Monthly Archives: July 2013



I spent two days at Yellowstone, home of the supervolcano which will destroy humanity. Grand Teton and Yellowstone are only separated by about 20 miles, so in many respects they’re sister-parks. But they’re very different from one another. Grand Teton was filled with bikers, kayakers, and hikers. Yellowstone is mostly filled with tourists and car-drivers. Grand Teton has tremendous views and hikes, Yellowstone has lots of overlooks and small hot springs, geysers, and other features.

If I thought that Teton was crowded, Yellowstone was far worse.

As soon as I entered the park, I went to the first campground I found and got a site (there were only a few available). I think almost all the campgrounds at the park filled up (and when I left early Friday morning, there was a steady stream of cars from nearby West Yellowstone).

What was unexpected to me was the sheer size of the park. I camped about 15 miles from the entrance, in southern Lewis Lake campground. This was 40 miles from Old Faithful, and that was not even halfway through the park! Needless to say, I spent a lot of time driving around.

Old Faithful, from a distant observation point

After checking in at the campground, I was at a loss for what to do, and decided to visit Old Faithful, the classic icon of the National Park System. I’ve never seen anything like it – and I’m not talking about the natural wonder. The geyser is ringed halfway round with stadium-style seating, as well as a visitor center, lodge, and various peripheral buildings, walkways, and more. There’s at least 8 or 9 parking lots, and they were nearly all full. It felt like Disneyland.

The typical hot springs at Yellowstone

I hiked up to a nearby observation point just before the geyser erupted – it has a regular, 90-minute schedule. Then I saw some other geysers, hot springs, and so forth. There’s 3 miles of boardwalk and paved trails – here at least they serve a purpose, which is that the ground is quite fragile (and dangerous, with boiling water under the surface).

After that I was looking for a longer trail, and settled on the 7-mile Fairy Falls trail, to the largest falls in Yellowstone. The falls were pretty anemic, but the hike was interesting. There were various hot springs along the way, and it was cool to see them in comparative wilderness, away from the crowds.

Along the hike to Fairy Falls

The other strange thing about Yellowstone is that it has had some bad forest fires. Those fires left logs lying haphazardly all over the place; with the last fire in the area I walked about 10 years ago, it was eerie walking among the trees which lay, undecayed, like toothpicks across the landscape. On this hike as well, I saw a buffalo, but he seemed old and lethargic, and ignored me.

Black sand beaches, at Yellowstone. Who knew?

The following day I relaxed and did an 8-mile out-and-back hike to Shoshone Lake, the “largest backcountry lake in Yellowstone.” The cool thing about this lake was that all the beaches were black-sand style. I waded in, but it was too cold to swim.

On the way back, through marshy country, the mosquitoes attacked. I must have killed at least 30 mosquitoes, and those were the unlucky ones. My arms felt like they’d been put in those laboratory boxes they use to test bug repellents (except the repellents they were testing must not have worked…). After the hike, I returned to my tent and read for a few hours. The next day I’d be traveling again.

Grand Tetons

After getting the car jumped at Devil’s Tower in the morning, I backtracked to an auto parts shop and replaced the battery, then continued on through Wyoming (Devil’s Tower is at the extreme Northeast Corner of the state).

Wyoming is an interesting state. There’s extreme beauty at either border (Devil’s Tower/Black Hills, Grand Teton, Yellowstone), but the center is… desolate. This is an adjective I head from people who live in Wyoming! The center of the state is a square of dirt and dead scrub 200 miles on a side. At one point, I saw a forest fire and 5-6 fire trucks flew past. I don’t know how they were going to get water to put it out, though.

Powder River Pass, the pass through one mountain range in the Rockies

I spent the night near the western border of the state with some family friends, where I was stuffed with plenty of home-cooked food. They lived in a little tree-filled oasis on the outskirts of the nice border of the state.

Another view of the pass.

We went to a local state park after eating and saw huge lazy trout, and a fundraiser. It seems this state park had a mountain goat that would constantly ram cars (but never people). This goat was named Bam-Bam and was, as punishment, shipped to another state park, where he eventually died. The fundraiser was to get the goat shipped back, stuffed and put in the visitor center (“as an honor”).

The Tetons via Snake River.

The next morning, freshly showered, laundered, and filled with food, I headed to Grand Teton, possibly the most picturesque mountain range in America. From a distance it looks like a solid, serrated slab of granite, but many of the hikes are in the valleys between the mountains, so it’s not so monolithic as it appears.

My first priority was to get a campsite – since Teton lies directly next to Yellowstone, and is a major tourist destination. With that secured, at about 2pm, I decided to go on a hike.

The view up Cascade Canyon.

I chose Cascade Canyon, and it was probably the best hike I’ve ever been on. It was a straight out-and-back 13 miles, starting by skirting the picturesque Lake Jenny, and then ascending a few hundred feet to Inspiration Point, and finally hiking up the canyon next to Grand Teton itself.

Inspiration Point.

The views from the canyon were absolutely stunning: huge snowcapped peaks, crystal-clear streams; the vegetation in the valley made me feel like I was in Alaska. There was an additional perk: two moose lounging on an island in the middle of the stream. When I got to the end of my hike, I didn’t want to stop – but it was getting late and I didn’t want to hike in the dark.

Two sleepy moose.

Emboldened by my 13 miles, I decided on something more ambitious for the following day: a 20 mile loop (Granite Canyon -> Open Canyon, if you’re curious). This proved overly aggressive: I followed the most scenic hike I’d been on with the most difficult. The hike started fine, and it was only after the initial 7 miles of moderate grade that it began to ascend steeply and soon I was in what could only be described as alpine meadows, which were filled with flowers.

Alpine flowers.

The trail continued to ascend… and ascend. The problem wasn’t the steepness of the trail, but its altitude. Once I hit 8500 feet I began to feel altitude sickness. I’d never experienced something like it before: 10 minutes of hiking along a slight incline and my heart was beating, my legs felt like they could barely function. It was a peculiar sensation. The air didn’t feel thinner, and I didn’t feel that out of breath. Just… exhausted. Soon I was walking for 10 minutes and resting for 10 minutes. The sun was blazing, but at this altitude it was too cold to sweat.

The previous highest mountains I’d hiked were some of the high peaks in the Adirondacks, which were only 4-5 thousand feet. The pass between the two canyons here was 9710, so just a slight contrast.

The Mt Hunt Divide, above the snow line.

After I reached the pass, the Mt Hunt Divide, it was only 8 miles back to the start of the trail! In total, I estimated that I covered 20 miles, including 2 miles above 8500 feet. Oh, and on no food. It was rough.

The view from the divide.

I slept well that night, and the next day I relaxed, going kayaking for 2 hours and swimming in the park’s lake. The next stop was the adjacent park, Yellowstone.

Devil’s Tower


My battery was dead for the second time in two days. I got the car jumped again – this time by a park ranger – and headed to the nearest town to get it looked at.

The only available mechanic was a small two-man place, and they both were apparently involved rebuilding an engine or something, because they couldn’t really take a look at the van. I took a look myself and replaced a fuse (though I couldn’t see how that would cause the battery to die). Just before I left the mechanic made a great suggestion: unplug the battery the next night and see if the car died. If it did, the battery had a problem. If it didn’t, but died again while connected the following night, then something was drawing power from the battery.

All this advice came free, and the total cost of my stop was $1 for the fuse, so I guess I can’t complain!

Devil’s Tower.

My destination for the day was Devil’s Tower, Wyoming. Immediately upon entering Wyoming from South Dakota, the landscape is wonderful – it has the similar rolling hills and scattered pine, but there’s also red rock and sand that give the environment some color.

Red rock of Wyoming.

Devil’s Tower is another huge tourist site, most famous as the setting of the climax of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It’s a huge plug of rock that’s visible for tens of miles around; from the normal perspective it looks like a cone, but from the side it looks like a shark fin. It has strange geometric columns all around, and was also the first National Monument in the country.

The tower from the side.

The park campground was about half full, but the visitor center and main part of the park was an absolute zoo. It was totally full – 3 different parking lots worth of cars. There’s a 1.1 mile paved trail around the tower, and an additional 12 miles of trails around the park. I ended up hiking all of them, and this was my favorite park for hiking, just because of the diversity of environments (not to mention the distinctive focal point). There’s forest, canyon, plains, some red rock. What was most amazing was that once I started hiking on the backcountry trails I only saw one group of 2 hikers! It was an amazing contrast to the busy parking lot atmosphere, but where did all the people go? I guess most of them drive up to Devil’s Tower and then simply drive away!

As I circled the tower I noticed that there were some climbers midway up (ominously, with birds circling in the thermals nearby). In fact, the tower is a popular climbing destination, and the park endorses climbing. However, because the tower is a sacred place for native americans, climbing is banned during the month of June. Sometimes during the hikes you see prayer flags placed in trees around the tower.

That night I got back to camp early (and had a great view), disconnected the battery, wrapped it in a paper towel, then threw a frisbee with the kids at the campsite next door for an hour and a half, until it was dark out.

The campground, exactly as I remember it as a kid.

The following morning, the battery was dead again, so I’d identified the culprit: the battery was somehow faulty and discharging itself overnight, over a 12 hour period.

Black Hills, South Dakota

07/16/2013 – 07/18/2013

After two days in the Badlands and 1800 miles of driving, I stayed at the Rapid City Motel 6 the following night to recharge everything and shower. (I also saw Pacific Rim… a great summer movie).

It’s funny, Teddy Roosevelt absolutely despised Jefferson. He’s stuck next to him on the mountain.

I got an early start the following day, because Mt Rushmore was on the agenda and I knew it would get crowded after it openedat 8 am. It was an hour drive to Mt Rushmore, and my first reaction upon seeing the mountain was… “that’s all?” Mt Rushmore is of course really famous, and it’s also on every South Dakota license plate. But it’s smaller than you’d think. The sculpture is impressive, but it’s rather peculiar – like someone took a tacky idea (carve 4 presidents into a mountain) and made it as dignified as possible.

There’s a nice granite entrance to the park and then the mountain is visible above a large plaza. There are classy pillars on either side with an inscription of each state, along with its flag and the date it became a state. At the end of this is an ampitheatre… which is used to view light shows on the mountain. Like I said… tacky and classy.

The original plan for the mountain. It couldn’t be completed because the rock wasn’t suitable.

I did a quick hike, which was also a bit disappointing – not at all close to the carving. The verdict: not worth the $11 (!) parking fee.

Mt Rushmore as seen from Custer.

Next stop was Custer State Park. Custer is supposed to be the “jewel of South Dakota state parks,” according to my guidebook (maybe a dubious honor), and it’s a spectacular, diverse park. The roads to Custer are winding, mountainous, and closed in with the ubiquitous pine forest of the Black Hills, so the maximum speed you can sustain is about 20 miles per hour.

The view from the top of the mountain.

After I got to the park, I went on a short hike – about 4 miles and my most strenuous to date. It was about a half mile switchback ascent toa beautiful view (pictures don’t do it justice) and then a slow descent to a river valley. I’d never seen as much poison ivy as I did in that valley. Needless to say, I was glad I wore long pants.

Pinnacles along the road.

After the hike I headed to the northern part of the park. This was via the Pinnacles scenic highway. This was as winding as the entry to the park, but there were various one-lane tunnels (“honk before entering”) through the mountains. One particular tunnel was about 200 feet long and had parking areas at either end; this caused an enormous traffic jam. I parked and wandered around the pinnacle, which actually allowed me to cross over the tunnel. It was fun, but I didn’t want to go through that again on the way south, so after I got through and found the northern campground was full, I decided to continue on to another nearby National Park: Wind Cave.

I managed to reach the park before the final tour of the day. Here’s the secret to cave tours, which I discovered 1/3 of the way through this tour. Unlike most cave tours, this one allowed flash photography – the people in front of me must have taken at least 50 photos… not an exaggeration. It really messes with your night vision. The secret is to be at the end of the tour. You can turn around, and it’s like you have the whole cave to yourself. You can take your time and catch up during the less interesting parts.

Wind Cave got its name because a local rancher supposedly discovered it when his hat was blown off by the wind, which is caused by a difference between the barometric pressure inside the cave and outside. It’s a peculiar cave: there’s no stalactites or stalagmites, but the walls have a strange curved look, and the intense wind creates a strange box-like formation (which unfortunately doesn’t photograph well).

Short hike near the Wind Cave visitor center.

After the tour I was still in a walking mood and 1.5 mile walk along a path near the visitor center (the original entry way was still visible and it felt like the AC was turned on outside in the late afternoon sun. This was really beautiful.

I had my first campfire of the trip that night, too (the firewood was free at the campground).

Campground at Wind Cave.

The next day I’d planned on doing a long overnight hike with some backwoods camping, but in the morning I found my battery had died. The previous evening I’d seen my GPS was still plugged in and drawing power directly from the battery, so after I got the car jumped, I drove to nearby Custer, South Dakota, to get some supplies and get enough driving time to charge it.

Upon returning to the park, I did a 6 mile hike through some canyons and nice prairie terrain. This wasn’t exactly a success. The trail was not well worn, and typically amounted to a barely-noticeable twisting of the grass. The trail markers had been broken, propped up with rocks, and then knocked down again.

After staring at the ground, huffing and puffing up one steep canyon ascent, I came to the top. As I was plodding along, I looked up and… there was a buffalo. Maybe 20 feet away. Buffalo will scratch themselves by rolling in the dirt. This leaves a distinctive oval pattern of bare earth, which is where this buffalo was sitting. I stopped immediately when I saw it, and we stared at each other. I took a step back, and he jumped up with a snort and ran about 30 feet further, then stared at me. I thought at first he was charging. Believe me, it was terrifying.

I’ve seen a lot of buffalo, but always from the window of a car. They’re a different beast when you’re on foot and there’s no car in sight: they’re about my height at the shoulder, and this one probably weighed a ton (literally). I backed away and the buffalo returned to its patch of ground, and I detoured around the path and continued hiking without further event.

Wind Cave from the highest point in the park.

Then I drove to the backcountry trail I was going to take, which started after about one and a half miles of gravel road. If the first trail was poorly marked, this one wasn’t marked at all. The path didn’t seem to follow the map, so after 15 minutes of hiking I decided to call it quits – it wasn’t worth hiking an unmarked path without an accurate map. Instead, I took a short 2 mile hike up a ridge to a former fire tower, which was the highest part of the park. It was a nice hike and a great view.

It rained that night. I was scrupulous this time about making sure all the lights were off and everything was unplugged. But the battery was still dead the following morning.

Badlands, Day 2


The next morning I woke up early, it having rained the night before, and headed out. Usually I’m able to pack up the tent, brush my teeth, and have everything organized within about 30 minutes.

Breakfast at this overlook: 2 apples

As you can imagine, this left a lot of time to spend the day at the Badlands. Unfortunately, the park is essentially a straight road, and a maze of about 13 miles of hiking trails, most of which I’d already hiked. I spent the morning going through the overlooks along the road – the park was deserted this early.

Another nice overlook.

Sometimes as you visit overlooks you get into the same rhythm as other people, which leads to the weird ‘office corridor’ syndrome. You’ve said hello, you commented on where they were from or where they’re going, and then you just nod awkwardly. I had to flee a few outlooks to avoid having these conversations with a French couple.

Watch Out!

After visiting the overlooks, I took a trip into Wall (home of the infamous Wall Drug) for supplies. Wall Drug is a tourist trap known to anyone driving in South Dakota, as there are billboards plastered all along the highway.

I went once as a kid and was considering visiting again, but didn’t have the heart. Wall Drug has grown quite a bit, but at heart it’s a town in the middle of nowhere, whose entire appeal is based on gimmicks and the roadtripping families who pass by. The only real appeal is watching the other tourists. But the uncomfortable fact is that you’re a tourist, just like them, and only so much ironic enjoyment can be derived from observing people just like you.

I returned to the Badlands from Wall, then headed to the rest of the park – which was dirt road. Immediately, this cut out 80% of the crowds. The dirt road portion of the park has nothing in common with the rest; it might as well be a separate park. It focuses more on grasslands and prairie, rather than rock formations. I think that in the end, I enjoyed this part more.

Everybody loves these large rats

The first stop along the dirt road was a small prairie dog town). I found these interesting at first, but would eventually get quite jaded by these little beasts. They look like guinea pigs, but when they flee to their holes there is a resemblance to a running terrier, which I guess is what gives them their name.

These furry cows are also crowd pleasers

Also near the prairie dogs were a few buffalo, my second large animal sighting. These are much bigger than you can easily convey, and they simply don’t care about people in cars, a few of whom had pulled over to the side of the road. I snapped some pictures and moved on.

Finally I came to a beautiful overlook. There was a grazing buffalo nearby, and then a large herd in the distance, and the terrain was wonderfully varied and diverse: hills, buttes, rivers, small forests, and a few rock formations.

I ate here, sitting in back of the van with the gate open, and saw something interesting near the normal descriptive plaque: a backcountry log. These logs are for hikers to sign in, so that rangers know to send out a search party if they go missing. But there was no trail. It seemed bushwhacking was endorsed! I threw on my pack and headed down into the valley. Here are three rules I discovered for bushwhacking in this environment:

  • Keep your starting point in visual range, or behind at most one hill.
  • Wear sunscreen
  • Long pants are preferable unless you want your legs scraped raw by the grasses.

I spent about an hour wandering around, but then wanted to secure my campsite. I’d chosen to spend this night in the Sage Creek campground, which was marked on the maps as primitive: “no water available.” It was also free. That sounded good to me.

View of the primitive campground from a nearby hill.

The campground required an additional 10 miles of dirt road to reach, which became quite rough. It seems that the park service drove some tractor over this road, which left huge tread marks that caused the van to grind noisily over the road.

The campground itself was another loop in a field, but it was in a bowl of hills similar to the environment I’d just bushwhacked in. I set up camp, and then wondered what to do. It was about 2 in the afternoon. The sun was fierce, but so was the wind. There was a small trail leading out of camp and up a nearby hill, so I decided to hike that.

View after bushwhacking a ways from the campground.

This trail lasted half a mile or so, before dwindling into nothing. I’d summitted the first hill and decided to bushwhack my way around the rest of the hills that surrounded the campsite.

There were huge fields of wild lavender. Smelled great when hiking.

There wasn’t that much brush to contend with, mostly grasses. There were various paths through the grass which appeared and vanished; I think many were old buffalo-trails. In all I bushwhacked about 11 miles around the campsite (much more rugged than the previous day), forded a stream, fought through some brambles, had a ton of fun and earned a terrific sunburn.

My setup.

When I finally went to sleep that night, I was really happy. This was definitely among the most memorable hiking experiences I’ve had.

First Day at Badlands National Park


Van camping has both advantages and disadvantages. The advantages are convenience, cost & quiet; the disadvantage is heat – if it’s too hot, sleeping in a van can be smothering (hence why spring/fall trips are preferable). Luckily, the weather has been relatively mild so far; although the evening started hot & muggy in the Sioux Falls Wal-Mart parking lot, things cooled down overnight.

I set out early once more, hoping to reach Badlands National Park midday, after a planned 4 hour drive. Unfortunately for me, the weather didn’t want to cooperate, and it rained for 2 hours of that drive. I didn’t exactly feel comfortable driving at 75 mph in the rain, so I couldn’t take full advantage of South Dakota’s very generous speed limit.

South Dakota is clearly a plains state, but there are various bluffs, hills, and so forth that break up the monotony and make it more interesting than Minnesota.

As luck would have it, I got a flat tire right outside the Badlands entrance. I had to jack the van up and put on the spare, then went to the entrance of the park, to get a recommendation for a mechanic. The two rangers conferred “All the mechanics in Wall will be closed today (Sunday). But… I’m from Philip and I have a mechanic there I can call.” She placed a phone call, and I had an appointment. The only problem: driving 30 miles on the donut (which turned out to be 40 psi under recommended pressure!).

It was a stressful drive, but eventually I made it to Philip, another tiny town that really feels like the middle of nowhere. My GPS tried to take me over a dirt road, but thankfully the ranger had given me better directions.

The car repair place was an unmarked building in front of an old gas station. The mechanic was a friendly little man, who rapidly determined the problem with the tire: the valve stem was leaking. I guess the diagnostic method is the same everywhere, cover the tire in water and see where it sputters.

As I settled the bill, the mechanic looked at my license place and said “My wife & daughter drove through your state on the way to visit Boston. They really liked it.”

“Oh, they probably went on the same highway I did, I-90, in the opposite directon.”

With that, our conversation was at an end; I think we had exhausted everything we had in common, but I was grateful for his quick diagnosis and good work, which only set me back $20. Everything’s held up so far.

Finally, I returned to the Badlands to officially enter the first National Park of the trip. Badlands began as a National Park in 1978, and receives a bit under a million visitors annually. It’s most known for its weird. indescribable sedimentary rock formations, but there are actually two landscapes in the park: the relatively rare exposed rock, and a variegated grassland filled with bluffs, juniper scrub and bison.

The classic badlands look

The park itself is composed of two units, the main unit and a rarely-visited southern unit; within the main unit, there’s a paved loop as well as a dirt road.

I entered the park and headed straight for the campground. The sky was cloudy and I wanted to grab a campsite – the last thing I wanted was to keep driving around trying to find somewhere to stay. The parks here use a self-serve system, you grab an envelope and find an empty site, then tear a tag off the envelope and attach it to a pole by the site. You put your cash in the envelope and drop that in a locked container.

I found an open spot and pitched my tent – the campground was a charmless ~100 sites in an empty field – and returned to the visitor’s center. There I watched a 30-minute video (mostly banal platitudes not specific to the park) and stamped my passport, then headed to the trails designated on the park map.

Unfortunately, there’s only one small section of hiking trails in Badlands, totaling about 7.5 miles (not including boardwalk “trails”). The longest individual trail is 5 miles straight through. I was looking for something a bit longer, so I elected to hike 5 miles out and 5 miles back, with part of the return journey on a separate trail (for those interested, the Castle Trail out and back, switching to the Medicine Root trail for part of the return journey).

An example of the trail; you can see it becomes obscured in the foreground

As someone used to the forests of NY, hiking out here took some getting used to: the trail frequently disappeared on the dusty rock, and because there were no trees, the official path was designated with reflective poles (in NY, blazes are painted on trees and stones). When you reached one pole you’d sometimes be forced to stop and locate the next. It was a bit like a scavenger hunt, or playing hide-and-seek. When the trail meandered away from the traditional badlands rock into grasslands, it was easy enough to trace because it left a deep rut in the ground.

Finally I was able to do some hiking, something I’d been looking forward to for months. Although the wind was fierce (my eyes watered for most of the hike), and there was an occasional drizzle, I had a great time. 10 miles was just the right hike to get my legs back, and it was not at all strenuous.

Scruffy looking antelope

Rounding one corner, I surprised my first big game of the trip: two mangy antelope, grazing in a field. I snapped a few pictures before they vanished.

Various trails intersect at a grasslands crossroads; a man and boy are visible in the dusty area

The trails meander along the edge between grassland and the famous badlands rock formation. At either end of the trail are large overlooks filled with tourists and huge RVs, but the trail itself was quiet (no doubt because of the weather), and I saw only 5 groups of hikers the whole time. Rounding one corner I said hello to a man with two small boys. “I’m from Missouri, it was 92 and humid when I left, and this is so much better,” he said, referring to the wind.

At one point there’s a small unofficial side trail that I saw a few people using, which led up the rock formations to a wonderful panorama of the valley below, but the wind was intense. When I was in boy scouts, I once saw a fat man rolling along a rocky mountain top in the wind. I had no desire to repeat the experience here, so I quickly retreated.

View from top of a rock formation

After my hike I returned to the campground to settle into my tent, but the weather finally turned and it started to pour. I decided to switch back to the van after all.

The Concrete Highway to Sioux Falls


I woke up early at my rest area ‘hotel’ and pulled out around 6:30 in the morning. The rest area was about 30 miles from the Indiana border and soon I had crossed the state line.

It may just have been the hour – very early for a Saturday – but the Indiana highways were deserted, except for truckers. I don’t mind driving with truckers; I know that the height of the vehicles intimidates some people, but I’ve always found trucks to be slightly slow, uniformly good drivers, and generally considerate when passing. They’re the cows of the highway. Indiana had rolling hills & small farms bordered by trees, and fog rose from the valleys as I sped by.

I’d held off refueling in Ohio, under the theory that red states would have cheaper gasoline (lower taxes). Unfortunately, that wasn’t true for Indiana. But at least I saw something interesting at the gas station – a disassembled plane! After getting gas, Indiana passed by rapidly and soon enough I was in Illinois.

Plane at gas station
Probably faster than driving…

Chicago was a bit congested, even at 8 am, but the driving itself was straightforward: stay on I-90 through the entire city. I only covered the northeast corner of the state, near Lake Michigan, but even that tiny blip on the map proved to be nearly 100 miles of driving!

Then it was on to Wisconsin. It’s interesting, each arbitrary state line seemed to coincide with a change in scenery outside the window. The elevation changes became more severe in Wisconsin, and as I went further north the soil grew sandier. This coincided with a disappearance of farms, and I was reminded of the deserted pine barrens in southern New Jersey (but… without the pines). Wisconsin also marked the start of long-distance concrete highways.

Concrete is reputed to be a far more durable material for roads than asphalt, and there was markedly less construction on roads that were concrete compared to those that were asphalt. On the other hand, the driving feels a bit rougher and the concrete causes tires to make a high-pitched whining noise. It’s a sacrifice I’ll make to avoid construction.

The Mississippi River marks the boundary between southern Wisconsin and Minnesota/Iowa. Here the demarcation between states at least has a sensible geographic origin, and Minnesota was obviously different from Wisconsin – as if the topsoil of Wisconsin had been stripped off and deposited to the west. Farms returned… lots of farms. The bridge across the Mississippi is extremely high, and the highway rapidly gains elevation after you cross the Minnesota border. It may have been an optical illusion, but low, gathering storm clouds made me feel like I was at an extremely high elevation, as though I were somehow closer to the sky. Before, when I heard of Minnesota I had always pictured dense, shadowy forests, with voyageurs silently paddling between lakes. But near the southern border, it’s much closer to Iowan cornfields than anything else. The biggest city in this area is Rochester, with a population of 108k. The next biggest, I believe, is Mankato, with 40 thousand. The state feels deserted.

The concrete highways remain in this area, and the speed limit is 70 mph, so I made good time, but the only thing to distract me was the freakish gusts against the side of the van. In Minnesota, alone among the states I’ve visited, there were huge windfarms built to capitalize on those gusts – hundreds of slowly spinning turbines were scattered across the state, extending beyond visible range.

It’s 270 miles, 5 hours across Minnesota, and by the last two I had grown desperate enough to give up on music; I switched to audio lectures and spent the rest of the drive learning about South American pre-history.

Picture of the highway
270 miles of this

I’d set my endpoint for the day as Sioux Falls, South Dakota – the biggest city in South Dakota at 163k people and right across the border from Minnesota.

I didn’t get the full Sioux Falls experience, but the area I visited looked like every suburban center across the country, and not at all like a city. I felt just like I were in Clifton Park, except the license plates had changed and the population only looked 90% white.

I found a Wal-Mart parking lot and settled in for the night. When I woke up later I took a look out the window. Nearby two huge RVs towing jeeps were parked, as well as a truck with trailer, and various other cars. So it seems that Wal-Mart is a popular campground, and I repaid them by grabbing some food in the morning.

I also discovered that charging my laptop requires more power than the van is capable of providing, and blew out the circuit breaker on the van’s cigarette lighter. This is why updates have been less frequent than I’d hoped.

Quick Note

I may be delayed a few days with each update as I travel between areas with internet access. So some of the posts may be posted after they’re written, or written after they occur…

Albany, NY to an Ohio Rest Area


I left early from Clifton Park (the archetype for upstate NY suburbs), at 8 in the morning, after an early breakfast at IHOP with my family (tiramisu pancakes…). Although I don’t anticipate my trip being an international one, I guess thinking ambitiously never hurt anyone.

I took I-90 west towards Buffalo, and although it took an hour to really settle in, I was soon making good time, with energy drink in hand. It’s funny – a sizeable percent of cars on the road were from Florida – far more than I typically see further east in the state. Perhaps also the demographic on I-90 is different from that of I-87. From Albany to Buffalo is about 5 hours, but I decided to take a small detour to visit Niagara Falls. I’d seen them once before but only as a small kid; my recollection was that I wasn’t impressed.

The stretch from I-90 to Niagara Falls was a harrowing 20 mile criss-cross of roads and expressways, filled with swerving/braking drivers.

Niagara Falls Panorama
A panorama of the Falls

Arriving in Niagara Falls, I was greeted with a full parking lot and the desperate misery of searching for a parking spot in a touristy location (luckily I found 2-hour parking; I had only planned to stay for 2 hours). Niagara Falls is a Category II tourist trap desperately trying to reach Category I. There are three Space Needle-esque towers which peer above the hotels and office buildings on the Canadian side of the falls, like prairie dogs sticking their heads out from their warrens. Not to mention the frequently grotesque prices ($15 to ride an elevator down to the base of the Falls) and the near-constant buzz of tourist helicopters circling above.

Like many tourist traps, the attraction of Niagara Falls, for me, lies primarily in observing the tourists. Given the fact that there is little else in proximity to the Falls, I assume that most of the foreign tourists are either visiting Toronto, have been mislead about just how dramatic Niagara Falls is, or are stopping by on a road trip, like myself.

I noticed the requisite German, Japanese, and husky American-flag wearing tourists, as well as a sizeable contingent of French Canadians, but there was also a new variety: the Indian tourist. I’ve never seen so many Indian tourists before, and the Falls seemed (perhaps) to cater to them, with at least 4 Indian restaurants within walking distance of the parking areas. Either more Indians are traveling than before, or they’re particularly attracted to Niagara Falls for some reason.

Tourists huddled underneath the Falls

When you get away from the crowds and the tacky tourist pavilions, the area is actually quite beautiful, with the feel of a carefully maintained park next to a roaring river. In many ways I preferred the rapids to the Falls themselves, as the raw power of the river was visible in the current – by contrast the Falls themselves dissipate into the mist. It’s true what they say, the Canadian side must be better – all the various parts where water actually falls are on the American side of the border, so the Canadians must have a wonderful view.

Niagara Falls Wildlife

Leaving Niagara Falls I realized that I hadn’t figured out where to head next (my first target is Badlands National Park in South Dakota); I tried entering Chicago in my GPS and it routed me through Ontario; not wanting to deal with customs I switched to Erie, Pennsylvania, which sits directly in the middle of the weird little tail of the state.

Traveling through Buffalo was saddening. It’s clearly a rust belt town that’s seen better days, and yet – from the vantage point of the highway, it seems like an appealing place – the tidy downtown core of many small American cities, the sweeping overpass of the highway, and plenty of water nearby. Yet the town is oriented all wrong, with the highway separating the downtown and water; closer to the water are only run-down industrial buildings. Supposedly Buffalo’s peer, Pittsburgh, has rejuvenated of late, and maybe Buffalo can do the same.

The tail of Pennsylvania was quickly traversed, and I only had about an hour to take in the classic peculiarities the state presents to the highway traveler: the frequent fireworks stands, the strange ultra-high gas-station signs with their glowing prices (much cheaper than NY – I refueled as soon as I crossed the border).

Then it was into Ohio. I both loved and hated traveling in Ohio. I believe that I traveled through about 60 miles of highway construction, during which time I saw a single solitary crew of workmen. Most of the construction took the form of additional lanes being added or repaved, and the traffic was rerouted in a novel way: three lane highways were reduced to 2 lanes, with one lane occupying the shoulder of the original highway, and the other lane traversing the median and then running against the traffic on the other side of the highway. These single lanes were enclosed by cement barriers, which gave the impression of flying down the canyon on the surface of the Death Star. This proved exhausting, nerve-wracking driving (given that I had to do 6- miles of it!)

But when the highways weren’t under construction, I loved driving in Ohio. Most of the roads were three-lane highways, and after Cleveland, the land flattened out into nearly imperceptible hills; this must have been forested land and there are still plenty of trees, but the bulk of the scenery is now corn farms. The highway (I-80) has huge sweeping curves and long straightaways: perfect for comfortable driving (the speed limit is also 70 mph). I made good time and it was with some regret that I finally pulled over in a rest area for the night: I wanted to keep driving and didn’t feel tired; rather I felt a sort of weariness. The rest areas in Ohio are wonderful too – all brand new and immaculately kept; the state must have received a lot of federal grant money.

I’m writing this in the back of the van, with curtains up and bed laid out. I can hear trucks barreling down the highway to the left of me, which I find to be a comforting sound. Tomorrow, I hope (perhaps too ambitiously) to reach the border of South Dakota. I’d like to hit the Badlands midday on Sunday, and then take a break there.

Random info:

  • 3 States Driven
  • 667 Miles Driven
  • Funniest Sign: “State Penitentiary Nearby: Don’t Pick Up Hitchhikers

The Van

For my roadtrip I’ll be driving a 2006 Chrysler Town & Country. It’s a good compromise between price, mileage, space, and durability, all of which are important to me. I want to be able to pull over, even where there aren’t any campgrounds, and be able to sleep. This can rapidly save money, when you consider that a hotel in the middle of nowhere can cost $60+ per night. Not the mention the convenience of pulling into a campground late at night and not having to set up a tent.

Front pic of van
The van itself

Vans aren’t naturally comfortable to sleep in, but if you pull the seats out of the back and somehow mitigate the weird bolts and lumps on the floor, they’re ideal. When I traveled as a kid, this is what we did and it worked great. Because the ceilings are high, you can build storage underneath the bed area, no compromises necessary.

After roughly a day of work with my father, we had everything set up. Stow-and-go seats were removed, providing 3 large storage areas underneath the main floor, in addition to the natural storage provided by the bed. The two extra storage areas from the middle row of seating are covered by folding doors built into the car, and are not very accessible. The back storage area is for food and cooking – it’s easy to pull over and rummage inside for a snack without climbing around in the van, and with the tail open there’s a natural rain-covered cooking area.

The rear view
A view from the rear gate; the bed is in the “lounge” position.

There are five compartments, two narrow ones on the side, and three that form the main sleeping area. In addition to the compartments there’s a sliding open-topped section in the rear for cooler and backpack. The compartments are simply a framework of 2x8s. The top cover is a sheet of 15/32″ thick plywood, cut so that the joints lie on the 2x8s. To keep the plywood in place, small pieces of scrap wood are nailed to each corner, which then brace it against the frame. There’s a little bit of wiggle room so it’s easy to drop the plywood in place, and each board has a hole drilled through it to make lifting easier.

Storage Example
The food storage container, mostly empty.

One of the compartments has some small pieces of wood to prop it at an angle to form a reading chair. When positioned like this I can have the rear gate open and look out the back of the van. It’s very comfortable.

I have a lot more storage space than things to bring with me. Here’s a short list of my supplies:

  • Clothing (about a week’s worth). Mostly wool/polyester. A pair of hiking boots & sneakers. Also a rain/wind shell & ultralight down jacket.
  • Assorted toiletries
  • Bedding (sleeping bag, two pads, two pillows
  • Electronics: phone, laptop, camera, mp3 player, kindle, GPS (car and handheld), charging gear
  • Keyboard & mouse for laptop when staying in hotels
  • Backpacking stuff, for overnights: one-man tent, ultralight pack, compass, nalgenes, water purifiers, hiking poles, etc
  • Full-size tent
  • Folding chair & table
  • Emergency gear: first aid kit, flat-fixing material, duct tape
  • Spices, hot sauce, food, protein powder, vitamins, water jugs
  • Cookware: pot, pan, plate, bowl, spoon, fork, can opener, tupperware
  • Cooler
  • Daypack
  • Large container of mid-brew Kombucha
  • Maps/guides from AAA
  • Random junk: pens, flashlights, lantern, frisbee, tarps, etc etc

Van Bed
The bed, ready for sleeping.

It sounds like a lot but I ended up using only about half the storage space, which was a surprise for me.

Tomorrow is my first day on the road, I’m hoping to make it to Ohio – about 7 hours of driving total. I want to make it out to my first stop in South Dakota in 3 days, which I think is ambitious but not overly so. I have four stops planned in South Dakota, which I think should take me about about a week. Then it’s on to northern Wyoming.