The Newsy Stuff
We wrote this post from Montana, our last US state before we crossed the border into Canada for the long drive through Canada to Alaska. We crossed the border just to the northeast of Glacier National Park into Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta, Canada. The two parks form the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park and it was amazing to sit in our campground at Waterton Townsite and face the back of the mountains that framed the Canadian border from the US side. Glacier is dramatic and the middle portion of the famous Going to the Sun Road within the park remained closed, since it is still being plowed out from the 30’ – 60’ (yes, feet) of snow that has fallen or drifted or avalanched (if that is a word) during this past winter. Fascinating photos of the plowing can be seen here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/glaciernps/sets/72157682348882366 and older YouTube videos show just how difficult an undertaking the plowing can be: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M-9l1PojA6Q.
Waterton Lakes National Park is also a beautiful park and there is a small village within the park called Waterton, complete with campgrounds, a few shops, restaurants and more. The glacial water in Waterton Lake and in the rivers and creeks within the park are stunningly lovely as is its Red Rock Canyon. Waterton provided us with up close views of mule deer and big horned sheep grazing within our campground, as well as a black bear (the photo below shows that not all black bears have black fur) and a moose that galloped away before we could take its photo.
As of this posting, we are happily sited at Bow Rivers Edge Campground in Cochrane, Alberta, on the outskirts of Calgary, where we will spend the next several days before traveling to Banff and Jasper National Parks before heading to Edmonton. From Edmonton, it will be about a 2-day journey to travel to Dawson Creek, the official beginning of the Alaska Highway (also referred to as the ALCAN Highway). With Wolfie in tow, we typically try to limit our driving days to 4 hours of driving per day because towing Wolfie, particularly when it is windy (a near constant condition here so far) is more difficult than when driving without her. We are figuring on a couple of weeks on the Alaska Highway and have allowed plenty of time to travel, sight see, and for detours between here and Alaska. The miles between here and Alaska seemed like a lot when we first considered this trip but after 20,000 on the road so far, that number is much less daunting now.
When we started to think about this blog post, we were in western South Dakota. We arrived there believing that we would spend 2-3 days in the area and within a half a day of arriving, we swiftly realized that we would need a full week to explore the sights on our list. South Dakota was amazing and we packed a lot into our time there – the Badlands National Park, Wall Drug, the National Grasslands Visitor’s Center, Wind Cave National Park and Jewel Cave National Monument, Crazy Horse Memorial, Mt. Rushmore, Custer State Park, including the Needles Scenic Drive, visits to Deadwood, Sturgis (home of the famous Sturgis Motorcycle Rally and the Motorcycle Museum and Hall of Fame), Spearfish, Spearfish Canyon, a historic fish hatchery, Devil’s Monument in Wyoming, Rapid City and more. We drove hundreds of miles touring the Black Hills area and loved each and every minute of it.
We left South Dakota and headed toward Montana to avoid heavy snow forecast for Wyoming on our way to Yellowstone and the Grand Teton National Parks. We were lucky to avoid snow along the route but not so lucky when we arrived in West Yellowstone – the next several days were characterized by snow, below freezing temps, lots of road closures within the park and much larger-than-we-expected crowds. We have a fair amount of flexibility to come, go or stay longer or shorter than people constrained by airline tickets or school vacation schedules but still, we cannot just stick around a place indefinitely, hoping that roads will open or crowds will diminish. And so, like everyone else in similar situations, you just roll with it.
Our drive through Yellowstone to the south entrance to visit Grand Teton when the road finally opened was enhanced by an amazing audio tour on an app called Just Ahead that we learned about while in Yellowstone. The app allows one to download a guide to a single park or to subscribe for year to access guides for additional parks. Regrettably, when we downloaded the Yellowstone guide, we were unaware that the south entrance road had reopened toward Grand Teton (even though we were monitoring road closures on the Park’s telephone info line) and when we entered Grand Teton, we were unable to load Teton’s guide due to cell service. We LOVED the Just Ahead audio tour and took advantage of many suggested stops along our route. Sadly, we didn’t know about Just Ahead until after we visited many of the parks for which audio guides were available but we have the app now, complete with yearly subscription, ready for audio tours of parks that we will visit when we return to the lower 48 from Alaska.
At a later date, we may attempt to list the places and routes along our travels that were our favorites. While it is premature to do so at this time, we can confidently report to you that among the places we will highly recommend are western South Dakota/Black Hills area and the drive from Yellowstone to Helena, MT along what we later learned was called the Paradise Valley (287 to 69 to 15 along the Madison River). The name says it all.
Here’s hoping for drives ahead as memorable as Paradise Valley – it proved that all roads along rivers and mountains are not just other hoodoos. (See previous bootsandcoffee.com blog post for explanation about hoodoo reference.)
The Nosy Stuff
Perhaps because our Facebook postings take the form of mini travelogues, filled with photos and videos but mostly devoid of personal reflections, we realized that this blog has become the primary (written) way for us to share our more inward thoughts about our life on the road and just how we are doing now that we have nearly 5 months (and 20,000 or so miles) under our (fan) belts.
Let us start by saying that we are good – individually and together. Let us follow by saying that the trip has had its challenges. All things considered, the challenges have been relatively minor – weather obstacles, regularly reaching our roaming data limits WAY before the end of our cell phone billing cycles, repairs needed for Wolfie’s roof and tire are just a few examples. We have learned that researching campgrounds along the road has taken a fair amount of time and energy and that the differences between campgrounds in state parks are interestingly startling. For instance, prior to reaching Colorado, nearly every state park visited had campsites for RVs with electric and water. From Colorado north, state park campsites rarely (if ever) supply water at the site – probably because state parks do not want to deal with the possibility of maintaining water pipes after long winters with many below freezing days. In Montana, few parks with RV sites provide a dump station for black or gray water – nearly unheard of in other state parks where we have stayed where dump stations are the norm. In some state parks, reservations must be made 2 or 3 days in advance and in others, one can reserve online on the day of arrival. Some parks have fees for residents and different fees for nonresidents; some states require daily entrance fees to be paid in addition to campsite fees (which, believe me, can really add up). Some states sell yearly park passes that eliminate the daily entrance fees. In short, it takes a lot of reading fine print to ensure that one is aware of the total cost for a campground stay and what amenities exist. (Here, in Helena, we are in a lovely lakeside campsite at Black Sandy State Park where we have electric at the site but no water and there is a dump station within the campground. There are restrooms with flush – versus vault toilets – but no showers anywhere in the campground. The nonresident campsite fee includes the daily entrance fee but we had to read the fee schedule at least 3 times before we figured it out. We arrived early enough to secure a first-come-first-served site, thankfully, because we missed the 3 days in advance online reservation window. Get the picture?)
All of this is to illustrate that it’s not so easy being foot loose and fancy free when it comes to securing a safe, affordable and comfortable place to place Wolfie for a night or so. On the other hand, it would have been completely exhausting to have made advance reservations for all of the myriad places we have stayed within the past 5 months to say nothing of how pressured we would have felt by such a tight and inflexible schedule and how little flexibility it would have afforded us. Good or bad aside, it has been a challenge to do this research along the way. And we think that it might get worse – in that we are already discovering that some Canadian campgrounds are not even reservable until the middle of June or later!
While we have met a large number of people, most of our encounters with others have been relatively brief – imagine our life as being one really long cocktail party filled with “camper small talk.” The “what’s your major” for us has morphed into a story of our journey and how we started in a tent before we acquired Wolfie, blah, blah, blah. It is a fun and interesting story to tell and we have developed story-telling skills that allow for a Mutt-and-Jeff routine and fellow campers are filled with interest and often provide us with great ideas and hints about things to see and routes to take, to say nothing of the valuable guidance we have received on maintaining Wolfie. Still, there are times we long for a good debate about current events, or about great movies seen or books read. Recent political events have left us with no lack of great articles to read and fascinating news to absorb as we travel but the 24 hour news programming gets old when we are on the second or third repetition of the same story even if it is a different newscaster/host and at times, listening to the news can be so disheartening and distracts from the beauty all around us.
There have been constant challenges with cell signals, Wi-Fi, TV stations and technology in general. We have hinted at this before and could write a book on how many issues we have confronted and our (mostly) botched solutions. In short, we have found nothing that consistently addresses our interests in having cell signals, adequate Wi-Fi and some access to TV – whether for news or entertainment. Most of the time, we have at least 1 of these (cell or Wi-Fi or TV) and sometimes we have none. At one point, we “voted” for choosing Wi-Fi over TV/cable when we researched campgrounds, believing that we could always stream news or Netflix, etc. We pretty quickly realized that nearly all campground-supplied Wi-Fi was not only inadequate for streaming purposes, it was barely adequate for email or web browsing/research. We have left a campground on more than one occasion to travel to Starbucks, McDonald’s or something similar just to use the Wi-Fi (such as we are doing at this moment). We have had issues with roaming data limits (even though our Sprint and T-Mobile plans have “unlimited” data – hah, a story for another day) but, fortunately no problems with our phones once we crossed the Canadian borders on either Sprint or T-Mobile. The data has been important not because we are unable to sit quietly and simply read a book or magazine, but to navigate, research, download books, news articles and the like. So far, we can mostly locate Wi-Fi in town and try to do what we need to do from those locations. It’s likely to get worse as we continue toward Alaska but the trade off is that our coping skills continue to improve.
One of the most difficult issues has been to embrace Wolfie and the trip as our way of life rather than one extended vacation. This little <100 square foot trailer is our home and it’s been a challenge to figure out how to make our life on the road comfortable at times. We are grateful for the inside kitchen but challenged by the limitations of its tiny space, tiny fridge, tiny sink and lack of oven. Our countertop measures about 2’x2’ and the workspace doubles as dish drainer where our tiny coffee maker and small 3 pot herb garden also resides. The dinette banquette that faces the TV is small and while we can both cram our butts there for short intervals, it is not accommodating for very long. It took a while to get comfy with Wolfie and living in this way – getting the storage cabinets arranged in a way that didn’t require removing everything to get to the spices, learning how to make the bed, figuring out how to keep sufficient pantry items on hand to allow for varied dinners . . .
It is worth noting that we have truly felt comfortable and have not perceived any real discomfort due to race or religion or the inter-ness of our mixed status as a couple. As we enter a new town or city, we usually read about the place, its history and its demographics. As we move westward, we have moved into areas with less racial and religious diversity but the lack of diversity has not signaled any lack of civility, cordiality and friendliness. If anything, it has improved. Universally, we have appreciated the friendly way we have been treated everywhere we have been.
Even with all of this, we can happily report that we are enjoying each other as much as we thought we would and have not tired of having each other as our primary companion. The trip has solidified so many of the things that we shared before we left and improved upon our collaboration in many new ways. And we are happy to also to report that naturally, without a great deal of conscientious work, we have started living more in the moment. The “can’t wait until” has been replaced, more often as not by “should we stay here longer.” Each day, there is more and more comfort in seeing what is in front of our eyes rather than what lies ahead in our journey.