Great American Road Trip: Part 1.2

The Long Haul.

June 11–18 2018

I had hoped to document each portion of my road trip, a summary of each day on the road, and the sites I saw along the way. However, I quickly realized two things: (1) My higher-than-expected driving-to-sightseeing ratio would make me too tired to want to sit down and write in the evening, and (2) I would have very little cell service/Wifi over the coming weeks to be able to post blog entries in real-time fashion. That being said… I am still dedicated to share my story with you! So here we go…

As I mentioned in the previous post, the guys at Mercedes Benz of Annapolis found a tire shop in Silver Spring, MD that was able to hook me up with suitable tires (Yokohama 356) with a relatively quick turn around. Since I had to wait most of the day, I was able to take the Metro into Washington, D.C. to surprise my friend Josh, who had organized a watch party for England v Croatia. We were both pretty stoked to see each other before I set off on my journey, and it was great to have a beer and watch the exciting match with a bunch of hesitantly optimistic England fans (they didn’t win in the end, though). Actually, I left after the first half so that I could pick up Bob and hit the road before rush hour picked up too much. I managed to get to southern Pennsylvania again for the night (this time without any problems!), and settled into a free campsite along the Youghiogheny River. There was no one else around, and I watched the symphony of fireflies for an hour before crawling into bed.

View of the Youghiogheny River from the campground

Since I got a late start to my journey, and I didn’t have any real destinations that I wanted to see in Ohio, Indiana, or Illinois, I decided to wake up early and hit the road for a long day of driving. And boy was it long... Before I pulled into a state park in northern Illinois, I had been driving for 12 hours! And I probably paid about $70 in tolls. I actually can’t believe that Indiana charges tolls for their interstate, given the shoddy condition of the roads. Regardless, I did manage have some fantastic chance encounters along the way…

At a rest area just outside of Chicago, I had started up Bob to hit the road for the final stretch of our journey when a man walks up to the van, flagging me down. He asked me how I ended up with a german fire truck in the American Midwest, then he goes on to tell me that he was born in Duderstadt (the town where Bob used to serve with the volunteer fire department). He snapped a bunch of pictures of the van, twirling around in disbelief, then thanking me for taking the time to talk to him. In my own excitement, I forgot to take a picture of us together in font of Bob.

Bob’s spot for the night at White Pines Forest State Park (Illinois). Lots of great hiking/running trails here too.

I stayed at a wonderful state park in Northern Illinois, passing through a bunch of cornfields (and flying just underneath a crop duster plane) before pulling in just before sunset. The camp host was a van lifer and him and I nerded out over vans for a while. Then I had dinner and took a much needed shower after driving in the 90 degree sunshine for 12 hours.

Part of my choice in traveling across the northern states was to visit some of the 10 states I have not yet seen. Today marked the first of those states: Wisconsin and Minnesota. The day started with a two hour drive though back country roads to Madison, WI. It couldn’t have been a better start to the day. In Madison, I walked around the University of Wisconsin campus, opting for lunch on their beautiful union terrace overlooking the lake. What a great place to go to school! Then, it was back on the road for a longish afternoon of driving along the Mississippi.

Looking across the Mississippi River towards Wisconsin.

Let me tell you… the Mississippi River is big. Even all the way up in Minnesota. In fact, it is still downright impressive as it winds its way between Lacrosse and the twin cities. I opted to take the slightly longer but much more scenic route along the river, which was a fantastic choice. I was treated with beautiful views the entire way. I stayed the night in a state forest just northwest of Minneapolis, but because of the insane amount of bugs, I stayed inside the van for the evening and fell asleep quite early.

I decided to get up and on the road early this day, because I wanted to get to western North Dakota in the afternoon to not only beat the afternoon head (95 F forecasted for the afternoon), but also because I planned to make it to Theodore Roosevelt National Park. If I were lucky enough (and early enough), I hoped that I could snag a camping spot at the campground in the park. I was lucky enough and early enough. :) Now… I had thought that North Dakota would be an absolute bore to drive through. And while much of the state doesn’t benefit from the dramatic scenery of the Mountain West, it was quite pleasant rolling hills and fields most of the way. And besides… then you reach the badlands in the West. I watched a gorgeous sunset over the buttes in the park, and went to bed very satisfied I was about to get to Montana.

A view of the Painted Canyon at Theodore Roosevelt NP

As a side note… I have written another separate post just on the Badlands at Theodore Roosevelt National Park, because that place was just incredible. And perhaps a bit unexpectedly so.

Today, I decided that I needed a bit of exercise after all of that sitting in the car, and I wanted to see more of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. I wanted to go for a run on the trails, drive the 50k scenic loop, and still be able to make it west of Bozeman by the evening, but that all seemed a bit ambitious. So, I instead opted for a bike ride of the scenic loop. Starting at 6:45, I was alone on the windy road through the park with only the prairie dogs, bison, and a couple of wild mustangs as company. It was a tough hilly ride, but the perfect way to start the day.

In all of my planning for this trip, I often felt compelled to just power through all of the driving in the first few days, so that I could take my time once I got to Montana. In many ways, that is how it played out in reality. I still had a bit of driving to do, though.The drive into Montana from the west takes you across rolling grassy rangeland with occasional peaks and big open vistas. I really enjoyed seeing the long freight trains making their way across the valleys miles away. The interstate follows the Yellowstone River all the way to Livingston. I took a 20 mile detour off the highway at the town of Big Timber, to settle for the night in a dispersed National Forest campsite along the Boulder River. Montana has tons of primitive forest camping sites with fire pits and picnic tables (for free!). I opted for sleeping in a tent overlooking the river instead of spending the night in the parking lot in Bob. The stars were starting to show, but with a sunset near 10pm I couldn’t manage to stay up late enough for what I’m sure would have been an impressive show.

Campsite for the night along the river.

After packing up the tent and a quick breakfast porridge, I hit the road again, with a plan to stop in Missoula to check out the future home of my friends Hannes and Adriene (whose wedding I was rushing across the country to make). I stopped to check out a waterfall on the way back to the interstate, which during low water actually flows underground! With the smell of the conifers, the dry morning air, and all of varieties of wildflowers, I finally started to feel like I made it to the west.

Back on the road for what was probably the most beautiful drive so far, I meandered my way through the mountains to Missoula. By the time I arrived in Missoula about 2pm, it was a stifling 92 F (33 C). While I could have opted for floating down the river like all of the summer college students were doing, I decided a nice cold beer at one of the many Missoula breweries was a good alternative. Then it was back to the Mountain streams! I camped this night at Big Pine Campground. The bugs absolutely swarmed around me when I pulled in, which I am guessing had something to do with the fact that I had been sweating in the heat all day. After bathing naked in the river, the bugs were still horrendous, so I brought a bunch of stuff down to the riverside to cook with my feet in the water (the bugs weren’t bad where the water was moving). Sunset, a beer, some Humboldt to read, and I was on cloud nine. Montana really lived up to, then exceeded my expectations.

Follow the link to view pictures of the waterfall and second night’s campsite views.

My final day of driving for the first leg of the journey, I hit the road relatively early in anticipation of meeting my friends in Lake Chelan, WA. After about an hour of driving, I reached the border of Montana and Idaho, where coincidentally at 4725 ft elevation Bob turned 50,000 km! It took a while for him to find his traveling legs, but now he’s off on a mission and loving it.

Happy 50k, Bob!

I stopped in Coeur d’Alene to go for a hike that I had read up on. The starting point of the hike was at the end of a residential area, and went up to the top of a peak with views of the lake and city. However after about 15 minutes on the hike, I came across some bear scat along the trail, followed by scratch marks on small conifers, and finally a few different bear tracks crossing the hiking path. Since I was hiking alone, I decided it was probably best to turn around and just hit the road again.

The 5000+ kms (3100 miles) of highways really did some carnage on the local insect populations and on the Bob’s pretty mug, so I stopped at a self car wash station to clean up a bit. There was a car detail business set up in one of the car wash stalls, and the guys working were so stoked to see Bob that they ended up hooking me up with free time on the car wash machine.

RIP butterflies of the Northern Plains…

The final stretch of driving from Spokane to Lake Chelan requires about 3 hours of driving through flat, isolated hay fields on single-lane highway. It was hot with the sun in my face, and I felt the most remote I had felt the entire trip. At times I looked around and couldn’t even see a building or house in the distance. What if I had a mechanical issue out here?

Signs of life in the distance? Staring into the vast openness of Eastern Washington

I eventually made it to the lake, after going down a 12% grade hill in 2nd gear and having a mild panic attack that I had done some damage to the breaks and/or transmission (don’t worry, turns out Bob is a solid mustang of a van). Arriving at the lake house, with a bunch of my friends swimming in the lake and excited to see me and Bob in the driveway made the entire drive worth it.

Data scientist, musician, and adventurer with a passion for the environment and outdoors. Recently left Berlin to travel through North America in a fire truck.