Road Trip: The Long Road to Yellowstone

These posts have been a long time coming, but here we go. A few weeks ago, myself, Theresa and her two brothers, Greg and Mark, embarked from Chicago avoiding Interstates on a ten day journey to Yellowstone and back. This is that story.

Even though I spent my formative years less than 10 hours away, as a child, I never went to Yellowstone. I suppose that happens when you play a baseball doubleheader every weekend during the summer. But I never really resented missing it until I found myself there. And wondering why in the world I didn’t come sooner. We spent a year traveling to some of the most exotic and distant places in the world, but I hadn’t even been to one of the most exotic right in my own backyard.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. It’s a long way from Chicago to Yellowstone, and landing in Chicago, I knew we had three days in the car before arriving at America’s first National Park. The roads started off busy and slow as we plodded our way through the Chicago suburbs, which last all the way to the Wisconsin border. We stopped for an Amish farmers market in Viroqua, Wisconsin, and found some great cinnamon rolls and bread. For a market in Wisconsin, though, it was decidedly lacking in cheese. We managed to find some in the next town over though, and our breakfast and lunch for the next day or two were complete. And we found these amazing cheesehead hats!


A small wrong turn in Minnesota cost us an hour or so, and by the time we made it to our planned campground in eastern North Dakota, the sun was setting. And though we’d noticed some strong gusts in the car, we hadn’t quite appreciated how fierce the winds across the northern plains can really be. We were met by park rangers that warned us of possible tornados and thunderstorms. Stepping out of the car, the winds told us they weren’t kidding. Maybe this whole camping idea wasn’t so hot after all.

Ever stubborn (and really just more out of any options), we found the most sheltered campsite we could, set up our tents and then cooked up a dinner.

After dinner, certain the thunderstorm was imminent, we retired to the car to wait it out, only to have it skirt by us with hardly a drop of water. Even though it lit up the sky across the plans beautifully, it was sure painful to try to stay up after the whole day of driving. Eventually, at some ridiculous hour, we crashed into our tents, only to be woken up as we always do when camping, at sunrise. Not a particularly restful start to the trip.



Day two started early, but man the state of South Dakota does not change much until you get pretty far west. We drove a straight line for six hours before reaching Wall, SD. For anyone that has ever driven in this area, all the billboards point you here, to Wall Drug. It’s undoubtedly the most famous pharmacy in the country, and these days, a ridiculous tourist attraction in its own right. About ten minutes was all any of us could take, so we headed for the real reason to come the area, the Badlands.

There’s something funny about traveling the world before your own backyard … you tend to reference really far off places to make comparisons. Driving through the Badlands, both Theresa and were commenting on how this looks like Patagonia, and that looks like the Quebrada de Cafayate, ad nauseum. I’m sure Greg and Mark got pretty tired of it, especially as it continued all the way through the Tetons. But, well, those are apt comparisons. It was a really beautiful, scarred landscape, that’s probably best shared in pictures.


We were entertained as we drove by the prarie dogs (or prayin’ dogs as a 5 year old Mark used to call them) and frightened by two rattlesnakes, one in the road, the other (a juvenile) Greg almost stepped on at a turnout! We also got our first look at a wild Buffalo. It was very exciting at the time, but by the end of our trip, after the massive herds and baby buffalo at Yellowstone, they really weren’t worth all of our excitement.


After that, it was on to Mt. Rushmore, thankfully not a long drive away, but via an awesome road, the Iron Mountain highway. It was clearly built before today’s modern interstate routes, because it hairpined up the mountain, followed by loop-de-loops and one lane tunnels back down. It made for a really fun drive, especially in the thick morning fog we set out in. This fog was troublesome as we arrived to Mt. Rushmore, since it made it so we couldn’t see Mt. Rushmore. Fortunately, the clouds soon “thinned” out and we got our view of the giant heads.

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Frankly, I don’t know what to think about Mt. Rushmore. On the one hand, it’s a really impressive accomplishment. It’s absolutely massive, moreso than I’d ever imagined, and the sculptures are very well done. And I sat there thinking that future civilizations, long after we’re gone, are going to look at these giant faces on a mountain and it’ll be reflective of our culture like the Pyramids of Egypt or Angkor Wat. But looking at the “before” and “after” pictures of the mountain, I couldn’t help thinking it looked better before. It just seems like such a silly thing to do to such a nice mountain.


After that it was onward, all the way across the state of Wyoming (with a failed attempt to see Devil’s Tower that was fully thwarted by the fog) to the end of our long road to Yellowstone, our gateway, Cody, Wyoming. And that’s our next starting point.


Bear Creek Reminiscence

I’ve been to five continents and somewhere around 50 countries. I’ve made it to almost every state in the U.S. Yet still, the place pictured below remains one of my favorite places on earth.

This place is Bear Creek Aquatic Camp, a residential summer camp located on the shores of Kentucky Lake and run by the Kentuckiana Girl Scout Council. This past week I was in the area researching lake resorts for the Kentucky guidebook, and when I found myself just a couple of miles away from the camp, I couldn’t resist returning. It’s been nearly 20 years, since the first summer I spent there. I wasn’t sure what I’d find on my return, if perhaps, it were better to let my memories be memories.

But what I found was, largely, what I remembered. Things seemed a bit smaller (perhaps because I’m a bit bigger), and the counselors who were there preparing for the girls who were arriving soon seemed so young (perhaps because I am getting to be old). But the smell of pine that filled the air as you walked from the boating area to the swimming area was still there to tickle my nose. I could almost picture myself inside the still rustic cabins, whispering with friends until we fell asleep mid-thought. At the beach, I missed the trampoline from which we used to bounce into the water (replaced now with a slide for insurance reasons I’m sure), but I recalled the accomplishment of swimming across the bay and back. Running my hands along the multi-colored life jackets strung out between the trees, I remembered learning to sail, getting up on water skis for the first time, and the triumph of finally raising the sail of a windsurfer and going for a ride. At Inspiration Point, it seemed the words of campfire songs hung on the breeze. The lyrics of one of my favorites have stayed with me to this day, a sort of mantra for my life.

“On the loose to climb a mountain, on the loose where I am free. On the loose to live my life the way I think my life should be. For I’ve only got a moment, and a whole world yet to see. I’ll be searching for tomorrow on the loose.”

Bear Creek is a special place, one of those places that, over the course of a few summers, shaped me into the person I am today. It was where I got my first real taste of independence, where I gained confidence and learned to take risks, where I felt what it was like to be free. Nostalgia washed over me as I meandered through the camp. I couldn’t help but yearn to be young again, to be able to spend my summer there, to have the whole world seemingly in my hands. But as I stood at Inspiration Point and looked out across the lake, I hushed those wishes and decided instead just to be thankful for the time I had spent there, to be grateful for the experiences I have had and the person they have helped me become, and to appreciate the fact that one of my favorite places on earth is still there, sharing its magic with generations of girls.

Thanks, Bear Creek. And Happy 30th Birthday. May you have many, many, many more.