The Long Road Home

After saying goodbye to Glacier National Park, Vince and I were headed east, but it would still take a few days to get back home to Michigan. We spent our 8th anniversary driving through the endless plains of Montana, then crashed for the night near the North Dakota border. North Dakota was another state I had never visited before, so when we crossed into it the next morning, it became my 35th US state.

We weren’t far from Theodore Roosevelt National Park, where we planned to spend the morning. A quick stop at the visitor center yielded a brochure and some postcards, and then it was time to decide what to do. Glancing through the park’s literature, I noticed that it was home to a herd of wild horses. I frowned as I realized that unless we got incredibly lucky, we were very unlikely to see said horses in the limited time we had. Vince was still trying to discuss options with me, and noticing that I’d gone quiet, he asked if something was wrong.

I released a melodramatic sigh as I had to explain that while only moments ago I didn’t know there was a park horse herd, I was now battling disappointment at the knowledge that we probably wouldn’t see them. Vince laughed at that, and I joined in, feeling a little ridiculous.

I determined to have a good time whether or not we saw any horses, and we decided to go check out the Petrified Forest Trail, a ten mile loop that traverses through badlands formations and two different areas with petrified trees. Since we didn’t have six hours to spend, we would hike out a short ways to the North Petrified Forest and then return to the car.

Even early in the morning the weather was hot and sunny. We hiked up a dusty path bordered by golden grasses mingled in with wildflowers. Grasshoppers leapt in front of us with every step we took. The trail climbed uphill onto a flat plateau where it forked and we followed the path to the north. Before long we found ourselves at the top of a hill overlooking the petrified forest.

We picked our way downhill and began exploring the area. The petrified stumps were much cooler than expected. They glittered in the daylight and the ground was covered with “wood chips” that had turned to stone.

The petrified forest was honestly much more fascinating than I expected, and I’m afraid my photos don’t do it much justice. From a distance it sort of looks like a pile of incongruous tan rocks, but upon further inspection it begs a thorough exploration. There were so many interesting geological oddities to discover that Vince and I kind of lost ourselves wandering around between stumps. In addition to the petrified trees, there were also badlands formations, cannonballs, and hoodoos.

We stayed in the petrified forest longer than we were planning, but just as we were about to turn our hike, a little cottontail rabbit crossed our path. It was surprisingly nonchalant about our proximity so I had some great photo opportunities before it hopped away.

With the bunny sighting over, I began to notice how hot it was getting, and I was relieved to be in the shade when we finally made it back to car.

We spent the next hour or so driving the Scenic Loop of the park’s South Unit. There were prairie dog towns along the roadside, so we stopped at a pull-off to check one out. I know prairie dogs are very common, but it still brings me a borderline unnecessary amount of unbridled glee to watch them scurrying around and throwing their heads back to squeak.

It took some doing, but Vince eventually managed to talk me into moving on from the prairie dog town. Once we were back on the road we had a string of bison sightings. There were bisons right on the side of the road, a distant massive herd of bison, and at one point a pair walked out in front of our car so close that we could smell them (which was both disgusting and slightly terrifying).

We would have loved to drive the whole scenic road, but there was some road construction that turned it into an out-and-back journey instead of a loop and we didn’t have time to do the whole road twice. Instead we headed over the Painted Canyon overlook to take in one last view before hitting the highway. We even hiked down into the canyon a ways, but by this time it was so hot out that neither of us was really in the mood, so we turned around quickly.

That was all we had time for, but Theodore Roosevelt National Park definitely deserves a more thorough exploration than we gave it. It’s an amazing park for wildlife viewing, and the geological formations are an endless supply of fascination. This park doesn’t seem to get a whole lot of attention compared to Badlands National Park, but it has its own unique character, and I highly recommend checking it out even if you’ve already been to Badlands.

After Theodore Roosevelt we had a decision to make. We could either bear north and take a longer route home through the Upper Peninsula, or we could keep going east toward Madison and make it home a day sooner. The real question was did we want to stop and climb in central Wisconsin, or would we rather check out Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in northern Wisconsin?

Vince was itching to climb, and although I wasn’t so eager, I was ready to get home and sleep in a real bed. That would happen at least a day sooner if we skipped Apostle Islands, so we drove into the night until we found a rest stop near the crag where we could get a few hours of sleep.

I was groggy and tired when we woke up in the rest area parking lot. The bathrooms were closed for construction, so we were left with only a couple of extremely nasty port-o-potties, not the best way to start a day (especially when you are trying to live as sanitary a life as possible because of a global pandemic). The “van-life” was beginning to show its downsides. Luckily we had our trusty gallon of sanitizer which I used liberally as we drove toward the crag.

We have climbed in Devil’s Lake, Wisconsin many times, so we opted to try out an area called Petenwell Bluff this time. It ended up being the perfect crag for a short day of climbing. The approach was short and easy, the weather was an idyllic, breezy 80 degrees, a much needed respite from the 100 degree temps in North Dakota. The bluffs were in a peaceful forest, and when we reached the top of the climbs, there was a lovely view of the Wisconsin River.

After a half day of easy climbing, we packed up and started the final leg of our journey home. By that evening we were back in our bed, cuddling our cat. It felt good to be home after such a long time on the road, but the trip also reminded me of how much I’d missed traveling. Between the pandemic and the broken leg, I’d kind of forgotten to care about travel for a while, but it was nice to discover that we could road trip again if we were careful about it. The entire time we were on the road we never once came into close contact with anyone (as defined by the CDC), which is actually much better than I can manage to do at home. All-in-all it had been a success. We may not have gotten to travel abroad in 2020 (aside from a couple of pre-covid weekends in Ontario), but we were able to explore 5,000 miles here in the US.

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