We continued towards Badlands National park. However, we couldn’t reach it on the same day – too much driving. So I found a place where we could camp and test the public land hypothesis – Fort Pierre National Grassland in South Dakota.
Camping over there appeared to be completely legit, all we had to do is just ditch the farms and find a nice parking space on the side of the road. We climbed the barbed wire fence and here it was – the beauty for us to behold!
The place was dreamlike: endless plains, constant sound of mooing cows, and lots of green grass. The strong wind was blowing constantly, making it harder to hear other sounds. Later a moon rose and we left the tent unzipped on one side, so we could look at the stars during the night.
Next morning I woke up to realization that Jackson is suffering from severe allergy symptoms. The wind brought in all the bad stuff and there was nowhere to hide in the plains of the grassland. So we packed the car early and bounced. I drove to Badlands while the poor guy napped.
As we reached the park, he slowly came back to life. Badlands National Park is mainly laid out as a drive through. The Southern part of the park was closed for visitors at that time. We followed the winding road and stopped at one of the lookout points with a short trail called Cliff Shelf Nature Trail. There you could walk a little bit through the drylands and take in the severe landscape.
We were greeted by magpies who jumped from one branch to another, completely unafraid of people. We quickly threw together lunch (a curbside sandwich at the parking lot) and did a 20 minute hiking loop.
Badlands offered stunning views of incredible mud formations. There were layers and layers of rocklike mud containing different chemical elements manifested by a variety of colors within the rising towers. Some of them have been known to occasionally reveal prehistoric fossils. Lots of exciting things to explore!
In this park for the first time in my life I saw wild bison. The herd was pretty far away and I got really excited: “Let’s walk out in the field and get a closer look!”. Jackson pulled me back, saying that there probably would be a better opportunity to see these beasts up close later on the way. He was absolutely right.
Little prairie dogs were popping here and there and agile mountain goats gracefully scaled immense drops. I was fascinated speechless.
I would like to go back to Badlands and spend more time there, maybe do a longer backpacking hike into the towering depths of it. Unfortunately, we couldn’t afford stopping for too long; there was a legendary landmark ahead of us – Yellowstone National Park.
On a low start in Wisconsin, we went to a supermarket and got a bunch of food for the trip. Badlands was still ~9 hours away, so the first night we landed in Minnesota on a campground right next to Mississippi river in Great River Bluffs State Park.
By mutual conclusion, this campsite was probably the most underwhelming of all our spots. Featuring no majestic views, it offered 31 identical spots for cars and RVs in the middle of the forest, with some amenities located nearby. The thunderstorm kept us awake at night and the ground muddy. I failed dreadfully attempting to start a fire in the light evening rain.
Minnesota was also a place of our first argument: it was a conceptual one. In short, Jackson (to my horrified surprise) was vaguely imagining us using conventional camping spots during the whole trip (aka paid camping). A Wisconsin-born, he didn’t know of any existing alternatives to this in the USA, and nope, we didn’t discuss or research this issue before taking off. Needless to say, this idea was perfectly contrary to my entire image of the world, my values, and everything I thought was right.
Coming from Russia and having done some camping there, I’m used to just winging it. You get off the road, hike a little bit off to the forest, find a nice stream or a lake and set camp right there; without any need to talk to someone, plan, reserve, and certainly you do not pay for it! The thought that it could be different here in the USA was shocking and infuriating to me. The nature should be free for everyone to enjoy, not compartmentalized into campsites for $25 a night. No way I’m doing that! Poor Jackson witnessing my passionate riot was likely starting to regret ever getting involved with me…
The answer came with Google and it’s name was dispersed camping.In reality, in the US you can camp for free anywhere you want, as long as it is a part of Public Land.
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) manages public land across the country. We downloaded US Public Lands app which shows exact borders of public land around you.
National Forests, National Grasslands, National Seashores are OK to camp in, as long as you adhere to a simple set of rules: drive away from the main road or highway at least 200 feet, use extreme caution when making fire, research areas where it’s prohibited for the high fire danger (dry season), follow sanitation guidelines and have enough food / water to support yourself. And obviously know where you are and where the hell you’re going. That’s about it.
The only caveat is that East of Mississippi almost all of the land is privately-owned. So, we had to get creative, using friend’s backyards, sneaking in on the sides of the roads in State Parks etc.
I have to say, that you get used to sleeping in a tent every night pretty quickly. I remember I was a little uneasy (well, actually dreading) about sleeping in a tent after a warm, soft bed. Somehow you just learn to roll with it. Or I did.
Our starting point was New York City, so we pinned Chicago as our first stop. It was a long, and merciless drive that took us around 15hrs (with a couple of quick picturesque stops, like the one at Delaware Water Gap).
Pennsylvania was very pretty to drive through, with its picturesque green hills rolling by. The landscape changed as soon as we reached Ohio, and from then on it was just a straight wide highway cutting through an endless plain.
What an exhausting day!
We got to Chicago at 10pm and crashed at a friend’s apartment for the night (thank you, Ana). Next morning Milwaukee was the next stop. I really wanted to see the architectural masterpiece of Santiago Calatrava – the Milwaukee Art Museum. It was as grand and as stunning as I anticipated.
Then we hopped back in the car and drove to Madison, where we spent the next couple of days in chill mode. Highlights included visiting mind-blowing enterprise under the name of “House on the Rock”; canoeing with David Eagan on Wisconsin river near Richland Center; and sightseeing idyllic neighborhoods of Madison.
We thought things through. Or at least gave it a good try. Overall it worked pretty well!
COVIDNOTE: During the trip we saw some of the parks only half open, others were fully closed (White Sands, Carlsbad Caverns in NM). Many services were not functional, for example the shuttle buses in Zion & Yellowstone were fully cancelled. Generally, no backcountry passes were issued, although the old ones were being honored. All camping within most NP’s was forbidden and parks open for day use only.
Sleeping. Partially because of COVID and partially for the sake of adventure, we went for dispersed camping as our main and only sleeping arrangement throughout the trip. Despite temptation on certain occasions to live it up in a motel (thanks David Eagan for the offer), we stoically would set up a tent every night in a forest, field, desert or simply on the side of the road and pass out in minutes. The attributes of normal life were far away: running water, heat, electricity, other people… Under the stars we slept.
Our sleeping arrangement included: Alps Mountaineering tent, 2 yoga mats that go right on the tent floor as the first level, double sleeping pad (akathe green thing), 2 sleeping bags that zip together (viva la love tube!) and 2 blankets for especially cold nights.
Fort Pierre National Grassland
Bighorn National Forest
Shoshone National Forest
Grand Teton National Park
Showers. This might sound discouraging to some people, but we didn’t shower on the roadtrip. Only once there was an exception. The darling memory of a hot *more like warm* and free *100%* shower in a WC building at a free campsite in Texas will stay with us forever.
Otherwise our best friends were creeks, rivers, ice-cold mountain lakes (hello Jenny Lake @ Grand Teton), waterfalls and even empty parking lots (read Grand Canyon adventure). Among the adversaries I would like to name phantom rivers (yes, you Arizona) and cold (Yellowstone). In those and other extreme cases; baby wipes, bless your heart.
Boiling river, Yellowstone
Mill creek Waterfall, Moab
Mill creek, Moab
Mill creek, Moab
San Juan river, Mexican Hat
Gas & tolls. Ёжмобиль had a pretty good gas mileage: ~40 mi/gal. With comparatively low gas prices now around the US (~$2 /gal) we would be able to get a full tank for about $15–$20. The majority of the roads we took were toll-free (except for a part of Interstate 80 between Ohio and Chicago).
Navigation. We used Google Maps for navigation whenever we had service (~ 80% of the time). Maps with Me with pre-downloaded offline maps came in handy when we got off the grid. They sometimes even had natural trails Google wasn’t showing.
National Parks Access. For Parks access we purchased a $80 Annual pass, good for unlimited entry to every National Park in the US for a year. The pass allows for 2 signatures. The signature has to match the one on your DL. Need to show both when entering. It’s not attached to one particular vehicle. Totally worth it!
Food & Water. For cooking hot meals we used a pretty neat and efficient gas stove (thanks for lending, Nancy Jarvis). Normally we would stock up for a week or two in a huge supermarket somewhere (the quantity of things we bought would absolutely freak Jackson out), and then slowly go thru it as days roll by.
Typical shopping list included: granola, powdered milk, honey, peanut butter, avocados, carrots, oranges, bread, cheese, tortillas, fast cooking rice, couscous, quinoa, unthinkable amounts of ramen, eggs, chips, hummus, trail mix, granola bars, tea and coffee, along with other great things.
In the beginning of our trip with got 2 large jugs of water, 1gal each, and then used and re-used those vessels eternally for storing / using water throughout the trip. All our water came either from safe-to-drink taps in National Parks, or we pumped and purified it from local creeks.
Wardrobe.We brought along a full spectrum of clothes to cover everything from freezing temperatures (Yellowstone) to the unbearable heat of the desert (Utah, Arizona). Hiking boots were essential at all times. A sunhat, swimsuits, towels, bug spray & sunscreen were also a must.
If I were to jump ahead and summarize this roadtrip, I’d say – the overall outcome was a wild mix of experiencing an abundance of different environments and wildlife in the US; overcoming temporal obstacles through creativity and adaptation; a collection of the most amazing nature photos; meeting and observing some bright characters and turning it all into a good story!
This story begins in Spring of 2020, the apex of uncertainty. An unknown and brutal virus hits the world: countries close their borders, businesses shut down operations, people are isolated at home – their jobs on pause, their plans on pause, their lives on pause.
The feeling of impending doom gets constantly fueled by distressing news of growing number of infection cases every single day. And here we were, sitting in a Brooklyn apartment, right in the very center of the Apocalypse, thinking… “Screw that, we’re going West!”
“Maybe if we just left for a month or two… We could come back, and things would just be normal again?”
May 30 – July 8, 2020
New York – Chicago – Milwaukee WI – Madison WI – Badlands NP – Bighorn NF – Yellowstone – Grand Teton NP – Salt Lake City UT – Arches NP – Canyonlands NP – Bryce – Zion – Grand Canyon – Tucson AZ – Saguaro NP – White Sands NP / Caverns NP (failed) – Albuquerque – Lake Meredith TX – Oklahoma City OK – Arkansas – Memphis TN – Nashville TN – Great Smoky Mountains NP – Virginia Beach – New York.
Weather range included: rain + thunderstorms (Minnesota), freezing cold + snow (Yellowstone), hurricanes (Wyoming), dry desert with wildfires (Arizona), extreme wind (Wisconsin + Utah), extreme humidity (Arkansas).