In what will now become an annual ritual, I drove from Massachusetts (MA) to Montana (MT) in 3 days in December and then back from Montana to Massachusetts in April (return trip to be covered in a future article). Why did I do this? Well, it comes down to a 160 lbs of combined fur, teeth, and muscle. It is near impossible to fly pets around the US these days unless you either have a private jet or can pass them off as service dogs. All the major US airlines have a 20 lbs size limit for carry on pets. In our case, it’s quite hard to get a single 90 lbs Labrador Retriever (Tiberius, aka Tibs) into a pet carrier and pass him off as being under 20 lbs. When you have a second Labrador Retriever (Vipsania, aka Vipsi) who weights 70 lbs, it’s even more of a challenge. An option was to charter a jet, which at $40k each way, seemed more than a bit excessive. Given the situation, the only reasonable solution was to drive the two dogs out with me for the winter (Mrs. SSO is mildly allergic to the dogs and can’t spend hours cooped up in a car with them so this was a solo adventure).
From MA to MT is a 2,400 mile drive. The original plan going out was to do it in three and a half days with a 470 mile first stint. Given the size of the cargo I would be transporting, all the supercars were ruled out. While I did toy with the idea of taking the Maserati Quattroporte, the back seat really wasn’t going to be that comfortable for two large dogs for 3 long days. In the end the choice came down to the Mercedes Benz GLS450 or the Range Rover P38. Given the Range Rover is over 20 years old and its, well, a Range Rover and the idea of being stranded in some very small town in South Dakota was unappealing, so the GLS450 got the nod. In preparation for the trip, we had new winter tires fitted which it would turn out, was absolutely critical for the trip.
We loaded up the big SUV on a sunny Sunday morning the week before Christmas. One small bag for the human, one bag of winter road trip gear (tire sealant, anti-freeze, windscreen wash, tire pump, motor oil, de-icing spray, paper towels), two large bags for the dogs with plenty of water, food, toys, and treats. Into the back of the SUV went one very large dog bed, one ramp, plus the two Labradors, Tibs & Vipsi. The route for day one called for us to cut across Rhode Island, Connecticut, & New York State before heading out west on I80 into Pennsylvania. Our destination was the booming metropolis of Clearfield, PA where we would be overnighting in the luxurious Hampton Inn. When planning this trip, one of my first discoveries was the larger the pets, the lower you needed to go in the hotel star ranking list to find one that would welcome you. No Four Seasons or Peninsula Hotels on this trip, Hampton & Hilton Garden Inns became our new friends. In reality, this was all we needed as we were just there to sleep and shower before hitting the road again the following morning. The day one drive was completely uneventful and included two stops for gas and canine relief. Once we got to the hotel, we all went for a long walk around the parking and adjacent field. The one revelation was Tib’s skill at precision pooing. He dropped a load right on top of a raised spotlight. I guess it was a warmer place to squat in the dead of winter. He is a very smart Labrador.
Day 2 was when things started to get interesting. Looking at the weather forecast, it seemed like an Artic front followed by a major snowstorm were now forecasted to hit the upper mid west later on in the week. The last thing I wanted to do was get caught in a winter storm with two dogs in a SUV in the middle of nowhere. The day 2 plans were changed on the fly and the day’s drive was extended to 900 miles. Our target for the night was now Rochester, Minnesota. The first part of the drive through Ohio and Indiana went by fairly quickly and it was then up into Illinois and around Chicago. Traffic in the Chicago area wasn’t too bad and we made fairly rapid progress up into Wisconsin. As we crossed the Mississippi River into Minnesota, it started snowing and the temperature started dropping quickly. Where it had been around the freezing mark since Chicago, it was now closer to 20F. The Artic front had arrived earlier than expected. The final two hours of the drive were in moderately heavy snow which did slow down progress significantly. Once we got to the hotel and had dropped our bags in the room, it was back outside for a long well needed run in the empty, snow covered field next door. For Tibs and Vipsi, this was the first snow of the season and then went to town running through it. Before going to bed, I checked a number of the weather reports. It now looked like a major winter storm would hit the area on Wednesday and temperatures would continue to fall overnight to a low around -20F by morning.
Day 3 started very early. I set the alarm for 5:30AM as I knew we were likely to have a very long day ahead of us and I wanted to get on the road early. Once up, it was a quick shower, two cups of coffee, followed by feeding the dogs and taking them out for a quick walk. With the mercury sitting around 0F, I had a moment of fear if the GLS450 would start. Fortunately, it did so without any hesitation. I then allowed it to warm up for a few minutes while I ran back inside to get Tibs and Vipsi. Given how cold it was, they had no interest in running around and went straight up into the back of the SUV and Tibs gave me a look of “human, what’s your problem, close the hatch now, it’s really cold.
In terms of directions, Day 3 couldn’t have been simpler if I tried, basically just go west on I90 until you decide to stop for the night. In terms of the driving conditions, it was anything but simple. Just getting out of the hotel was a bit of an adventure. There was a couple of inches of un-plowed snow on the ground and I don’t think we would have made it to the main road if we hadn’t had all wheel drive and winter tires. Fortunately, the road crews in Minnesota do a great job of keeping the highways plowed and we were able to make rapid progress west once we got underway. The good news about how cold it was out, I did not need to worry about was speed traps. No one would want to be standing outside writing traffic tickets in this weather. This was also an area of the country where planning started to become more important. Towns and gas stations were now few and far between. While the GLS450 has a very impressive range of over 400 miles, figuring out how to minimize stops while running the tank down as far as possible without risking running dry in the frozen tundra, did require a bit of planning.
Our first pit stop of the day was right across the South Dakota border in Sioux Falls. As the mercury had descended another 10 degrees to -10F, it was a quick splash and dash for both dogs and fuel before we headed back out onto I90 again. The speed limit on I90 in South Dakota is 80 mph which just seemed a bit silly. The road is dead straight for miles on end, there is barely any traffic, and there is nothing but flat open countryside on either side of the highway. If there was ever a place for a more Germanic Autobahn type approach to speed limits, this was it.
As we were leaving Sioux Falls, I gave Mrs. SSO a call for a weather update as she was now on the ground in Big Sky, MT having flown in the night before. It did not look good. The latest updated called for temperatures to drop into the low -20’s F overnight with snow starting around 9AM the next morning. This was anything but good news and meant we needed to get to Big Sky that evening. While I have plenty of experience driving in snow, I was not sure the GLS450 would survive sitting outside in -20F weather overnight. Only issue was Big Sky was still 850 miles away. This then led to a negotiation with Tibs & Vipsi. They agreed to extend the stops from every 2-3 hours to 3-4 hours in return for extra treats at each stop. With the deal done, it was off to our next stop in Rapid City.
So far, the day 3 drive had gone smooth and rapidly. Despite the near artic climate, the GLS450 was running brilliantly. Engine temps were normal, tire pressures good, and the heater was working well. Fuel consumption was a bit on the high side which was understandable given the environment. Despite there being plenty of snow surrounding the highway, the road surface itself was dry and clear. About 100 miles west of Rapid City, this changed and not for the better. All of a sudden, the road became covered in a mix of snow and ice. Needless to say, this had a major negative impact on speed. There was a fairly clear narrow path in the more heavily trafficked right hand lane but the left hand passing lane quickly became a no-go area. I have never been happier to have all wheel drive and winter tires as the GLS450 stayed well planted this entire time. After about 50 miles, the road final cleared, and we made our way into Rapid City for another quick stop. By now the dashboard thermometer was reading -20F. When I let the dogs out to do their business, they ran directly over to a snowbank, did their thing, and ran right back up the ramp into the GLS450. At the stop in Rapid City, I picked up a few Snickers Bars and cans of Red Bull as it was going to be a very long day.
After another hour on the road, we finally left South Dakota behind and crossed into Wyoming. The scenery started to change as the straight empty flat vastness of South Dakota disappeared behind us. The mercury remained in the -20F range but the roadway was clear of any snow or ice. The big SUV continued to feel well planted as we carved our way from the tundra up into the mountains. After what felt like a very quick 200 mile run, we left Wyoming behind and finally entered Montana as daylight disappeared.
The good news was we were finally in Montana. The bad news was we still had 300 miles to go, it was now dark, and very cold. I90 from the Wyoming border to Livingston, MT is an easy enjoyable drive. The section from Livingston to the town of Bozeman runs through the Bozeman Pass and is a great place to take a supercar in the summer as the road cuts up across the mountains. In an SUV after 12 hours on the road, at night, in Artic conditions, with two dogs in the back, it’s a bit of a handful. Knowing what was coming up, we made our final pit stop in Livingston. Tibs and Vipsi had a quick stretch of their legs, and I had a large Red Bull.
Leaving Livingston behind, we were quickly up into the Bozeman Pass. While the headlights on the GLS450 are quite good, visibility was still a challenge and we dropped down to what felt like a much wiser modest 60 mph for this section. A bit unexpectedly, tractor trailer truck traffic was quite heavy in the area (I’m guessing they were all trying to get ahead of the storm as well) which did create a bit of an additional challenge as some of the drivers really had their foot into it and some were very carefully navigating the tight corners. Perhaps the hairiest moment we had was when a large truck blasted past us on one of the declines at what must have been somewhere north of 90 mph. The vortex that the truck created as it went by felt like someone had punched the side of the car hard. It was pronounced enough that both dogs rose from their naps and sat right up in back. Once clear of the pass, it was a quick run to Bozeman and then a left onto RT 191 to Big Sky. By this time, I was running on pure Red Bull enhanced adrenalin.
By the time we pulled into our driveway in Big Sky, Tibs, Vipsi, and I had covered 1,100 miles in about 16 hours. We went through 3 tanks of gas, 3 Red Bulls, 2 Snickers Bars, 6 bottles of water and a dozen dog treats. We had made it ahead of the storm and the GLS450 had performed brilliantly. 1,110 miles in a single day is quite the test for any car but for a big heavy SUV to do it in subzero temperatures at high speeds in mountainous terrain is hugely impressive. While it wasn’t the relaxed trip we had originally planned, it certainly was a lot more memorable, and I emerged with a ton of new respect for the big Mercedes SUV.
P.S. Tibs & Vipsi do have their own, far more popular, Instagram Account. It is: @tiberiusalabrador
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