Cross Country | Montana

Stop #1 – A Rough Start

With 48 states inland and countless must-see cities, how is anyone supposed to actually travel the entire United States and sufficiently see it all? Well, for my husband and I, we set off with less than two weeks to travel cross country. Heading east across the northern part of the country and coming back westward, curving the southern states. Making an oval route, we planned to see the parts of the United States that intrigued us the most. Because of time-constraints and extremely last minute planning, my husband/travel companion and I embarked on a trip of a life-time, with less than two days to plan our two-week trip. Were we crazy? Oh yeah. But, did we have fun? Of course!

What inspired to take such a last-minute, whirl-wind tour of the states? Well, after talking about such a trip in a “some-day”, dreamy-eyed fashion for years, we realized the only thing holding us back was time constraints. Such a trip would require a loooong vacation. So, when I happened to be in-between jobs, and my husband had a little over two weeks before starting a new job, we saw our time slot and jumped on it. Of course, this trip would be on a semi-budget (since only one of us was working at the time), and we were on a time-crunch to come back to my hubby’s new career.

As if traveling cross country wasn’t daunting enough!

So, after diligent online research, mapping, timing, and planning, our course was plotted. Stuffing our little car (which had great gas mileage, at the time), with summer and winter clothes (layering is the best plan) and a cooler full of water bottles, bread, cuties, bananas, peanut butter, and other on-the-go, filling snacks to keep us from over-spending at restaurants on the road.

To make the most of our time and avoid any weekday traffic, we left San Leandro, California after 7pm, heading to our first destination: Yellowstone, Montana. Our goal was to reach the North entrance, since that was the only entrance opened in April. We had over 17 hours of driving before we got to our destination, but we drove through several other sites along the way.

Our first significant drive by was through Reno, Nevada. After 3 ½ hours on the road, my husband woke me up around 11:00pm to see the bright lights of Reno. I notoriously fall asleep easily in the car – a habit that was no exception for this trip, despite excitement. Something about the rocking motion of the car just lulls me to sleep, especially when its accompanied with my hubby’s monotone voice (that’s not an insult; I love his voice – it’s very soothing).

Las Vegas, Nevada in a blur drive by
Driving by Las Vegas

We had no plans to stop in Vegas since it would be the last city we planned to visit on our way back. Nonetheless, it was great to see the city’s bright lights blur by in the dark. The city was like a beacon in the night, beckoning us to continue forward on our voyage across the states. It was perfect timing. A great way to begin our cross-country trip. Yay! We had left California and could check off Nevada as our first state to pass through.

I slept off and on during the night (already a recurring event on our trip). My hubby later informed me that we reached Idaho some time after midnight. Stopping to refuel and switch seats around 6am, I drove while my hubby finally got his own much-needed shut eye. Eleven hours on the road can wear a person out, even a machine like my hubby. Unfortunately, his break lasted no more than 3 hours due to snowy weather…

Montana

In the distance, I could see the Idaho hills covered in snow as we got further north. The deeper we got into Idaho, more and more signs of “Icy Roads” were popping up. As a native Californian, I melt like sugar in the rain. I’d only seen snow on day trips up the mountains, once every five years or so. I’d never driven in wet, icy conditions. I’d never even seen warning signs for ice on the road before. However, my hubby is a native of Massachusetts. He grew up shoveling snow every winter and had recounted stories of getting cars stuck in snow drifts like it was a normal occurrence.

Stories like this were echoing in my head as my hands gripped the wheel tighter, seeing patches of white begin to surround me on the sides of the road. It was my husband’s stories that reinforced how unprepared I was to be behind the wheel right then. I’m not sure if the car was actually getting colder, or if I just felt frigid with the whitening landscape surrounding me; feeling all alone while my exhausted hubby snoozed so peacefully in the reclined seat beside me.

I couldn’t wake him. My conscious wouldn’t let me. But, I suspect my hubby somehow picked up on his panicking wife, who was beginning to freeze like the slivers of ice beginning to fall around her. (My husband has an uncanny ability to read my mind). He opened his sleepy eyes, sat up to look at our surroundings, then looked at me.

“You can pull over when you get a chance,” he said.

“Are you sure?” I spit out with not-so-hidden relief.

He insisted. Claiming he couldn’t sleep anymore anyway, though I think he was just trying to wash away my guilt. A 3-hour nap was all he needed, he said. Being excited for our trip seemed to keep my husband awake… I guess. I wondered how long his stamina could last.

We reached Gardiner, Montana around 11:30am. Though the snowy landscape of hills and trees were breathtaking, that gorgeous view was the reason we couldn’t enter Yellowstone that day. Typically, only the north entrance is opened during this off-season: however, the wet and icy weather conditions had created mudslides, closing off our only passage of entry into Yellowstone. Even with all of our planning and research, we couldn’t have planned on this.

Yellowstone Bear preserve in Montana
Yellowstone Bear preserve

Feeling pretty disappointed, we walked around the entrance a little, taking pictures of the metal statues for the bear and wolf preserves nearby, promising ourselves to come back during a warmer season. But, that’s all we got to do for that stop. Over 15 hours on the road, and we were off again. Imagine our disappointment. Our first stop’s plans were already being foiled.

 

It was around here, however, that signs and warnings for bears kept popping up on the side of the road. I couldn’t help feeling excited. Though I realize a bear-sighting should be met with caution, the childish animal lover in me couldn’t help wishing for such an encounter. Sadly (or luckily), I saw no bears. Nor did I see any moose or buffalo that apparently also have crossings along highway 90. However, somehow, I wasn’t as disappointed as I thought I should be.

The natural scenery surrounding us was possibly the most beautiful landscape that I have ever seen in my life. Gorgeous green hills, snow-sprinkled mountains, frosty creeks, lush forests, and patches of snow enveloped us for miles. The contrasting colors were so vibrant with the greens, whites, orange and yellow foliage and blue skies. I wish I was a painter or a poet to fully commemorate that inspiring moment of sheer, natural beauty. The picturesque view made all of my previous frustrations vanish. We may not have seen the inside of Yellowstone, but the surrounding mountains were anything but a let-down. I can only imagine how breath-taking the rest of the park is. With that scene, suddenly our day of driving didn’t seem wasted at all. With such a view for hours, there was no where else we wanted to be.

Montana mountains, snow, trees and water
Montana Landscape

Around 9pm, we rolled into Historic Keystone, South Dakota, the smallest of towns where most everything is dark and closed during the off season. Driving through the town in the dark of night, I could still tell it must’ve been adorable in the daytime with the 1800-themed shops, though it is seemingly no bigger than a single block and mostly closed this time of year.

Though we were tired and anxious to rest, our excitement to drive to Mt. Rushmore couldn’t be ignored. Driving to the scene, the enormous busts are lit up at night from below, yet we felt completely let down on first appearance. The sculpture of our presidents had terrible detail; they didn’t look at like the pictures I’d seen growing up. Seeing them at night was anything but a good idea. Confused, but refusing to give up hope, we were determined to get a better view in the

Mt Rushmore view at night
Blurred Mt. Rushmore at night

morning, and much needed rest. We stayed at one of the only open motels around – the Mr. Rushmore White House Resort. And, we ate at the only open restaurant in Historic Keystone at that hour. We were also the only diners sitting at a table.

My husband’s buffalo burger and my bacon-wrapped jalapeno tater tots hit our empty spots, lifting our spirits as we tasted our first bite of local cuisine outside of California. Likewise, our motel room was tiny, but clean and comfy. It was just the recharging that we so desperately needed. I was exhausted, but my hubby showed no signs of fatigue as he worked on 3 hours of sleep in the last two days. Despite a few disappointments, he was pumped and ready to continue our journey. Luckily, a little coaxing to lie down had him falling asleep in a matter of seconds.

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