Road Trip Thoughts

It’s been a long, cold winter already (at least it sure seems that way, though snow’s only been on the ground for 5 days!), and I’m always eagerly anticipating whatever flight comes next. However, until another transcontinental plan is in the works, I’m thinking frequently about where and when another road trip might take place. There’s so much of our country to explore I have to get used to the fact that buying that plane ticket might not always be the most practical (or cost-effective) option!

I realized that my last road trip post was written before I went on my 3500 mile, three week journey. So, for those of you who are planning cross-country adventures of your own, here are some suggestions to get you started off on the right foot!

  1. Get your car taken care of before you go–and DON’T wait until the last minute to do so. Don’t put off changing your oil, or replacing that filter, or whatever it may be. Your road trip becomes MUCH more expensive if you need immediate help getting back on the road, and your whole trip could go up in flames if the repairs are severe.
  2. Use Do Not Disturb and/or Airplane Mode on your phone while you’re driving. It is incredibly easy to pick up your phone to scroll through social media when on a long and boring stretch of a freeway. It’s not safe to do while driving period, but it’s especially dangerous when you’re in an area where the terrain, the speed limit, and the wildlife are unfamiliar to you.
  3. Bring good music (or good podcasts)–make sure you’ve got a good variety, and make sure there’s A LOT of it. The radio stations you may encounter will probably not be to your liking, so have SOMETHING that you’ll enjoy listening to. Make sure to download the podcasts, rather than using data to listen–I got stuck without my most recent episodes because I failed to download them before I left in the morning! This also keeps you from flipping through stations endlessly, which is a serious buzzkill (especially out west where country music is 98% of what you’ll hear anyway).
  4. Make sure to also have a playlist specifically for keeping you awake. Even if you’re well-rested and relaxed on the road, doing the same thing for hours on end tends to lull people into a false consciousness. Keep sing-along jams readily available just for the purpose of alertness! (My go-to is the Original Broadway Cast recording of Rock of Ages)
  5. Think about your route before you leave–are there natural breaks in your drive? If not, find ways and places to plan for stops. I decided that I needed to get out of the car every four hours–sometimes it was to eat, sometimes it was for gas, and sometimes, it was just to not be in the car anymore. It’s even better if you can plan it around attractions that are important or interesting for you. I stopped at a lot of roadside historic sites and local/state parks when I could, and at an outlet mall or two when I just couldn’t read any more about the first stagecoach station in Wyoming.
  6. Have paper maps with you, keep your rough itinerary on paper, and get a general understanding of your route on the map. In more rural areas of my last trip, my phone wasn’t able to help, and I had to guess/use old-fashioned map-reading skills to make sure I was heading in the right direction.
  7. Don’t rely on gas stations for overpriced food and drink–bring a variety of things you know you’ll enjoy, and keep a little cooler in your car. Especially if you need fruit, veggies, or non-sugary drinks on a regular basis. Keeping your own in a cooler keeps the stops to a minimum, and saves you some cash along the way!
  8. Keep your car snacks to things that a) won’t make a huge mess, b) won’t melt if left in the car, c) will stay edible for days at a time. Fresh fruit is great if you’re planning to eat it shortly after you acquire it. Don’t bring things that will go bad if you don’t plan on eating them! Also be careful with things that need to be refrigerated. Ice makers at hotels are not universal, but gas stations can be good options for ice.
  9. Don’t expect that there will always be gas stations when you need them. The state of Nebraska was devious here–a sign for an exit would indicate gas, which would then be FIVE miles off the freeway! When you have the chance, get gas, especially if it’s cheap, and even if you don’t NEED it at the time.
  10. Try to research the driving conventions of the places you’ll be driving so you know ahead of time what to expect. In the state of Wisconsin, if you get angry at people going under the speed limit in the left lane, you’ll spend a lot of time fuming. Figure out what you can control, and worry about that (this is PARTICULARLY hard for me to remember, but maybe saved me some road rage).
  11. Sometimes, those road side attractions you see signs for hundreds of miles prior to your destination are worth it. Sometimes, those stops are Wall Drug. If you have time and desire, always stop and enjoy the kitsch. If you don’t, you’re very rarely missing a unique experience.
  12. In any case, you’re likely taking a road trip to savor the sights, sounds, and people you’ll meet along the way. Remember that though road trips are not always the quickest, least-stressful, or even cheapest way of traveling, always take advantages of the bonuses driving provides: quick detours for historic sites, stopping on the side of a country road for a sunset photo, seeing bison roam through a state park, and going at your own pace, both on and off the road. Keep an open mind, a flexible itinerary, and some snacks at the ready, and you’ll be good to go!

The Oregon Trail: 21st Century version

While in Wyoming, I was fortunate enough to spend time with some wonderful humans who also happen to be teachers. Two of them gave up an entire day to take me through the dirt roads of central Wyoming so I could experience the Oregon Trail in the same way the original Pioneers and the freshmen of Natrona County High School did/do. Rather, I should say, using the same route. My method of transportation was an air-conditioned car, rather than my feet, a covered wagon, or a hand cart!

Previously, we had driven by Fort Caspar, the former Platte Bridge Station, and heard the stories of this important site. The morning of our excursion, we started at Bessemer Bend, where one of the Mormon Ferry crossings was located in the late 1840s/early 1850s. In the first several years Mormons were venturing across the overland trail, Brigham Young decided to keep a convoy near Casper to run a ferry across the North Platte River; it was thought to be the first commercial ferry on the river. The iron ore-filled hillsides that give both Red Buttes and Bessemer Bend their names were also the location of the Battle of Red Buttes, which was a significant conflict between settlers and native populations during the 1860s.

Next on the trail was Willow Springs, the site of the first fresh water along the trail since Bessemer Bend, 25 miles earlier. Many who passed through on the Trail remarked about the importance of this site in their diaries. The lone tree at the site (and for miles around) has since been struck by lightning, but the foundation of the Pony Express station, that was turned into a telegraph station after the Pony Express went defunct, and the remains of the tree are still at the site. The water is also still apparently drinkable, though we didn’t test it out.

The foundations of the Pony Express stop-turned telegraph station and the remains of the cottonwood that was struck by lightning.

Not too far beyond Willow Springs is Prospect Hill. Its elevation rises 400 feet in the span of a mile, and was a very difficult portion of the trail (which NC teachers make their students walk!), though pioneers and students alike were rewarded with quite a view. It is the highest point on this part of the Trail, and one from which you can see Independence Rock, Devil’s Gate, and the Sweetwater Valley.  Wheel ruts can be seen so clearly here that you can almost imagine the wagons rumbling by., struggling to make it up Prospect Hill. Though there are only four interpretive signs put up by the Bureau of Land Management at the top of the Hill, this is a site definitely worth stopping at and walking around for a while.

“Before us is stretched out the long ranges …” diarist John F. Snyder wrote on June 7, 1850. “Gazing on this scene,” he continued, “I was forcibly reminded of [poet Thomas] Campbell’s

‘As yon summits, soft and fair,
Clad in colors of the air;
But to those who journey near
Barren, brown and rough appear.’

… Descending ‘Prospect Hill’ by another long, inclined route,” he concluded, “we slowly continued our march through heavy sand.”

Our last stop on the Trail for the day was Independence Rock. Supposedly the destination Pioneers needed to reach before July 4th to make it to the Dalles before winter fell, Independence Rock is an important landmark on the actual trail and in the game. It is a massive sight to behold, and we were able to climb it, and walk across it that afternoon, which took about 20 minutes. Still visible are some of the initials and names of the Pioneers who reached the rock 170+ years ago. The Sweetwater River was high while we were there, so part of the area was flooded, but it made for some pretty cool photos.

My last Oregon Trail stop on the road trip was en route while I was driving from Salt Lake City to Sioux City, Iowa. I stopped briefly at Fort Bridger after the interpreters had left for the day, but the grounds were still open. Jim Bridger and his partner Louis Vasquez established this trading post in the early 1840s to service the trails that came through the area. He also established the first school in Wyoming for his children, who lived with him at the Fort for a while.

And the Pièce De Résistance: my last Wyoming Sunset around 9:30p, and my last Wyoming sunrise, only 7 hours later! Driving across the state of Nebraska was torturous, but at least I had that sunrise to start my day.

If you’re driving through central Wyoming, and aren’t lucky enough to have personal tour guides, the Casper paper put together an easy-to-follow, do-it-yourself Oregon Trail tour. The National park Service has also put together a more extensive 84-page Auto Tour Guide that covers all three Trails: Oregon, California, and Mormon,  as they wind through Wyoming. Check them out!

WY not? Wyoming beauty that ISN’T Yellowstone or the Tetons

I had never been to Wyoming. I can’t say that I had any particular desire to go to Wyoming, and on this trip, I even completely avoided the several things that EVERYONE knows Wyoming for–Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons (another trip for another summer!). BUT, the few things I was able to experience in my several days were awesome, and I’m grateful for the chance to experience natural wonders and historic sites in the Cowboy State (…or the Equality State. I think Cowboy is more fitting).

My Wyoming adventure started out with a journey to Devils Tower. I really can’t adequately show you in photos how beautiful the setting is, and I certainly can’t convey how spiritual the experience and the environs were. A sacred place to many plains Indians, Bear Lodge, as it is known by native tribes, helped me feel more connected to nature and Mother Earth than I had been in a while. It’s not the best known highlight of Wyoming, but it is definitely worth a stop! Enjoy some photos of the brilliant blue skies and incredible landscapes that surround Devils Tower.

The Oregon Trail deserves a post of its own, so that will be coming–Devils Tower was such a fun adventure to begin my experience in Wyoming!

Great Places AND Great Faces?! Count me in.

For those of you who aren’t in the geographical target market for the South Dakota tourism campaigns, the way they attract non-Dakotans is with a catchy tune that ends…“Great Places…Great Faces: South Dakota.” It seems a little ridiculous, but as I was reminded at the beginning of my road trip, the places and faces are certainly great. Mount Rushmore is a bizarre way to honor four of our presidents, but it is a site that attracts over three million people a year, which is quite a feat. It’s also surrounded by incredible sites on all sides. Wall Drug not withstanding, southwestern South Dakota is chock-full of national and state parks, historic sites, wonderful vistas, and lots and lots of buffalo.

I started my trip (after seven long and very straight hours and TWO severe weather delays!!) at the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site in Phillip, SD. Because of cuts to the National Park System (don’t get me started…), they only offer tours a few days a week in the summer, so I had to be on the road bright and early! My interest in this particular site stems from an incredible weekend I had in Green Valley, Arizona, learning about the Cold War, but also visiting the Titan Missile Museum in Sahuarita, Arizona. If you’re ever in southern Arizona, MAKE A STOP!

The Minuteman Missile Silo, Launch Command Center, and Visitors’ Center are all definitely worth seeing–they are tangible, scary remnants of the Cold War that seems so far removed from our lives today, but are less than a generation removed in our collective memory. What a world we lived in less than 30 years ago.

Second stop: Badlands National Park. The turnoff to enter the park is right off I-90, and until you’re in the midst of these incredible landscapes, you see almost nothing at all, making the incredible beauty of the park all the more wonderful and surprising. Exploring the Badlands could take two or three hours, or a full day, depending on what you decide to do. I hiked a little bit, visited the Visitors’ Center, and stopped at 8-10 different vistas to take photos, and it took me about three hours. The park also has a star-gazing program at night that I didn’t stay for, but looked incredible.

The second day, I made a few more stops in southeastern South Dakota. Early morning at Mount Rushmore, the Crazy Horse Memorial, and Jewel Cave National Monument. All incredibly lovely, all full of families doing the same thing I was–it’s so easy and convenient to do in a few days with squirrelly kids, you’d think Mother Nature planned it JUST for road trips! Mount Rushmore is worth a stop for everyone driving through South Dakota, and if you get there early enough in the morning, you don’t have to contend with crowds or people staring at smart phones.

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I took very few photos at and in Jewel Cave, as I was on the lantern tour, and we had to behave as though we were transported back to the 1940s, technology and all. BUT, before we got into the cave, we took a tour of the caretaker’s cabin, built by the WPA in the 1930s. The rangers also dressed in 1940s NPS gear, which was a fun touch.


As I was driving to my hotel that night in Wyoming, I thought a lot how much beauty and history exists in the world that I have yet to see. Turns out a solo road trip provides many opportunities for introspection. Excited to keep on traveling!

Road Trip Necessities

I haven’t taken a road trip that has lasted longer than my 5.5 hour drive back to school in Milwaukee since I was 7. In the early 1990s, my family drove to Mount Rushmore in our Volvo, listening to Raffi for approximately 8.5 of the 9 hours it took us to get there. We stopped at the Corn Palace and Wall Drug, my brothers and I had matching sunglasses, and we took the obligatory photos that prove I was cuter, blonder, and more stylish when I was 7 than I am today.

This summer, I’m undertaking a pretty massive road trip that will last 3 weeks and 3300 miles for several reasons:

  1. I haven’t before, and that’s a good enough reason to do anything.
  2. I have to get to Salt Lake City for a National Endowment for the Humanities Landmark Seminar on Manifest Destiny and the Mormon Trail somehow.
  3. Along the way to SLC, there are people to see and places to visit. I get to see some friends that I haven’t seen in a while, and experience parts of the country that I’ve never seen!

My entire road trip will keep me within “fly-over country;” the crassly-named, non-descriptive way to categorize an entire HALF of our country. I’m a proud midwesterner, and though Minnesota’s topographic features may be lacking, I’m excited to share the beauty and diversity of the great plains and the Rocky Mountains with my kids and my friends.

In preparation for this undertaking, I’m trying to populate a list of road trip basics:

  • A road trip playlist: needs to be upbeat and singable enough to keep you awake, and diverse enough not to become repetitive. Though I’d love lots of suggestions, some of my go-tos are: anything John Legend has ever sung, the original cast recording of Rock of Ages (the stage production, NOT the movie!), which is a nonsense story, but a GREAT soundtrack, and Hamilton. Because duh.
  • Road trip snacks: portable, not messy, and won’t make me feel like death as I’m driving through Wyoming. Also will keep me from spending hundreds of dollars (and gaining hundreds of pounds) on soda and chips at gas stations, hopefully!
  • Road trip-themed reads: though I’m glad to be visiting friends and seeing and doing fun things, I’ll also spend quite a bit of time alone. Good books with themes about travel and adventure, self-discovery, or nonfiction about nearly anything are always appreciated!
  • Pit-stops: I don’t sit in cars well, so having sights to stop and see will make the drive significantly more pleasant. It just so happens that a large portion of my route will take me along the Oregon/Mormon Trail, and will give me plenty of historical sights to stop and see (and parts of my childhood to reminisce):

On the way from Salt Lake City to Madison, Wisconsin, with a pit stop in Sioux City for a family wedding, I’ll also be stopping in Kearney, Nebraska, at another Oregon Trail highlight, the Field of Dreams movie site, and the New Glarus brewery, for the best Wisconsin has to offer.

I’ll be chronicling my trip during and after, in hopes of highlighting the beauty and uniqueness of this region of the country, but first, let me know: what else do I need to know about road trips to make this enjoyable, rather than painful?

Safe travels to all who have summer adventures on the horizon! MC Lean