From Atlanta we headed North West through the hills of Tennessee. I was ecstatic. Remember our trip to Gatlinburg to see the fall colors? I wrote about this wondrous place so I won’t dwell on it now. We reached St. Louis, Missouri very late at night after a whole day of driving. All the exhaustion of packing, moving and driving across states caught up with us and we decided to spend another day in Missouri.
The next day we went on a riverboat ride near the Gateway Arch. The Mississippi river is anything but pretty. The water is brown and murky. The buildings on the banks are old and dilapidated. We could barely hear our tour guide’s voice over the speakers – given that we were with an unruly and loud bunch of school kids. After the boat ride we walked past the towering Arch to a verdant stretch of trees lining either side of a walkway, generously sprinkled with benches. We sat down and enjoyed the twittering of birds and watched the squirrels scurrying by.
Earlier that day I had called J to let her know I was in Missouri and asked if we could meet. I had very slim hopes of meeting her given that it was a week day and she worked and had two young children to take care of. But she swung by later and I got to see my school friend after like 20 years. Back then we both wore pigtails and canvas shoes and the most stressful thing in our lives was Calculus! Now we were both moms – managing jobs, kids and a home. Her kids are adorable and played happily with mine. We chatted happily for an hour or so before we had to call it a day and hit the sack (or in our case the plush hotel beds).
We drove out of St. Louis and across the state of Missouri just as the sun’s first rays lit up the ‘amber waves of grain’. The rest of Missouri was not quite like St. Louis. It had barns, vast open spaces and endless fields. We drove through Iowa and a bit of Nebraska before we passed the South Dakota border. The landscape changed. We were no longer in the plains. Hills and valleys appeared in the horizon. The road itself went up and down meandering around the hilly terrain. Very soon the black hills of South Dakota were visible. We drove across the state of SD to get to Hill city. Our hotel was nestled in the Black Hills State Forest area in an idyllic little town with quaint shops and restaurants. We ate a hearty meal of pasta with marinara, fettuccini alfredo, grilled cheese sandwiches, French fries and chicken burger. After eating at fast food joints and pizzerias along the route this was food paradise. The dessert menu was on display at the front of the restaurant. It would have been sinful to leave without sampling their cheesecake. So after tucking into a generous slice we headed to the Black Hills Forest proper to see the Mount Rushmore lighting ceremony. The faces of four great Presidents were carved on granite rocks by 400 workmen over a period of 14 years. The planning and execution of such a grandiose project had to be the work of a genius – Gutzon Borglum. Even today so much work goes into preserving this monument. Sensors and monitors catch changes in the rock faces. Cracks due to weathering have to be painstakingly repaired.
We stood in front of the dark giant rock face and watched a documentary about George Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt and Jefferson. Far away bolts of lightning split the sky and a cold drizzle made us huddle under our jackets. As they played the star spangled banner, the faces on the rocks lit up and a sense of patriotism rose from every soul present there. The ceremony ended with honoring veterans and U.S. military service men and women that were present.
The next morning we headed back to see the monument in daylight. I could see Roosevelt’s glasses as we walked down a trail to vantage points that offered a closer view of each of the faces. After that we headed to Custer State Park to view wildlife. One didn’t really have to go to a forest to see wildlife in this part of the world! Just driving down the road we saw white tail deer, bob cats and mule deer. We drove for what seemed like hours without spotting a single animal in the State Park. And then it started raining down on us. Our hopes of seeing any wildlife were gone. I almost cried. We didn’t come so far to go back without seeing even a single bison.
The rain finally relented and we drove a few feet to see a line of motorists parked on the road and on the grassy plains were bison! Plenty of them, munching on the wet grass with little calves in tow that were romping around gleefully. It was such a wondrous sight. We parked and stared and took pictures of these hairy natives of the land. Up ahead we saw pronghorn antelope and some burros walking on the side of the road. After lunch we started towards the neighboring state. This part of the country is so beautiful that one day did not suffice to see everything it had to offer. SD deserved a whole week of exploration. The Black Hills, the Native American Culture, wildlife and so much more to see. But we had miles to go and a schedule to stick to.
The air got cooler as we reached Wyoming. The Great Plains of South Dakota with its ‘spacious skies’, hills and valleys and crosswinds were behind us. Wyoming’s ‘purple mountain majesties’ rose up in the twilight. We drove by acres and acres of land with cattle ranches and barns. We wondered how anyone could live here without cellphone coverage, neighbors that were so far away that they were invisible and a neighboring town that had a population of maybe 80 residents. As we drove past the local pub everyone stopped talking and watched our ‘strange’ car pass by.
We saw patches of snow and ice along the way and snow-capped mountains in the distance. My snow-starved Floridian children were super excited. We reached our little inn in Cody and crashed for the night. Next day we saw a deer on our way to breakfast. We had cereal, toast and coffee in a tiny room with very few chairs. The walls were full of pictures of the owner with various species of wildlife that he had shot during his hunting expeditions. Was enough to make me run as far as my legs could carry me! We then drove to the Yellow Stone National Park. There was snow all along the park roads. We had to stop and let the kids jump in the snow and touch it. Which they did with big fat grins on their faces. We drove around the park, stopping at geysers and snatching glimpses of wildlife. We had seen so many bison that we started groaning when we saw an animal and it turned out to be just another bison!
We stopped at Old Faithful, a geyser that erupts every 45 minutes to an hour spurting steam and water up to 105 feet high. Yellow Stone is another place that needs a week of exploring with its snow-capped mountains, frozen lakes, boiling rivers, geysers and of course wildlife.
Our last stop was Missoula, Montana, not originally part of the plan but we decided against another 14-our trip and split it into two trips. The hotel we stayed at had a water park and the kids jumped into the water at 9.00 p.m. for an hour of splash and slide fun. We didn’t really explore Missoula which was very close to the Glacier National Park ( it is now on my road trip list). Hope to go there sometime soon after I recover from road trip fatigue.
Next morning we headed to our new home, past the states of Montana and Idaho and into Washington- the evergreen state. It was Sunday. A week since we started from Florida. I couldn’t believe that we had driven some 3000 miles across the country, seen sights we never imagined in our wildest dreams. Now it all seems so surreal and it all went by so fast. But something tells me it is a trip we will all remember for a long time to come. It was the trip of a lifetime. A trip from one shining sea to the other.
I’ll leave you with the words of this beautiful song written by Katherine Bates. I suspect she drew inspiration for this song from her road trip across the States.
Oh beautiful for spacious skies
For amber waves of grain
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain
God shed His grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea