The world’s calendar flipped as I rolled out of bed.
It’s early on New Year’s Day - quiet, save for Rick Astley’s lingering midnight promise to never give me up. Last night I joined the London, England, livestream to count down to 2024 with some friends. Their celebration culminates at 6 pm on our local clocks, to the great convenience of kids and my fellow sleep-loving adults.
I fumble in the dark to pull on clothes laid out at the ready, groggily reanimating for a work gig that has been many weeks in the planning.
A text message from a friend lights up my bedside table:
Happy New Year! We found a small town in Utah to spend the night. Which noises are fireworks and which are firing guns? No idea. But fingers will surely be blown off of at least a few fine folks.
Yesterday the update was from Yellowstone; tomorrow maybe California. Their family van is packed with two adults and four kids, rolling onwards in an epic winter road trip from ice to beach.
I’ve always wondered what it would be like to drive south in the heart of winter and to watch the landscape transition as each kilometre gives way to the mile in front of it. At some nebulous point between here and there, the snow must disappear from the roadside. Then, somewhere beyond that, the idea that water can flow must wink back into existence. And shortly beyond that, an oasis of green palm trees must arise on the horizon with the sweet sounds of birds asking you clearly: what took you so long!?
At least, that’s how I imagine it - and from the photos my friend sends it seems about right. From my icy perch here on the edge of the longest night, my mind wanders from dreaming to remembrance.
A memory bubbles up from mere months ago; a memory of a place on the far side of winter where the sun feels warm. Once upon a time, I glistened in its glory - well, actually more like roasted. But before I indulge in that...
Life has a certain adventure radius to it - a circle of potential that extends out from a central dot on the map that is home.
For the past decade, September has been my annual camping / adventure / retreat time. I’ve developed a bit of a framework around which to fit each year’s plans: - A time window of 10 days. This is the sweet spot in terms of trip length that I can manage between unpaid time away from work and feeling the fullness of a trip enough that I’m ready to return at the end. - Travel by car. Short-haul flights are not my jam and the freedom a car grants in adaptivity to plan A, B, or Z is something I value a lot. - Max 18 hours driving to the furthest destination. This ensures that not all the time is spent in the car - usually two full days of driving on each side of a trip’s heart. - Multiple plans in different regions, to adapt to shifting conditions of wildfires, smoke, and extreme heat. Sadly, this has been necessary in Canadian September for many repeated years and all signs are pointing to it being the new normal. - Assessing personal ability and needs. How far am I willing to go? What is the zone of comfort (and absolute limit) of my body’s abilities? Mentally, am I in need of filling my cup with good friends or recharging with some solitude? Is the allowable budget inconsequential or shoestring?
Last year’s foiled plans get rolled into options for further ones; each September all the variables of the puzzle come together differently.
And what has this added up to? Pointing the car west, mountains rise from the prairie horizon to greet me. Northwards, a train ticket helps bridge the final distance to the smooth stones along the frigid Port of Churchill. And to the east, I find myself in the heart of the Canadian Shield and at the humbling shores of Lake Superior.
But south, there is a strange land known as The States. A bumpy single paved artery spreads into a smooth network of veins, opening up road access to a plethora of shifting landscapes and cultures. This isn’t a direction I’ve explored as much as the others because the long distances can translate to more time spent in the car than out of it. But with Canada on fire in 2023, my partner and I chose to circumnavigate the Dakotas this past September to find fresh air and fresh minds.
Alas, the smoke curled and followed the jet stream behind us. Two Canadians travelling amongst mostly Americans...we were the scapegoats upon which ashy sins were placed.
Sorry, I guess?
Now, the memories.
Rolling up to the Manitoba-North Dakota border in the stop-and-go fashion of a line of impatient cars, a customs agent eyes us suspiciously.
“I’ve never heard of Theodore Roosevelt National Park,” he remarks.
It’s literally in North Dakota - albeit a 7-hour drive away to its far corner. I double down on my story and tell him as much. With a raised eyebrow, he nods and waves us back onto the highway.
A strong headwind heeds our progress as we head south. At a wicked 37 degrees Celsius, the breeze no longer has a cooling effect; instead piling on the heat like a convection oven. Combined with the thick wildfire smoke, I suppose a better analogy would be that of the smoker my brother-in-law loves to make brisket in.
So when a truck stop arises on the horizon like a shimmering mirage, my mind fixates on one thing I do clearly remember loving about America: unsweetened iced tea. Lo and behold, there under the fluorescent glow of fogged up fridges just a few miles past the border, a wall of cool drinks greets me.
One swipe later, and my credit card was instantly locked due to suspected fraud.
I pull out my cell phone to call for support - no service...because, you know, the whole in another country thing.
Asking around the gas station for a payphone turned into a group discussion resulting in a lot of, “Huh. I never noticed, but yeah all the public phones have disappeared!”
Hundreds of miles and a couple of gas stations later, yes - I can confirm they’ve all disappeared.
BUT! THERE IS ONE! We find the last public phone in existence tucked away in the corner of an empty rest stop. Share this lore far and wide for all the travellers that may one day need it. There is a free public phone wired into the wall at:
Apple Creek Rest Area, 10 miles east of Bismarck
Let it be known.
Well after dark, we pull into a motel where we’ve checked in for two nights. These are the only solid walls we will have over the coming weeks. Beyond it will be camping only - a thin canvas doing nothing to keep the heat or smoke at bay.
This route is already Plan C. Monitoring the satellite view of smoke coiling across North America, it uncannily is swerving to follow our evasive maneuvers - though, to be fair, most of Canada is under a warning to not breathe outdoors right now.
A crossroads is coming up where we can either continue on as planned or bail for Plan D: a familiar mountain valley 14 hours further west. It’s not ideal (none of this trip is), but the weather there right now is relatively smoke-free with a reasonable high of 15 degrees Celsius, which makes for a wonderful thing to dream about tonight.
One word can sum up today’s start: groggy. On a positive note, yesterday’s mediocre pad Thai and green curry were much better as leftovers in the microwave. But in the interest of balancing it with a negative, I unwittingly locked us out of our motel room and had to pull our host out of Sunday morning church service to come to our rescue.
Otherwise, it’s a blur. Painted Canyon, the theme park town of Medora, a bison traffic jam in the south unit, a siesta, Painted Canyon again...truly, I think we visited this place twice?
So hot. So sweaty. Everything is moist. EVERY THING is soaked.
I can’t think straight. Where to tomorrow? Decision fatigue is settling in. We’ll see in the morning.
Welcome to site #12 at Juniper Campground in the north unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, which we’ve nicknamed “Camp Big Tree” because of the massive cottonwood anchoring it.
It’s a walk-in tent site a stone’s throw from the car. A trio of motorcycle buddies are set up next to us; their rumbling voices echoing the excitement of their motorcycle engines. Beyond that, a standard luxury RV with the name Chateau emblazoned on its side is parked up; its whirring A/C the only voice from that corner.
Rain is in the forecast, but for now the sky is an unfamiliar blue. I string up a hammock and take a moment to look up and appreciate it.
Our leather-clad neighbours smile and wave hello. A pair of eyes peeks out between the blinds of the nearby RV.
We take a few steps into a hike and it feels good - the first time our legs have been used properly in days. A few steps later, it feels heavy - the wind kicks up and in the span of a few breaths, smoke occludes all views.
The final half of the hike is done quickly as we hurry to drop in elevation; the lightness we began with a stark contrast with the trepidation now felt.
This smoke changes everything.
In thick smoke, it is impossible to know where clouds might be in the sky. And so we are surprised when large raindrops fall seemingly out of nowhere. They soak, then disappear, then soak again...unpredictable and keeping us on edge as we cook, organize camp, and seek to keep the pages of our journals dry.
Retreating to the tent, waves of sputtering rain lull us into an unsettled sleep.
Smoke smoke smoke. Layers upon layers of smoke. Out here in the North Unit where views are typically wide and expansive, it has made for some strange scenes today:
Now, dinner is done and two owls are romantically hooting to each other. Nearby coyotes are yipping and howling to their distant brethren along the Little Missouri River, and it is time for bed.
“Look at me! I’m on the road!” is what I imagine each coyote scream was saying when waking me several times last night. They’re playful little buggers, but nocturnal AF.
Following the coyote’s lead, we also take to the road. Google Maps threw a fair few shortcuts our way - most good...some questionable, but all lonely bits of rural highway. East we zigged and south we zagged, following the grid of mile roads that crisscross South Dakota. Six hours later, the edge of the endless prairie gives way suddenly to Badlands National Park.
The campground is full but my reservation is our golden ticket. Our prize: a picnic table with a shade cover in a flat field.
This place is notorious for having strong winds crumple tents, poles and all. So establishing a good camp is...important. Wrestling the tent from car to ground goes well enough, but looking around for a rock to pound our stakes into the dirt yields...no rocks!? This is a first. But it’s nothing that my favourite multi-tool can’t handle.
And what is my favourite multi-tool? Well, it’s an AmazonBasics butter knife! When catering a gig years ago we bought full dish sets from Amazon and everything was oversized. This beast of a butter knife has a heavy handle and a sturdy dull blade, and is surprisingly useful at whacking and prying things.
Dusk now, we crack into a 500 ml box of wine - Cabernet Sauvignon, classy! The van across from us has a backside window for a little doggo to poke its head out while its owner watches television inside - its little face matches the photo printed on the spare tire cover next to it perfectly. A younger couple’s SUV next to us turns out to be a transformer with a pop-up tent on top - only the first of many gear/toys they unload. An RVer on our other side sets up a long plastic table alongside his castle, deep-frying dinner just the way his wife likes it.
We all quietly watch the stars come out - a couple lights bright enough to push through the smoke shroud that continues.
I wake to thunder. There was no rain in the forecast...had I imagined it?
Another crack of thunder rolled over camp as I rolled over to my partner’s wide eyes looking back at me - I had definitely not imagined it.
We rise early to watch the lightning dance across the northern horizon. The rain never arrives, but the wake-up call was the perfect opportunity to embrace a morning hike in the desert.
The desert isn’t an environment I’m comfortable in - it’s unfamiliar and the absence of water sources throws off my hiking sensibilities. What helps is a piece of advice I was given for this park: to avoid the busy trails and explore with curiosity.
And so we do, tramping between monolithic rocks, rounding unnamed little peaks, crouching in the shade of a cliff to brunch as the heat rose quickly with the sun. Also: picking off little spikey burrs that clung to our shoes and socks. I have no idea where these were coming from, but did they ever hitch a ride.
And then back into the car to move camp west to the Black Hills. Badlands give way to grasslands as we gain elevation. Then, just past Rapid City, trees! The smell of pine hits me before I even roll down the window - it is nice to be in the forest again. Just when I’m convinced it can’t get any better, I pull into camp next to a gurgling creek - flowing water!!
Oh - and then there’s the welcoming committee. The fellow in the bus-sized RV across the way introduces us to his dogs - his (Bingo) and his wife’s (Dickhead or DH for short, though his wife calls him Mr. Magoo). He points out the amenities with a little extra attention given to the showers - I admittedly do desperately need a shower.
This terrain is much more to my comfort and the only complaint I have is the social energy it takes to walk to the bathroom. That is to say, I have no complaints.
And just like that, we sit on Black Elk peak - the highest point east of the Rocky Mountains.
It’s quiet, save for the two booming thunderheads dancing around our lofty picnic cranny. The descent is dusky - a side scramble up a Cathedral Spire yielding sunset solace where earlier tourist chaos kept us away. The final kilometres out are dark - our acclimatized eyes see only the silhouetted shapes of rock formations with none of the daylight details.
Back at the trailhead, we clock in at six hours for the round trip. There is no one here except for a little girl swinging a glowing rainbow lightsaber in front of the pit toilets. Moments later, her dad emerges - safe thanks to his daughter’s vigilant protection against the monsters of the dark.
The rain falls in a torrent; a bottomless bucket tipped upon us from a mischievous being above.
Chased out of camp, to Custer we roll. Stopping at Lynn’s Dakota Mart to stock up for a DIY fancy meal, we pick up: “enjoy tonight” discounted bone-out New York strip with great marbling ($8), a maple-bourbon-bacon salad kit ($6), and another 500 ml Cabernet Sauvignon box wine ($6).
Despite a slow-moving line of blue in the sky, the rain still falls heavy outside. Onwards to the shelter of the Custer Visitor Centre, where we watch Kevin Costner narrate a 30-minute video of the park.
Yet still, the sun shower does not yield.
Until it does. Finally, the rain ebbs and we turn to camp. Taking advantage of the clear window of weather, we trim the steak and fire up the stove. At this point, our timing misses a beat. As soon as the meat hits the grill, the sky opens up once again - deep blue overhead, but a sideways rain absolutely soaking us.
I scramble for the spare tarp we use as a picnic blanket and stand on the table, spreading my arms to provide 10 minutes of shelter to the meat.
Despite the hardship (or maybe because of it?) everything tasted delicious. I believe I’ve also stumbled upon the holy grail of wine recipes: boxed Cabernet Sauvignon with several drops of rainwater to taste.
September 10th-12th: We wake early. A light rain taps on the tent as I roll over to check the radar. “Will the weather get better or worse?” Is the question of the moment. The answer: worse - and in a mere 20 minutes from now. So we pack up wet, with me barking orders in a quiet voice to not disturb the otherwise slumbering neighbours.
Campgrounds are beautiful places of intersections where paths cross between so many different folk. The walls for saying hi to strangers are generally so much lower here, with many a great conversation being started just by noticing a license plate.
Looking back at our now bare site, I bow gently in gratitude for our time here.
And then, just like that, we shift our bearing northwards. The sky finally clears up as we retrace our route; newfound visibility allows us to see what was previously shrouded. Rolling hills beyond the road’s edge, bison in the distance, lingering light instead of earlier night...similar, but oh so different.
The road may be the same but across time it’s also completely novel; a paradox that opens up such beauty in the lives we lead. Whichever direction we choose to point ourselves, it is undoubtedly full of potential.
Onwards and forwards,