The Great American Road Trip, Pandemic Style

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              The Great American Road Trip, Pandemic Style 

- Words & Images by Abbey Nelson

At the beginning of the Pandemic, I was terrified.

Terrified I was not going to see my friends and family, healthy. 

Terrified my mental health was going to downfall.

Terrified at the thought of not having an income for four months (furloughed). 

How was I going to financially, and mentally, get through this?

As I watched business after business board up their walls, I could feel the pain of all those around me. However, despite all the pain, I soon came to realize that this would be one of the happiest, and most inspiring times of my life. For the first time, I was forced to slow down and appreciate all the beauty that I may have overlooked before. I noticed how many people have made more phone calls and zoom meetings to connect rather than being “too busy”. I noticed I was deeply inspired by southwestern colors and after watching my 500th western movie/documentary, I realized I was called by the wild west. Did I still have my fears? Absolutely. However, I was so overwhelmed with inspiration that I decided to turn my fears of the unknown into something positive by embarking on a Great American Road Trip through the wild west.

A couple months into the pandemic, my boyfriend Brek and I discussed embarking on a lengthy road trip. We wanted to make sure that if we did, we’d be respectful of the health and safety of the places visited. That meant sleeping in the back of the truck, no dining out, social distancing, wearing masks, and applying hand sanitizer (like a lot of hand sanitizer). We both agreed that if we kept these guidelines our main priority, we’d feel comfortable hitting the road.

Day 0

On June 23rd 2020, we decided that the next day we would kick off our road trip. It could have been the multiple beers that lead to this decision, but regardless, we would be hitting the road June 24th 2020. The night before I couldn’t sleep. My lack of sleep resembled that of a five year old waiting for Santa on Christmas Eve. I was about to hit the road with my best friend. So, at 4 AM, I accepted the fact I would no longer be sleeping and started packing.

I’ve created a “camping list” over the years that’s my go-to packing checklist for camping. This is the foundation of every trip, that then gets tweaked to fit the specifics of any given adventure.

Once we finished packing, our next step was to figure out where in the truck we were going to store all of our belongings. Brek has built a bed in the back of his Toyota Tacoma that is lifted above the ground and has built a sliding drawer underneath. So, we decided it was best to load all cooking/first aid/lighting etc. items in the drawer. Brek had also built a bar in the truck bed to which we clipped our Heroclips and hung our headwear. We put all our fishing gear, pool floaties, and camping gear in the Yakima box above. We used our Safari rack to tie down leveling blocks, and other truck equipment for if we got stuck somewhere. Our 80 quart Cascade Mountain Tech cooler/ice chest we placed in the cab in the back seat (seats folded) and we placed our clothing bags, dry food bags on the other side of the cab in the backseat. Since masks were priority we used our Heroclips to clip them to the “oh-crap” handle along with hand sanitizer, making sure we were always wearing, and sanitizing throughout the trip. After we were officially packed, and the truck was loaded, we left Seattle around 9: 00 AM and headed East. We had no plan, no destination, and no time constraints. It was just Brek, myself, the truck, and Lorne Green playing on the speaker. 

Day 1

Our first move was to point the truck towards Montana, a place where I had yet to explore and a place Brek considers to be his second home. Throughout our drive, we made pit stops along the way if we saw something that piqued our interest: Wallace, Idaho (a true old west mining town) and $50,000 silver (a trading post full of unusual items like throwing stars and slingshots – we bought a couple slingshots for the road).

As night time was approaching on our first day, we decided to use our I-overlander app and see if there was free camping nearby. We landed on a spot near the Clark Fork River in Montana, parked the rig, fly-fished (with new Montana Fishing Licenses), and launched a few rocks off of our sling shots. As night approached, we crawled into the back of the truck where we would call home for the next month. We went to sleep that night with the biggest smiles on our face because we were finally living out our dream. We were finally on a road trip of a lifetime and it was only day one.

Day 2

The next morning, we decided to head into the nearest town to load up our cooler with food and beverages. We went into the grocery store and had no real plan of what to purchase. Some thrive here and we, well, just ended up with a lot of ingredients to make wrap sandwiches for every meal (sorry mom).

We drove and made it to Glacier National Park. This was new territory for me, so we quickly reviewed the map and highlighted a few places we wanted to visit within the park. We drove as far as we could within the park but had to turn around early due to snow covering the road. Typically, the road is weather dependent so early July is always a good time to visit to allow for the snow to melt completely.

Even though we couldn’t see all of Glacier, we were still able to visit a handful of amazing places within the park. We eventually pulled over and parked by one of the many lakes to enjoy the sunset, and a cold beer. As nighttime was quickly approaching, we needed to figure out where we were going to camp for the night. Brek mentioned he knew friends in Whitefish, Montana. With their approval we parked our dirty-ass truck in front of their beautiful home and spent the night.

Day 3

We headed back into Glacier National Park to jump in the freezing cold lake water as our first “shower” of the road trip. We explored the park some more and came across a river by The West entrance of the Park. This area was approved for fishing so we spent the day fly-fishing, reading, and watching river rafters go by. As the day drifted by, we drove back to Whitefish to have a socially distanced BBQ with our friends.

Day 4

We decided to continue driving southeast towards Missoula, Montana. We made a handful of pit stops to take in the scenery and continue fly-fishing. The next thing we knew evening was quickly approaching and we needed to figure out where to camp for the night. Our buddy, Kyle McCann had mentioned an epic camp spot near Alberton, Montana, where he built out a bench overlooking a valley below. So, we drove up this long, bumpy, grass-filled road and parked on top of a mountain for the evening.

Day 5

We took backroads and did some hard-core adventuring to find new fishing spots. Later that afternoon we met up with our friend Kyle McCann (epic camp-site kyle) and his rad five year old son, Oscar to continue fishing. We continued to practice social distancing as the boys caught a few “hoggers” if you will and I managed to continue to catch sticks, tree branches, and everything else but a fish.

As the evening was quickly approaching, Kyle and Oscar invited us to a social distance BBQ at their backyard in Missoula, Montana. Brek and I will never turn down a food offer, so we drove to Missoula for a BBQ. We feasted, laughed, Oscar and I played in a sandbox till the “adults” said it was bedtime. Brek and I, again, crawled into our rig which was parked outside the beautiful home of Renske, Kyle, and Oscar. Thank you for letting us park, and sleep for the evening.

Day 6

Early next morning, we continued to head east and on day six of our road trip. Our goal was to get to Norris Hot Springs. As we were driving, we had heard about an old western Ghost town called Bannack, Montana. Bannack was known as Montana’s first major Gold discovery in 1862. As two people who love the wild west, we knew we had to stop. Turns out, Bannack ended up being one of the highlights of our trip.

As we arrived, we were the only ones walking through the “town”. It’s hard to describe the energy you felt entering each building. From the once-thriving hotel, to the school house and saloon, you could feel the history in a way. We read, and learned about how the town was once run. We made sure to walk through the entire town before heading back to the truck and enjoying none other than, our wrapped sandwich special.

After departing from Bannack, we drove and finally made it to Norris Hot Springs around 8:30 PM. With the springs closing at 9:00 PM, we hoped to enjoy those last 30 minutes. At first, we were turned away but the kitchen manager recognized Brek’s blonde, tangled road-trip hair from visits prior and gave us the go ahead to enjoy those last 30 minutes. We were extremely grateful to which, purchased a celebratory beer because we “made it”. As the Hot Springs closed, our next mission was to find camping for the night. Brek knew of a free camp spot that was located on top of a hill 30 minutes away. After finding all major potholes, eventually we made it, parked, and crawled into the back of the truck to call it a night. 

Day 7

The next morning, day seven of our road trip, we decided to head south towards Yellowstone National Park. Once we arrived at the west entrance of the park, we reviewed the map and highlighted a few places we wanted to visit within the park. For our first day at Yellowstone, we stayed on the southwest side of the park. We were able to walk around a handful of the go-to sights on the southwest side. Not only did we get to see some main attractions but, we also got to see baby buffalo from our truck!

Although ecstatic to see baby buffalo, I was excited to reunite with my best friend, Jessica and her boyfriend Cody who were on a week-long road trip through Yellowstone. I had met Jessica back in 2010 at Colorado State University. 

That evening we all met up in the parking lot of Old Faithful and continued to practice social distancing as we decided where we would camp for the night. Jessica had researched prior that there was BLM land just right outside the south entrance of the park. With limited cell service, we handed off one of our sanitized walkie-talkies in order to communicate while driving. As we got past the South entrance, we quickly realized that the BLM land was non-existent and the majority of the campsites were filled. We ended up driving further south, into Teton National Forest before finding an open campsite hours later. Although late, and hungry, I did see a grizzly bear from the side of the road while driving. Stoked level: high.

Day 8

The next morning, day eight of our road trip, Brek and I set out to continue sightseeing around the southwest side of the park. We bought fishing licenses to allow us to fish within the park, and spent the day hiking, and fly-fishing. As I continued to set the world record of no consecutive fish caught, Brek was able to catch and release a few fish. As the day got away from us, we headed back to the same campsite and crashed for the evening.

Day 9

Brek and I decided we wanted to drive the park “loop”. This loop, although small on the map, took us about 6 hours to complete. As we marked off the last place we wanted to visit within the park, we headed back to the west side to continue fly-fishing. As we arrived at what looked like the perfect spot to fish due to the fish jumping. My excitement got the best of me and I managed to snap our Yakima key inside the lock. Without a second key, I cried, we fished, we packed up and headed towards Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

Jessica and Cody, who we met for our first night in Yellowstone had arranged plans to head towards Jackson Hole to lock in camping. With no cell service in the park other than visitor centers, we were limited on receiving any form of directions. So, throughout the south entrance of the park we parked at each visitor center to hopefully, receive directions on where to meet near Jackson. It was not until our last visitor center attempt in Teton where we were able to receive a broken-up text message.  After hours of crossing our fingers, and driving down dirt roads, we finally saw their car parked and parked beside them. At this moment, it was quite late so our priority was to park, crawl in the back of the truck and pass out.

Day 10

Brek and I pulled out our portable, pressurized, water pump and gave ourselves a good old fashion road trip shower. After our road trip showers, we headed into Jackson Hole proper. We saw the famous elk antlers and quickly snagged a few pictures. Jackson Hole, although touristy, is an amazing place to visit with its wide variety of outdoor recreations and western-style aesthetic.

That afternoon we got a call from our friends Ben, and his girlfriend Rikki. They too were on a lengthy road-trip and were passing by Jackson Hole. With plenty of room available, Ben, Rikki and their two dogs parked down the road and walked over to hang out and camp for the evening.  Again, with social distancing in mind, we drank a few beers, and sat around the fire till the wee hours of the night.

Day 11

The next morning we said our goodbyes to Jessica and Cody and headed East of Jackson Hole to find the ultimate fishing/swimming spot with Ben and Rikki. We passed off our sanitized walkie-talkies as we continued to go in-and out of service. With limited service, we used traditional maps to pinpoint where we felt the road ran closest to the river. Eventually, we drove down a dirt road and pulled over alongside a river bank. We planned on staying only a couple hours but we ended up spending the entire day basking in the sun and fly fishing. With the evening approaching, we decided to head back into Jackson Hole, grab DQ drive-thru and parked our rig’s outside of Ben’s sister's house to sleep for the night.

Day 12

We set out early to head towards Lander, Wyoming. We took a route that neither of us had done and to our surprise, was one of the most memorable roads to drive though due to all the beauty that surrounded us. 

After hours of driving, we made it to Lander, Wyoming to celebrate the 4th of July. Our friend Tyler, had recently moved to Lander from Seattle. His girlfriend, Anita is a traveling nurse and has been stationed in Lander for the past few months. They generously invited us to join their social distancing BBQ, and celebrate the 4th of July, Lander style. Legend has it that Lander is the place to go if you are a die-hard firework fan. For every man, woman and child in Lander, the average money spent on fireworks is around $400 per person. With that said, I don’t think we saw any ounce of darkness that night. 

Day 13

Tyler took us to a few of his favorite fishing spots. Some spots required us to walk through open cattle fields! We spent most of the day fly-fishing, and filling up on Slurpee’s. 

Day 14

We got to explore more of what makes Lander, Wyoming so special. Lander is home of some of the world’s best rock-climbing. As we drove in awe of the rock formations, we came across a lake where we set up hammocks for the day. That night, they boys set out to go moon-light fishing around midnight.

Day 15

We woke up early and headed towards Fort Collins, Colorado. Fort Collins is home to Colorado State University, where I graduated back in 2013. For years, I’ve dreamt of one day going back to visit and now, it was finally happening. After a few hours in a car, and at one point, accidently driving 17 miles in the wrong direction, we finally made it to Fort Collins!

As we arrived in Fort Collins, I could not help but feel extremely overjoyed to finally visit my second “home”. It was 98 degrees, so we felt it was best spent enjoying an outdoor margarita at the famous RIO, just one of my favorite Fort Collins spots. I had a laundry list of places I wanted to walk by, from Old Town to campus, I spent the afternoon pointing out all of my favorite go-to spots back in college. As memories filled my head, and tears filled my eyes it was time to say goodbye and head down to Denver, Colorado for the evening.

The next few days we spent parked outside Jessica’s and Cody’s house to explore the land and rivers near Golden, Colorado. At this point, we were enjoying our schedule-free road trip and making memories that would last a lifetime. However, our “schedule-free” road-trip soon came to an end as I was being requested back to work and Brek’s full-time gig with construction was cancelled. With our lives taking new and unexpected turns toward the future, we decided to head back west. 


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