The Great Westward Soul Search (Pt. 1)

Ah! I need solitude. I have come forth to this hill at sunset to see the forms of the mountains in the horizon—to behold and commune with something grander than man.

Henry David Thoreau, Journal — 1854

In the few days leading up to my excursion, I was met with a mix of giddy excitement and nervous energy.  I felt like I was going off to college once again.  I was starting a new adventure.  I was embarking on an important journey.  My sister and brother-in-law let me borrow some gear to help make my trip easier (a cooler, sleeping bag, battery operated lanterns, ect.) and I will still say that I overpacked.  I originally planned to car-camp in several locations to save money but the 100+ degree days made sleeping in my car a bit dangerous, so I opted for convenience and comfort over economy.

Day 1 (The Great Plains Zoo and the Badlands)

I left home at 5:30am because my cat woke me up and I was too excited to go back to sleep.  I figured that if I left now, I could beat the morning rush hour out of the Twin Cities, so that’s what I did.  My first day consisted of 9 hours of driving from Wisconsin to Rapid City, SD via I-90.  

I stopped in Sioux Falls, SD at 10:30am and spent some time at the Great Plains Zoo in order to stretch my legs and give my eyes a rest from looking at vast farmland and prairie.  The zoo was small but reasonably priced.  It was already quite hot and I walked around the entire zoo within an hour.  

Driving through South Dakota isn’t terribly interesting, but my favorite moment is crossing the Missouri River because the land gives way to a lovely vista of gentle rolling hills after miles and miles of green grass sea.  There’s a rest stop in Chamberland, SD right before the river crossing that has a museum inside detailing Lewis and Clark’s journey westward on flat-bottom river boats.  The rest stop also features a 50 foot tall statue of a Native American woman receiving a star quilt.  The statue is called “Dignity” and it is a breathtaking reminder that these lands are home to strong Indigenous communities.

My last stop for the day was at the Badlands National Park.  I purchased a National Park Pass as it was the best value considering all of the parks that I might eventually visit.  By the time I reached the Badlands, it was 4:00pm and over 100 degrees out.  Nevertheless, I kept on my journey and did a couple of short hikes.  The land is beautiful after nine hours of flatness.  To this day, the Badlands National Park is my favorite place in South Dakota.

Day 2 (Devil’s Tower, Independence Rock, and The Devil’s Gate/The Oregon Trail)

Wednesday brought about a short detour to the northeast into Wyoming to visit Devil’s Tower.  I’ve been to the Badlands and to Devil’s Tower before when I went on a road trip with my dad and sister, but I just had to see the monument again for myself.  

Getting into the park was a portent of times to come.  I was rather startled to see a line of cars at 9:30am on a Wednesday morning (I thought I could just breeze my way through).  The wait wasn’t terrible, but it was my first reminder that the news about the National Park Service seeing record attendance numbers was true.

I walked around the base of Devil’s Tower while listening to an audio tour that I downloaded from the app Travel Stories.  The app doesn’t have a lot of National Parks on it yet, but the one that they had for Devil’s Tower was well-done and very informative.  I’m an audio-based learner.  I love listening to stories, and I love audio tours, and this app was self-paced based on your GPS location via your phone.

Devil’s Tower was the first place that I had a “John Muir” moment.  Throughout my trip, I sought out moments to go off the beaten path for a bit to sit on some rocks and just be.  (I think the kids call it “vibing”).  No cell phone.  No music.  No audio tour.  Just me living in the moment.  I closed my eyes and felt the sun on my face.  I smelled the fresh air.  I heard the dull murmur of families as they passed me on the trail.  I felt the cool, rough rock beneath my legs and fingers and the sticky sap of the pine needles as they stuck to my fingertips.  When I opened my eyes, I looked up at the monument and thought about how far I had come to reach this moment — both literally and figuratively.  I took in a breath and exhaled out the things that had been weighing me down.  I forgave myself.  I forgave others.  I cried a little.  I needed to feel this moment.  I needed to be present in myself, body, mind, and spirit.

Where healing happens.

Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.

John Muir

The experience was cathartic and empowering, and it was the first of many transformative moments that I had.

After Devil’s Tower, I drove through Wyoming and came across some interesting places on the Oregon Trail.  I briefly stopped at Independence Rock, saw that the place was quite busy, and went down the road a few miles and stopped at Devil’s Gate which was a place of importance for both the Oregon Trail and the Mormons who were moving westward to escape religious persecution.

I ended my day in a small town at the Wyoming/Utah border, but not before running out of gas like an idiot sandwich.  Thankfully I trusted my gut feeling and turned around to drive back to the gas station that I saw on the road.  I still didn’t make it to the station itself, but I made it off the interstate and walked the ⅓ mile to the gas station and back to my car.  In that time, I contemplated and realized three important things:

  1. I am too reliant on technology because if I would’ve listened to my sister rather than the fuel gage on my car, this wouldn’t have happened.
  2. My sister Alyssa is wise and I should listen to her once in a while.  (I did not like the taste of crow in my mouth at that moment.)
  3. I am the master of my anxiety and I can laugh at myself sometimes.

Day 3 (Driving Through Utah)

I had a bright and early start driving through Utah, and it’s a good thing I did, because I stopped far more than I planned.  Utah is by far the most beautiful state that I have ever visited.  

The rocky cliff faces are a deep, rustic orange which contrasts nicely with the green foliage and the blue sky.  I felt like my eyes had a saturation filter attached to them; the colors were so vibrant in Northern Utah!  

I stopped for a picnic lunch at the Deer Lake Reservoir which is outside of Provo, Utah.  I walked along the rocky beach hoping to get closer to the snow-capped mountains for a picture, but I didn’t want to misstep and twist my ankle on the rocks, so I kept my sojourn short. 

Also learning from my past mistakes about gas, I stopped far more often for fuel and for the bathroom because it was hot and I was slamming the water.  I stopped in Beaver, Utah because I thought the name was funny.  Also, the gas station there has “I love Beaver” merchandise, so if you’re a beaver lover, that place has all the swag you could ever want.

I also stopped in Nephi, Utah because I pronounced it “Neh-Fie” and thought it was a reference to the Fallout New Vegas video game (which it sort of is).  Anyway, it’s pronounced “Nee-Fie” and the name is connected to the Book of Nephi otherwise known as the Book of Mormon. 

Many town names in Utah are connected, in some part, to the Mormon faith.  (Just wait until I talk about Zion).

(That’s in part 2!)

One thought on “The Great Westward Soul Search (Pt. 1)

  1. I am loving the journey so far! Glad you made it and made it back safely. (That’s the mom in me talking now)


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