In the summer of 2017 I took two weeks and drove nearly 5,000 miles across the country on a mad dash to see as much of the wide open west as possible. My first marriage was in shambles and I had a strong need to just get away, far far away. I had always wanted to take on an adventure like this but never pulled the trigger. All the usual excuses, I didn’t have enough vacation time, I’m too busy at work, I don’t have the money, and so on. But given my situation at the time, I had nothing to lose. Time to start planning and hit the road.
I broke out the maps and started setting a course for a two week extravaganza. I wanted to see as many landmarks and mountains as possible but also leave some flexibility to wander and explore. Big ticket items for me: Glacier National Park, The Redwood Forest, and Yellowstone National Park. If I could cross those places off my bucket list, the rest was gravy. I had good friends living in Portland, so I set that as my only fixed destination with a date and time of arrival. The other days and nights I would explore and car camp.
I had most of the gear I needed already, but needed a few key items to fill out the list. I upgraded to a new Coleman camp stove and bought a proper hiking pack. Some new North Face trail shoes were also a must. I couldn’t be taking on adventures in regular old running shoes, that just wouldn’t be as fun. What else, what else? Oh, I needed a car. My soon to be ex-wife had our only car and if this road trip was going anywhere I needed some wheels. I didn’t have a big budget, but I also wanted at least a bit of confidence that I could make it cross country and back. I’ve always been a Jeep fan and luckily found a solid, used Jeep Patriot at a local car dealer. It was nothing fancy; stick shift, manual seats and windows, CD player, and four wheel drive. Perfect.
The first leg of the trip was from Chicago to Minneapolis. I started before sunrise and was into southern Wisconsin by the time first light hit the horizon. I rolled into Minneapolis early afternoon and stopped off at Surly Brewing for some lunch and a beer. The outdoor beer garden is amazing and definitely worth your time if you are ever in the twin cities. I lingered for a bit and enjoyed the beer garden, but had to move on. I wanted to be at a camp ground in North Dakota before sunset. As I set up camp that night, I was feeling great. I was officially on the road and my adventure was underway.
Day two began in North Dakota. Lovely people in North Dakota, but man there is not much to look at. I drove the entire width of the state and it is flat as a pancake and a whole lotta nothin’. I made my first mistake of the trip that day. I had a half a tank of gas and plenty of open flat road ahead of me, but didn’t realize that once you are west of Fargo, there isn’t much civilization. I bypassed a couple exists for small towns, assuming I would just hop off at the next one and fuel up. Nope. I came dangerously close to running out of gas on just the second day of the trip. Thankfully, I coasted into a tiny gas station with just a few miles to spare. I wouldn’t make that mistake again the rest of the trip. Any time the tank went below half full, I stopped to fill up.
Finally, North Dakota gave way to the rolling hills and beauty of eastern Montana. I made it to a KOA campground just east of Billings in the late afternoon and settled in for my second night of car camping. The campground was on the edge of a small river, and that night I sat with my toes in the water and sipped a beer while watching the sunset. Not bad for day two.
The next morning it was time to pack up early and head west. I had heard such good things about Bozeman and wanted to spend part of the day checking out the city. I rolled into town mid-morning and parked downtown on Main St. This definitely looked like a mountain town, little outfitter stores, western wear shops, and coffee houses lined the main drag. Restored Toyota Land Crusiers, Ford Broncos, and classic Land Rovers were dotted along the parking spots and corners of downtown. And in the distance, mountains, so many mountains. I was diggin’ it. I spent the next couple hours wandering from shop to shop and sipping coffee.
Before my trip, a friend of a friend told me about a remote camp site near Saddle Peak. It was off the main road and ‘required 4 wheel drive’. Sounded great to me. I left downtown and drove just a few minutes to find the gravel road that lead to the camp site. The first couple miles were not very challenging or rugged, but about half way there the road began to get very rutted and steep. Since I had just gotten this little Jeep and wasn’t real confident in it’s abilities, I took it slow and steady and nursed it the seven miles to the camp site. The site was tucked into the base of the mountain and below the area was a teal blue lake with a trail loop all the way around. Pretty breathtaking scene.
After wading in the water for a bit, I went back to set up my tent and lay in the hammock. It was mid afternoon and the sun was already sinking behind the mountain. As I lay there in the hammock I had a sudden rush of dread. I can’t quite explain it, but if you have spent any time in the forest, you know what I mean. It was a sense that something was off, the wind changed, or the temperature dropped. Or I was just freaking myself out. Whatever it was, I felt like I had to get moving. I packed up my tent and drove back down the rutted road. I checked my map and decided to head north and see if I could find a hotel for the night.
As I drove north, I could smell smoke. Then eventually I could see smoke rising over the foot hills. Most of the west was on fire that summer. I made it to White Sulphur Springs, MT just before sunset. I pulled into a gas station right as two trucks packed full of smoke jumpers were loading up. Their faces black with soot, they were finishing some gas station sandwiches and chugging gatorade. A helicopter buzzed over the tree line and headed toward the smoky sunset, with the trucks of fire fighters close behind.
Across the street was a small motel named the Sulphur Springs Inn. I checked into a room and changed into my swim trunks for a dip in the spring fed pool. A shower, then a burger from a bar down the street rounded out the evening. Glacier National Park was on my mind.
I arrived at Glacier the next afternoon and settled into my campsite. The campground was busy with hikers, fishermen, and mountain bikers. A large mountain bike event was taking place and there was a festival of sorts in the campground. I planned to spend two days at Glacier. Day one was for hiking and seeing as much of the eastern side of the park as I could. The park is massive, 50 miles from end to end. You could spend an entire summer there and never see it all. The first day I spent time hiking around Hidden Lake. I can’t explain how beautiful the scenery was. Clear blue skies, teal blue water, and purple mountains majesty. Every where you turned there is a post card view. Truly amazing.
Day two at Glacier started around 5am. I broke down my tent and campsite in the dark and packed up the car. I planned to be in Portland that night and I had to get moving. Leaving that early was the perfect choice. I was on the ‘Going to the Sun Road’ as dawn was breaking. Nobody else was around. I stopped nearly every five minutes to jump out of the car and stare at the beauty. The sun was rising over the mountains behind me, there were deer meandering along the roadside, and big horn sheep perched on rock cliffs just above the road. It took me about four hours to cross from east to west through Glacier. Those were easily some of the best hours of my life. Just me, my thoughts, and some of the most epic scenery in the world.
Between West Glacier and Spokane WA there are miles and miles of gorgeous forest and mountain views. I reached Spokane in the early afternoon and then immediately got stuck in a traffic jam on I-90. I never knew that eastern Washington was so arid. Flat, barren land stretches for hundreds of miles. Only once you reach the Columbia River Gorge, do you start to see signs of greenery and trees. As I approached Hood River OR the lush forest took over and huge waterfalls cascaded down from the mountains into the Columbia River. I reached my friends’ place around dinner time and took a desperately needed shower. The next three days, the three of us would be hiking around the perimeter of Mt. St Helens. I’ll get into that more in a later post. Let’s just say for now that I wasn’t really as prepared for that hike as I thought I was.
After three days on Mt. St Helens, I was off to northern California. I knew I wanted to drive the length of the Oregon coast on my way, since there are few things more striking than that coastline. It took me the better part of ten hours to make my way down the coast. I stopped off in little seaside towns here and there to grab a bite to eat or gas up. Then it was back on the road. As the sun started to set, it began to get foggy. Then it got really foggy. I had to drive slow once reaching northern California. I had a tent site reserved at a campground in Crescent City and I didn’t get there until about 11pm. I just threw up my lightweight single man tent and caught a few hours of sleep. I had to be up early to see the Redwoods.
Just after dawn the next morning I was back on the road and heading to the Redwood Forest. The sun was rising through the massive trees and fog was lifting off the road. A very magical look. I parked near one of the many trail heads and headed toward the ocean. Shocking news : those redwood trees are massive. Everyone knows that, but until you stand at the base of one and look up, you really can’t appreciate how massive they really are. Massive and old. It’s very humbling.
My only regret of this whole trip is that I didn’t plan more time for the redwoods. I only had a couple hours to hike the trail and soak up the beauty. I had to be in Salt Lake City the next day to pick up a friend from the airport. We were going to head up to Yellowstone for a couple days then back down to Denver.
I left the Redwood Forest and headed northeast through the southern part of Oregon on my way to Utah. Southern Oregon is also pretty in it’s own way, rolling hills, semi arid brush and small trees. There was a stretch of about 150 miles where there is literally nothing. There are signs warning you there are ‘no services’ for the next ‘X’ amount of miles. I drove about two and half hours and didn’t see another car, a house, or person. Just open land and cattle randomly dotting the landscape.
I pulled into Winnemucca NV that evening and set up camp in a KOA that was less than scenic. It was right off the interstate and backed up to a sub division. The view from my tent was the back patio of someone’s house. A little less majestic than some of the other scenery I had witnessed in the last few days.
The next morning it was off to Salt Lake City. As you head east on I-80 the scenery is scattered with rolling hills, brush, and more cattle. But as soon as you hit West Wendover it changes dramatically. West Wendover is perched on a plateau that overlooks the great salt flats. It’s like seeing the whitest snow on the flattest field for miles in either direction. It’s stark and breathtaking at the same time. For the next couple hours it was white salt on my left and right as I approached Salt Lake City.
Once in town, I picked up my friend from the airport and we grabbed some dinner. The next day we were heading up to Yellowstone National Park. Another aggressive day on the road, but it was on the bucket list, so it had to be done.
We reached the west side of Yellowstone around mid-day and headed straight for the Upper Falls. The Falls are massive and powerful. We walked the trail to the lookout and admired the Falls and enjoyed the perfect weather of the day.
Heading south through the park we pulled off the road and sat near a mountain stream, ate some lunch, and drank a beer. That moment and that scene was perfect. Spoiler alert : two and half years later this friend of mine would become my wife.
As we headed south from Yellowstone we drove through Grand Teton National Park. Just another masterful display of nature’s beauty. We reached a small traffic jam as there were tourists lining the road to get a photo of a grizzly bear. We slowed down but didn’t stop. Later that night we arrived in Dubois WY at another camp ground. Dubois is a what you imagine an old western mining town would be. A single main street lined with shops and saloons, complete with wooden boardwalks. Pretty quaint little place.
The next morning it was off to Denver. We pulled into town late in the afternoon and checked in to a hotel. We spent the night exploring downtown Denver, hopping from brewery to brewery and eventually ended up at Illegal Pete’s for some late night tacos. Maybe it was the beer talking, but those were some of the best damn tacos I had ever had.
The last day of the trip was going to be the longest on the road. I dropped Mazie off at the airport and hit I-80 for the sixteen hour trip back to Chicago. It had been a whirlwind trip. I saw everything on my list and even more than I expected. Travelling for most of the time by myself was therapeutic. It was just me, the open road and my thoughts. I turned a corner on that trip and grew to understand myself better.
If you ever get a chance to drive across the country, do it. You won’t regret it.