Our Western Adventure

I left Yellowstone that day. That chapter concluded somewhere on the long drive between Gardiner and Bozeman. I escaped the snow by losing elevation. The road through Paradise Valley was only wet and the drive was not difficult. As I pushed towards my new destination, the moody sky would open and reveal snowy mountaintops. The view was spectacular. At that moment, I realized what I was leaving behind. Change may be bittersweet but I had great joy in my heart knowing that I would soon see Jill and begin our western adventure.

Her flight would arrive later that evening. The following day, we would begin our meander back home, stopping to check out some of the sights along the way. Although we talked about our adventure for weeks, we never had a firm itinerary. Being in each other’s presence was good enough and we were sure that we would find happiness wherever the path would take us.

Bozeman, MT
On my list all summer – Museum of the Rockies

Bozeman is a familiar place. Often, maybe every other week or so, I would visit this place to escape the park, do my shopping, and enjoy a dose of culture. Well aware that these may be my last hours in this city for a long time, if not forever, I had lunch and visited my favorite tea house and said goodbye to a few friendly faces that I met over the summer. Jill wasn’t due to arrive until later that night, so I took my time.

While running a few errands in preparation for the journey home, a few of my dormies spotted me and approached my car. I thought that I left Yellowstone behind that afternoon. Nonetheless, we were excited to see each other one last time. They were headed to the Museum of the Rockies and asked if I’d like to join. I had plenty of time to kill and I had been meaning to check out that museum all summer. We met up at the museum a little while later. Melissa, Tim, Patrick, and I reveled among the exhibits. The dinosaur fossils stole the show but we were also intrigued by the Native American artifacts too. Our only regret is that we got there late. We only had about an hour before the place closed. I took in what I could and enjoyed their company one last time. Embraces were exchanged in the parking lot before we parted ways.

For the next few hours, I holed up in the hotel room. The end of a journey is often an exhausting time for me and I wanted to relax. I ran out only once to grab some food and had my dinner at the desk in my room. In those hours, I was in an awkward moment between chapters. I tried to take a nap before Jill landed but I was too excited to see her and begin our adventure.

Once the time came, I took the short drive to the airport. On the way over, I was pulled over by a cop. The officer shined a light into my vehicle and arrived at my window with a perplexed look on his face. Without him asking, I told him that I was temporarily working in Yellowstone and that I would be picking up my wife at the airport and heading back east. He asked for my documents and with the exchange, I asked why he pulled me over. That’s when I found out that I had a burnt out tail light. After running my information, he questioned my expired registration sticker on my license plate, although I had my card to prove my case. I stated that Pennsylvania no longer issued the stickers. He refuted my story and said that all states in the union issued them. I told him that it was a recent development and he dropped the subject. Luckily, the stop concluded without incident and he was polite. I arrived at the airport after a bit of a delay and found Jill and gave her a great big hug.

Kalispell, MT
Free-range cattle on the open road

From Bozeman, we traveled north towards Glacier National Park. Much of the landscape was the same until we reached Missoula. We had sandwiches and caffeinated beverages at a place called Market on Front. After spending so much time in Yellowstone, I was pleased to be surrounded by the culture of a college town. If there was more time, we would have loved to explore the city more but we wanted to get to Kalispell before nightfall.

Along the way, we drove through Flathead National Forest. I was delighted to see more diversity in the landscape. Yay, deciduous trees! We also discovered one of the places where the fire fighters were staging to fight the wildfires in and around Glacier National Park. They couldn’t have been comfortable when the cold and the rain came. It couldn’t have been great in the heat of the summer either. The staging area was a large field where it looked like they slept in their personal tents. The effort was concluding but it was still impressive. The sight gave me a greater respect for the men and women who worked hard to save our forests and reminded me of my friends who have made this sacrifice.

In the evening, we went to the movies and had dinner. We saw the latest Kingsman movie and had dinner at Mackenzie River Pizza. It was nice to do something normal — something we usually take for granted — dinner and a movie.

That night, we had to switch our accommodations. The room reeked of smoke. It smelled like a smoking room that was now suddenly designated nonsmoking. We should have said something when we first checked in but we tried to make do. After all, it was an attempt to save a few bucks by booking at the Econo Lodge. In the middle of the night however, neither of us were sleeping. After a few moments of deliberation, I went to the front desk for a refund while Jill booked other accommodations. We found a good night sleep at Greenwood Village Inn and I enjoyed a breakfast of bison gravy and biscuits.

Glacier National Park
Jill and I at Logan Pass

About mid-morning, we arrived at Glacier National Park. Due to road closure from construction and fire, the Going to the Sun Road was closed. We explored what we could, stopping in the visitors center, spending time at Lake McDonald, and seeing sights along Camas Road. The air was still filled with smoke and made interesting ambiance. Afterwards, we drove U.S Highway 2 around the southern boundary of the park. We stopped a few times, discovered a goat lick, and picnicked with our left-over pizza.

At Two Medicine we were awestruck by the mountains and basked in the sunshine by the lake. The air was chilly and snow could be seen in the mountains but our hearts were warm with the experience shared together. Jill and I had always loved to explore together and this moment was extra special in the grandness of these mountains. I had always desired to visit this place and I quickly understood why this place was so important to the indigenous people.

Further north, we reentered the park at the eastern gate. We stopped at the visitor center to learn about the geology and the connection that Native Americans shared with this land. Fortunately, this section of the Going to the Sun Road was open. We were able to explore all the way to Logan Pass. There was plenty to see and we hopped out of the car often. Being among these great mountains was humbling and awe-inspiring. Snow covered what glaciers could normally be seen from the road. I was saddened to learn that they would be gone in a few years.

Shelby, MT
The plains at the foot of the Rocky Mountains – an ancient seabed

Travel was interesting as we left the mountains and entered the plains. I couldn’t help but think that we were traveling over an ancient sea bed. Perhaps I spent too much time in the visitor center. A long time passed before the mountains got small in the distance. The landscape was golden with few trees. Wheat is grown here as evident by the expansive farms and train depots to ship grain. Every so often, cows dotted the landscape. Emptiness and solitude were found for the most part. We moved fast on these roads. Yet, we seemed to stand still.

Along our route, we passed through a couple of Indian reservations. The sight saddened me. They looked of poverty and trouble. Thinking of the history, I was disheartened to see what had become of a once powerful and proud people.

We had accommodations in Shelby. The Best Western was nice and quiet. Train sounds were heard in the distance but they were pleasant. We had more pizza at Alibi Lounge in the small downtown area. I was happy to be eating good pizza again, the first since leaving Pennsylvania back in May. It was a nice stay.

Gillette, WY

The drive could have been long and lonesome. I’m glad that I had my traveling buddy with me. The plains are beautiful, long expanses of golden grasses. However, there is not much in between. For our first stop, we tried to find the Loco Creek Grill in Harlowton, MT. I can’t recall whether we couldn’t find the place or if it looked unappetizing. We debated making PB&Js from the food I took with me from Yellowstone but we were uninterested. We snacked and got gas before setting our sights on Billings. We stopped at the MoAV Coffee House, an industrial yet friendly setting. Here, we settled on Gillette for the night and planned our accommodations.

That stretch of road, between Billings and Gillette, has a very long and sparsely populated section. On our way, we nearly ran out of gas. I remember stopping for a restroom break. I had well over a quarter of a tank and thought that refueling down the road would be a welcome respite. There was nothing but a few houses or farms here and there. The low fuel light came on when we had nearly 40 miles to go. We started to discuss plans if we found ourselves stranded. Cell service came in and out. I don’t know how we made it, especially in the SUV.

We settled on Ruby Tuesdays for dinner because we didn’t want to spend too much and I wasn’t in the mood for Mexican. We ordered a couple of Long Island Iced Teas to unwind after the stressful drive. The drinks tasted more like mixer without much alcohol. Apparently, they have two versions of the drink. We promptly returned them and ordered the real thing. The second attempt was okay. The experience made me long for Hops and Barleys back home. After food and drink, we rested our heads at the Quality Inn.

Devils Tower

Devils Tower wasn’t far from where we slept the previous night. I was pleased to get off of I-90 for a while and see the landscape change. More deciduous trees were in the forest! On our approach, Devils Tower loomed in the distance. We admired the novelty and got out of the car a few times to take pictures. At the monument, we checked out the visitor center and hiked around the tower.

We learned of the natural history and the importance to Native American culture. On our hike, we noticed cloth that was tied to tree branches at various places along the trail. These were associated with prayer. The tower was striking in the landscape. We learned that the top was rounded and populated with vegetation. Occasionally, small mammals make their way up there. This day, two climbers were making an accent. Their method was much different than a historical account where a wooden ladder was used. Pieces of the ladder can still be seen on the face. We left after rounding the tower.

For lunch, we stopped in Rapid City at a place called Harriet and Oak. I found more culture than when I stayed here in May. The coffee shop was interesting. They parked a VW bus inside the café for decor. A table and chairs were inside. The food and drink were good. During our break, we made accommodations for the evening and set our sights on the next stop.

The Badlands NP
Two bad asses in the Badlands

I was very excited to show the Badlands to Jill. Although we would only be in the park for a few hours, the entrance fee was worth it. We checked out a few scenic vistas and I showed her where my adventures took place the last time I was here. Later, we stopped in the visitor center and learned more about the area. She agreed that the place is like no other. Before we left, we took in a short well-marked hike at the eastern side of the park. Walking on this ancient seabed was vaguely familiar. This place is a part of me now. The weather was much more pleasant than my first visit. The wind was not sharp and cold like back in May. We wished that we had more time to spend in the park but it was already getting late and we had many miles to drive before the days end.

We drove though the evening toward Sioux Falls. In the darkness, we didn’t see the landscape change. I remember the rolling hills but now they were lost in black. However, it was apparent when we crossed the Missouri River. I remembered the great Native American statue called Dignity and thought that it was a great place to take a break. A little further down the road, we stopped at Charly’s Restaurant & Lounge in Chamberlain for dinner. The food nor the ambiance was great but we were pleasantly received.

We got to the Sheridan in Sioux Falls kind of late. I was in a daze while checking in. I remember the clerk working quickly. I mustn’t have seemed too enthusiastic. I recall that the lobby was loud. A wedding party or some other event was having drinks at the bar. There was a water fall. The hotel had a large empty center and the rooms circled around it. We got to the room and I wanted to crash. Despite Jill’s offer of a night cap at the lobby bar, I was exhausted from all the driving and I was ready for bed. I fell asleep quickly and didn’t wake until the morning.

Sioux Falls, SD to Skokie, IL

Today, for the most part, was a driving day. We didn’t have anything but miles on our itinerary. Soon into Minnesota, we saw the landscape change again and once we crossed the Mississippi River, the sights began to look more like home. For a much needed break, we had lunch at The Interchange Wine & Coffee Bistro in Albert Lea. This was a cozier place in an older downtown area. Jill and I shared a Mediterranean flat bread and I also enjoyed soup and cappuccino. The rest of the day consisted of the long drive to Skokie near Chicago.

We stayed at an unusual Holiday Inn. The property had evidence of its past configuration. The rooms had once opened to the outdoors but sometime over the years, the hotel was expanded to enclose them and add additional amenities such as a restaurant, swimming pool, and event halls. Although unusual, it wasn’t a bad stay. We had dinner at Bar Louie and indulged in a few drinks before bed.

Chicago, IL

For weeks prior to the trip, we thought that a part of the itinerary was going to include some exploration of Chicago. We got as far as the parking garage near the Field Museum of Natural History. A nineteen dollar conversation later, we decided that we weren’t in the mood for the city. Instead, we chose to travel further east and visit a place where Jill grew up and afterwards, visit Presque Isle State Park in Pennsylvania. The rest of the day was full of more miles. We stayed at a hotel in Austinberg, OH for the night and had dinner and drink at a nearby local establishment.

Conneaut, OH

Our first stop of the day was at Conneaut, where Jill sent much of her childhood. I enjoyed learning about this chapter of her life. We found her childhood home and visited a park along the shore of Lake Erie. Often, I’ve heard of her childhood hears in Fort Worth, TX. She shared some of her childhood memories while we drove through the area. It was nice to experience some of her past that I wasn’t as familiar.

Erie, PA
Enjoying a windy Presque Isle afternoon

Soon after crossing into Pennsylvania, we began to experience car trouble. On acceleration, the car would sputter and buck. We hoped that we would make it to a garage. Thank goodness for smartphones. Jill found a garage on Yelp and we decided to give it a shot. The mechanic and owner was busy in the morning but looked at it anyway and gave us recommendations of what we could try ourselves. We tried cleaning the mass air intake sensor and replaced the air filter. Unfortunately, this did not remedy the situation and in the process, the check engine light came on. We returned to the garage and he agreed to take a look. In the meantime, we walked over to Panera bread to get lunch and kill the time.

We got a call from the mechanic late in the afternoon. He said that he greased a coil on cylinder five and no more fault codes were recorded afterwards. We were relieved that the repair cost less than a hundred bucks. Jill and I walked over to the garage, exchanged pleasantries with him, and were on our way after paying the bill. Not far from the garage, the engine started misfiring again. With few options late in the day, we decided to drive it home.

Before the final stretch, we decided to visit Presque Isle State Park as planned. Driving the peninsula reminded me of the ichthyology class I took a couple of summers ago. I pointed out the places we seined in the water and elecrofished from boat. I remember waking early to eat my breakfast on the sandy shores before class. This time, a storm was clearing and provided a windy experience on the beach. Jill and I enjoyed  the obnoxious shore birds and the waves lapping our feet. Once again, we would have stayed longer if not for the long ride home.

The roads were more familiar but the ride was quite stressful. After a while, we began to laugh at our misfortune. Into the night, the car bucked and sputtered. I kept a slower but consistent speed. At a certain point, we exited and grabbed some fast food. We just wanted to get home. Back on the highway, we were soon on the stretch I am most familiar . I cannot recall how many time I drove I-80 between State College and home. The familiarity helped to ease the tension in my neck. In an hour and some, we pulled into our driveway, carrying only what we needed for the night.

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