Over Labor Day Weekend, days after our return to the Pacific Northwest, we received word from Michigan that my Stepmother passed away. We debated flying from Seattle for the service, but quickly ruled that out after a myriad of scheduling constraints prevented the three of us making it to funeral. Ultimately, after consultation with my family, we decided that our best course of action would be to scrap our plans for an autumn in the Pacific Northwest and head back (we were just there in May) to Michigan for an extended stay. On Sunday, the 10th of September, following a week of medical and VA appointments in Seattle, and one final PNW hurrah at the Port Townsend Wooden Boat Festival, we departed on the 2,400-mile drive to Michigan.
We allotted ourselves six days to drive from western Washington to southwest Michigan. Our planned route was across Washington, Idaho, and western Montana via I-90. Then we would veer north on I-94, traveling through eastern Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, before finally skirting around Chicago and reaching southwestern Michigan. This route had us driving through North Dakota (which we had not yet visited) and Theodore Roosevelt National Park, which has been on our bucket list for years.
Our usual, run-of-the-mill, travel days average around 170-miles, but when we’re trying to put miles behind us we average between 350- and 400-miles. Practice has shown that after two or three 400-mile days, we are all a little stir crazy and in need of break. With a week of 400+ mile days planned, a day off in the middle would be a welcomed respite. Since Medora and Theodore Roosevelt National Park was almost exactly our halfway point, spending some time there recovering from the previous three travel days and preparing for the next three made a lot of sense. Therefore, we adjusted our travel days accordingly and spent Wednesday, September 13th taking a day-off from traveling and exploring a wonderfully diverse National Park. As luck would have it, Theodore Roosevelt wasn’t the only NPS site we visited during our eastward trek.
During long travel days, we try to plan interesting and extended lunch stops in order to get out of the truck, get some exercise, and unwind a bit during the middle of the day. I also appreciate the opportunity to grab a 20-30 minute nap (the old Navy habit of a “nooner”—no not that kind!—has proven difficult to break!) Two of our more memorable lunch stops happened to coincide with opportunities for us all to learn something and for Owen to earn two additional Junior Ranger badges.When researching our route east, I came across the Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site in Deer Lodge, Montana. This Historic Site became a planned lunch stop for Day Two. Set aside in 1972, Grant-Kohrs is a wonderful little National Historical Site that that is both educational and entertaining. If you ever find yourself passing through Deer Lodge, Montana, do yourselves a favor and visit. We spent three-hours there and could have stayed longer.
On the morning of Day 3, about 45-minutes after leaving the Billings, Montana Cabela’s parking lot (where we spent our second night on the road), we came across a sign for Pompeys Pillar National Monument. Located east of Billings, off I-94 on the Yellowstone River, Pompey’s Pillar wasn’t on our radar. Because Pompey’s Pillar is administered by the BLM vice the NPS, it wasn’t listed in any of our National Park resources. [Ed. we have since learned to peruse the BLM and National Forest Service websites, as well as the NPS site when we’re doing travel research.] However, the name rang a bell. I couldn’t recall the details, but I knew it had something to do with the Corps of Discovery.In 1806, on Lewis and Clarks’ return trip from the Pacific, in order to cover more territory, they split up in western Montana and traveled separate routes back to the Missouri River. Lewis headed north to determine the northern extent of the Missouri River tributaries and Clark crossed Bozeman Pass and descended the Yellowstone River. The two parties reunited back on the Missouri River in early August 1806. While the Blackfeet Indians would eventually chase Lewis and his party out of northern Montana, Clark had relatively few problems on his leg of the journey. On July 25th, Clark camped near a rock outcropping on the Yellowstone River that he named in honor of Sacagawea’s son, whom he nicknamed Pompey.
While our stop at Pompey’s Pillar was significantly earlier in the day than we would have liked, it was definitely worth it because the monument and visitor center were absolutely excellent. We had a great time exploring visitor center, climbing the pillar, learning more about Lewis and Clark, and earning another Junior Ranger badge.
Soon after leaving Pompey’s Pillar we encountered thick smoke from the wildfires raging in northern Montana. While the smoke abated slightly as we traveled east, it would be an ever-present companion for the next three days until we got east of Bismarck, North Dakota.
We pulled into Medora, North Dakota and because of the smoke debated staying in an RV park vice inside Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The private campground did not look appealing so we decided to drive into the park and check out the NPS campground. We would make a decision at that point. A combination of beauty and abundant wildlife convinced us that staying in the park was the right decision—we could live with a little smoke.While all the literature said that Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s Cottonwood Campground rarely fills midweek, we were surprised to find that it was filled-up on a Tuesday night because of the wildfire refugee campers that relocated from Glacier National Park. Luckily, the campground hosts let us spend the night in a very nice overflow site until we could move to a regular site in the morning. Although it was smoky and moving our rig was a lot of rigmarole, we are glad we stayed inside the park.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park is divided into three units: the Northern Unit, the Southern Unit, and the Elkhorn Ranch Unit. We stayed at the Southern Unit, which is located along I-94 in Medora, ND. The Northern Unit is located 68-miles north of the Southern Unit and the Elkhorn Ranch Unit is located between, and just west of, the two other units. Although we wanted to visit the other units, we didn’t have enough time to do so. Regardless, the Southern Unit was impressive enough to whet our appetites for another, longer and more in-depth, visit.
During our 38-hours in the park, we drove the Southern Unit’s loop road, did a short hike to a few scenic overlooks, toured TR’s first ranch (moved from its original location several miles south of the park), watched prairie dogs frolic and a Coyote stalk his dinner at two of the Park’s three prairie dog towns, got a little too up-close and personal with a Bison, and saw several more, as well as few antelope playing. Both nights of our stay, we were serenaded to sleep by the haunting howls of Coyotes somewhere along with Little Missouri River valley. While our stay at Theodore Roosevelt National Park was short, it left a lasting impression and we are really looking forward to another visit.
We departed Medora, ND on Thursday morning and continued our journey east to Michigan. The next three days of driving all seemed to blend together as we made our way across North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and into Michigan. About midway through North Dakota we could feel the air becoming more humid and unpleasant—welcome to the Midwest! On Thursday, we spent an uncomfortable and loud night in a Minnesota WalMart parking lot and decided to pay for a campsite on Friday. We set our sights on a Madison, Wisconsin KOA for Friday night in order to full hook-ups, giving us air conditioning and the ability to pull into my Dad’s yard with empty grey and black tanks. On Saturday, the 16th of September, after 2,477-miles and 34+ hours of driving, we arrived in Michigan at my Dad’s house.
Since early September, when we decided to scrap our Pacific Northwest plans and head back to Michigan, we hadn’t really discussed plans much beyond a few weeks at my Dad’s. That really didn’t change as we go closer. While going home was the right thing to do, we were both a little frustrated and slightly anxious about the change and didn’t want to think about what was next. Since August, Anna has been working with a variety of headhunters to coordinate a temporary job to earn some extra money and keep her proficiency up. We had previously been limiting our search to the west coast, but decided to expand it during our trek eastward. After our drive from Washington to Michigan, we were having a hard time fathoming a return trip. Her temporary employment options appear more limited on this side of the country, so even as I write this post in early October, we don’t know what’s next. We plan to stay in Michigan through Halloween so Owen can enjoy trick or treating with his cousins. We intend to leave Michigan on either the 1st or 2nd of November, but we’re not sure where we will be going. The jobs Anna looked at on this side of the country haven’t panned out, so we’re still focusing our search on the west coast and that’s ok…at this point, three weeks since we arrived, the pain of that cross-country pseudo-sprint has faded quite a bit, so I guess we’ll see what happens next…