Chasing the Westward Sun

20181028_161248.jpg

Chasing the Westward Sun: One Week and 3,500 Miles

In the summer of 2017 I went on a one-week 3,500 mile road trip through Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, and North Dakota. The road trip had spawned after the death of my mom the year before and my need to come to terms with that loss, it also formed from a growing dissatisfaction with my career and the sensation that I was trapped in a cycle. I felt as though I was living life on repeat and I desperately needed to get out of that loop and away to a place that could offer me some peace.

Growing up on a farm shaped not only my childhood, but also my character. My parents lived in poverty for most of their lives, my mom never worked outside of the home and never finished high school. She dropped out and married my father less than a month after turning 16 years old. My father had already dropped out of elementary school at the age of 14 to begin a life long career in the labor industry. Farming never provided the opportunity for more than subsistence living, therefore, being employed somewhere else was mandatory to support his wife and the six children the two of them would have over their 55 years of marriage.

20180508_155813.jpg

My childhood was spent roaming through woodlands that covered the mostly hilly farmland that had been passed down from my grandfather. My grandfather owned the staples of the idyllic American Midwestern farm, including horses, cattle, and chickens. When my father inherited the land he tried his hand at pig farming as well, but lost any hope of profit when the hog market collapsed in the mid 1990’s.

My memories of that time and place are peppered with hot summer days in hay fields, and damp but brisk summer nights with the stars spread across the sky overhead. There were bullfrogs and tree frogs croaking and chirping in the distance, coyotes howling in the hollers that surrounded the farm, as it lay within a valley. In the early evening you could hear whip-poor-wills making their iconic calls echoing through, or owls hooting from the treeline.

20180708_162825.jpg

A creek ran right through the middle of the farm, often flooding during heavy rains. As much time as I spent in the woods, I also spent a significant amount of time in and around that creek. As a kid, you don’t stop to think about all the pig and cattle manure that washes down into those waterways or all the dead animals that find themselves swept into its current, or when cattle are standing up stream urinating right into the water. You still walk barefoot through it, stick your hands in it, or even at times jump right into the deep pools that form from the carved out boulders that make up its bedrock.

I have more than a thousand memories of my time living on that land, so many that time has taken many of them away and yet my mind still feels full of them. While I’ve never been fond of the smell of hog manure, cattle manure does oddly trigger memories of my childhood. From throwing clumps of cow shit at other young relatives, pushing them into it, or sticking bottle rockets or firecrackers in them to watch them explode and splatter everywhere, these are defining experiences that color the childhoods of many Midwestern boys.

20181028_155921.jpg

For me, scent has always been a heavy trigger for memories and nature is full of them, beyond just the cow manure. Cedar and walnut trees, the creek, freshly cut hay, ponds, the organic decaying matter that makes up dirt, these are just a few of the things that have their own unique smell and they coalesce to create the experience of nature, an experience that feels like home. Perhaps Gary Snyder said it best, “Nature is not a place to visit. It is home.”

Other senses play a role in the things we remember, from prickly cocklebur that stick to your pants and shoes, tossing square bails and getting cuts and covered in itchy dust, to touching cedar limbs and needles and getting sticky hands, your feet slipping on the slimy algae that covers rocks in the creek, hearing the sound of the leaves rustling in the trees as the wind blows through them, crowing roosters, squealing pigs, the bellows of cows, the humming cicadas in summer, the chirping crickets in the evening, the many different bird songs throughout the seasons, the babbling water as it runs over and between the rocks in the creek and the many streams that form it.

20181028_164253.jpg

Nature is a full sensory experience and growing up on a farm provided me with that phenomenal opportunity, one that I would never trade for anything. So it is no wonder that as time passes and my opportunities to visit and experience that type of nature decreases, I yearn to return to it. At the time that I began contemplating my road trip west last year, I was working a job that required me to sit in front of a computer all day. A type of job that would make any man restless and yearn for something more.

Of the different landscapes that I find beauty in, wooded lands and hilltops are my most beloved. Hiking through woodlands can only be topped for me by hiking through a conifer forest in the mountains. With this in mind, I knew the land I needed to escape to, the place that would give me the most serenity or solace. Of the many different types of trees here in the Midwest, the tree commonly called the cedar or red cedar, is probably the tree that I gravitate to the most due to its aromatic smell and my childhood history growing up around it.

Ironically, the Eastern red cedar tree of the United States is actually not a cedar tree at all. It’s a species of Juniper (species: Juniperus virginiana) and is what’s known as a false cedar, belonging to the cypress tree family. True cedars are not native to America, but are naturally occurring in Africa and Asia. All are conifers, however, and this classification of trees are certainly my favorite. Some of the largest mountainous conifer forests in the United States are in the west and the north of the country, part of the Taiga biome or boreal forests of the world. Oddly enough, a large subtropical lowland conifer forest exists in the wetlands of southeast United States.

My love for conifer forests and the mountains established a pretty clear destination for my escape from the world of glowing computer screens and posture-destroying office chairs. While my desire to just get in the car and drive off after the westward sun was strong, I had enough self-control to realize that I needed to plan a budget and map out my route, and choose the places out west and in the north that I wanted to stop and spend some time in.

For anyone wanting to take a road trip, whether it’s across the country or just through a few states, knowing how much money you have to spend and how or where you’re going to spend it is critical. You need to take into account the supplies you will need, including food, clothing, hiking or camping gear, and the cost of gas for your vehicle – you need to know how many miles to the gallon your vehicle can get. Knowing this will help you plan out your fuel budget to cover the distance you will be driving.

You should also have a plan for when things go wrong, such as if your vehicle breaks down or you have a flat tire. The terrain you will be facing is another matter of consideration and whether or not your vehicle can traverse it. Will the roads your traveling always be paved, will some be dirt roads and rough? Will you need a lifted vehicle, what type of tires will be appropriate for the season and the climate that you will be driving in?

If you’re not driving a large van or RV across the country, where will you be sleeping? If you plan to camp outdoors, you will need to pack according to the climate in the region you’ll be staying in. If you plan to stay in hotels along various stops you should book in advance to get the best prices and the best rooms. Popular locations such as National or State Parks are difficult to find hotel rooms near because people often book them up to six months in advance of their trip. When booking hotel rooms, consider amenities such as free parking, free breakfast, to try and save on your costs. Also consider offers of free cancellation in case something happens and your trip gets cancelled or your planned route changes and you will no longer be traveling through that area.

Whether you plan to bring all of your food or plan to eat at local joints, you will need a budget for meals. This aspect of spending has been difficult for me as sometimes I eat more than expected, and sometimes less. What sounded appetizing when I packed it, has at times not been so appetizing when it came time to eat it. I chose to mostly eat locally while traveling and slept in hotels, which I booked weeks in advance. I set aside a lot of time to read reviews, compare prices, and picked hotels near my destinations. Generally speaking, plan to spend more than your initial estimate suggests on most of these budgetary costs, especially on gas.

It’s a good idea to round up by $50 to $200 on each of your cost estimates. By the time my trip ended and I was back home, I had spent more on food, gas, and sleeping arrangements than I had originally budgeted, in fact I over spent by $500. So, just realize things don’t always go as planned, and you may fork over more money than you budgeted. If you don’t have the financial safety net that I had, consider that you may have to cut your trip short if your spending has taken up too much of your budget early into your road trip.

As I did my research to figure out what National and State Parks would be best to see the kind of scenery I was yearning for, and any other opportunities along the way, I compiled a list of places to visit. My list consisted of Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, and Glacier National Park in Montana. To get there and back I also had to drive through Kansas, Colorado and North Dakota. This trip was planned for July due to it being a great time of the year in northern Montana, my main destination.

My road trip was planned to last a week, which meant that I would not have an extensive amount of time spent in each location. Though my budget wouldn’t allow for extended stays, I wanted to see all of those locations and so I accepted the scenario of not getting to spend a lot of time in any one location.

Colorado was the first stop on my trip, though I knew I wouldn’t be exploring any of the parks there as it was an overnight stay only. This was my second time in Colorado, I had visited there in 2002 with my family, and back then we stayed in the Vail region. This time around I stayed in Parachute, so I did have the opportunity to drive through parts of Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests and White River National Forest. As this was July and I was driving in from the east, most of eastern Colorado was dry and it wasn’t until I got closer to the Rocky Mountains did the land begin to appear more beautiful.

For the overnight stay, I had a room booked at the Grand Vista Hotel. My experience there was pleasant and they earned a 5-star rating from me. For dinner I went to the Mexican restaurant just up the block, called El Tapatio. I was hitting the road early the next morning, so I did not have time to explore too far from the hotel. I did take some time to walk around the town, spent some time in the hotel’s hot tub, and then just settled in for the night.

The next stop was Grand Teton National Park in northwest Wyoming. While the scenery driving up from the south was similarly as dry and arid as Colorado, the closer I got to the park, the more things began to fill me with awe. Some of the photos I took there can be seen in the below slideshow. Jackson Lake was a major part of my exploration, and was one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited in my life, I highly recommend visiting. During this phase of my road trip, I slept at the Baymont by Wyndham hotel in Pinedale, which I give a 5 out of 5 star rating to also.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Aside from exploring the region around the lake I also enjoyed lunch at Leek’s Pizzeria located at the marina on the lake. I sat outside on the deck, the service was fast and the pizza was great, but the view was unbeatable. I really cannot stress how great Jackson Lake is (minus the hungry mosquitoes), even if you’re like me and have no desire to be on a boat out on the lake, the view from the shoreline alone is breathtaking. Certainly a highlight from my trip and ranks a close second behind Glacier. I had honestly never heard of Grand Teton National Park prior to this trip, so it was an extraordinary experience.

Grand Teton National Park is connected to Yellowstone and so exploring one park offers the opportunity to explore the other if you’re willing to keep driving north. If you plan to visit Yellowstone only to see Old Faithful, you’re wasting your time and money. Yes, it’s historical and iconic, but it’s crowded and there’s really nothing exciting about it. There are far more beautiful things to see and do. In the slideshow below are my photos of Yellowstone Lake, the largest lake in the park. Also you will see Lake Yellowstone Hotel, a massive hotel along the shoreline overlooking the lake, whose initial construction dates back to 1891.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Yellowstone National Park was my third favorite place to visit and I regret that I did not spend enough time exploring the park. I only had one afternoon to spend there, which is why Yellowstone Lake was the focal point of my exploration. I also regret wasting my time at Old Faithful, it was either that or Mammoth Springs and I wish I had chosen the latter. Regardless, I had the opportunity to hike around a bit and explore. The aromatic conifer in the higher elevations was soul touching for me, there’s no better air to breath.

From Yellowstone to Montana was going to be an all-night drive. Along the way I passed through the city of Bozeman, with the town of Choteau (pronounced “show-toe”) being my destination for the night. The mountainous drive between these two points took three hours and I arrived in Choteau at 12:30 AM. It felt like the longest drive of my life as I was fighting off sleepiness and everything all around me was pitch black. Most of the time there was not even a single light in the distance from human civilization and very seldom did I ever come across another vehicle on the road. I don’t think there has been another time in my life that I felt so alone.

I’m certain that the drive during the daylight hours would have been spectacular and I kind of regret having not just spent the night in Bozeman, but I was on a schedule and I had to be in Choteau to arrive on time for my hotel reservation at the Stage Stop Inn. I spent two nights at the hotel and my experience there was very pleasant. Due to being so exhausted from the drive, my first morning in Choteau found me with no energy to drive up to Glacier, so I spent the day exploring the town and speaking to the local residents.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

One of my stops was at the Old Trail Museum Inc., where there is a wide array of things to see in a centralized location. The exhibits here are ideal for kids as it does not require a lot of walking to be able to see everything. I’ve included several of my pictures of what the museum has to offer in the slideshow above. There is also an ice cream parlor on the complex that offers a good selection of flavors and options for how it’s served, and there’s a diner across the street called the Outpost Deli, I included a photo of the front of the building at the end of the slideshow.

Service at the diner was top-notch and the food was excellent. I was so impressed at how hard everyone was working that I tipped the young gentleman that was my waiter an extra $20. I spent some more time afterwards walking around the town. I stopped at the visitor’s center and spoke to an older gentlemen, we had a good conversation about my trip, the things he’s down around the area, places he suggested, he gave me a map and some tips about the road north to Glacier National Park. It might seem odd to say, but it felt like I was having a conversation with my grandpa.

The people I met in that town were nothing but kind and welcoming people. According to the 2000 census, the average income for households was only slightly more than $25,000, with nearly 20% of the population living below the poverty line. While driving through Montana I noticed there was still a lot of poverty throughout the state, especially among Native American populations. The best land in Montana is in the western third of the state, whereas the central and especially the eastern part are prairie and badlands. This part of the state reminded me of eastern Colorado and southern Wyoming – mostly flat, arid and unpleasant.

The morning of my second day in Choteau greeted me before the sun rose. I wanted to be in Glacier National Park before 8:00 AM and before the crowds of other visitors arrived. On my way up to St. Mary at the east entrance of the park, I came upon a hitchhiker at about 5:30 AM walking in basketball shorts and a t-shirt. For those unaware, the climate in this region of Montana at that time of morning is pretty cold. I have seldom stopped for hitchhikers in my lifetime due to the risks of being robbed or worse. However, this young man was clearly not armed and was of a physical build I was not threatened by. I wasn’t too far outside the town of Browning, which was where I was planning on topping off my gas tank before Glacier, and was also the direction this young man was walking in.

I made the choice to pullover and give him a lift. He attempted to get into the back of the car, but I told him he was welcome to sit up front and so he did. He appeared to be in his early twenties at the oldest, and had a large dip in his mouth. It only took a couple minutes before the tobacco smell permeated my entire car. He thanked me for stopping and said that other vehicles had just kept driving.

He made a comment about how cold it was that morning, so I asked him where he was headed and he told me that he had just been visiting family on the reservation and was heading back to Browning. I told him that worked well for me as I was heading there anyway. The Blackfeet Reservation makes up some 3,000 square miles and borders Glacier National Park on the park’s eastern side. There population is more than 17,000 registered members.

The young man asked me if I was headed to the casino to do some gambling, I told him that I had not been aware there was a casino in the town, but that I was actually on my way to Glacier. I asked him if he had ever been to the park, he said that he hadn’t but wanted to go some day. I contemplated on that for a moment, it seemed wild to me to be living so close to one of the most gorgeous places in this country, but to have never visited. I dropped him off in town at the location he instructed and I made my way to the nearest gas station.

By the time I got to Glacier’s east entrance and the Going-to-the-Sun Road at the St. Mary Visitor’s Center near Saint Mary Lake it was around 7:00 AM and there was barely another vehicle in sight. The sun was rising in the east and the dramatic view of the sunlight hitting the landscape was astounding. No words can truly replicate or do justice for the beauty that is Glacier National Park at sunrise. Please enjoy some of my best photos of the park during my visit in the slideshow below.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I hope to one day return to Glacier and spend more time in other parts of the park. If I had all the time I wanted, I would spend most of my time around Many Glacier, Logan Pass, Avalanche Lake, Lake McDonald, Bowman Lake, and Kintla Lake.

I also have hopes to visit other parks around the country, such as Yosemite in California. Banff and Jasper National Parks in Alberta, Canada are jaw-dropping. Incredibly these two Canadian parks are accessible from Glacier as all three lie just north of each other. Heading north from Whitefish, Montana on Highway 93 will lead you right through the other two parks. It will take you some nine hours to drive from Glacier to Banff to Jasper, but that drive cuts straight through some of the most beautiful terrain on the North American continent. Definitely on my bucket list of things to do.

Returning to the Midwest I drove east through Montana into North Dakota. Eastern Montana and western North Dakota are similar in their terrain. There’s not much to see as it’s mostly arid land. The closer you get to central and eastern North Dakota the land transforms into the plains grasslands and you begin to see more trees. My dinner that night was at the Texas Roadhouse in Fargo. Absolutely no complaints. I spent my final night on the road at the Hawthorn Suites by Wyndham. Hands-down one of the nicest hotels I’ve ever stayed in. I had a good night’s rest which was well deserved and desperately needed after the long thirteen-hour drive from Glacier.

The morning after I headed home to Missouri. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to explore Fargo, but the city looked as though it had a lot to offer. Anyone traveling through the area looking for something to do, will surely find it in Fargo.

After my 3,500 mile week-long road trip I returned home sunburned and short one pair of ASICS sneakers, and two-grand, but it was one hell of an experience and I would highly recommend anyone else to take on the same kind of adventure. Life is short and there’s so much to see and do out there. You learn so much about life beyond your front door, about people in other parts of the country, and you learn more about yourself.

%d bloggers like this: