"On the road again, goin' places that I've never been. Seein' things that I may never see again." - Willie Nelson
We hopped the ferry in Port Jefferson and crossed the water to Bridgeport, or rather we navigated slowly and safely. As always, we have a tremendous penchant to travel on days where there is less than favorable weather. It’s amusing to note, that on both days we embarked from home, we encountered exceedingly thick fog. The majority of the trip to Bridgeport was spent trying to find a space to have a conversation. It was a pretty packed ride over, and it was heavily trafficked with small children.
One of the benefits of taking the ferry was it put us much closer to Mystic Seaport. I had never been, and Joe was positive it would be the perfect way to start our trip. Mystic Seaport is the nation’s leading maritime museum. Founded in 1929, it collects and preserves the artifacts of America’s seafaring past, and the Northeast was where the foundations of that history began. During the colonial era, seafaring folk were the only kind that were around, so they figured out pretty quickly what food was in the waters. We learned about all the different tools they created, crafted, and perfected, so they would flourish in a predominantly wild environment. Since Mystic Seaport is an educational facility, it also has Artisans on staff using the techniques of decades past, to break down the barriers in history and show people what their ancestors achieved with mere humble beginnings. We walked from exhibit to exhibit, learning about all the various techniques in Wordpressing, Ropemaking, Coopering, Blacksmithing, Candlemaking, Shipbuilding, and about the study of weather patterns as it specifically relates to storms. It was a wonderful way to spend a morning. Before we left to head to our next stop, we treated ourselves to something I never knew existed; a fabulous concoction called a Baked Potato Pizza. Yeeessssssssssss. A tiny place called Pizzetta’s, tucked away in the back of an old Victorian Home, and some of the best gluten free pizza I’ve had…. however, to be fair, it wasn’t a fair metric. Anyone who knows me can attest to my obsessive fanaticism of potato; but Joe who is a more thorough judge did admit that while it wasn’t as good as the pizza in Wyoming, it was high up on the list (and A LOT closer to home!). We finished our carb overloaded lunch and lumbered off to our next stop.
Our next tour was through the Johnson and Wales Culinary Museum in Rhode Island. It’s a great (and inexpensive) pit stop to walk through, and learn about how most of our restaurant business was formed. Mostly, the museum focuses on the evolution of culinary technologies and the strategies that were successful for restaurant tycoons. It includes a section containing the achievements of its alumnus, but there was art and history abound. Paintings, and retired factory pieces, uniquely fit together to create a wonderful patchwork working mosaic of American Culinary History.
We left Rhode Island and drove a bit longer until we were just outside Boston. Joe had planned a small bit of a surprise for me for our morning Adventure. My only hint was that it was in Boston, and that I was personally going to love it. We spent the night in a hotel, and after having such a heavy lunch decided that a lighter snack style dinner of hummus and chips would suit our waistlines better.
In the morning, I woke up like an annoying child, excited for my soon to be discovered present. Mother Nature dejectedly attempted to dampen my parade, but I would not succumb. Rain had accompanied us through the majority of this trip, and had become more like a traveling companion. Traffic inside of Boston however, was almost the death of me, but we persevered, and found parking. We walked, and we walked, and we got lost a little bit and then we walked further. After which we found ourselves at the doors of Harvard. My loving husband took me inside of a building, to the 2nd floor, and to the silent glass cases housed within: the Warren Anatomical Museum, a small collection of medical anomalies, oddities, and rarities, that are part of a much larger anatomical library. I was in creeptastic heaven. Unfortunately, no photography is permitted of the exhibit, so what I witnessed is only for my memory banks.
After staying longer than we should have looking at the Warren collection, we climbed back in the car and continued onwards. Long periods of time in traffic has a tendency to make people cranky and we were no exception. So, we were grateful that our next stop offered adult refreshment as their main attraction. Smoky Quartz Distillery is a USA Veteran owned and operated distillery that makes everything they have out of locally sourced corn, or as locally sourced as they can get. The benefit to that, for me is… EVERYTHING is Gluten Free! Woo! Hello Bourbon! The owner took us on a small tour of his warehouse, showed us how everything was made, and why he chose to walk this path after he served our country. We had a phenomenal conversation, a small sip of everything he offered, and ended up buying a bottle of each. Traffic had died down enough for us to continue towards our goal for the day; a Walmart parking lot in Portland, Maine. This particular parking lot was chosen so that we would have a comfortable drive to Acadia National Park the next morning, but quickly became a fabulous travel destination in its own right, when we discovered that it shared residence with a movie theater, and not just any theater, but the kind with the incredibly large and comfortable reclining seats. Bonus. We bought tickets to see “Star Trek Beyond”, went back out to the lot to set up the car for the evening. After a quick conversion, we were ready to recline. Who doesn’t love going to the movies? Admittedly, it was the shortest commute home after going out that we ever had. It was a great way to spend time if you’re sleeping in a parking lot.
"Having somewhere to go is home. Having someone to love is family. Having both is a blessing." - Unknown
Morning arrived and brought with it beautiful weather, and the introduction of an unexpected guest of the campground. While packing up the car from the inside of the tent, I heard Joe (who was towards the front of the car) start to yell and stomp his feet... this rustling was followed by a slightly higher pitched exclamation, and a car door slam. I poked my head out of the zipper door and saw a large ball of black fluff with white stripes… and a raised tail, lumbering towards our car. With a squeal of terror, I panicked about whether or not it would charge me while in the tent, and zipped myself in to take cover. After a minute or 2 the odoriferous offender ambled off towards other sites to terrorize the inhabitants. We only realized this is what happened because as time went on, more and more people down the road began exclaiming and rummaging for cover. Satisfied that we were definitively out of the blast range, we scurried about to finish packing our belongings into the safety of Hefe’s closed doors before any other friends of the forest could find their way to our site.
After brushing our teeth, we were finally ready to hit the road to come back to NY… or so we thought. As the drive wore on, we started to remember what it was like to drive the roads that lead to our home. The highways became larger, traffic sped up and increased in numbers. Horns began announcing themselves much more frequently. As the miles passed behind us, we noticed our sense of peace leaving us as well. By us, I really mean Joe… but only because New York and New Jersey drivers have a way of bringing out true road rage in him (it’s because we are inconsiderate drivers, if you must know). Navigating through the clogged highways and byways of NY and NJ, trying our best to simply enjoy the scenery of being home, and suddenly from the hum of occasional traffic there was a trumpeting of an insistent horn. Normally, if someone honks their horns, they honk until the situation deserving the honk is somewhat resolved, usually then scream something out the window and drive off furious. However, that’s not what happened. The horn continued to blare in an undeniably annoying pattern, as if whomever the driver was attempting to alert, remained unaware. Officially livid and unable to contain his rage for the discourteous welcome we were receiving, Joe broke for an exit to make his way down a different highway towards home. The horn stopped its bleating, and Joe claimed a moral victory. Then the phone rang.
Turns out, the car that we had believed was being categorically rude was actually our family. Uncle Dan and Uncle Mike were driving in from the city for the christening of Maddox also, and as it turns out, were next to us in traffic. They were so happy to see us that they forgot to use their phones to call us, and instead did what any reasonably excited person in a car would do to get attention – they honked. Hysterical laughing at our foolishness and immediately hateful response, we promised to see them shortly, and went about our drive home.
Having a little bit of time before getting home, Joe treated me to a kindness. As I mentioned previously, I am about as delicate as a bull in a china shop; in that regard traipsing all over the country had required a bit of a sacrifice – my engagement ring. During all the cavern exploring, white water rafting, and general tomfoolery, I managed to crush the prongs that supported my diamond, forcing it lean a touch to the Kildare side, and making it loose in the process. Not to mention that it had more than its fair share of dirt from various campgrounds wedged into the chips. Filthy and crushed, we brought my ring into its creators. Impressed with my uncanny talent for breaking things, they kindly offered to fix and clean it in under a half hour; just enough time for us to grab a cup of coffee in a local Starbucks, and get reacquainted with the accents and attitudes of our fellow Islanders. After reminiscing about different people we had met along our journey, we picked up my ring, and headed out to my mothers.
In a case of perfect timing, we happened to make it to my mother’s house just in time for happy hour. All five of the McKee Brood were home which was incredible, but it was crowded! Aunts, uncles, cousins, nephews, and niece, all under one roof - it was wonderful to see how much of our family has grown. Admittedly, it felt strange being in the home that we had left only a few months prior, but what was even more odd is that we didn’t have a room to stay in. Truthfully, Joe and I were still on our trip, and this stop was more akin to the other family stops we made; stay for a few days visiting with everyone and then head back out. A good way to keep that going was to sleep in the Element in the driveway (Lord knows it was definitely quieter than staying in the house!) However, I’m sure it confused the neighbors to see us crawling in and out of the back.
The next day was Maddox’s Christening, and we had a phenomenal time. He was baptized at St. Patrick’s in Bay Shore, our childhood church, and behaved exceedingly well (as to be expected from our adorable madman.) Poor Natey on the other hand was having a bit of a rough go. It was right in the middle of nap time and we were forcing him to stay awake in a loud, funny smelling place, with a ton of people….and he was in dress clothes which are always uncomfortable. So, after a few family members tried and failed to soothe him, I stole him outside into the vestibule, fed him a bottle, and rocked him to sleep. So, while I was physically present in the building for Mad’s Baptism, I wasn’t actually there. Making the total number of attended christenings for my nephews - 0. Oof.
After the ceremony, we convened back to the house for the best part about baptisms: the party, which was fantastic. Since July is extremely hot, it was a good time for everyone to go swimming; tons of games, great food, and as always, an endless supply of friends and family. The party continued into the night, everyone coming and going as they saw fit as is customary for the McKee home.
We spent the next morning trying to convince the three boys to look nicely in one direction; succeeding less than we all hoped, but getting some adorable results. Chaos is the lifeblood of such a big family, and it was nice to be a part of the bustle again, however, this was a trip and we needed to keep moving – so we said our goodbyes to the McKee’s and headed further east to spent a few days with the Celeste’s.
Taking shelter in the Celeste home was a welcome calm after the whirlwind. Granny happened to be staying at the same time and it was wonderful to spend some time with her. We had a delightful couple of days visiting with everyone and it was nice to recuperate in the company of family. We used the time to sleep on an inside bed, prep our supplies, enjoy a few more hot showers, and plan the epic close of our journey. The last states we had left were in what we called “Our Comfortable Territory” aka the Northeast. These were the states that we had already spent time in, since they were close tourist attractions for people in NY. We opted to indulge ourselves to a rare treat while traveling off island, a ferry ride. We knew we were heading to Connecticut anyway, so may as well make it a fun thing to do instead of wading through hours of concrete jungle and traffic. We set up our ticket for the ferry, and relaxed before our early start to Connecticut.
"I believe in a long, prolonged, derangement of the senses in order to obtain the unknown." - Jim Morrison
We knew that getting in and out of Chicago was going to be the hardest part of the day, so we made haste to get packed up and on the road. We were curious what it would be like to go walking around a city like Chicago, being from New York and so close to Manhattan had afforded us certain opportunities. We knew what it was like to see tall buildings, traffic, and a ton of people. We thought we knew what to expect when it came to difficulty parking, however most parking lots had height limitations, and we had additional height in the form of our Thule putting us at a whopping 7 ft. 9 in. After driving around for a half an hour trying to find parking, we finally found a lot that would accommodate our height and within reasonable walking distance to the tourist traps. We knew it was kismet when we saw this amazing mural on the side of the lot:
Parking a touch on the outskirts of the city center gave us the opportunity to really walk the streets, and get a feel for what was or wasn’t like home. It was an unbelievably beautiful day, warm, and still early. We knew that if we put up a decent pace we could get to the infamous Cloud Gate Bean before the tourist surge. Only problem with this absolutely perfect day was that I had utterly destroyed my current pair of sneakers prior to our arrival. For those of you who don’t know me, I am a bull in a china shop. I do hardly anything with finesse, grace, or with poise. If there was a sliding scale, I would say I was more akin to a Tasmanian devil than I am an elegant lady. I say this only to emphasize that I had only worn the shoes for a month or two before there were holes, sole ripping away from the shoe, ripped fabric inner lining, and they were bent in places that were beginning to give me blisters. I am also painfully Spartan and saw no reason to replace them. I only wanted a band-aid to cover my ankles and we were going. Joe started to realize that I was no longer causing him to run out of air while traversing the city streets, and queried. Then looked down, and immediately began insisting that we buy me new shoes. I said no, and we continued towards the Bean. Joe kept insisting, I said no, and we went looking for lunch, got lost, wandered in and out of air conditioned buildings, and finally found food in the form of Broken English Tacos Ah.Maz.Ing.
It was after lunch, a lecture highlighting the necessity of new shoes, complete with proof of 2 suitable shoe stores on the way back to the car, and an adamant refusal to get back into the car without new shoes from Joe that I finally begrudgingly conceded to the purchase of new footwear (I did get them on sale, and Joe made me throw the old ones away while we were at the store.) We continued exploring Chicago for a bit longer to make full use of our parking lot fee, and then pointed Hefe toward Michigan.
If I am going to be completely honest with you, we wanted to spend more time to go deeper in to Michigan, but as the days of our adventuring went on, we started to realize that we had a real deadline back in New York. We decided that to make this deadline more realistic and still do the things we wanted to do, we would have to cut some time off the trip (sorry Michigan). We did stop briefly in New Buffalo at Warner’s tasting room for a tasting and a chat, we drove around town in search of a postcard, found one and then made haste towards Indiana for the real excitement of the day – The RV and Motor Home Museum!!!
Normally, Joe and I are exceptional at planning. We had set about our day with the intent of ending in Ohio and we made every effort to allocate time for our ventures in the states we would be passing through. What we forgot to consider was time zones. In crossing over from Michigan to Indiana, we lost an entire hour in the blink of an eye. Crap! We made it to the RV and Motor Home Museum with only 20 minutes before closing. The gentleman behind the counter chuckled at us when we told him about our time zone miscalculation and decided that since we’d missed out on a whole hour of museum time, that he’d only charge us for one ticket. Grateful and pressed for time, we set about the museum path and admired the evolution in travel.
The Museum had gone to great lengths to make you feel as if a trip through the museum was a road trip through history. The path was fashioned to look like a road and the exhibits were in a chronological display, some were in good enough shape where you could go through and look at the interiors of the transportable homes. One benefit to our being there so late was that it was almost deserted. Everyone had gotten their fill for the day, so we could bounce excitedly from one vintage vehicle to another. Thankfully, they let us stay a little late (we weren’t the only ones left after all!) and we were able to see everything we wanted. We realized that we still needed to make it the additional 182 miles to where we were sleeping that night, so we said our thank you’s and got back on the road.
While we traveled, we grew famished and located a Mexican place in Toledo, Ohio that could accommodate my dietary needs. The restaurant was good, but was located in one of the most questionable neighborhoods I ever had the displeasure of setting foot in. True depression had wreaked havoc on the population and it showed. A screaming match had broken out across the street between some neighboring homes, something to do with the garbage filled front lawn, complete with stained mattress. We were relieved to be back on the road in under 45 minutes, and continued our way to stay at the Bayshore KOA.
We drove onward and the sun set behind us, we were tired from the full day of driving and my shoes were fully broken in. Anticipating the great relief that laying down for the evening would bring, we began to discuss how we would sleep for the evening when we heard a sound that was familiar…or so we thought. The pelting sound against the windshield that we had begun to associate with rain surprised us when we discovered that what we were really being pelted in was small bugs. It was a swarm season for a small little gnat bug that liked being near water. We drove for a half an hour through a dense fog of insects and murdered countless millions of them. This intense swarming made up our minds about our sleeping arrangements for the evening. When we arrived at the KOA, we checked in, parked for the night and set about sleeping inside the car for the evening.
It was important for us to get a good night’s rest, because our night’s stay at the Bay Shore KOA was planned for an even greater event; Cedar Point!!! We both love roller coasters and haven’t been on any in ages. We knew that it would be a very long time again before we were near a theme park as famous as for its coasters, so we elected to dedicate an entire day to being thrown around by force and gravity.
We slept comfortably for the night, rose early the next morning and hit the park as soon as it opened. We spent the entire day running from coaster to coaster. Admittedly, I am a junkie for adrenaline. I love crazy adventures, and being scared out of my mind. We screamed for the majority of the day and while we weren’t screaming we were sweating to death in the heat. One thing we did notice is that heat makes Joe and I a little… defensive. The lines for the rides were getting longer, the heat of the day was increasing, and younger teenage kids in the park were getting bolder. One group elected to mess with Joe a bit while we were on line for a ride, and then they promptly regretted that decision.
Truthfully, we had a great day, and it would have been phenomenal if the park was just a little bit more honest about their meal plans (that we had spent a considerable portion of money on). Turns out when Cedar Point says Gluten Free, what they really mean is “No way in hell you are eating.” We searched up and down the entire park for hours trying to find anything that would be safe for me to eat. We had done our homework, and had made sure that there was food; the park insisted there was. When we got there, not one place was safe for me to eat. Stressed, frustrated, hot and hangry, we set about finding customer relations. Conveniently very close to the customer relations was an ice cream shop that didn’t mind scooping ice cream from a fresh container for my milkshake. Hanger satiated by a milkshake and a refund, we left the park after 6 hours of coasters desperate for a shower and to be still.
My brilliant husband had the foresight to book us a room at the South Shore Inn for the night so that we could wash the day away and truly relax before making a long drive the next day towards New York. We also were fortunate enough that in this area of Ohio, there was a pizza place that delivered incredible gluten free pizza to our hotel. There are few things in life that make me happier than being in a freezing cold hotel room in the middle of July, freshly washed, and eating a delicious hot pizza with my husband.
Our next day was dedicated entirely to making our way through Pennsylvania. It was a beautiful drive but a very long one coming in at 450 miles. After a day of eating peanuts and drinking water, we treated ourselves to a fantastic dinner at Sara Street Grill. We found a campground that was still open and accepting reservations called Shady Acres a surprisingly massive and very well tended campground. They were extremely family focused, and we were happy to embrace that mentality….or so we thought. We had a peaceful evening watching a movie and enjoying each other’s company one last night before the pressures of civilization were upon us…. then at around 10PM, some Christmas carolers came up to the tent and loudly chastised us for being quiet inside and not coming out of the tent to watch them sing about ‘Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer’ in July. Can you imagine??
Now I realize there may be a faction of you out there saying “Well, gee Claire, why didn’t you come out of the tent?” simple really; I was not appropriately dressed for the occasion, nor did I feel like making a big fuss about not being dressed for the occasion. Sleeping in a tent for as long as I have, has caused me to relax a certain amount, and as far as I’m concerned, this is my private home. I have no air conditioning and its 85 degrees with considerable humidity, And I don’t know about you, but most people are in pajamas at 10PM. Add that all up and what you have is an image not appropriate for children. Not to mention, I’m sure that none of them sat in a car alllllllll day to get there, and if they did, they certainly weren’t the ones driving. So yes, it may have been cowardly, maybe even bad neighborly, but we laid in wait as the out-of-season caroling herd passed by to sing out of key to the next group of people unfortunate enough to be outside trying to enjoy their evening.
After the sounds of their carols faded and it was deemed safe, we chuckled about our cowardice and whispered to ourselves about what it would be like to cross the border into our home state for the first time in months. The reality of reality had knocked on our happy dreamscape and reminded us that this hiatus from life couldn’t last forever. We knew that after a short stint home, we would be back out on the road, but only for a short while longer. So, we stayed up this night a little later than we should have, laughing about the carolers on the campground, recalling memories from campgrounds past, stretching out our road reality for just a little bit longer, falling asleep slowly and begrudgingly.
We awoke in the middle of the night to the massive rumbles of thunder and the brilliant and continual flashes of lightning. The wind rattled our window panes, and the storms violence continued for quite a while and after what felt like hours finally began to wane. We fell back asleep to the rhythmic rain, and hoped it would stop by our departure in the morning. Rolling out of bed at a reasonable time, we packed up our bins and drove on to the Dows Depot Welcome Center. Built in 1896, it operated as a working depot until 1980. Passengers rode the trains to nearby towns, and many commercial products such as poultry, farm products, and coal were shipped by rail. The Dows Historical Society raised enough money to purchase and restore the depot in 1988, and to our chagrin, no one was there… but the door was open. There were no sign, no cars, nothing - simply an open door. So, we looked around, and left $0.41 on the counter for a single postcard, as well as a note, notifying whomever may show up afterwards of our purchase. Signed the guest book, and headed across the street in to the museum they had, assuming there may be a person there. Nope. Still nobody. We admired the old machinery that was used in times before us, and then went on our way towards Austin, Minnesota.
Why Austin Minnesota? Well, for SPAM of course! In Minnesota, the wonderful people at the SPAM company opted to take a commercial space and fill it to the rafters with the rich history of their pork product. Honestly, I had no idea how influential SPAM was during times of war. The company sent innumerable cans to the soldiers to feed them while they fought. (There were many letters from soldiers both thanking them for their contribution and swearing heartily that they would never have it again.) Truthfully the museum itself was a spectacle, countless displays about the effects the company had on the modern world, as well as interactive learning displays where you could find out more about different countries and their use of the proliferate pork product. The most interesting thing that we learned about the company was their dedication to the rejuvenation of a town. Previously, the museum was located further away from central town, closer to the highway – but the town was dying. Travelers would come to visit the museum, and then continue their journey down the road. Recognizing this, SPAM opted to move their facility into a larger space in the center of town. They also decided that not reopening the restaurant that had been inside the museum prior was the best way of encouraging patrons to frequent the local fare; thus pumping more money into the town. SPAM even made the admission to the museum free, so that everyone would be able to enjoy the pleasantries of the plentiful pork product.
After purchasing a mixed flavor case to bring home as souvenirs (you’re welcome Paramold!!!), we decided to stick around for some food. Conveniently, there was a great little restaurant across the street named Piggy Blues BBQ. It was covered in funny posters and served great food. We decided after eating that we weren’t entirely ready to get back in the car, so we went a few window fronts down to a coffee house. We did what any set of New Yorker's with a bit of free time do, and we utilized the free WiFi to do some work. It was a welcome gift to be sitting still while writing for once! Legs fully stretched and mochas fully enjoyed, we climbed back in Hefe and drove through to my new favorite town… SPARTAAAAA! Wisconsin.
Certainly, a touch less dramatic than it’s Grecian counterpart, but still very fun to scream while pretending to kick someone in a hole. Or at least that’s what I told the counter lady when she asked why the hell New Yorker's were in Wisconsin buying a postcard, and one of our more common dinners - mixed nuts and a bottle of wine. After perplexed looks and payment, we set about converting Hefe into night mode, much to the interest of the townsfolk. We made our home for the evening in the friendly neighborhood Walmart parking lot, and we closed the curtains on another day.
Morning greeted us with sunshine, and we were grateful for it. We started our day as every person should, by saying hello to a statue of a man on a massive bicycle. Duh. His name is Bicycle Ben. I’m not entirely sure why he’s there, but he seemed a happy fellow, so we decided to stop.
From this statue, we drove to our next oddity; a statue of a pink elephant with hipster glasses parked outside a gas station in the middle of nowhere. (According to Joe’s Aunt Linda, this pink elephant has a brother who is in Tennessee.) The gas station I should mention, sells freshly made cheese curds… because Wisconsin, that’s why (pay attention Idaho!!!!). After posing with the pachyderm, purchasing freshly packaged curds, and filling Hefe’s tank, we marched on down the road to our next tourist attraction – Clock Shadow Creamery.
Clock Shadow Creamery is a self-described “Urban Cheese Factory” that specializes in small batch cheese making. It’s a small-ish factory that makes all their cheese in one room. While we didn’t see any cheese being made that day due to their schedule, we were able to ask all the questions we wanted, and most importantly, try all the fresh cheese we wanted! Curiosity satiated we decided that while we were cheesed out, we were still hungry for real food. So we looked to my Find Me Gluten Free app and found, within walking distance, an awesome tapas place called La Merenda (Guess who got to try an empanada!!!!). Rejuvenated from an incredible meal, we got back in the car and made our way towards Chicago.
Normally heading to a city makes finding a place to sleep a little easier. More people, usually means more places to sleep. Up until this point we could stay in local Walmart's if there was no local campground, but heading into Chicago complicated matters a bit more. What we were realizing through our travels is that mega cities like New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago all have a sad common denominator; homeless populations. Chicago Walmart's in their perpetual struggle to battle this continual social issue had placed a ban on vehicles being able to stay overnight in the parking lots. This matter was further complicated by the concrete nature of Chicago, there were no campgrounds or one night RV parks. What’s a couple to do?
Find any available local motel that we can afford and hope for the best. That’s exactly what happened. We trudged through horrific rush hour traffic, regretting every moment of heading towards a city at the end of a day. Stressed from being lost, hungry from finding no suitable food, tired from being on the road, we cracked open a bottle of wine, cranked the air conditioning, and showered like we would drown. Officially famished, we elected to be brave and wander the streets outside our motel. We found a little bodega around the corner that suited our purposes, and Joe being extremely sociable managed to strike up a conversation about Tool with the bodega clerk. We walked around the exceptionally depressed ghetto area our motel was situated in, and did our best to enjoy the sunset stroll and the company of one another.
There are very few instances in my life that I can honestly say I felt like I was in a movie. However, the way we started our morning at Sleepy Hollow Campground in Wall, South Dakota is counted among those times. Nestled cozy and content in our blankets, we slept soundly, and happily, unaware that the town of Wall has a bright and early start time. The work day began. By that, I am referring to the terrifying shrill, 4 AM wake-up call that the town receives in the form of a very long Freight Train pulling into station. Unwittingly, we stayed in the campground that shared a neighbor line with a fill station. After making no attempts at quiet during the hour it occupied the fill line, the train trumpeted its departure promptly at 5 AM. This triggered yet another viscerally offensive cacophony of horn screams. Desperate for the cessation of the devil train, we began to rest easier as the horns faded eastward. As our luck would have it another train shrieked its intentions to pull into the station. It’s in this moment that Joe and I recalled for the second time on this trip ‘My Cousin Vinny’.
Our plight was not without benefits! Since we were at one of the nicest campgrounds we have had the pleasure of staying in, we could give ourselves a lovely morning gift – A SHOWER!!!! Manna from heaven, Sweet nectar of life! At this point we had grown accustomed to several days in a row doing a daily sponge bath in random bathrooms or in the tent (baby wipes were our best friend – dirty but true). After being woken up in such a brusque manner, I must admit the shower did a world of good. We felt ready to take on the rest of our day, and used the extra hours of time at our disposal to get an early start into the Badlands. The Badlands were an incredible sight; a place where the true king of nature is erosion . Utterly unforgiving, completely wild, and stunning in its purity.
However, even a fabulous shower couldn’t wash away the oddities that would follow us through the day. The Birds must have gossiped about their fallen brethren and offered up another contender to battle Hefe. With decisive vigor, the brave bird launched itself in determination at Hefe...with a small 'thunk!' the would-be champion followed in the footsteps of his predecessor. Hefe elevated his title to 'National Champion' (we've crossed state lines now) with a record of 2-0. Although, it seems the birds have learned from their previous mistakes- instead of going for the windshield, the new opponent opted to aim lower and careen into our radiator. Thankfully, no real damage other than a distinctive bird print in its metal screen (talk about leaving a mark!). Nauseated again by the murder/suicide of yet another animal, we pressed onward. Only to shortly thereafter encounter another first on our trip, the sighting of our first tumbleweed! … which we promptly ran over, and it became wedged under the wheel well. Great. We pull over, (take a picture of course) dislodge the sizable bouquet of dry twigs, and set it free… where it promptly tumbled straight into the road. Determined to keep the tumble in its natural habitat, I threw it over a fence as far away from the road as possible. After a trying morning, of train horns and unintentional vehicular manslaughter, we decided it was time for breakfast. We ate at a resort just south of the Badlands, Cedar Pass Lodge and had ourselves a solid breakfast.
Bellies full, we hit the old dusty trail on our way to Nebraska, to stop by Fred’s Flying Circus – an amazing art installation created by a man who worked on cars his whole life. He opted to restore some vehicles, weld on well-loved television characters, and place them on extremely high poles, as if they were flying. The man who created it, Fred Schritt, had passed recently, and his family chose to keep his art legacy intact.
It was after admiring the vehicular masterpieces that it dawned on us we were required to give Hefe some maintenance, particularly since he had been fighting the locals the preceding days. We found a nearby Walmart that would help us out for both the oil change, as well as the lot to stay parked for the night. We arrived just in time for them to take us as their last customer. The salesperson was kind enough to let us go find food inside, eat it at the service desk, and chat with us about our journey (they too were perplexed by the New York license plates). We had a great conversation, and afterwards simply had to park the car, set up, and relax. Except for, there was a little bit of an issue with the weather. After a stunning sunset (fireworks show included free of charge), the wind kicked up and began to rock Hefe. Then thunder and lightning came, no rain, but holy wind. Several times a sudden gust would rock us, and the wind would wail across the broad side of the car, waking us with a start. The thunder and lightning was a result of all the heat that had been building from the previous days. With no humidity to release water and break the cycle, the air was heavy with heat – almost like walking in to an oven. Sleep was elusive to say the least.
Despite our restless sleep, morning came, and brought with it the heat of day. We left Walmart behind and ambled down the road to discover the rest of Nebraska as we made our way to Kansas for a look at the Largest Ball of Twine. On our way, we realized that it was Sunday. Normally, that means nothing, at least not to a New Yorker. Some stores might have odd hours, maybe one or two are closed, but there’s always something open. In the great state of Nebraska, that meant that there was a functioning gas station, and that was it. Every store in the towns we drove through were closed. It was haunting. As if frozen in time, abandoned, and forgotten – but perfectly preserved. Not one person walked down the town streets, no children rode their bikes in the gorgeous sunny weather. We obeyed the 25-mph speed limit and crawled through town, feeling the palpable difference between our preconceived notion of a Sunday, and the reality of these empty streets. Unable to find anything that would allow us to experience more of Nebraska, we pushed onward towards Cawker City, Kansas and the impressively rolled jute wonder.
I must confess myself underwhelmed. Not by the twine ball itself, that was about what I expected, but I suppose the experience is a touch more lackluster than I had anticipated. It’s a gazebo that covers a giant ball of twine, and a mailbox holds the ledger for visitors to sign in. There are no people to talk to, no locals to wax philosophic about their city’s sole contribution to the world of the meandering motorist. Just some pigeons, and a notebook. It made it easier to take our pictures and be on our way, but I suppose I was expecting just a bit more fanfare. Maybe other people don’t get as excited by twine as I do.
We left the twine in the rear-view mirror and decided that we would comfort ourselves to some Kansas City barbecue. But not Kansas City, Kansas – Kansas City, Missouri. We crossed the border into our third state for the day and settled ourselves down for a fabulous meal at BB’s Lawnside BBQ, a restaurant that had been featured on Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives and was also well versed in gluten free food. I enjoyed burnt ends and green beans, while Joe treated himself to their renowned “BBQ Sundae”.
Glutinously satisfied with our food, and the experience, we said our thank-you’s and took to the streets to cross another state line. We opted to spend the night in Des Moines, Iowa at a hotel. The weather reports insisted that a relentless thunderstorm would be passing through, and given the wind we had experienced the night before we didn’t want to risk being in the tent or car. We checked ourselves into the hotel and began to relax our bodies from the long day in the car. We were exhausted from the day’s travels, and very much looking forward to lying in air conditioning for an entire night. The air in Iowa was oppressive, combining it with the untoward heft of humidity made it feel as if we were breathing through hot water. Grateful for the nights shelter, air conditioning, and a shower, we turned off the lights and settled in to watch the storm pass.
We woke up early in the Medora Campground which was a very short distance to Theodore Roosevelt National Park and decided to pack up our space before going to the campground office to hash out why our reservation had been lost the night before. After packing up, we headed to the bathrooms for a quick wash and teeth brushing. I opened the door to the bathroom and promptly discovered something awry. There happened to be a very large bearded male standing at the sink, washing his hands. Consulting the outside sign to confirm that in fact I was not in the wrong bathroom, (Meaning Joe was also in the wrong bathroom) I concluded that he must have not seen the sign. So, I walked in and said good morning, and began to wash up. The gentleman looked quite a bit panicked and asked “So, uh, is it me who’s wrong here? Or is it you?” laughingly, I answered his worst fears with the affirmative that he had mistakenly entered the ladies room, but that I didn’t mind, as I was only washing my hair and brushing my teeth. He thanked me for my graciousness, apologized, and ran out of the bathroom. A moment later, 2 little girls came in to the bathroom, they were about 5 and 7, so I was grateful that the man hadn’t stayed longer. The girls looked at me and didn’t make a move from the door. I suppose it must be strange to see a grown woman with her head in the sink of a public bathroom. I told them that the stalls were empty and that they were more than welcome to use them, or that if they needed the sink, I would be done in a moment.
After tending to their business, the oldest girl came out and began to ask me why I was washing my hair in the sink, and not in my RV like everyone else. I explained to her that we didn’t come in an RV, that we were there using a tent to camp, and that sometimes, as an adult you have to do silly things like wash your hair in the sink. I told her I liked her pajamas (Elsa from Frozen) and she thanked me. I asked where she was from and she cooed “North Dakkkoooooootaaa, where are you from?”
“Well, I’m From New York.” It was as if I told her I was from the moon. The look on her face was utterly priceless.
“New York?! Are you really from all the way out there?!” apparently, New Yorkers don’t come to North Dakota that often. After finishing my hair and the odd pleasantries, we said our goodbyes. Joe says that he doesn’t understand why I always manage to have such strange encounters in bathrooms. We stopped by the office to fix our reservation confusion, and then headed the half mile to Theodore Roosevelt National Park where we were lucky enough to see beautiful landscapes and more importantly prairie dogs, mountain goats, and bison! I’d like to consider my photography series for the bison to be my best work yet.
After our tour through the park, we embarked towards Mount Rushmore. We tried to stop for breakfast at a place that claimed they would cook gluten free. When we arrived, we ordered coffee, immediately blanched at its terrible quality, and then were informed that there was no way that they would accommodate my dietary needs (even though my app said they could). They had stopped serving breakfast so eggs were out of the question, they wouldn’t give me a baked potato because apparently, those are reserved for after 4 pm. Frustrated and hungry, we asked for the check. The waitress appeared offended “Ya don’t want nothing to eat?” I explained that since she had just stated that my options were unavailable I asked what she would do in such a situation, she shrugged and said “You should just order a sandwich.” Officially furious, we paid for unconditionally horrific coffee, and left.
Our grumbling bellies were quieted with bottled water and hopes that further down the line we might be able to find better accommodations for food. Thankfully,a few hours later, The Powder House Lodge did an incredible job of taking care of me, happily customizing a meal for me and explained it may take a little bit longer due to the need to make it separately. Gratified, full, and renewed, we drove through the town and up to the majesty of Mount Rushmore.
Truly a beautiful drive, and a very well-tended monument. As we were taking pictures we looked off in the distance and noticed that there was a quite familiar sight for this trip – yep you guessed it! Rain clouds. Determined to not be rained on, we hopped in the car and made our way towards Wall Drug in South Dakota where we would be spending our evening. I would say it poured, but that suggests that what was forming in the black clouds was rain. It took us quite by surprise when we realized in fact it was not rain, but hail. Marble sized pellets of ice began to pelt our car at a torrential rate; causing the cars on the highway to either pull off, hide under bridges, or turn their hazards on and drive less than 20 mph. We were of the latter group. But don’t worry, we filmed the natural assault, and even managed to get some pictures of the gathering hail on the highway. It looked like snow, in the middle of July. Go figure. After surviving the storm with no cracks in the windshield, we kept pushing onward to Wall Drug.
For those playing the home game, Wall Drug is not a town, it’s a business. The town’s name is Wall, but the reason it’s called Wall Drug is because of the pharmacy that placed this town on the map. A Pharmacist many years ago, opened his shop in the town of Wall, and was failing. No one wanted to stop in a nowhere town. So, they came up with the idea of offering free ice water to passing motorists. No gimmick, no secret cost, just free water. They would fill up jugs of it for people who were traveling along, and send them on their way. It launched an incredible venture wherein they were able to expand the shop to create a strip, offering everything you may need out on the road; including family friendly entertainment. It’s a cute place that gives a good rest and has nice people.
We stayed across the street at the Sleepy Hollow Campground a nice place with beautiful bathrooms (trust me, it’s a blessing when you find that). We set up the car for the night, and walked over to the tiny strip to go explore the ins and outs of Wall Drug. What we didn’t realize is that we had gotten there quite late, and in this part of the country, everything closes fairly early. We went to the small bar (the only one in town) and sat down for a drink. Slowly, the realization that this was the locals watering hole began to dawn on us. There was no one in the bar except for people who lived and worked in Wall. Everyone was meeting up after coming off shift, and looking quite quizzically at us. They mostly ignored us and our froo-froo cocktails, and started talking small town gossip. (I’m fairly positive that it’s big information that one of the townswomen recently broke up with her boyfriend and was already after someone else in town. Utterly scandalous.) We finished our drinks and headed back to the car, and enjoyed the evening air. The campground was quiet, the weather was beautiful, and we closed the hatch on another day.
In the morning when we awoke to a chilly but beautiful Wyoming sky. Our clothes were still a touch damp, but we couldn’t afford to wait any longer, it was going to be an arduous day of driving. Turns out the town of Cody is full of surprises – one being the Cody Laundromat was open (and was unbelievably clean). Apparently, this town is so kind to each other that they leave the laundromat open 24 hours a day, and only staffs it during normal business hours. They have a flat screen TV mounted on the wall, cable box, with remote, free Wi-Fi, complete free coffee pot station, an unused detergent donation basket, and cheap machines. I fully believed that we were on candid camera and at any second someone was going to come in and steal the TV. Instead, we spent a $1 and 15 minutes drying the rest of our clothes, in the cleanest laundromat I have ever seen in my life.
Before leaving the most honest town I’ve ever set foot in, we popped into the gas station across the street for coffee, then continued our drive straight across the state of Wyoming to get to the infamous Devil’s Tower. During our trek, we stopped briefly at the Smiling Moose Deli for lunch, and eventually landed in Crook County at the base of the iconic 867ft. National Monument.
We poked in to the very small visitors center and then started the uphill climb to the foot of the igneous intrusion. After taking some obligatory selfies while discussing aliens and walking around on the path through the tumbled boulders at its base, we realized we still had a minimum of 4 more hours of road time until we reached our destination for the evening. Happy with our brief but impressive exercise, we made our way down the path towards the parking lot.
In the short time that it takes to weave in and out of the path, I managed to immortalize myself in a random family’s vacation picture. The woman taking the picture informed me with great pride that I would officially be part of their treasured memories - I told her that my only request is that I make the fridge, I like being on the fridge – particularly for Holidays. Laughingly we parted ways, and climbed into the only orange car in the parking lot. Also, interestingly enough, the only car with New York license plates - while we were also the only people wearing nothing but shades of black. It was a very stereotyped moment in our lives.
We turned our tires towards North Dakota to reach the breathtaking Theodore Roosevelt National Park, where we were most excited to see Bison for the first time. North Dakota is beautiful, but I have never seen a place where the majority mammal wasn’t human. Herds of cattle dot the landscape, it’s a place where cars, fences, and cattle guards are the only signs of human intervention. Well, that and the livestock tags that hang from their ears. (I keep insisting that they are free wild cows – undomesticated entirely, Joe says I’m adorable.) With each passing mile marker, the skies swelled and darkened. The clouds began to condense and swirl, beginning to reach further down; on the horizon was a wall of grey that grew heavy and bloated with the upcoming rain. We were going to witness one fuuuuuunn thunderstorm.
The wind picked up, giving our little box car (We call him Hefe) some fight, the rain poured from the skies - but the birds were the worst of it. The thunderous and unrelenting rain must have scared the birds and caused them to panic, because once it turned torrential, there was a wave of dive bombing birds that kept narrowly dodging the edges of our car. Until… one poor kamikaze bird obstinately approached us head on in a fight. Hefe definitely won. With a walloping “thunk!” and a small smear of blood and feathers, Hefe won his first joust. Joe exclaimed, I gagged, the windshield wiper wiped, and in unison, we wretched. In about 3 wipes and the assistance of the heavy rains all trace of Hefe’s fallen foe was erased, but the memory of it’s untimely (Intentional?) demise will forever make me nauseated. Joe was devastated as it was the first animal we had ever hit between the two of us. But guess what we caught on video?
Eventually, it stopped raining long enough for us to stop and eat dinner at the previously discussed Pizza Ranch (20 miles in the complete opposite direction, but legitimately the ONLY food I could eat within a "reasonable" distance) we ordered two very American pizzas; chicken, bacon, & ranch and a bacon cheeseburger with half pickles. Immediately after ingestion we deeply regretted the combination of these two pies. While driving the 36 miles back over the roads we just used, we relived every bite of our bad choices. Every belch tasted of pickles, garlic, and ranch - it was indeed a hardship. Our exhausted bodies and bothered bellies were only placated with the promise of rest at our previously reserved campground space in Medora Campground.
Weary from the hundreds of miles traveled, we pulled into the office to find that we had just missed the standard operating hours. Not to be discouraged, we set about looking for our night reservation papers… Not there. The dreadful thought that someone may have stolen our space for the evening began to creep into our minds. Determined to make this night go to plan, I called the phone number for after-hours service, and tried to sort out what had gone awry while Joe began to look more and more perturbed. Turns out, our reservation wasn’t stolen, it was lost in their system, and had been consequently canceled. Absolutely at our quickly fraying last wit, Joe and I searched in frustrated desperation on rain soaked grounds for an unclaimed piece of un-flooded campground. Our efforts were rewarded with a tiny plot off the fork of a road. Grateful for the space, we quickly began work setting up Hefe during the first lull in the rain. I’ll be honest, it was a tense set up. We both felt awful, smelled like pickles and pizza, and couldn’t wait to no longer be moving. Ultimately, we managed to get cozy before it began raining again, and fell asleep to its soft sounds against our roof. It was a cold night in North Dakota, and we were thankful to be warm, safe, and still.
We passed uneventfully through the night in the parking lot, and woke in the morning like people on a mission. We preened in the Walmart bathrooms, grabbed coffee and drove through to the west gate of Yellowstone National Park. We were amazed to see how many people were already at Yellowstone, so many of whom were international travelers. It’s strange when you see these famous beautiful places in pictures, because you never see a single person in the photographs. I suppose it’s because the photographer works very hard to make sure that you can look past the tourism and see in to the preserved majesty beyond the boardwalks and fences.
We entered the park and began to make our way to the attraction sites, and noticed that there was an inordinate amount of traffic, and throngs of people walking along the roadways. We pushed on and stopped first at Turquoise Pool, and the Grand Prismatic Spring, which are unbelievable sulfur pools that boast extraordinary colors, created by the harsh environments they occupy. There is a boardwalk that surrounds these unbelievable hot pools and mini geysers, allowing you to get an up close look at the wonders that nature evolved for itself.
I must admit, waiting in the parking lot for half an hour trying desperately to find parking, while pedestrians flood the lot simultaneously is harrowing. Trying to take unblemished photos of Mother Nature’s most oddly made, and intensely dangerous, landscapes is also difficult when the boardwalk around is 4-foot-wide, clogged with your fellow man, and has no fencing preventing you from falling straight in to the scalding and fragile lakes of bacteria and sulfur. The rangers were very helpful and did their best to make sure everyone stayed safe, but given the sheer volume of people who toured this park, I’m confident in saying that their job is not an easy one.
After walking the boardwalks, one begins to sense a theme – people are jerks. Every person was more concerned with their photos, and their tour instead of waiting their turn. There was pushing, line cutting, errant elbows, and a shocking amount of litter. However, I like to believe that Mother Nature sought her own quiet revenge, and stole the hats of some of her visitors. An eye for an eye kind of karmic reward – even if that means that the hats are now litter themselves.
If, however, you’re fortunate enough to snag a high point of view safe from the crowd, or if you can extend your arm and camera past their furthest limits, out past all the other outstretched arms, and selfie sticks, you capture images that are forever painted into the deepest parts of your heart. Murals of magnificence that imprint themselves in your mind’s eye whenever your day is too hard, and you feel like running away. Images like these:
After spending some time admiring the eerie grandeur of the Sulfur Lakes and Pools, we headed down the Park Road to Old Faithful, where we waited 45 minutes to see an eruption. We decided to use that time to eat some food. Foolishly thinking that we could take our time and eat like human beings, we realized that the surrounding viewing decks around Old Faithful had filled up with a considerable horde of people. We took a seat off to the far right of the benches and watched as more people piled in as the minutes to the next eruption counted down. That meant making friends with the random strangers who settled on our piece of boardwalk for a glimpse of the big event. What it also meant, was the crowds were growing restless for the promised eruption that was fabled to inspire. So, what’s a crowd to do? Fixate heavily on a singular raven whom was occupying the base of the notorious geyser, busying himself with picking the bugs from the trembling ground. Many times, the crowd itself erupted in nervous noises, trying to scare off the raven from the impending explosion of water, creating a tenuous nervousness for the fate of our feathered friend. As a group, we were unsuccessful, and when Old Faithful finally unleashed its deluge of blistering water, we mourned as a community the loss of our protagonist to the scalding waters – positive he was broiled alive and suitable as a freshly cooked feast for scavengers. But Hope! From the raging column of water, seen flying away from the plumes of sulfuric clouds was the raven! The crowd erupted itself in triumphant victory and cheered for the raven who had no idea he was the center of our imagined dramatic play. Old Faithful forcefully spewed for several minutes, and then equalized after all of the pressure had been released, settling to again to fill itself for boil in another hour or so.
We left Old Faithful to entertain the next groups of people and moved on down the road, crossing the official Continental Divide, and made our way towards the East Entrance to soak in to the rest of Wyoming. This drive was said to be one of the most beautiful that our far-reaching country has to offer, proffered by Theodore Roosevelt himself. It was there in the outskirts of the land that we battled the most feared and unrelenting modern day struggle – no cell service.
The decision was made, we had been dirty hippies long enough, a shower was needed and laundry was on the agenda. So, for a night we would stay in a hotel, but that’s damn near impossible to book when you go from no service to 1x to no service in the span of a few minutes. Ultimately, we managed to find a place called “A Wyoming Inn” that was in the town of Cody an hour or so outside the park, that had a room available. Unbelievably, in this same town they had a restaurant called Adriano’s that was terrifically versed in Celiac, and made incredible pizza (Truthfully, I still dream of it). While we waited for our pies to cook, at the urging of the restaurant staff, we walked around the corner to Juniper to buy a bottle of wine, and apparently have a glass because not only is it a liquor store, it’s a bar. (It’s around this time that we started to understand why all these international people come to Wyoming, it’s fabulous!)
We introduced ourselves to Chet the bartender, and chatted with him and another patron about our adventures that brought us to their home town. After a glass of wine, we walked back to Adriano’s picked up our pizza, and drove back to the hotel for a nice date night, involving pizza, wine, and laundry. Our room offered an unobstructed view of the sun as it set over the horizon, giving off the most incredible hues of orange pink and red as it drifted slowly past the mountains. We hung up our freshly laundered clothes on our make shift drying tow-strap clothesline, and relaxed the night away.
"And then there is the most dangerous risk of all - the risk of spending your life not doing what you want on the bet you can buy yourself the freedom to do it later." - Randy Komisar
There are times in life where a person will do something out of the ordinary, really what this whole trip is about, but what we didn’t realize is the method we chose to travel the country is not exactly like most people’s choices. Most people choose to stay in hotels, or travel in an RV of some kind. By transforming our unassuming little element in to a house on wheels, we thought we would blend perfectly with our vagabond minded brethren – not true. RV’s have doors to exit from, the element doesn’t. Honestly, it has to be the oddest thing to watch one of us climb out of the back of this car. I say this because of the increasingly odd looks we have been subject to when doing so.
First off, you can’t see into the car at all because the curtains line the entire inside perimeter. They also serve to deaden noise, so you can’t hear anything coming from the inside. It looks like a super normal empty vehicle. Secondly, coming out of the vehicle is done via the hatch, since it’s been previously stated that the curtains wrap around the entire inside perimeter of the car; making it essentially impossible to use the standard designated exits. I don’t care if you are the most agile human the universe ever beheld, there is no graceful way to climb out of the hatch of this vehicle. None! Mostly because the clearance while exiting the vehicle is half of the normal size due to the bed platform necessary to create our storage space underneath. It’s all elbows and exploratory feet; tip toes searching for the limits of the tailgate so as to not misjudge your footing and accidentally fall off the car with a flurry of swear words, onto the unforgiving ground below.
However, the hatch of the Element normally only opens from the outside. In order to exit out via the hatch, we (read: Joe) had to install a way out. So, utilizing para-cord and the unlocking mechanism underneath the hatch paneling, Joe created a release cord, and a secondary cord that’s mounted to the metal frame of the hatch to pull it closed once you’re inside. The other difficulty is dropping the bottom gate, as it’s damn near impossible to climb inside when it’s closed. So there is a process.
Step 1. Roll up exit flap for curtain.
Step 2. Pull cord to release latch and lift glass hatch.
Step 3. Lower bottom hatch and somehow control its downward momentum so it doesn’t slam down.
Step 4. Exit; however it works for you.
Personally I am a big fan of the “Human Snake” wherein I pull myself out and do a push up on the tail gate until I can get my footing (cons – high risk of face plants). Joe prefers the “feet first” approach (cons- you’re going out blind and might slip and fall on your ass.)
Most common denominator – you look crazy and weird climbing out of a car in a parking lot.
We woke up in Spokane to rain on our roof, waited it out a little bit, and were rewarded with a long enough stretch for us to wiggle out, pack up and continue on our trek to Glacier National Park. We spent the rest of the day playing peek-a-boo with different weather systems but ultimately lost by the time we hit Glacier. We drove around the park a little bit to what we could see, but ultimately gave in to the gray weather and rain, resigning to search for a campsite inside the park before we had nowhere to sleep. After going through a couple loops, we finally found a space. Being the New York Prima Donnas we are, we opted to wait for a lull in the rain to set up to sleep inside the car. We left the sunroof cover off and watched the rain fall and the clouds move across the sky. Around sunset, it stopped for a little while, just long enough for us to stretch our legs, pee, and take pictures. We spent the evening in the car, watching movies and planning our journey for the next few days. Sleep came gently, as we listened to the sounds of the soft rain against our roof.
We woke up later than expected, which unfortunately shortened our exploratory drive of the majestic Glacier National Park before making a 500mile journey to Craters of the Moon in Idaho. It was an incredibly long day of driving and not much else, but we were fortunate enough to have the company of gorgeous scenery along the way.
We pulled in to Craters of the Moon KOA after the office hours only to discover all the tent pads were taken. We opted to find an RV space without hookups. We found an open pull thru at the back of the grounds, and waited for night fall; this was going to be our first real chance at seeing some stars. The majority of our trip was spent in areas where it was raining, or clouds obscured the night sky, or the moon was so bright that it erased them completely. After the sun fell behind the mountains, we climbed out of the car and into the windy night. Our GoPro was not cooperating and our fingers were starting to numb in the chilly night air. We surrendered only to decide to climb out again hours later to ensure we got the best shots possible to commemorate the occasion.
When I woke up in the morning it was my 30th birthday, (Yes, thank you, thank you; happy birthday to me) and I thought that waking up in Idaho was going to be the best thing, since we got to spend the whole day in the potatoiest state in the US. - Wrong. The potatoiest state does not sell its wares in the same way that other states sell their prize crops; I was secretly hoping for a french fry hut on every corner. So disappointed. It was wonderful anyway because we were going to be spending our morning in Craters of the Moon National Park which is a crazy lava field that cooled down and created a very alien feeling landscape. Absolutely beautiful and the park itself was extremely well tended. So for my 30th birthday, I got to play the “Floor is Lava” but for professionals so I guess it would be “World is Lava”? Anyway, we drove through the scenic loop and stopped at a few of the exploratory places like Devil’s Orchard. After a lovely morning wandering through lavafields, we hopped back in the car and made our way towards the Bonneville Salt Flats.
Instead of potatoes in Idaho for my big birthday dinner we had… Mexican... in Utah. Gas Station Mexican, of course. Somehow, in the state of Utah, the people who make tacos in gas stations understand the concept of gluten free and do well when explaining what they can and cannot do; all while speaking Spanglish. Uncontested winner of best Carne Asada Tacos on earth goes The Salt Flats Cafe. Mexican food made fresh to order, in a gas station in the desert. I love America. However, after crossing in to Utah, we had to then go back to Nevada to make camp at the Wendover KOA, a sweet little spot nestled inside a town filled with casinos, salt flats, and not much else. The woman behind the desk let us use her largest tent spot with no up-charge so we could set up the infamous car-tent and without obstructing campsite traffic. Decidedly warmer after setting up the tent under the Nevada sun, we elected to go for a swim in the pool. My brilliant husband loves me, and set up the ratchet tow straps again as a makeshift clothesline to dry our towels and suits. We let everything dry, drank a birthday bottle of wine, and watched The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug. What more could a girl ask for?
Sleeping in the tent always means an earlier wake-up call since it is so much brighter than sleeping in the Element. Nothing quite says good morning like the bright desert sun in your face. So, we packed up the tent, and headed to the Bonneville Salt Flats a mere hop skip and a jump away from the Nevada Border. Driving through our Nations great parks, I have discovered there are multiple entrances to almost all of them. Bonneville was unique in the fact that there is one road in, and it simply ends in the flats. Just straight up ends. There’s a sign that explains where fore-bearers have outlined race tracks and their approximate locations. Each track is outlined with cones, however this did not make it any easier to find them. The salt has the texture of snow, but feels warm. The spots where it has been consistently driven on are compressed down and have a similar friction to ice. This odd surface combined with the exceedingly flat long extinct lake bed make it one of the best places to set land speed records. We drove around for a bit on the flats, testing the limits of our heavy home before heading back out toward Salt Lake City, where we decided to stop for lunch.
Upon arriving in Salt Lake City, we realized Joe’s Aunt Linda would be in town for a work conference. We met her at her hotel as she was checking in, got her settled, and then walked down town to Zest Kitchen a vegetarian restaurant where everything on the menu is Gluten free. Fabulous! I even got a chance to drink a delicious beer (Green’s Quest Triple Blonde Ale 8.5%). While the food was good, catching up with Aunt Linda had to be the best part about our quick jaunt to SLC. We walked back to Linda’s hotel, said our goodbyes and continued on our way towards Yellowstone.
We drove for hours and settled at the closest Walmart to Yellowstone, in Rexburg WY. Except for, the place where we were told Walmart would be, was not where Walmart is. So we drove past the first Walmart we saw, and followed the GPS to an empty building. Apparently, Walmart got fancy on itself, and decided it needed its own store front complete with its own gas station. So we drove back to the Walmart we passed and looked around for our fellow parking-lot-camper enthusiasts. There were no RV’s, campers, tow trailers, nothing to indicate that the random network of vagabonds we had grown accustomed to. They were always our proverbial canary in the coalmine; their presence deemed the place a safe haven. Normally in a Walmart parking lot there are several canaries in the coalmine, if it’s a 24-hour facility that allows overnight parking, there will be campers. Their absence and the clearly new locale prompted a new first – asking Walmart for permission to sleep in their parking lot. Something I genuinely thought I would live my whole life without doing.
Rexburg was very receptive and simply requested we park as far out of the way of main store traffic as possible. We thanked them, headed to Costa Vida down the road for a quick dinner, and parked for the night, promising ourselves a very early morning start to get up to Yellowstone.
We woke in the morning and packed our luggage (clothing bins) into the Element. We dragged our feet but kept our hopes high that today would hold wonders and lift our spirits. Waze guided us to the redwoods and we made sure to choose every scenic drive the roadways offered to see the most we could. The first tree with a name was the Grandfather Tree, an incredibly massive tree that touts being over 1800 years old. What that really meant was that we had to go to the other side of the parking lot in order to get it all in one photo. Standing at the base makes one feel minuscule in comparison.
Taking our time, we meandered along the coast line soaking in the sheer size of the redwoods, basking in the scenery. We stopped and grabbed lunch at the Black Lightning Motorcycle Cafe, the ladies there were kind enough to feed us even though they were closing early for the holiday weekend. We ate in the car, parked on the main road, and watched as the bustling town slowed to a crawl. With bellies full, we continued to meander up the coast poking in and out of the redwoods. It’s incredible how high these massive giants reach towards the sky.
We became so engaged in the scenery, we completely forgot about a place to stay at the end of the drive. This normally is not a problem except we also failed to realize that everyone would be out for the holiday weekend, resulting in no available campgrounds anywhere. Why? Because 4th of July means camping! So we did the next best thing – we spent our first night in a Walmart parking lot. Truthfully it was better than we had expected. We had many neighbors in the form of RV’s. Thankfully it was a 24-hour supercenter and we found a space wedged between 2 parking islands and began to set up the car for the night. After putting up our curtains and laying out the bed, we went into Walmart to stretch our legs, wander through the aisles and pick up the little bits of things we may need along our journey (also to go to the bathroom one final time before we bunkered down for the night). Our new Walmart neighbors decided that since it was after all a holiday weekend, they would entertain us before bed by putting on a firework show and shouting drunkenly at the explosions and one another.
After a surprisingly good night sleep we woke up the next morning, packed up our miniature home, and headed North toward Eugene, Oregon where we would be spending our 4th of July. While traveling along we finally found a restaurant that was opened named Cornucopia, and sat down to enjoy lunch. Concerned about where we would park for the night, we began searching for a campground early in the day. This proved to be the right decision as we were fortunate enough to find one campground that had only a handful of spaces left, Eugene Kamping World. After scouting the available sites, we made our way to the space that would work best for us and pitched. We were lucky enough to be able to see portions of multiple fireworks shows while relaxing in our lawn chairs and drinking some Oregon Pinot Noir.
As the sun hit our tent we arose and broke down camp to make our way towards Portland where we would be exploring for a few days with our friends Dez and Jason. Before getting to their house we decided we needed some caffeine to pry open our eyes and some wine to share for the evening. We stopped on the waterfront at a coffee shop, and walked along the river to see what was around, stopping into the Bottle Bodega where they want to find the right bottle for the job. After some great conversation we thanked the shop owner and made it to the Pittman house. We had just enough time for a quick shower before heading out to Portobello for an incredibly delicious dinner. For dessert we opted to head to a gluten free bakery nearby that also offered vegan options for Jason. We spent the rest of the night at the Pittman’s for a glorious TV binge of Rick and Morty.
When we woke up the next morning both Dez and Jason had to go to work, leaving Joe and I to our own devices. We started the day by headed to New Cascadia for brunch. New Cascadia is a 100% dedicated gluten free bakery that is nestled in some back streets…and it’s incredible! Everything is scratch made in house; you can taste the love. After filling ourselves up we decided to walk off the added carb weight by walking aimlessly in the Rose Gardens, followed by a hearty hike up the hill to the Japanese Gardens. Breathtaking views of the city of Portland laid down in a valley below our feet and invited us to take a moment to enjoy its peacefulness.
After completing our tour of the Japanese Garden, we headed back towards the Rose Garden and treated ourselves to some shaved ice as a welcome treat from the persistent Oregon sun. After spending the majority of the day amidst nature and flowers, we decided to give our sinuses a break and head back to Dez and Jason. They wanted to bring us to one of their favorite overlook sites, a place they call “The Castle”, that is atop a hill and looks out over the city of Portland and the southerly border of Washington. After looking out over the horizon for a while, we decided it was time for more of what Portland does best – food! We settled down for dinner at Vita Café, where I enjoyed a heaping plate of chili cheese fries, nachos and a chicken fried steak made of tempeh. Ridiculous! After dinner it was back to the homestead for more binge watching of Rick and Morty- my new favorite television show.
The next morning Dez was able to get off from work, so she took us to brunch at the Tin Shed Garden Cafe, and then brought us around the city to all of her favorite shops including an oddity shop called Paxton Gate and an old school arcade called Ground Kontrol (where the currency was quarters and not tokens). We played Pac-Man, X-Men, and even had a Dance, Dance, Revolution battle. Dez was kind enough to bring us all over so that we could get a real feel of what Portland was like. Around late afternoon we went back to the house and met up with Jason to go to New Seasons Market a grocery store that was very similar to Sprouts. We picked up stuff to make dinner (Roasted Cauliflower Parmesan Pasta Deliciousness) and laughed about just how much we had in common with our food selections and shopping habits.
True to Portland form (and the theme of our trip) It rained a bit, so we were happy to spend the night finishing Rick and Morty and watching “Samurai Cop”; a delightfully terrible movie about a man who takes down a Japanese crime gang (sometimes it’s his real hair and sometimes it’s a wig). Since it was our last night, we ended up staying up a little bit later than we should have, but it was well worth it for good company. We had fallen in love with Portland, and were very sad to leave it behind.
Bright and early the next morning we hit the road to Seattle for our trip to the top of the Space Needle. After purchasing our tickets to the observation deck we overheard someone discussing brunch at a revolving restaurant at the top called “Skycity”. The brunch includes your ticket to the observation deck and they offered a limited number of gluten free items. We were told they had a last minute cancellation this morning and if we decided to take the table for two they would refund our original tickets. Needless to say we decided to eat a three course brunch in the rotating restaurant at the top of the Space Needle (47 minutes for a 360-degree rotation). Fancy food eaten, we strolled over to the observation deck and proceeded to weave our way around the throngs of tourists now ascending on the needle as the rain begrudgingly gave way too sunshine. After spending a good amount of time looking over Seattle, we decided it was time to start driving again and tick down as many miles as we could for our next destination. Today would be our first day traveling East, both an exciting accomplishment and a somber moment of realization there was as much behind us as there was in front of us.
We watched as Seattle and the Pacific Northwest began to disappear in our mirrors. We drove through beautiful mountain passes and a valley made of gold with a sky so vast and blue it seemed endless. Spokane Valley Washington drew near and we decided on dinner at Twigs Bistro and afterwards stayed in a tiny corner of a Walmart parking lot. In the midst of a sea of RV’s was our little unassuming orange Element, happy to take a refuge for the night.