“Moving to Seattle?" the man asked.
"Nope," I said.
"Just hauling some stuff out there?"
It wasn't a total lie. It also wasn't a total truth. This conversation happened late last month in Jackson, Wyo., at a Budget Truck rental place. We were on vacation.
Lauren, the St. Petersburg native who will be my wife come November, had found a great deal on airfare for us and her 4-year-old daughter, Avery, who's a real trouper and likes a good adventure. We were going to fly from Tampa to Jackson and then back to Tampa from Seattle.
The plan was to drive the distance in between, 900 or so miles, through Montana and Idaho and Washington state's North Cascades, to see beautiful things that look not at all like where we live. I made four nights of reservations at well-situated hotels and good-looking inns along the way.
And then I went to rent a car.
Expedia, Orbitz, Hotwire, Priceline, Kayak, the actual sites of the companies that rent cars — it didn't matter. To rent a car in Jackson, to rent a cut-rate Chevy Aveo, and to drive it for parts of five days, and to drop it in Greater Seattle . . . was almost $1,300.
This was stunning, and unjust, and obviously unacceptable, and so we brainstormed. What if we rented the car in town and not at the airport? What if we dropped it somewhere else that wasn't far from Seattle? No dice. Same price. We thought about putting an ad on Craigslist to see if somebody in Jackson wanted to drive us to Seattle, road trip on us, because that still would be cheaper. We thought about buying a car.
Then Lauren said something about U-Haul, which quickly led to Budget, which is how on a sweatshirt-cool Friday morning in Jackson Hole I ended up maneuvering a 16-foot moving truck out into the spacious American West, for $372.79.
• • •
We didn't have wheels most of our time in compact Jackson, which was fine. The buses were affordable. The walking did us some good. But the first day we had the truck, we drove it into Grand Teton National Park, where we saw buffalo and an antelope and the world's most photographed barn. We saw in the distance, but not too far off, Grand Teton Peak, the area's striking snow-capped signature nearly 14,000 feet high into the sky. We saw, too, a sign that said ROUGH ROAD NEXT 41 MILES, at which point I made a clumsy three- to five-point turn.
The next morning, we loaded our three suitcases into the cavernous back of the truck, closed the back door with a thud and the latch, and climbed into the cab. On our way out of town, we stopped at the award-hoarding Snake River brew pub, where I had enjoyed my fair share of Pako's India Pale Ales, and bought some T-shirts. Then I steered the truck left onto Jackson's Broadway and then steered it right onto Wyoming Highway 22 and within 10 minutes encountered . . . Teton Pass.
Very pretty, and very tall, straight ahead.
The highest point in Teton Pass is 8,431 feet. A couple of days before, the three of us had gone to Teton Village, where we took a tram to the top, where the elevation was only 2,000 feet higher than the pass. There was snow up there.
Up we went in the Budget truck. The engine started to make sounds of strain. Avery was strapped into her car seat on the right side of the cab. Avery wasn't scared. That's because Avery's 4. Lauren? She was buckled up in the middle seat. And Lauren's not 4. What was that smell? Was that us? Shouldn't there be a guardrail over there? I took some solace from the sight of other trucks, much bigger trucks, going both ways, but of course the drivers of those trucks drive them for a living. I, meanwhile, threw the steering-column gearshift from D to 3, and then from 3 to 2, and kept both hands on the wheel.
Going up was a little nerve-racking. "We're fine," I said to Lauren, and for the most part I meant it. Going down was worse. I stayed in 2 and touched the brakes a good bit to make sure we still had them.
And then we were in Victor, Idaho, on flat ground, on a straight road, in a valley with meadows with tall-stalked wild flowers with fat purple petals.
And there out the window were the Tetons, still so toweringly tall, still so breathtakingly beautiful, behind us.
• • •
We drove by towns in Idaho, Montana and Washington called Felt, Gem and Opportunity. We stopped for long lunches in university town Missoula and river city Spokane.
The drive through Eastern Washington took us from wheat-covered fields to the Grand Coulee Dam to an American Indian reservation. We passed through a rodeo hub called Omak. There were apple and cherry trees on the side of the road.
In the North Cascades, we drove from Winthrop to Marblemount, a 90-mile drive that took most of the day because what was outside the windows of the truck was so stunning, with the waterfalls and the blue-green, glacial lakes and the craggy, white-tipped peaks looking so much like cartoon beauty that we had to keep stopping to get out and make sure it was real.
And we also stopped for gas. And I know what you're thinking. And it wasn't like that. The petroleum tally: In Butte, Mont., I filled the tank for $83.63. In Post Falls, Idaho, I did it again for $85.45. In Washington, I put in $39.28 in Marblemount and $67.44 in Sedro-Woolley, just before dropping it off in Burlington all gassed up.
My rough math says we saved something like 800 to 900 bucks.
That left far more fun funds for the final third of our trip, on Orcas Island, off the coast way up by Canada, where we got on a boat to watch resident killer whales and on two separate occasions ate unabashedly in feasts of local Dungeness crab.
Was it worth it? Truck yes it was worth it.
Michael Kruse can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8751. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelkruse.