Final chapter: Yellowstone National Park and Mount Rushmore

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Editor’s note: Herald reporter Jen Cowart traveled across the country with her family over the last several weeks. This is the sixth installment in a seven-part series documenting the journey.

Our first day on the road again after our stay in California was a quiet one. We were all exhausted from our epic California adventure, and the kids all slept in the car throughout the day.

The next two weeks of the trip would be our drive home, heading back east to Rhode Island, but we’d be taking the northern route rather than the southern route we’d come out on. Our first day back on the road was long and hot as we drove through the desert and mountains of California and into Nevada.

It was a driving day, not a sightseeing day, and we were actually going to land back in Arizona, just over the Nevada border, for the night. This would mark our fourth stay in yet a fourth different part of Arizona on this trip, which is something I would not have predicted at the start of our journey.

As I watched the Mojave Desert go by, and as I sat white-knuckled while we passed through a particularly harrowing narrow mountain pass in the Rocky Mountains, I was in awe of the landscape. In past trips, and including this visit, we’d spent most of our California vacation time in and around the city of Los Angeles, which looked so different than what we saw heading to and leaving from our California visit this time around. I just did not expect to see so many mountains and so much wide-open desert space. It made up the bulk of our landscape for much of the time we drove. At one point, we even saw a large sparkling area of something way off in the distance, in the middle of this vast, wide-open space. We tried to figure out what it was that we were seeing, and finally realized it was a solar power plant. The sparkling we were seeing was the solar panels, glistening in the sun.

Ultimately, however, we were heading for the city of West Yellowstone, Montana, where we’d be staying for a few nights while spending time at Yellowstone National Park, a landmark we’d all been looking forward to visiting. It was another spot that had a lasting impact on Don when he made his original trip after college, and he’d talked about it frequently in the years since.

It would take us a few days to get there, though, and we knew we’d have a couple of long days on the road. We arrived in Arizona at the Chief Sleep Easy RV Park after hours, but we’d called ahead and had been told to just take a self-check-in envelope out of the mailbox provided, put our money for the night into a slot in the office door, and park anywhere in the middle. This was a check-in by the honor system that we’d become familiar with throughout our journey. We’d be in after dark and out before the office reopened again.

We continued on the next day, heading to Utah, a state I’d been to for work-related travel in the past. We hoped to make it to North Salt Lake City and stay the night there. As we traveled that day, we finally began to see our way out of the dry, desert surroundings and started to see real grass, something we’d been missing – although I don’t think any of us realized just how much we’d missed it, especially when it came time to walk the dog.

Some locations throughout our trip had boasted designated dog parks, but they often consisted of sand and rocks, or just pavement. Our Shih Tzu, Bella, had a tough time getting her job done on a hot, dry, rocky walkway, and was constantly getting clumps of the rough, prickly burs from the greenery that did exist, stuck all throughout her hair. When we finally arrived at the first Utah rest area with grass, she looked as if she’d jump for joy as she ran through the grass and rolled around, finally plopping herself flat down in it. It was so nice for all of us to see the greenery work its way back into the landscape.

Until we started to hit major city locations, the ride was still very sparsely populated, and we constantly were amazed by the lack of people, houses and buildings of any kind as we traveled. We drove up to one of the Utah rest stops and headed into a restaurant located there. My daughter wondered aloud where the people who worked there lived, since there just seemed to be nothing around.

Later on in the evening we arrived at our resort, The Pony Express in North Salt Lake City. It was hot, and we were excited that the resort had a pool. We looked forward to an evening swim. Originally, I’d scheduled us to stay two nights since we’d been driving such full days, but we had all agreed to push on again the next day and just get to our next destination, West Yellowstone, so this would be our one and only swim break. 

My stomach dropped when I went inside the camper once we were hooked up, and I began my usual routine of unloading the sink where Mr. Flippers the frog spends his cross-country rides. His tank was unusually light as I lifted him out – basically empty, give or take a few ounces of water – and he was flopping all over inside of it.

I panicked, trying to figure out what had happened, and saying a silent prayer of thanks that he was still flopping at all. I spotted a crack in one corner, and saw the rest of the water dripping out of it. We grabbed the duct tape as a temporary measure, taped up the corner as best we could, and refilled the tank with more water, watching as it slowly continued to drip out. We added “new frog tank” to our shopping list for that evening. It is said that some people leave their hearts in San Fransisco, but it seemed that for our trip, Mr. Flippers was going to be leaving his old tank in Utah.

That night, after a beautiful swim for the kids, with a view of the sun setting around the mountains in the distance, Don began calling around to campgrounds in the Yellowstone area for a reservation for the next night. Throughout our trip, other than for a few of our stops booked way in advance, we’d been calling ahead by a day or so for our next night’s reservations, sometimes even only by an hour or so, but we were a little worried this time around. Yellowstone National Park is a gigantic place with many campgrounds, but this was also a popular time of year. We were ahead of our original schedule by a little bit, so even if we had made our reservations early, they would not have been for the correct dates.

Don made a list of about a dozen campgrounds to call, and as I cleaned up after dinner, I listened to each one tell him there were no spots available for the next night or the following nights. I was starting to wonder how much time we’d actually be spending in Utah, when he finally got a positive response from the Madison Arm Resort in West Yellowstone. We could arrive the next evening, but only stay two nights, not three. It was expensive, and the woman on the phone mentioned something about a dirt road that some people didn’t love, but we were fine with it. How bad could a dirt road be?

We drove all through the next day, out of Utah, and through beautiful Idaho, into “Big Sky Country,” noting the change in scenery as we saw more and more stunning yellows and greens joining the scenery against the blue of the sky and white of the clouds, and we arrived in West Yellowstone at about dinnertime the next night. It was threatening to rain in the skies above, but we turned left onto the dirt road that would lead us to Madison Arm Resort. As we turned, we noticed a sign that said something about there being 6.6 miles until we got to the campground. That 6.6 miles might have been the worst stretch of road we traveled in the entire 6,000 or so miles of our trip. We slowed to 5 mph, worrying for our camper, and the undercarriage of our car, and I hoped and prayed Mr. Flippers was not having a frog heart attack this time around in the camper, as we questioned whether this road could even be considered a road.

“I can’t believe I paid $62 a night for this,” Don mumbled to himself as we drove. We were thankful that we were limited to two nights instead of the original three we’d asked for, since we’d have to travel this road or a similar one on the other side of the campground, out to Yellowstone, and back in each day and night of our stay.

We finally got down to the main office, checked in and parked in our tiny spot. Our neighbors were helpful as we backed in, guiding us back, as we’d be utilizing every inch of our allotted space. Our stay at Madison Arm continued to disappoint as we moved on through our stay. Although we were situated on what looked to be a beautiful lake, the weather was rainy and cool, and we were going to spend our daylight hours at Yellowstone, so the lake wasn’t something we’d be utilizing.

As we started in on dishes and showers that night in the camper, we noticed that the water coming out of the faucets was brownish and smelly. I searched online for other reviews of the campground, something we always do ahead of time, but hadn’t due to desperation this time, and found that this had been a complaint for years. Apparently there is an issue at Madison Arm with high levels of iron and sulfur in the water. We were frustrated, but there was not much we could do. We decided to purchase water for drinking the next day and did not let this ruin our Yellowstone National Park experience.

The next day we braved the 6.6-mile drive out to the main road and began our ride to Yellowstone. Between the campground in Montana and our arrival inside of the park through the West Yellowstone entrance, we’d be crossing into Wyoming. We actually had mistakenly thought our campground was in Wyoming and we had been shocked the day before, when we were poised and ready to take a photo of the “Welcome to Wyoming” sign, only to find that it said “Welcome to Montana” instead.

Yellowstone did not disappoint. We spent the entire day there and into the evening. We stopped frequently as we drove through, heading towards Old Faithful. We were amazed by the natural beauty that is Yellowstone. There was so much to see, from the scenery around us – golden yellow grassy areas with tall green trees above and sparkling blue rivers running through – to the wildlife that would make appearances every so often.

We saw elk, deer, buffalo, and various birds – including an owl and two bald eagles in the trees on the 6.6-mile drives in and out of our campground during our stay – and the fishing was plentiful, too, with fly fishermen around every corner, wading knee-deep in the water, silently enjoying the sport.

We stopped partway to Old Faithful to see some of the smaller geysers, basins and geothermal areas, which included hot springs, mud pots and fumaroles that often shone almost unnaturally in the colors of the minerals contained therein –bright blues, greens, gold and copper tones, and bubbling bright whites. It was truly a feast for the eyes, and we had an amazing time. It was another day during which I was so incredibly grateful for the opportunity to be at this gorgeous spot, and enjoying it in the company of my little family.

Old Faithful held true to its reputation for punctuality, being expected to erupt at 4:10 p.m. and going off at exactly that time. We took pictures and video, and began to head back to our car. It had been about an hour and a half drive into the park, and we had that far to get back out, stopping along the way to see wildlife and take additional pictures.

The next day we’d be getting up and out, heading to our last big destination – Mount Rushmore, located in the Black Hills of South Dakota. It would take us two days to get there, however, and we opted to spend one night at a Walmart, boondocking for the night in Sheridan, Wy., which turned out to be a picture-perfect little town with a pretty western Main Street area. We were joined by at least 10 other RVs and tractor trailer trucks stopped for the night in Sheridan with us.

It was a hot, sticky 95 degrees when we parked that night, and we girls were hot, cranky and tired. We made several trips into the Walmart, taking in the cool air conditioning, and using the opportunity to restock our supplies. Later that night the girls and I also went over to the Burger King next door to utilize their WiFi and their selection of frozen drinks for a little while. We survived unscathed in the grand scheme of things, but we were reminded that without a generator to access our own camper’s air conditioning, boondocking had to be reserved for cooler locations.

Before leaving Wyoming, we booked ahead at the Heartland RV Resort in South Dakota for the next two nights. Heartland would end up being ranked as one of our favorite stops of late. It was in a beautiful location in the Black Hills, and had a great pool, a playground, a fire ring and picnic table outside our camper for campfires, good laundry and shower facilities, and friendly people.

The next morning we made the decision to replace two of the tires on our car. Before we left Rhode Island, we’d known that we’d be replacing them at some point on the trip, given the fact that we’d be putting more than 6,000 miles on our car, and we thought that this was now a good time, before we started our trip home later that week. The kids got to have some additional pool time while Don went to accomplish that task, and then we headed off to explore Mount Rushmore.

As you drive up on it, you can see the monument looming in the sky ahead of you, and it’s an awesome, inspiring feeling when you see it for the first time. Despite all of the pictures I’ve seen of it in the past, I could not have imagined the feeling I’d have seeing it in person for the very first time, or the emotions I’d feel watching other people stop in their tracks as they viewed it for the first time. It was a very humbling experience, and a wave of patriotism washed over me.

We arrived at the entrance of the park to see it in full view, and to walk through the Avenue of Flags, which has a flag from every state and six territories. We found the Rhode Island flag, which was located across from the South Dakota flag, and took a picture of it. We took our usual selfie in front of the monument before heading inside a theater to watch a brief introductory movie about the 14-year creation of Mount Rushmore. Sculptor Gutzon Borglum and 400 laborers worked on the 60-foot representations of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln, each chosen for their contributions to American history.

In addition to seeing the monument itself, our two younger daughters completed Junior Ranger and Rushmore Ranger programs as we went through the exhibits, each earning a badge and certificate. We toured the museum and visited the gift shop, excited to find out the last living original carver of the monument, 94-year-old Don “Nick” Clifford, was present in the gift shop along with an original piece of the honeycombed stone from the carving days.

A carver from the years 1938-40, Clifford was signing autographs and taking pictures with those who purchased his book. Elizabeth purchased the book with her own spending money, and had her photo taken with him. In that moment, I knew that she was taking home a piece of history with her. My eyes teared up as I looked at the autograph in her book. This day was the perfect ending to the final chapter of cross-country sightseeing adventures. The very next morning, we would begin the long ride home.

For more information about our #crosscountryadventure2015, visit my blog at www.thewholebagofchips.com

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joericher

What a wonderful present you've given all of us with these columns. Thanks so much for sharing!

Saturday, August 8, 2015