Jane Dixon Photography

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Cross-Country Road trip in Words


A Four-Thousand Mile Journey:  from Massachusetts to California over 11 days via 2 countries, including 12 States, and 1 Province.

My husband and I left Lexington, Massachusetts, on a damp, misty morning and arrived, 11 days later, in the bright, sunny skies of California.


Relocation for work had led to this excursion.  To drive across the continent of North America is a once in a life-time experience.  What better way to the see the diversity of the various states from east to west?  And we decided to camp along the way.


The car was fully loaded with outdoor gear and the necessary equipment for cooking, sleeping, and surviving the elements.  The route was mapped out and would take us through 12 States in America and 1 Province in Canada.  The trip also included a ferry crossing on Lake Michigan from Muskegon, Michigan, to Milwaukee, Wisconsin.


With a hint of trepidation and adventure, we waved goodbye to friends on that cool morning and headed west along the Turnpike.  Crossing the red-tinged Appalachians and heading into New York State the skies cleared and the Finger Lakes looked crisp and fresh.  A border crossing by the Niagara River took us into Ontario, Canada, and through the commuter traffic to our first night’s stop.  However, an intimidating storm rolled in from the North, bringing driving rain and gale-force winds, so we sought shelter under a roof rather than canvas that night. After 650 miles, Sarnia, Ontario, was our sanctuary.


The following morning the storm had cleared out, but the winds were still high.  Disappointingly, the ferry was cancelled.  Instead of crossing Lake Michigan by boat, we were forced to drive around the South shore via Indiana and Illinois to reach Wisconsin.  Luckily, we had set out early and realized the extra miles of driving would not add time versus the ferry.  The traffic was heavy around Chicago, but heading northwest into autumnal Wisconsin the vehicles thinned and the road cleared.


Gray clouds shrouded the rolling cornfields and red barns of Wisconsin; however, the rain held off and the first camp site was established in Devil’s Lake State Park.  This is the largest of the Midwest parks, boasting 500 feet limestone bluffs and a dazzling lake.  The tent was pitched quickly and dinner on the 2-burner stove was begun.  Lighting the campfire was not so easy; the kindling and logs were damp from the recent rain.  It took 3 or 4 attempts before the flames took hold.  Eventually, the evening’s camp was complete and we relaxed listening to the calls of Great-horned Owls.


An uneventful night was followed by a damp morning breaking camp.  We left early to search for the rare Whooping Crane.  One of only 2 crane species found in North America (the other species being Sandhill Crane), there are only 437 individual birds left in the wild.  This large bird, standing up to 1.5 meters with an average wingspan of 2.3 meters, nests in Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in central Wisconsin.


Driving along a local road towards the refuge, a flock of cranes were feeding in a stubble field.  Among the smaller, gray-colored Sandhill Cranes stood 2 larger, white birds.  A sudden stop and snatch for binoculars confirmed 2 Whooping Cranes.  Feeling elated and successful, and after a brief brunch stop in a Nordic-influenced diner, we resumed our drive northwest to Minnesota.


The morning was cool and drizzly, and we noticed the scenery gradually changing to that of bracken, pine trees, silver birch, and cranberry bogs as we drove over the higher elevations.  Descending towards the Mississippi River, the weather cleared and rolling farmland resumed.  After the busy bypass of the twin-cities, Minneapolis and St Paul, the road passed through more rolling farmland eventually flattening out as we came upon the start of the Great Plains.


The state line of North Dakota was crossed south of Fargo and the corn- and soy-fields were endless.  Crossing the Sheyenne National Grassland presented a glimpse of what were once the Great Plains of North America, and we wondered if our campground for the night would be surrounded by native prairie or cornfields.

Taking a dirt road north, our path took us into a pleasant, fertile valley.  This tree-lined depression in the cornfields was a surprise after the acres and acres of flatland.  The campsite, close to the original Fort Ransom on the pioneer wagon trails, and nestled by the Sheyenne River, was peaceful and welcoming.  The area was originally settled in the mid 1800s by railroad workers and the military post established for their protection.  The Sheyenne River Valley is now designated a National Scenic Byway and runs 63-miles, north-south, along the breathtaking river valley; a gem in a land of endless monoculture.


After a successful, but cold, night we departed west across North Dakota.  Leaving behind the lush valley, the road returned to miles of high plains, grassland, and ranches.  Stopping at Bismark, the state capital, lunch was enjoyed while strolling around a vibrant street fair.


We drove over the Missouri River that afternoon and headed towards higher ground and noticed road-side nodding-donkeys pumping oil to the surface.  That evening’s stop was in the first National Park (NP), of both the trip and the United States, the Badlands of the Theodore Roosevelt NP.  A dramatic setting of carved, colorful clay and sandstone is home to a healthy population of North American wildlife including Prairie Dogs, Bison, Pronghorn, Wild Horses, and Mule Deer.  As we relaxed around the campfire that evening, a pack of coyotes were heard calling to one another while heading out on the hunt along the river’s edge.


Waking to ice covering the tent and car the following morning, we broke camp quickly to progress to the next state, Montana.  A day of high plains and ranch land over-arched by big, blue skies transpired.  Herds of Pronghorn grazed the farmland and rolling sage plains.  Following the Yellowstone River, we turned south along the Bighorn River to the Battlefield National Monument in the Crow Indian Reservation.


We arrived just in time to hear a ranger enthusiastically explaining the facts and theories on that fateful day of the Little Bighorn battle.  Scanning the steep-sided hills and gullies, it was easy to envision the ordered troops of Custer’s units being out-gunned by the guerrilla tactics of the Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho warriors.  To this day no-one knows how Custer was killed, but imagination conjures up a dramatic fight on the knoll before the inevitable end.  The monument is now a poignant memorial to the heroes of that day and the legacy of a long-lost culture.


Turning southwest, the road took us via Billings towards the gigantic mass of the Rocky Mountains and Yellowstone NP.  The rising elevations and freezing nights lured us to a mountain lodge on the outskirts of the NP.  This gave the travelers a chance to freshen and cleanup after the campsite fires and outdoor living.


A pre-dawn wakeup call aroused groggy eyes.  Our goal for this morning was to see the wolves of Lamar Valley.  A dark, vertiginous drive over Beartooth pass, peaking at 10,947 feet, was undertaken before the first rays of dawn.  Entering the NP from that north-easterly direction leads to the valley where most of the Yellowstone wolf packs reside.  Asking fellow mammal watchers for the scoop and scanning with telescopes, we tracked 5 wolves to Slough Creek.  A dark alpha male and gray alpha female with 3 yearlings were resting after feeding. We watched the interactive, playful group for an hour until the wolves vanished out of site over a distant rise.


Exploring the NP further, we enjoyed Mammoth Hot Springs and Trout Lake.  Game and wildlife were plentiful; reminiscent of a North American safari.  As dusk came, we headed for a second night at the lodge.


The following morning, crossing the NP from the northeast corner to the western gate, took us into Idaho, but also brought another sighting of a second pack of wolves higher up the Lamar Valley.  Saying farewell to the wildlife, caldera, and geysers, Idaho, as before, brought high plains and sagebrush.  Tracing the Snake River and passing old lava fields, we saw the oak trees of the Bannock Range glowing red with autumnal colors.


Turning south towards Utah, the temperatures rose, and for the first time on the journey, the air became dry and hot.  Approaching the Great Salt Lake, the air shimmered and became hazy.  Crossing a causeway, we drove onto Antelope Island, the largest of 10 islands located within the Great Salt Lake.  The island has a harsh, barren beauty; 75% of the land consisting of wild sunflower-filled plains with prairie grassland.  The central mountainous area is dry and rocky.  The Precambrian rock deposits on Antelope Island are amongst the oldest rocks in the United States; older even than rocks at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.


Originally, Antelope Island was used as a ranch for cattle and sheep, starting from the earliest days of the arrival of the Mormon pioneers into the Salt Lake Valley.  In 1981, the island was designated a state park and is home to a large population of Bison, Pronghorn, and vast numbers of waterfowl.


The Great Salt Lake has salt levels of up to 25%, by volume; therefore fish are unable to exist in its waters.  However, large numbers of Brine Shrimp provide food for visiting birdlife.  Because of this high salinity, the island is predominantly without fresh water.  All supplies must be brought by anyone staying overnight in the beach-side campground.


Camp was set in this harsh wasteland, and as the sun set the true beauty of this area revealed itself as both the sky and the lake turned a multitude of colors.  Coyotes howled, yipped and yowled very close to the tent that night; just a little unnerving with the tent doors open for ventilation.  The dawn came fast and after breakfast we hiked to a view point over the island and lake.  By noon we sought shelter from the searing heat, and late afternoon saw us floating with the Brine Shrimp in the Great Salt Lake.


Heading back to the mainland the following day, we drove around the South shore of the Great Salt Lake and turned west across the Great Basin, so called because all water either drains into underground aquifers or evaporates.  The Gold Rush pioneers of the mid 1800s suffered terribly traveling along this portion of the California Trail.  Driving past the Bonneville Salt Flats we were reminded of Burt Munroe and the film, “The World’s Fastest Indian.”


Pacific Standard Time and the Nevada State line approached; casinos were suddenly plentiful.  Turning off the interstate, we headed into the Ruby Mountains near Elko, NV.  The “Rubies" are named after the garnets discovered in that area by early settlers.  The Lamoille Canyon Road, a National Forest Scenic Byway, leads into the range and the valley shows obvious glaciation: u-shaped canyons; moraines; hanging valleys; and cliffs.  The trees on the canyon sides were yellow, orange, and red when we visited; fall was already here.


Hiking up to Island Lake, an ominous weather front set in.  Thunder claps echoed off the hillsides.  At the cliff-encircled lake, there was no sign of the introduced Himalayan Snowcock, although Yellow-bellied Marmots called and watched us warily.  Fearful of the darkening clouds, we descended quickly, reaching the car as the pea-sized hail started to sting.


After a night drying out in an Elko motel we followed the California Trail through the arid Forty Mile Desert; a barren, waterless, "perishing place", so named by the California Trail blazers.  Those hardy souls suffered crossing the valley; thousands abandoned possessions, animals, and even loved ones in the desert.  This was the most dreaded portion of the California Trail.


Cottonwood trees, and hence water, were finally visible at Reno, a busy, dusty, crowded city at the edge of the desert.  Almost as dramatically as the desert started, it ended to be replaced by conifers and craggy mountains at the California State line.  Ascending to Lake Tahoe took us to our final campsite.  Our 4-thousand mile journey was almost over nestled in the Redwoods on a bay by the lake.  Just like the pioneers before us, we spent our first night in our new home state enjoying a campfire and watching the stars.


The next morning we descended and arrived in the City by the Bay.


© 2014 by Jane Dixon.