Racing the Sun

Many years ago while I was still in college my roommate brought up the idea of driving to the eastern most point in North America timed in such a way that we arrived there at sunrise. A fantastic idea, but it got put on the back burner because, well, college students are generally poor. Three years ago the idea popped back into my head, and left me thinking. A couple days later I gave the same friend a call and said “hey, let’s go race the sun.”

Reasonably he responded with “what the hell are you talking about?” So I explained. On the summer solstice the sun sets in North Adams MA at 8:34pm, and rises at 4:42am in Lubec Me. That’s 8 hours and 8 minutes. The drive from the top of Mt Greylock to Quoddy Head State Park is 468 miles, which at the time registered as a 9 hour 28 minute drive on google maps. In the past 3 years google has learned my, um, swift driving habits, so it lists 8 hours now. I think you can see where this is going though.

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To make the drive in 8 hours and 8 minutes you need to average 57.6mph. That average needs to include any gas stops, back roads with stop lights/signs, etc. Realistically though, it’s beyond reasonable. You don’t need to drive at cannonball speeds to do this. And that’s exactly what we were after, something with a bit of challenge, but mostly just an adventure and a good story.

So on June 21st we jumped in my car, headed west, and arrived at the top of Mt. Greylock around 7:30pm. More than enough time to walk around, take pictures, check my maps a thousand more times, and drop hints to a few friends about what we were about to do. If you live in the North East and have never been to Greylock, go. The road is awesome, a proper mountain climb that thrusts you into open sky near the top. The views are excellent, and at the top is a Massachusetts War Veterans Memorial Tower with an excellent top viewing floor.

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At 8:34 the sun dropped below the horizon and we made a mad dash to the car, determined not to get stuck behind a slow tourist on their way off the mountain. The Garmin was already running, my phone had google maps and Latitude running, and I had a camera running. Plunging down off the mountain and onto the start of Rt2 East we were flying.

At this time waze was probably barely an idea in some developer’s head. Google maps refused to modify ETAs to suit your driving habits. But my Garmin did, and it was showing an arrival time of 4:46am, a full 4 minutes late. More when you factored in we’d need fuel halfway there. So hammer down.

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The first half of the trip was boring. We entertained ourselves with the typical car guy fantasies of what you’d buy with lotto money, how we planned on modding our cars, and how we were going to DOMINATE in the 24 Hours of Lemons after our failure of a first race. The Garmin slowly ticked minutes off the ETA, but for the most part I ignored it. We weren’t going to gain the time we needed on the highway, it was too risky bombing through the night to take on huge speeds. I knew once we hit the last 100 miles of back-roads that we’d be able to keep the speed up enough to drop time.

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Turning off the highway somewhere North of Portland Maine to find gas I nearly had a heart attack. I merged onto the local road with some enthusiasm only to be greeted with the heart stopping wail of a Ka band alert. SHIT. I cut my speed quick and found the policeman approaching from further back. A half mile of being followed too close and I finally started breathing again when the officer turned into a parking lot. The gas stop took 6 minutes including a bathroom run.

Back on the highway I realized just how long we were going to be in Maine. We still had 186 miles of highway and 100+ miles of back-road. On top of that thunderstorms were showing themselves to the east. As we exited the highway for the last time the storms were picking up intensity. We spent most of the early morning hours chasing, catching, and passing these storms.

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Around 3:30am, as we pulled ahead of the last patches of rain, we entered one of my favorite times to be behind the wheel. You can never pinpoint exactly when it happens, but you suddenly notice the sky is no longer an absolute black. A faint light brings definition to the clouds that have blocked out the stars all night. As the light grows so does the gradients in the sky. A deep black fading to indigo and blue. Occasionally a break in the clouds lets a shimmer of early morning pink through. With the approaching sun comes a second wind, a new determination so on we plowed through quiet empty towns happily unaware of our passing.

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In the early morning hours we had picked off enough time to not only match the sunrise, but beat it. Twisting through the seacoast forest of Quoddy Head State park we finally popped out into a clearing filled with ocean, lighthouse, and color.

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The clock read 4:25am when I turned the ignition off. 17 minutes early. As an added bonus we ended up crashing a newly wed’s romantic morning. They must have had a similar idea and showed up within a minute of us. We milled around for 30 minutes, taking pictures and enjoying the early summer morning. But finally the thunderstorms we had raced past caught up and forced us to return to the car.

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My camera skills are nonexistent

We had raced the sun and won. Not that it was that challenging. But it’s a story that I still hold dear to this day. It was an adventure, for a brief night we were Top Gear on some grand road trip racing The Stig’s Astral Cousin. Others could have gone faster, others could have done it with more flash, but we had actually gone out and did it. And what did we do to celebrate? We jumped in the car and drove the 400 miles home. I got home some 32 hours since I last slept and passed out smiling ear to ear.

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Edit: I forgot to clarify. Origionally we wanted to drive all the way to the eastern tip of Newfoundland. When I came up with this idea we decided to stay in the US. I’m already planning a new trip that would see us actually drive up through Canada to Nova Scotia, take the ferry to Newfoundland, and drive to the eastern shore. An adventure for a future date.

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