 and Price when passing another vehicle.

This last-minute, hastily-planned trip to buy my Saab convertible was an incredible journey in a unique car through amazingly scenic parts of the Western USA. It reinforced my love of road trips, exposed me to parts of the US that I would like to explore further, and jump started the bond between me and my new cabrio. Fortunately the trip was free of traffic stops and drama (other than a check-engine lamp that had to do with improper gas cap installation), and I made it safely home in the timeframe I had planned. Most of the route was scenic and enjoyable, especially those portions in New Mexico, Colorado and Utah that were driven on two-lane highways.  There is a special type of romance to road trips, and this one was a very special experience for me.  I can’t wait until my next road trip, and will keep dreaming about this one until then.

Author: Kevin Miller

As Autosavant’s resident Swedophile, Kevin has an acute affinity for Saabs, with a mild case of Volvo-itis as well. Aside from covering most Saab-related news for Autosavant, Kevin also reviews cars and covers industry news. His “Great Drive” series, with maps and directions included, is a reader favorite.

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2 Comments

  1. I forgot to mention my fuel consumption: I neglected to fill up the car from about 7/8 full when I picked it up from the seller, so I have 1231.9 miles tracked, over which time I used 46.24 gallons of fuel, for a trip average of 26.64 MPG- not bad given the actual speeds driven hovered around 80 MPH much of the trip. You can track my consumption on Fuelly (http://www.fuelly.com/driver/kr900).

  2. Sounds like a fantastic trip! I’m driving across the northern US this summer, will be fun I’m sure.

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