8. Aftermath

The Great American Road Trip

It only took nine months and a pandemic to find time to organize my thoughts and put a post together about last year’s trip.  Blogging everyday on my way to Belize and back took a lot of effort and much-needed sleep time.   I promised myself that for the GART (Great American Road Trip) that instead I’d immerse myself in the experience and put the notes together afterwards.  Afterwards turned into too long.  To try to capture the trip in a single post, here’s a GART FAQ compiled from the last months of telling stories.  Sorry for the length, but will return to shorter posts in the future.

The Basics

How long were you gone?  Where did you go? These and other “highlights” questions I tried to capture into a mapographic to give an overview of the trip.

Key information about our route

The trip fell roughly into four main parts. The departure week was fairly social with stops at Graceland, friends in the Ozarks, and family in Forth Worth and Austin. The second part was the “hot” section as we toured the deserts of Texas and the southwest while getting used to avoiding the mid-day heat. Our turn North began the mountain section where we did the bulk of our camping.  Heading home from the Canadian Rockies for the return trip was a strange grab bag of prairie, history, badlands, motorcycles and the traffic-y return to the East Coast.


What was your favorite stop?  This is a really tough question and something that was actively discussed as we went along. It isn’t a fair question and needs to be qualified with whether you’re interested in the best hike, best scenery, best animals, or some other criteria.  But for this trip, Glacier National Park was the family favorite. We had an incredible combination of perfect weather, animal spotting luck and a well-located campsite to add to an already spectacular park.  I visited almost 30 years ago and wondered if it would be as impressive when returning after years of global traveling. Absolutely. This is a place where you sit and try to memorize the scenery because no camera can capture the beauty.

Generally, anywhere we could swim made for a good stop. Our favorite day in the water was the Smith River in Jedediah River State Park where we had a campsite tucked in among giant, fallen redwoods. The best animal watching was definitely in Yellowstone where we would arrive at the lodge long after dark at night from animal watching. The Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone was definitely the most amazing lodge. Sitting in the lobby, listening to the piano and reading transported us back to an earlier time.

Did you see any cool animals? We kept a list of interesting animals that we saw for the first half of the trip, but saw so many that the list fell by the wayside. Bison, grizzly bears, rattlesnakes, bighorn sheep, black bears, tarantula, mountain goats, pronghorn antelope, coyotes, javelinas, road runners, prairie dogs, jackrabbits, moose, elk, banana slugs among others. Particularly in the mountain parks, going animal spotting became a big part of our outdoor time. Most of the animal sightings were in the less-crowded early morning or evening hours. A benefit of sleeping inside the parks was the ability to go sight-seeing when most of the park had emptied.

Any big adventures? Nearly every day had some aspect of adventure to it. We rafted, hiked, bouldered, dodged snakes, dared each other to jump into freezing water, rode some scary roller coasters in Cedar Point OH, and many other things. When I asked the kids what were the big adventures, they tended to remember when things didn’t go according to plan. Like when we were sliding sideways down a muddy hill during a New Mexico storm or hunkered in the tent while lightning struck around us in Teddy Roosevelt National Park.

One stop had some added excitement, however. The American Prairie Reserve is in Eastern Montana and only accessible by 50 miles of dirt roads. It has a mission to become the largest area of conserved prairie and I suspect will one day become a National Park. What we didn’t expect is that this is all still a future dream and we were actually headed into the remotest part of our entire trip. We mistook the scientific residence as a visitor center and met the few researchers who have the reserve to themselves. They left us with the parting advice to be very careful on the dirt roads because they are treacherous and, even more ominously, that it looked clear now but the weather could turn severe suddenly.

It was a magical evening of exploring the preserve entire alone, along dirt “roads” which were really just tracks in many areas. We set up our tents like old pros in an empty campground, but had to put them on platforms to separate us from the herd of buffalo which wanders through a couple times a day. The kids were at a separate site because of the platform requirement, the only time we had the tents so far apart. The weather was so beautiful, we didn’t even put on the rain flies.  

Sometime after 2 AM, I woke to Elizabeth running around putting on the rain flies because she could hear a storm coming. She got the kids fly on but before we could attach ours, a massive windstorm blew in and flattened our tent, bending all the poles and blowing so hard I had to lay on the tent while I took it apart. She joined the kids in holding up the remaining tent while I put the pieces of our tent in the van and broke the rest of camp.  

Without cell service, it was hard to plan and we decided against a nighttime, stormy drive out through dirt roads and another unknown length drive to the nearest hotel. The worst of the storm blew past in about an hour while we huddled together in the one tent listening to the heard of buffalo coming through. Groggily packing up the next morning, Eva failed see a big bull buffalo coming. She got caught in the tent alone waiting while he explored our campsite and the rest of us hid waited in the van.

It was our worst night of sleep and nearly broke us of our camping habit. But looking back, it has the right amount of excitement and adventure to become a memorable part of the GART lore.  Even better, REI showed their typical great customer service and replaced the tent at no charge, this time with a sturdier edition for our future trips.

Did you miss anything? Of course and at our pace we were really just dabbling at the different places where we stopped. From our original plan, the Pacific Northwest and the Great Lakes region were the two big areas we cut due to time constraints. We spent a few weeks in Oregon the year before and decided the extra drive to see the parks further north didn’t fit our schedule.  Assuming they’re open by August, our summer trip this year will be to visit the Great Lakes region which is only 9-10 hours drive from Washington, DC.

Any surprises? Each of us had our own new experiences.  My first big surprise was the remoteness of Big Bend National Park. Amplified by going in the summer, not a popular visit time for the southernmost national park, we felt like we had the place to ourselves. It is considered the least light-polluted place in the continental USA and the kids got a fantastic night sky view. When we arrived at the Rio Grande, it was an easy, ankle-deep walk across the border to Mexico which looked equally remote to the Texas portion. Certainly, it looked nothing like the border towns I passed through on my way to Belize a few months before.

South Dakota was the next biggest surprise. As a life-long resident of the East Coast, I think of “The West” as uniformly far away. But standing in Badlands National Park and realizing we were just a long day’s drive from Chicago and two long days from home was a shock. With bison roaming and an alien desert landscape, it felt like we should be further. But the bigger surprise was arriving during the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. I knew this was a big event, but had no idea of the scale. Half a million motorcyclist take over the entire southwest corner of the state. The dozen towns in the area even close their downtowns to cars; motorcycles only welcome.  

The Ingalls’ Homestead in De Smet, MN was the surprise fun day on the way home. This is the site of many of the Little House on the Prairie books. I hadn’t read them, but the rest of the family had and they had a campground that fell right on our path home. The historical sites were well preserved with great educational guides to explain everything. We ended up spending most of the day there, unexpectedly. If you ever want to learn more about prairie life, this is an interesting stop.


Did you reserve everything in advance?  We had an overall route and list of places we’d like to see, but only a single reservation: four nights at the Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone National Park. Elizabeth did most of the planning and used an online tool (www.furkot.com) to adjust plans as we went along. Driving and having a full complement of camping gear meant that we could adjust our stops and schedules with a lot of flexibility. Since we were at many popular parks during peak season, we found that we had to book weekend nights days in advance or risk having to stay far from our destination. Combined with very little cellular service, this definitely added some stress to the drives.

Our one reservation: the Old Faithful Inn at Yellowstone

What did you pack?  About half of our gear was for camping, the other half was personal gear (clothes, shoes, toiletries, etc). We wanted to focus on outdoor activities so clothing had a heavy focus on athletic gear. When I look at the pictures from when we visited friends and family, I see the one or two “fancy” outfits we each brought. Having a refrigerator along with occasional access to washing machines let us be self-sufficient for long stretches without resorting to barbaric habits. Austin gave us an opportunity to tune our camping kit on a final REI visit before we headed into weeks without another city. We made full use of the massive trunk space we had available and developed a fast rhythm for loading and unloading.

Did the van work out well? Absolutely, though people always seemed disappointed that we weren’t sleeping in it.  We had plenty of room for our gear so packing up was never a Tetris game. The huge windows from the tall roof made for tour-bus like views from inside while driving. Having a row for each kid created a bit of separation as well, which we appreciated during so many days together. Many of the places we went, especially the off-road portions, were closed to longer vehicles and 20-feet seems a magic length limit for park road design. We would have missed some stops with a longer RV. 4WD wasn’t necessary, but let us explore and we got into a few places where we needed 4WD-Lo to get out of some tough situations.  

How much did you camp?  We camped about 40% of the time. Our plan was to try for a 50/50 split but the heat of the southwest and the new national campground reservation system were hurdles that made it easier to stay in hotels for a few stretches. As we went along we tried to stay at each campsite at least two nights in a row to cut out some of the setup/tear-down time. Coming back from a long day in a park to an already established campsite felt like a luxury. We only avoided a few nights of camping due to weather: two nights in the desert due to heat and once in New Mexico because of the monsoon season (who knew?).

After a trial camping trip to Nova Scotia the year before, we had a big, sprawling camp that we would create. Our old backpacking gear was set aside for much more comfortable equipment. The kids had a huge tent that became the game room each night. Elizabeth and I shared a smaller tent but with enough room for some comfortable camp mattresses – critical to good rest between hikes. We develop a steady rhythm at camp with jobs for each person during setup and breakdown. Having a solar-charged battery pack to keep the refrigerator running 24/7 meant we always had a choice of food and drink for meals.

It takes full participation to make a camp run smoothly and we created a structure that hopefully our kids will remember in their lives at home. Our big test was one late night arrival into a site near Sequoia National Forest where we set camp completely, with a fire burning, in less than 10 minutes. We just beat the total darkness that you only find in the wilderness and amazed our neighbors. I looked around for a mic to drop.


What would you do differently? I wouldn’t change much since even some of the “problems” on the trip turned into good memories later. Planning two to three day breaks from the relentless travel and sightseeing to give everyone a chance to recharge may be the primary thing I’d schedule more deliberately. Our family will always have an odd affinity for Helena, MT and Custer, SD because they were great places for mini-vacations to have ice cream, watch TV and take time off.

Didn’t you get sick of each other? Never, not once, not even a little irritated with each other ?. Everyone seems to come around to this question, which is even more timely during the shelter place orders. But overall, we spent the time without any major conflicts and tried to balance outdoor activities with less structured time. I don’t think the kids were excited about every hike or campground chore, but the sheer variety of places kept everyone engaged. Within a couple weeks, the kids had an ongoing series of card games for the campsites. In some of the towns, Elizabeth and I were able to sneak out for a walk and dinner while the kids had pizza and a movie. Driving actually allowed some personal time to recharge with a book or their own music.

Would you do it again? Absolutely and I think it is a trip we won’t forget for the rest of our lives. I’ll never forget the kids waking up a couple hours out of Austin and the quiet, “wow”, from Callahan as our terrain drastically changed to rocky desert. They spent much of that time glued to the windows and watched a entire new world appear. Sleepiness would change to excitement at an animal sighting; the kids exploding out of the van for a moose, bear or buffalo sighting. We had a chance to meet family the kids had never met at stops in Forth Worth, Austin and Fort Wayne. And through it all, we got out of the city and into the outdoors for most of the summer.

Our teengaged kids are sometimes hard to get to talk about the past, but bringing up something that happened on the GART at dinner is always sure to spark a series of remembrances. I’m already ready for another trip.