I was adopted when I was small. I took my first big adventure on a 747 jumbo jet and crossed the big ol’ ocean by myself, landing on a small farm in Maryland. I was given a life full of opportunities that I most likely would not have had if fate and luck had not intervened.
My grandparents, though not of my own flesh and blood, were no less a grandfather and grandmother to me than anyone else’s. They were many things in their life. My grandfather was a lieutenant commander in the Navy, a college basketball player, a Nebraskan – slow to speak and kind with words. My grandmother took flying lessons and worked outside of the home well before it was “normal.” They retired a few years shy of their 60th birthdays and set out to see the country. For the next ten years they crisscrossed the nation, visiting every state except North Dakota. (“Gabbo”, aka Grandma, said she didn’t see the point.) They’d often bring home small mementos from their travels, but the things that stuck with me were the stories of their adventures. Their tales filled my head with rivers, wildlife, sunrises and the open road. I wanted to travel before I even had a drivers license.
By the time I was old enough to sit around the ‘adult table’ on Sunday afternoons, they were well into their 80s and living vicariously through National Geographic, no longer trekking along highways and backroads. I lost both of them a couple of years ago. Ever since, I’ve found myself on a quest to see the country through their eyes; to follow in their footsteps and find a way to keep my memories of them alive.
A few weeks ago, my partner Caroline and I left the tiny state of Delaware and headed west, mostly along Highway 90, making a point to visit, run, ride and ramble ’round in as many national parks as possible. It was the kind of adventure that wakes up the past. I felt my grandfather nod in approval when we set the alarm for 4:45 a.m. so that we could watch the sun rise in Devils Tower National Monument. And I’m certain it was my grandmother there to catch me as my toe caught a rock on the trail later that morning. All in all we trekked through Badlands National Park, Mount Rushmore, Devils Tower, Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park.
The following is Erin and Caroline’s Dispatch from the road.
There are a couple of different routes a traveler can take when crossing the United States east to west. We chose a northern route, following closely in the footsteps of my grandparents who traversed the same route many years ago. We spent the fourth night in Kennebec, South Dakota, just off I-90. We didn’t plan on stopping here but due to a rainstorm we somehow missed Sioux Falls, were delirious from driving nine hours and decided to call it a day.
After many, many miles, we finally made it to Badlands National Park. The landscape leading up to the Badlands is mostly flat, interspersed with windmills that look like gigantic mechanical flowers, and farm after farm after farm. Seeing these rugged rock formations after days of the same repetitive scenery was a welcome sight.
Caroline heading up Saddle Pass Trail in Badlands National Park. The trail is short but steep and climbs up the Badlands Wall. The view from the top overlooks the White River Valley. If you’re short on time but want to see some amazing sights, hike this trail.
This is the view from the top of Saddle Pass Trail. The size and scale of this park is hard to grasp, save for the tiny person in the foreground.
Places like Badlands National Park inspire us. They bring out our sense of wonder and curiosity. They allow us to feel a connection to the past. If a view like this doesn’t inspire you to fight for public lands, I’m not sure what will.
After getting our fill of the Badlands we made a quick pit stop at Mount Rushmore. Although it was super crowded, the parking staff made getting in and out of there fast and easy. After about an hour we were back in the van and on our way west again.
Devils Tower National Monument was only about 130 miles away from Mount Rushmore. We’d both heard about it before but had never been. It rose up out of the distance just as the light was starting to fade. A few miles before the park entrance we saw several tipis in a field. I think we both screamed at the same time at the sight of them and quickly decided to make a U-turn. Turns out there was one tipi left. We snagged it and then headed into the park to scout out the trails for the morning.
Mornings like this one where we saw the sun slowly light up Devil’s Tower is what calls us to a life on the road. It’s new experiences, incredible landscapes and the ability to tap into our past that make the cramped quarters, uncertainty and grime worth it.
Almost every morning on the road the scenery is different. Sometimes it seems like the ritual of making coffee is the only constant in our life but we honestly wouldn’t have it any other way. Up next? Yellowstone National Park.
Yellowstone hooked us from the moment we arrived. The land literally steams, gurgles and bubbles right in front of you. We loved the landscape before we even got out of our vehicle but our appreciation for it took on a whole new level after exploring on foot.
Grand Prismatic Spring is something we’d both been itching to see for years. Finally coming face to face with it in person was almost surreal. We got there super early, before the crowds, and had it almost to ourselves.
It was an incredible experience, but the Tetons beckoned. Knowing we were leaving one amazing place for another equally incredible place made the packing up fairly easy. The John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Memorial Parkway connects Grand Teton to Yellowstone and is the perfect transition between the two parks. We didn’t have a campsite reservation but got really lucky and scored a site at the north end of the GTNP at the Lizard Creek Campground. This sweet van was our neighbor for the night.
Though we didn’t have kayaks attached to our van on this road trip we were still able to get out on Lake Jenny with some of the rentals they had in the park. Later, on a trail in the southern end of Grand Teton National Park, we didn’t see another person the entire time we were out there – just us and the mountains.
It’s a wondrous thing to be able to rest my eyes upon the same mountains, trails, lakes and trees that my grandparents saw before me. Our public lands are a national treasure. They provide a link to each other and our past. They allow us to live in the present moment, to step away from the grind and return to that which we knew first: silence, ourselves, the earth. Only after those have been achieved can we hope to connect with another, much less many others. For this reason alone, we believe it’s our duty to protect these lands – for the future, for ourselves and for each other. And so future generations may have a place to return to, time and time again.
Many miles have passed under the wheels of our van since we first left Delaware. We ran, biked, kayaked and hiked in some incredible national parks; dirty, sweaty and hungry for more. Not surprisingly, many of the places we’ve visited have already begun to call us back. By now, we’ve learned to heed the call of the road and understand that it’s not a matter of ‘if’ but ‘when.’
Erin McGrady and Caroline Whatley are based in Asheville, North Carolina, but are currently traveling the country in their van. You can follow along with their adventures at Authentic Asheville.
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