driving in a frozen desert

Air-cooled and ice cold: Oregon to Michigan in a VW Beetle

Maybe winter wasn’t the best time to drive cross-country.

I’d never driven on a road as bad as I-84 that January night. The Beetle’s feeble headlights dimly illuminated the endless washboard ice and packed snow, and the car rattled relentlessly. It felt like every bone in our bodies did, too. And, boy, was it cold, with temps in the single digits. My wool socks and long underwear weren’t enough. I cursed my decision to drive this Beetle from Oregon to Michigan rather than ship it.

By Mile 30, I couldn’t feel my feet. My brother Grant, who’d snuggled into his down sleeping bag in the passenger seat, handed me his down booties. They helped a little, but my feet were still numb to my ankles. Nothing was going to help except actual heat, which this old Volkswagen, like so many before it, did not have.

Twenty miles later, fingertips numb and teeth chattering, Grant and I were frazzled, fully regretting our decision to make this trip. That’s right, a whopping 50 miles from Portland, Oregon, we were ready to call it quits. We were cold, hungry, tired, and terrified the Beetle was going to fall apart, spin off the road, or get swallowed under a semi. Hood River was the next exit. It was late, but we figured there’d be an open bar where we could eat. After filling our bellies and warming our toes, we discussed the situation with clear minds. We were fully throttled, but we decided to find a hotel, get some sleep, and continue the next day.

The Woodworth's on the trail
Ben Woodworth

The following morning, it was still frigid and the roads were still awful. The Beetle was running great and had decent power, but I could barely see the road through the thick, freezing fog. Then the windshield slowly started frosting over. Our wipers worked, but we had no sprayers. Even when we stopped and sloshed washer fluid on the windshield, it froze almost immediately, once again coating the windshield with a layer of frost.

At a truck stop in Boardman, we eyed the weather forecast and abandoned our plans to head north to scenic Route 2 in Washington. We were already behind schedule. The new plan was to boogie on I-82, then take Route 395 to I-90 northeast to Spokane.

We jumped back into the Beetle. It was still bone-chillingly cold despite our down jackets, wool hats, and thick gloves. With numb toes and fingers and cold eyeballs, we hit Kennewick, our planned destination from the night before. An REI store provided a second set of down booties and enough chemical hand and foot warmers for an arctic expedition. We giggled with excitement and, with renewed vigor, continued north.

With only 200 miles behind us, we were in for an all-nighter. Darkness soon fell over the frozen eastern Washington landscape. The fog came back, and it felt as though that same darkness fell over our souls. It was brutal. Soon, I didn’t even have a strip of clear windshield to look through. We made it only 80 miles beyond Kennewick. We were supposed to have more than 800 miles behind us at this point. We hadn’t even gone 300. At this rate, it would take us over a week to get home.

The journey continues in the gallery below...

Our Beetle under a fresh blanket of snow in Portland, Oregon, awaiting the start of our trip.
Ben Woodworth
Our Beetle under a fresh blanket of snow in Portland, Oregon, awaiting the start of our trip.
As the sun sets on day two, Grant contemplates our sanity in voluntarily driving an old car with no heat 2500 miles across the country in the dead of winter.
Ben Woodworth
As the sun sets on day two, Grant contemplates our sanity in voluntarily driving an old car with no heat 2500 miles across the country in the dead of winter.
The bitter cold wasn’t going to stop us from having fun. The occasional stop to stretch our legs, soak in some sun, or take in the view kept us from losing our minds as we soldiered east.
Ben Woodworth
The bitter cold wasn’t going to stop us from having fun. The occasional stop to stretch our legs, soak in some sun, or take in the view kept us from losing our minds as we soldiered east.
We tried everything in an attempt to thwart the constant glaze of ice buildup on the windshield. Even the threat of cracked glass didn’t stop us from trying a butane-lighter defrosting technique.
Ben Woodworth
We tried everything in an attempt to thwart the constant glaze of ice buildup on the windshield. Even the threat of cracked glass didn’t stop us from trying a butane-lighter defrosting technique.
Volkswagen Beetle in a frozen desert
Ben Woodworth
Driver rules. Passenger drools. Grant catches some shut-eye while I operate the controls—and the camera shutter. In-car naps are a crucial element on epic road trips and are not to be underestimated.
Ben Woodworth
Driver rules. Passenger drools. Grant catches some shut-eye while I operate the controls—and the camera shutter. In-car naps are a crucial element on epic road trips and are not to be underestimated.
Ben Woodworth
Ben Woodworth
These grizzled faces (author Ben at top, brother Grant below) accurately represent how tired we were after a 20-hour, 1000- mile push from South Dakota to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
Grant Woodworth
Ben Woodworth
These grizzled faces (author Ben at top, brother Grant below) accurately represent how tired we were after a 20-hour, 1000- mile push from South Dakota to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
Grant explores the frozen shores of Lake Michigan on the last morning. We wouldn’t have mentally survived the trip if we hadn’t taken the time to adventure a bit and enjoy the sights.
Ben Woodworth
Grant explores the frozen shores of Lake Michigan on the last morning. We wouldn’t have mentally survived the trip if we hadn’t taken the time to adventure a bit and enjoy the sights.
VW Beetle in front of the Mackinac Bridge
Ben Woodworth