After 165 days and 16,000 miles on the road, Jess and I finally made it back to Raleigh. We got in late Sunday and today began the dreaded process of unpacking our junk and readjusting to life without the threat of a bear attack. I’m happy to report the drive from Alaska to North Carolina played out like we hoped — safe, on budget, on schedule and full of big times. We’ve come a heck of a long way since our last post, so here’s a lightning round on our lower 48 travels.
Happy to be back in the land of cheap gas, we burned a couple carefree gallons to Columbia Falls, Montana, home of Jessica’s uncle Jim and aunt Bobbi. Having never met, we were unsure of what to expect… But what hosts they turned out to be! Jim and Bobbi were very gracious, providing gourmet food, a comfy room, handmade gifts, and an invitation to stay forever — an offer we considered but ultimately declined due to Jess’s allergy to dogs.
Magoo and Magee
Fat and happy after two days with Jim and Bobbi, we continued our trip six hours south — past the cherry orchards, grasslands and one-horse towns of southern Montana — to Leadore, Idaho. Chasing the dot on the screen, we turned off the highway and began nervously twisting our way up eight miles of gravel roads in the dark to find my uncle Ted and aunt Jan, and Helena-based cousins Marc and Julie, waiting for us outside the trailer at elk camp.
“What are you, on Japanese time?” my uncle half-joked. Sorry again guys for the late arrival.
That night Jess and I watched the funniest episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm in the back of the subie. In the morning Ted, Marc, Jess and I donned camo gear and face paint, and set forth on an elk hunt. Uncle Ted was the shooter. Marc was the bugle and cowcall man. Jess and I were in the way. Together, we crept around the woods and attempted to lure elk by emulating the sounds of bulls looking to fight and cows looking to party. The action was slow for the first few hours. Late afternoon we drew a bull to within 60 yards, but despite our statuesque appearance, the wind was not in our favor, causing the beast to stop short and let out a chuckle as he turned tail and trotted back into the forest.
Near dark, we closed in on what sounded like the herd bull. Hearts beating like true love. Marc’s bugles were met with a thunderous response — a clear invitation to the octagon. But alas, darkness fell before Ted could get a shot and we begrudgingly retreated toward the smell of aunt Jan’s chicken enchiladas.
Neither Jess or I had ever been on an elk hunt, and it was an experience I’ll never forget. The fresh air, the family time, the thrill of the chase. Our hunting adventure with the Western Wotrings is one of my favorite memories of the trip. Thanks again for the wild times, fam.
Blowing kisses to Idaho, the 2nd wildest state in the U.S., we crossed over into Wyoming via Yellowstone and took a spin around the north loop of the park before exiting just three hours later. I hate that our Yellowstone visit was so brief. As with many places this summer, we saw it whizbang through a car window, despite our strong desire to get out and explore. Though frustrating at times, this travel style allowed us to see a lot of America — places we now know whether to explore more thoroughly in the future (Vancouver) or never go back again (Oklahoma City).
Later that night, we stopped in Cody for a night with Jess’s aunt Anne. Over bison burgers and dark chocolate, we talked about Alaska and her close calls as an airplane pilot. Anne is a warm and interesting person and it was our pleasure to spend an evening in her company.
Anne’s gift is home decorating. As a former antique store owner, she has quite the collection, and it amazed us to see what she had done with the place!
In the morning we embarked on another nine-hour drive, this time to Badlands National Park in South Dakota. Our plan was to camp in the park, but after discovering the nearest campground was 26 miles from the park entrance, we backtracked to Buffalo Gap National Grasslands. Like public forests, National Grasslands allow primitive camping — so in the dead of night, we turned off the pavement and followed old tire marks through chest-high grass to the unofficial boundary of no mans land. There, we laid outside the car listening to coyotes and counting shooting stars before spending another night in the back of the subie.
We awoke to quite a sight. Unbeknownst to us, we had driven up onto a peninsula and were surrounded by 50′ cliffs! Had we driven much further, it would have been curtains for girdwoodsummer.
Back in the car — our newfound appreciation for life counterbalanced by our boredom with South Dakota — we cruised neutrally another nine hours to Grimes, Iowa — home of Jess’s old college roommate Libby. Libby and her husband Clint hosted us for two days of childlike fun. While Jess and Libby played catch-up, I played catch with Graham and Carson, and taught ’em a thing or two about the fine art of Mario Kart. Newborn Hayden supervised from the high chair.
In the morning Libby dragged us to the spin class she leads at the Y. After losing a few hundred calories, we promptly found them in the form of loose meat sandwiches at Midwestern staple, Maid-Rite. Mmmmm, loose meat.
From Iowa we cannonballed a state over to Jess’s hometown of Galesburg, Illinois. Here we stayed two nights with her grandparents and her cantankerous aunt Pattie. Although mostly sweet, Pattie has been known to spit venom. In what amounts to my closest brush with death this summer, one evening Pattie picked me out of a crowd of relatives and locked eyes with me for a good five seconds before saying with grave seriousness: If you smile at me one more time, I’m gonna dump this Pepsi on your head.
I kept my smiles to myself.
During our stay, we poked around Galesburg a bit, but mostly hung out at the house with family and friends. It was fascinating to watch her grandma bounce around the house in hipster cut-offs as she cooked, cleaned, tamed aunt Pattie, told great stories and generally made our stay there comfortable. I say she drinks Red Bull on the sly. Either way, kudos to you, Carol. Thanks again for everything.
Drive, drive, drive… podcast, podcast, podcast…
On day 19 of our drive home, we checked into the downtown Cincinnati Hilton for our last hoorah! of the summer — the wedding of lifetime buddy Laura Brown and Rinnesance Man Brent Rinne. Since forever, Laura has been one of my hometown buds, part of a group of friends from Bedford, Michigan that has remained remarkably tight over the years and snowballed to include some of the funniest, most down-to-earth people I know. After going the summer without seeing them, it was great to be around familiar faces and celebrate the marriage of two people we all love and admire.
The wedding was held outside at the Cincinnati Observatory, with a spillover reception in town. Brent and Laura absolutely crushed it, dreaming up creative little touches and giving the weekend a natural flow, all without the slightest boasting of their efforts. The wedding was a sum of their talents, and their hard work was widely appreciated.
Sunday morning, with hangovers the size of Alaska, we loaded into the car for one final nine-hour push to home. Around West Virginia the farmlands of the Midwest gave way to the recognizable hills of Appalachia, and soon after, through dirty water marks and bug guts, Jess’s townhouse appeared in the windshield, marking the end of the road for us. With emotions swelling, I killed the engine, and together we stepped out of the car and onto familiar ground, for the first time in a long time. What a journey.