6100 Miles. 15 States. 18 Days. (Part 4 of 4)
Our journey of 6100 miles, 15 States in 18 days will be told in a four part blog by taking excerpts from my travel journal. This was a life changing experience that I hope can inspire others to take the chance on a solo road trip across the beautiful Northwest. (Click to read: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3)
9/24/17 Day 11: It's 5:30 a.m., and the KOA campground is quiet and peaceful here in Livingston, MT. Chance and I have already gone on a good walk and now he is lying on the porch of our little cabin. I'm drinking my coffee, eating oatmeal and reflecting on the last 10 days of this amazing adventure. We've seen some incredible wildlife, walked along clear, raging rivers, we've climbed a few mountains and we still have 8 days left. Nashville will always be home for me, but my desire to see more of this world grows stronger every day. Today we are venturing to Yellowstone National Park so we'll conclude later.
It is now 11:00 p.m., and WOW, what a day! I am here to say that you CAN do Yellowstone in a day but it's not recommended, especially with a fur baby. We did a lot of driving to circle the park. There was a heavy snowfall in the park last night, so Chance got to play in some of the deepest snow he may ever see. He loved it and kept burying his head in it. I definitely can see the reason millions of people flock to this park each year.
Due to the heavy snow, many of the higher evaluated roads were closed. We did venture off the main road to drive down the one-way road at Firehole Lake Drive to see the hot springs. It was almost deserted compared to the other areas of the park. So, when I saw this beautiful green moss growing on a dead tree in front of one of the springs, I stopped to take a picture from my drivers side window. After multiple unsuccessful takes, I decided I didn't like the angle. I thought if I got out of the vehicle and squatted down, I'd get a much better shot. As I grabbed the door handle to open it, the thought of grabbing my bear spray came to my mind (don't want to be unarmed, right?). As I turned to the passenger seat where it was, I looked ahead and saw a grizzly bear and cub walking straight for us. (The picture I've included is not a zoom lens... they were that close and my hand was shaking so it's a bit blurry.) I think my heart rate jumped 50 beats and a thousand thoughts flooded my head:
"How fast can they run? How fast can I back up? Put the vehicle in reverse! Crap, all my windows are down. And Chance . . . OH SHIT! Chance, please don't bark and make this mama feel threatened in anyway! WE ARE COMPLETELY ALONE - NO CARS IN SITE! No cell phone signal either, so I can't even call for help if this goes bad"
As I slowly backed up, mama and baby kept coming. I gave them all of the room I could until they finally veered off the road. I was taking pictures while doing all of this and feeling my heart explode in my chest. It was the most MAGNIFICENT experience, and also one of the scariest encounters I've ever had. If you've ever been to any of the national parks, you know what a crowd any wildlife will draw; there will be cars parked for miles with 10 foot camera lenses pointed in one direction to get a picture of a grizzly way up on a hill. How awesome was it that we had that moment alone for at least 3-5 minutes before another car appeared and honked at me to go. They didn't realize to their left about 30 yards was a grizzly who was still visible. I pointed and I could see them all gasp as they grabbed their cameras. There are moments on my road trip that I keep just for me, but this was one I wanted to shout to the world.
I stopped to talk to a Ranger down the road and showed him the pictures. He actually broadcast it on the radio to let other rangers know to go to that area and told me that it could have been a dangerous situation for us, since they were that close. Duh! Tonight, I'm still seeing that visual of looking ahead at them. I think it's etched in my brain forever. I realize how awesome it was and respect the time we had alone with a beautiful grizzly and her baby . . . with no harm done to Chance and me.
(This was the highlight of Yellowstone for us, but I did manage to take a few pictures of the scenery and more of the bears - scroll through)
9/25/17 Day 12: We left the KOA this morning and it was another day of lots of driving but we did stop at this 7.5 acre dog park in Billings, MT, for Chance to play (he is finally cleared from the vet to go back after suffering from kennel cough). There was a walking trail that wrapped around the park, so we stayed for 2 hours and stretched our legs. We've checked into a hotel, and I'm looking forward to my own private bathroom for the night. We are going to reenergize and get ready for our next two days driving into South Dakota!
9/26/17 Day 13: I really hate going east . . . I know it leads us back home, but I believe you can feel at home in a place you've only been for a few days. So, I shed a tear as the Wyoming and Montana mountains disappeared in my rear view mirror and Patsy Cline faded from the radio station as we headed east on I-90.
We stopped at Devils Tower before crossing our 9th state line into South Dakota. Devils Tower was pretty cool. Again, no dogs were allowed on the trails, so it was mostly pulling off and taking pictures. I did get out and watch the prairie dogs play. They were so cute wagging their little tails, darting in and out of holes. I have to jump on a quick soap box here: It angered me as I watched people feed these cute animals when there was a clearly marked "DON'T FEED THE ANIMALS" sign. If you are one of these people... please, just don't! It's not good for them and it causes them to trust humans more, which leads to more deaths. So, you aren't helping them at all!
We were going to camp at Rafter J bar Ranch but after seeing the temps getting into the low 30's, we were able to switch our stay over to a small cabin. I love the cold, but do not necessarily want to sleep in it. We've got a good fire going again and another whiskey is poured. If Chance will stop barking at the deer running through the field, I might have some silence to enjoy. Nonetheless, it's a good night in Hill City, SD.
9/27/17 Day 14: We woke up to a beautiful, yet cold frosty morning. We chilled (literally) for a bit before heading to all of the tourist attractions and doing 3 easy hikes in the Black Hills & Custer Park. We did a little rock scrambling, too. Chance loved climbing the rocks, but he wanted to go places I couldn't, so we had a little tug-a-war on top of a rock. Fortunately, I won.
I think my two favorite things today were driving the curvy roads and seeing Mount Rushmore. Iron Mountain Road is a bikers dream with 314 curves, 4 incredible tunnels and 14 switchbacks along the 17 mile stretch. Needles Highway runs through Custer State Park and passes by Sylvan Lake, where we found the dog-friendly Harney Peak trail to hike. The highway also passes a really cool rock formation called the Needles Eye. Mount Rushmore was way grander than any photograph I've seen. It's kind of funny that it wasn't on my bucket list, but something I enjoyed the most about today. I guess in person, you recognize the artistic nature of the sculpted mountain, plus thinking of the time it took to be that precise in facial design. It is definitely something every American should go visit.
We are back at camp early to get some rest. Chance is already fast asleep, after about 8 miles of hiking plus the two plus hours of driving. We are coming close to the end of this trip and I can't help but think of how blessed I've been to experience it.
9/28/17 Day 15: This morning as we left Rafter J Ranch, we continued our "dog parks across America tour", at an unfenced 28 acre one. I've been so concerned about losing Chance on this trip, that I was a nervous wreck as he ran free through the fields and creek! But he absolutely loved it and was so worn out, he slept as we drove toward our next stop at Badlands National Park. As we drove through the park, I wanted to be in the trenches of the yellow and red mounds, hiking up and getting incredible photos, but dogs aren't allowed. That's been the only draw back on this trip, but I wouldn't change having Chance on this journey. So, we stuck to the roads and turnoffs, getting out for a few photos and watching bighorn sheep cross our path.
Afterwards, we headed towards Sioux Falls, SD, watching the sunset behind us as we drove on back roads through beautiful farmlands of red & gold. These next few days, as we make our way back home, will be tough; lots of driving and memories of an incredible journey left in our wake.
9/29/17 and 9/30/17 Day 16 & 17: We are making the trek back home. We drove back roads in Iowa (state #10) & Nebraska (state #11). We drove through little towns with population of 50 or less. I stopped at a few dives to eat and talk to locals. God bless these little towns and their hearts for farming! Everywhere I go, I take a little piece with me. Whether it is the memory of talking to the toothless 90 year old farmer in nowhere Nebraska at an ice cream parlor or pulling off on the side of the unpaved road to watch the sunset behind the corn field. Each person and place becomes stitched in my heart.
We have landed in Kansas City, Missouri (state #12) and after about an hour of searching for a hotel that allows pets, we are finally resting before our final day of driving home.
10/1/17 Day 18: We drove through Illinois (state #13) and Kentucky (state #14), before finally landing back home in state #15, Tennessee. We stopped here and there, but the mission was to get back to Nashville today. The problem with coming home, is I want to go back. Even 18 days was not long enough for me to be away. I want to see big trucks with mud on the wheels; I want to smell the pine trees; to feel the heat from a campfire; to light my pocket stove again for a meal; to drink coffee glazing out at a mountain view; to see Chance hanging his head out of the window from my side mirror; and to have nothing ahead of us but miles of open roads. The wildlife. The adventure. The AIR. The solitude. I want to rewind back to Day 1 and experience it ALL again. But all I can do is start planning our next big road trip and look forward to what the next adventure will bring.
As we close this trip, I have a few encouraging thoughts I would like to share:
1. Just go - don't wait! There is a beautiful destination just down the highway awaiting your arrival!
2. You can do it alone or with a pet. Don't lose an opportunity to see the world because there isn't anyone to go with!
3. Venture off the Interstates - some of my most favorite places weren't on my map.
4. Download Roadtrippers app. It has lots of great planning tools to prepare for a trip. Also if traveling with dogs, Bringfido app is a must! Most of the dog parks were found with this app. (You can read more about my traveling tips with dogs here).
5. Talk to locals - I have met some incredible people who I have hugged and laughed with along the way. There are so many interesting things to learn if you just stop and listen.
Well . . . with 15 state lines crossed, 6100 miles traveled, and one hell of an adventure, this is me and Chance signing out from our Northwest Road trip!