Driving Cross-Country During a Pandemic (and Still Managing to Visit a New National Park)

This was set to be a whirlwind spring. Don't get me wrong, it still was - just in a very different way than expected. I still graduated with a Master's in Sustainable Urban Planning after a grueling two years of full-time school and work, but instead of celebrating with my family and classmates on the National Mall, I toasted everyone via Zoom and wore my decade-old graduation cap from high school that I found in the back of my closet. I was also able to move back to the West Coast as I had been hoping but, instead of moving back with a new urban planning job, I moved because the lease on my apartment in D.C. was up and, with no job pulling me somewhere new, my fiancé and I wanted to be back home in Oregon.

All this to say, I found myself driving across the country in the middle of a pandemic. I had been planning this road trip for awhile, and had multiple different routes. One would take us through the South to cities I had never been to like Atlanta, Birmingham, New Orleans, and Austin. On this route we'd get to cross many new National Parks off of our list, including Congaree National Park in South Carolina, Big Bend National Park in Texas, and maybe even the brand new White Sands National Park in New Mexico. There was also the possibility of a Northern Route that would take us up the coast of Maine to the Bay of Fundy with its famously dramatic tides then through Canada with stops in Montreal and Toronto, back through Michigan's Upper Peninsula and a layover in Minnesota's Boundary Waters National Park before hitting the Canadian Rockies.

As the pandemic became more and more serious this spring, the Southern route became less attractive. After all, over half of the attractions on that route were cities and with restaurants and bars closed, it didn't seem worth it. Then, the Canadian border closed and the Northern route was eliminated too. Finally, once the end of May arrived and my fiancé and I had packed up all of our belongings we realized that we wanted to take the shortest possible route that wasn't absolutely awful to drive. We had spent the entire spring in our apartment, leaving just once every two weeks for a massive grocery trip, and it just didn't feel right - or safe - to have a long, drawn out adventure through parts of the country where COVID-19 cases were skyrocketing. We decided not to stay in any hotels, so were hoping to find safe camping spots along the way, but also mentally prepared ourselves to spend a few nights sleeping in the car at highway rest stops if necessary.

We decided to take a fairly northern route while, of course, avoiding Canada, so our first stop was Niagara Falls State Park. The park itself was open, although none of the attractions were open. Luckily, the main attraction is not one that can be turned off and there was still a pretty great view of Niagara Falls from the main lookout point. It happened to be pouring rain the day we visited so there were only a few other groups of people there and we were all able to keep our distance.

After our short stop at Niagara Falls we decided to keep pushing onwards. We ended up driving all the way to Sandusky, Ohio, about an hour or so West of Cleveland, and slept in a Walmart parking lot. Walmart is known for allowing people sleeping in cars and vans to park in their lot overnight but it was definitely the worst night of sleep we had the whole trip - the bright Walmart parking lot lights never turn off, and there seems to be no corner of the lot where you can evade them. Despite not pulling into Walmart until around 11:30 pm, I was up by 5:30 am and tucked my sleeping bag behind the driver's seat and started driving. The one upside of facing a long day of driving on six less-than-top-notch hours of sleep while my fiancé snoozed happily beside me? Making the unilateral (and great) decision of driving about twenty miles off of our route to see the sun rise over Lake Erie.

Day two was a long one. Our second stop was in South Bend, Indiana for coffee, another unilateral decision made by me while my co-pilot was still asleep. South Bend was about thirty miles south off the highway but after reading a case study about the revitalization of the old watch-making town by Mayor Pete Buttigieg in my Sustainable Communities class, I couldn't pass up the chance to see Main Street. I spent about ten minutes walking up and down Main Street and sitting in the shade to drink some coffee and relax since I had already logged four hours of driving before 10 AM. Our third stop on day two was Chicago for lunch. We intended to find a spot to park downtown and walk through Millennium Park and maybe find some pizza for lunch but when we arrived the majority of the downtown parking was closed. So, we audibled and decided to grab wraps at the downtown Whole Foods and did a quick walk over the river. We assumed the lack of parking was due to COVID, and it may have been, but just a few hours after we left Chicago we saw that downtown was being closed due to protests related to the murder of George Floyd, which had happened just a day earlier.

We spent the rest of the afternoon listening to the first Expanse audiobook, a great distraction from the endless miles ticking by. Around dinner time we decided to stop in La Crosse, Wisconsin, a small town on the Eastern banks of the Mississippi River. Growing up I devoured the Little House on the Prairie books and I remembered how crossing the Mississippi seemed like a monumental challenge, and I wanted to see the big river with my own eyes. I've driven across the Mississippi once before, when my best friend and I drove from Massachusetts to the West Coast after college, but it was a cold, rainy October day when we made the crossing and we flew by. This time, Graham and I spent about half an hour stretching our legs and walking up and down the riverfront park trail and admiring the river before heading back on the road. We drove for another few hours after dinner, and settled in to a rest stop in the Southwest corner of Minnesota after the sun had gone down.

Day three was one of our shortest driving days, and it was such a treat. We slept in - okay, Graham slept in while I spent about an hour and a half drinking coffee fresh from our Jetboil and reading at a picnic table in the surprisingly quiet rest stop. Once Graham got some coffee in his system, we hit the road and watched the terrain slowly change as we entered South Dakota.

I have a confession: I kind of love driving through South Dakota. It's not the most exciting state, necessarily, but even before you cross the state line on I-90 you start seeing colorful, wonky billboards for Wall Drug. What is Wall Drug you might ask? Well, it might take you some time to figure it out just based on the billboards. Their billboard advertise "5 cent coffee for cowboys" and "free ice water for weary travelers" and one of my particular favorites features a t-rex and declares "do lunch or be lunch." We decided immediately that we'd be stopping at Wall Drug.

Before we made it to Wall Drug, though, we had decided to camp at Badlands National Park. I had been once before and couldn't wait to share the beauty of the craggy colorful rock formations with Graham. We got set up at Cedar Pass Campground by 2 PM and had the most welcome afternoon of exploring.

The following morning, despite promising myself that I'd wake up to see the sunrise, I couldn't resist sleeping in. My sleeping pad felt like the most luxurious pillowtop after two nights of sleeping nearly upright in a crowded car, and I besides - the sunset we saw the night before would have been hard to beat. So, after a quiet and slow camp morning, we packed up and headed for Wall Drug. To be quite honest, I wasn't sure what to expect after all the billboards, but we knew it was some kind of souped-up general store and tourist trap combined, but hey, who's going to turn down 5 cent coffee? We wandered around, fueled up on some of their apparently famous donuts, and continued onwards to Mt. Rushmore.

We didn't spend long at Mt. Rushmore as unfortunately the vast majority of the crowds were facemask-less and not doing a great job of social distancing. We did a little mile-long hike to about as close as you can get to the base of the presidents, then hit the road again and drove all the way to Southern-central Wyoming to sleep in a rest stop for thankfully, the last time on this trip.

Day five started with another early morning for me, and a welcome surprise. About an hour after I started driving I decided to stop at a rest area advertising a Hardee's and crossed my fingers that they'd be slinging coffee this early. Well, not only was I able to get a very large cup of coffee (thank goodness) but I was stoked to discover that this Hardee's, in the middle of Wyoming, was serving beyond breakfast sausage sandwiches. That definitely helped fuel me up for the rest of our drive.

After my miracle breakfast at Hardee's, we swung south into Utah. I had read about Spiral Jetty, an art installation at a remote edge of the Great Salt Lake, in my current favorite book, Erosion, and was determined to visit. I am so glad we did, and I'm also glad that I rather irresponsibly didn't look up how far off the main road we had to go to get there. We drove on miles and miles of dirt and gravel road, past ranches and farmland, and far from our cell phone service, but finally made it to Spiral Jetty. We spent nearly an hour walking around the stone spiral, climbing the rocky hill above the installation, and walking along the salt flats to the edge of the lake. Once we had our fill, we drove back towards the highway but decided to take another stop when we saw a sign for Golden Spike National Historic Park. Graham thought that sounded familiar and, as it turns out, the golden spike marked the spot where the two ends of the transcontinental railroad were connected in May, 1869. As a die-hard train fan, I enjoyed seeing that bit of history.

The rest of day five we spent mostly driving north, and we arrived to the Sawtooth Mountains in Idaho just before dinnertime. After we spent some time checking out different forest roads we finally picked the perfect campsite and settled down to set up camp and start cooking a nice camp dinner. It was the perfect last night on the road, and we finally felt like we were back in the Pacific Northwest and close to home.

Day six was short and sweet - we drove straight from Idaho through the Northern edge of Oregon all the way back to Portland.

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