In the fall of 2022 I embarked on, what seemed at the time, a grand adventure as well as a bit of a crazy idea. I’d head west solo, driving from Minnesota to the southwest U.S. to visit family and friends. Nearly 2,000 miles in four days. Four days of 8+ hours of driving. It’s a trip I’d wanted to make for a long time. I knew it would provide me a view of the country I hadn’t experienced since I was a small child. Along the way I’d have teasers of parks and landscapes which I didn’t have time to explore.
It would be long days of driving broken by the gift of camping and the occasional luxury of an AirBnB stay when camping reservations weren’t available or if weather went really bad. I’d picked a few spots to stop along the way for silly reasons, some for their history or just because they looked like a good place to get a bite eat or simply rest.
I love the anticipation that comes with a road trip and the first day always brings a mix of emotions. I’d planned my route carefully attempting to ensure I wouldn’t be tempted to wander down side roads as I’ve been known to do. My first day goal was to get to Blue Mounds State Park, leaving home at the end of a partial workday. I’d be racing the sunset to get dinner and set up at the campground.
As I neared Mankato in the deepening sunset I decided to simplify my night by stopping for dinner at NoLabelle Kitchen + Bar in Mankato. A tasty Peach & Bacon Grilled Cheese eaten at the restaurant’s bar was the first of what would be many treats as I crossed the country. Belly full, I chased the sunset toward my first campsite at Blue Mound State Park.
One of the benefits of camping regularly with one’s camping gear is that setting up a tent, even by headlamp, is so familiar, it can be done quickly. I was set up in no time, climbing into my tent to escape the late fall chill. Despite my excitement for the days ahead, it wasn’t long before I was sound asleep.
The day broke cold and crisp. Grateful for the snug, warm sleeping bag my first job was to convince myself to get up. I wanted to enjoy the warmth for as long as possible. Eventually it was my bladder that forced me from the cocoon and into the day. A little later, under the most clear blue sky I dug into the cooler for breakfast. Anything I wasn’t able to eat at home and would spoil had come along, including the last of my cold brew coffee. I poured it into my travel mug and began packing up. With my gear stowed back in the car, I was off.
Heading west into South Dakota, my next stop was a silly whim brought on by an interesting icon on the Delorme gazetteer I’d used to plan this segment of my trip. A small icon located near Wall, SD had puzzled me as I’d mapped out my route. It was only after mentioning the icon to a colleague that its meaning was revealed. Of course. It should have been obvious. Sitting just south of the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site Visitor Center on Co Rd 240 is the Giant Prairie Dog sculpture at the Badlands Ranch Store. We joked about me stopping for a picture, but knowing I’d need a rest nearly four hours into my day of driving it seems like the perfect bit of fun.
The next leg of the trip would prove to be a bit of a challenge for me as I drove further west and could make out the edge of Badlands National Park to my left. It’s a park I’ve camped in before and hope to spend time in again. An otherworldly place that keeps calling to me. But it was not meant for this trip.
Lunchtime found me in Rapid City, SD. Stopping to find a place to grab a bite to eat, I discovered Harriet & Oak Cafe & Roaster where I could grab a fresh coffee and sandwich. Both were delicious and offered me just the break I needed from the road in the bright, spacious space.
Onward I drove toward Casper, WY and my AirBnB for the night. The place was a cute little four-plex tucked at the edge of a residential neighborhood. I unpacked only what I needed for the night and carried my belongings up to the unit, delighted to find a lovely little place that offered a full kitchen, bath and beautifully decorated bedroom. I made dinner, showered and then crawled into bed, relishing the quiet and comfort of the place.
Having crossed time zones, I woke “earlier” than usual, slowly gathering my belongings and doing a bit of research for a coffee shop or cafe nearby. I’ve discovered one of my favorite road trip treats is to find a local coffee shop, bakery or cafe to start the day. Today The Bourgeois Pig looked like a great place and was on the list of local places provided my AirBnB host. The shop is a quirky living room, cacophony of pink, pigs and art. A beautifully crafted mocha and a bakery treat I was back on the road.
I’d be spending most of the day traversing Wyoming on my way to Salt Lake City, UT. I’d get to see my dear friend Micaela for a few brief hours in the evening. To say I was excited was an understatement. There are people who’s friendships one hopes will endure time and space and her’s is one of them.
Fall chill hung in the air each time I stopped for a break. Driving further west slowly the landscape began to change in subtle ways. As I headed south toward Rawlins, WY the land flattened again. An unexpected call from another friend carried me through nearly two hours more of driving. West along Hwy 80 the autumn golds and browns of the high plains gave way to the striation of colors leading up to the mountains of the Cache National Forest of Utah as we ended our conversation.
Entering Echo Canyon I would get my first taste of mountain driving. The cars around me felt like they were moving too fast in the steep downgrade. I took to the right lane with the semis. Just before Echo, UT I pulled over at the Echo Canyon Welcome Center to get a breather from the stress of the drive. The red rock cliffs tower above the parking area, a train passed below on the railroad tracks. Short walking trails with overlooks offered beautiful views while I drummed up courage to face the drive ahead. The stop was just what I needed.
Back on the road I continued the weaving drive through the Wasatch Range, finally making the drop through Parleys Canyon into sprawling Salt Lake City. The view coming out of the canyon reminded me of the view over Bogota, Colombia at sunset, the city surrounded by towering mountains on every side. It was breathtaking. I navigated my way to the REI store where I’d stop to give friend Micaela a hug and set our plans for the night. Then on to the next AirBnB on my travels to get settled before heading for dinner and drinks. The place was a cute little shed-looking tiny home nestled behind the main house and perfect for a one-night stay.
Later I’d meet Micaela for dinner and drinks, settling quickly into conversation that bridge the miles which have separated us. As I fell asleep that night, I reflected on how grateful I am for the ability to travel and have family and friends along the way to join in the adventure.
Next Post Preview: A change of plans, a too short National Park visit and two weeks of after work hiking make up the next segment of the trip.
My gear list for this trip was long because of the variety of terrain and temperatures I would encounter. It all packs up well so I was able to take more than usual to be comfortable no matter what the circumstance.
GEAR: Granite Gear Blaze 60L backpack, Marmot Kompressor Pack, Vasque Ultra Dry Waterproof Hiking Boot, Oboz B-Dry Bridger Mid Waterproof Boot, Mountain Hardware Stretchdown™ Light Jacket, Mountain Hardware Stretchdown™ Pant, Merrell Women’s Siren 3 Mid Waterproof, REI Co-op XeroDry GTX Jacket, REI Co-op Magma 850 Down Hoodie, REI Co-op XeroDry GTX Pants, Icebreaker Women’s Merino 200 Oasis Long Sleeve Crewe Thermal Top, Icebreaker Merino 200 Oasis Thermal Leggings, Gnara Go There™ Pant, Chickfly Merino Eucalyptus Leggings,
SPOT GEN3 Satellite GPS Messenger, Dueter Dirtbag, Kula Cloth, Leki Women’s Micro Vario Cor-Tec TA trekking poles, Nemo Dragonfly™ Ultralight Backpacking Tent, Nemo Sonic™ 0 Down Sleeping Bag, Paria Thermodown 30 down quilt, Exped Ultra 7R Mat, REI Flash 3-Season Sleeping Pad, Thermarest Z Lite™ Sleeping Pad, Thermarest Z Seat™, MSR Pocket Rocket Stove, TOAKS Titanium 450ML Cup with Lid, MSR® IsoPro™ Fuel.
Want to know more about my gear selections? Head on over to Gear & Gadgets or check out my posts titled “Gear in Review”.
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