Day One - July 18, 2018
Beginning from our home in Virginia, Paul and I set out on the first leg of our adventure. We were on a timeline, because we had determined to meet Paul’s parents in North Dakota the following evening.
My mother-in-law (who I’ll refer to as “Mom,” in this post, as I do in real life) had dipped her wheels in the Pacific Ocean and was currently pedaling her bicycle across the country with a team of Boy Scouts and other riders. Their destination: the Atlantic Ocean. My father-in-law (“Dad”) was supporting her along the journey. We hadn’t seen them in two months, so we were looking forward to connecting with them at the start of our journey.
We stopped only for gas and bathroom breaks in our race against time. We planned to avoid Chicago. But…
Day Two - July 19, 2018
…when Paul stopped at 5 a.m. after driving straight through the night, I offered to drive while he took a nap. “I can just follow the phone, right?”
“Yup, the trip is mapped out in the phone.”
An hour and a half later, I remarked, “Why are we near Chicago?”
Paul just about bounced out of his seat. “What?! Chicago? I specifically told the phone to avoid it!”
Apparently, the phone, in its imperial knowledge of all things, had decided that it was faster to go by Chicago and had decided to adjust Paul’s route.
Eight toll stops and far too much morning rush traffic later, we finally extricated ourselves. Then the scenery was all miles of shining green corn leaves, straight roads, and the slow swooping spin of white wind turbines.
At last the landscape gave way to chalky reddish earth and dry heat, with tufts of greenery, and a vast cloudless sky. The oppressive humidity of the east disappeared once we crossed the Missouri River, and the dry heat sucked the moisture from my tongue.
We reached White River, North Dakota by the evening, pulling up to a modest, angular building that declared itself to be the high school. Mom and Dad had not expected us so soon, and when Mom first saw her son, she tattooed a happy dance on the high school floor and flung her arms around him, squeezing tight. Dad swallowed me into a big bear hug.
We showered in the locker rooms (oh, the bliss!) and slept in a classroom on air mattresses (glamping in style, folks!).
Day Three - July 20, 2018
Paul cooked an egg breakfast for Mom, Dad, and I over his propane camp stove. (That thing proved to be the best $40 spent on the trip.) No one wanted to part ways, but Mom and Dad were heading east and Paul and I were heading west, so we reluctantly bid each other farewell and promised to throw a party when we all returned to Virginia safely.
Our first stop of the day: the Badlands.
Craggy hills stretched for mile upon mile, each layer a different shade of rose gold, saffron, white, or gunpowder gray. I was used to rocky or clay earth; here, the chalky hills seemed as though they would blow away if the wind swept too hard. Angular, jagged rock formations cut themselves sharply against the white-blue sky, hurling sunlight back at our eyes.
"Wow," I breathed. "Just wow."
Paul laughed and tousled my hair. "We're not even at the impressive views yet. Wait 'til you see the Rockies!"
Our next stop: Mount Rushmore.
I could hardly believe that most of the sculpting had been done with dynamite. The mountain stone here was much harder than the eroding hills of the Badlands, enabling the four faces to weather the storms of time.
Washington: the president who helped to make America a reality.
Jefferson: the president who expanded America with the Louisiana purchase, leading to the settlement of America from sea to shining sea.
Lincoln: the president who preserved the union of the fledgling nation.
Roosevelt: the president who defined the 20th century role of America in world affairs and advocated for the rights of the common man.
Paul and I slept at the foothills of the Little Bighorns, converting our hatchback to sleep comfortably in the back on our air mattress.
Before I fell asleep, I marveled over the quiet of this wilderness.
Day Four - July 21, 2018
On our way to Yellowstone National Park, we stopped to view the Medicine Wheel, a Native American site 300-800 years old, featuring stones arranged in a wheel pattern, with 28 spokes and a central cairn over 12 feet across. The three-mile round-trip walk at high altitude left Paul and I breathless, but the Medicine Wheel was well worth seeing.
On the corded barriers that surrounded the perimeter of the Medicine Wheel, we observed small pouches and offerings of sage tied to the cords, as well as animal skulls and scraps of brightly-colored fabric and other offerings placed within the wheel itself. We did not see any Native Americans praying or leaving their offerings, although on our way down, we passed several who were making their way to the summit.
Paul and I prayed that those who sought their Creator sincerely would find Him there and come to a knowledge of the truth.
After the long drive there, Paul and I did not have much light (or energy) left to view Yellowstone National Park, so we entered briefly and then decided to head out to find a campsite with room.
(All the Yellowstone campsites were full, as of 11 a.m. that day. Welcome to prime tourist season.)
On our way out, however, we were waylaid by a herd of bison. The males stuck out their thick purple-black tongues and made a sound like a burping sheep: "Bleh-leh-leh-leh-leh!" The females munched quietly while their calves kicked up their heels and flicked their heads and pranced through the mud. Even though it took us some time to make it to our campsite (where mosquitoes ate Paul alive), the chance to see bison up close was worth the delay.
Day Five - July 22, 2018
Paul and I took a detour on our way to Yellowstone, based on his dad's recommendation.
"One of the top five passes in the country," he said. From a guy who had been on over thirty trips around the continental US, that was saying something. We had to check it out.
Beartooth Pass, just northeast of Yellowstone, was, in Paul's words, "phenomenal." It was also my first real taste of western mountains, and I spent the entire time glued to the window as our little hatchback wound up and up and up until we had climbed over 11,000 feet above sea level and were light-headed with the thin atmosphere. Cliffs dropped at the sides of the road, white waterfalls plunged down the steep mountainsides, and the snow--still over fifteen feet deep in some places--gleamed pink from the iron that leached from the rocks. Sparse little white and yellow flowers clung tenaciously to the alpine slopes.
Yellowstone National Park was even more busy today than it had been the day before, since it was Sunday. (Why did we arrive on a Sunday?!) Most of the eastern portion still showed evidence of a fire from a few years previous: trees like blackened posts standing straight, vibrant green of new undergrowth, rotting logs lying cross-wise on the slopes.
"Ew," I said. "What's that nasty smell?"
"That, my dear, are geysers."
"It smells like a thousand stinky farts."
Paul just laughed. "Put that on a postcard."
We missed Old Faithful by just a few minutes and did not have the time to wait for the next eruption, so we took a picture of ourselves against the backdrop of the steaming vent in the earth and moved on.
Once outside of Yellowstone, we passed by the Tetons at sunset. This cluster of mountains is not very long, but no road can cut through the precipitous passes. Only the intrepid hiker can make it by foot along a few winding trails. The mountains rise, jagged and steep, as though they defy ground and sky alike. Just driving in their shadow left me with goosebumps.
Day Six - July 23, 2018
We made it to Paul's aunt's house by midnight. The last hour we were so tired that neither one of us was able to hold onto a single train of conversation for more than two minutes. So, in two-minute increments of conversation, we clawed our sleepless way through Idaho until we reached a rambling farmhouse and--oh yes, please--a bed.
The next day was spent visiting with Paul's aunt and uncle, who run a large farm. Their dry humor made us laugh more times than I can count. The pace of the farm reminded me of all that I love about rural living. Things get done, but the urgency of the city does not drive the mind to do, do, do. Instead, there is a pace, a method, a journey that is as important as its destination. I felt that I could breathe.
I marveled over the long, spindly irrigation systems that slowly ran themselves in circles, spraying water over the crops; crawled into the oven-hot metal sheep shed where, a century earlier, the original builders of the house had lived; observed the bubbly black volcanic rock that littered the parched landscape.
The canal was the life of the farm. Out in the dry western climate, the only green was found along the banks of the carefully-controlled canal that wound through the property. Paul and I zoomed along it on the ATV in our tour of the farm, the sun so bright and harsh that we could feel the heat sucking the moisture from our skin.
When the sun set at last, it painted the western horizon in flame.
Day Seven - July 24, 2018
After we left the relatives, we stopped by Redfish Lake to enjoy the stunning clear water, in which the nearby mountains cast their reflections like glimmering glacial jewels. The beach was far busier than I expected, but I found a stump and simply sat and thought and breathed in the clarity of the western air.
Winding our way through the Sawtooth Range, we skirted Flathead Lake before we called it a day. After a very full first week, we were ready to sleep!
None of my life has gone the way it was "supposed to go," but I don't love my life any less because of the hardships and new directions. I see so much unexpected good in it, and I want others to see the good in theirs.