The act of loading up our 1996 Toyota Land Cruiser, Lloyd, is a ritual of sorts. A poorly choreographed yet well rehearsed dance that we will never tire of performing. Selectively pulling items from our gear collection that will accompany us on the road and outfit our travels for whatever adventure lay up ahead. The thought of picking between a summer liner or a zero degree sleeping bag is enough for my palms to begin sweating in anticipation and excitement.
There are a multitude of ways to travel this magnificent planet of ours, but my preferred method of travel is always the scenic route. The dusty, long forgotten about back roads that lead you west, towards the sun, until it dips just below the horizon. The uncrowded, winding byways that take twice as long to get you home but shows you a different side of the world. The classic americana road trip is so often nostalgically portrayed because it offers a freedom seldom found in everyday life. A freedom that once experienced, you crave and yearn for more. A freedom perfectly summarized in the words of Jack Kerouac; “nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.”
In October of this past year, my partner, Bob, and I, along with our six month old puppy, Kennedy, spent a week on the road exploring the beautiful states of Colorado, Wyoming, and South Dakota. When we loaded up the cruiser the evening before we were to part, Bob and I still had no true idea of where we would end up over the course of the next seven days. We knew we had a goal of ending up in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, on the seventh day, but everything in between was a blank page waiting to be filled.
We’ve found that the times we’ve planned out our trip ended in disappointment or unmet expectations, which is the opposite of how we strive to feel while traveling. It’s a mentality that has taken some time to adopt and many miles of compromise to meet in the middle to determine the best way for us to travel together so that we both feel fulfilled at the end of our time on the road.
When we set off for Colorado in October, the only true plans we had were meeting up with a good friend of ours in Denver. That time occupied our first day of our trip, which led us to Garden of the Gods and exploring old dirt roads south of Denver. When the morning of our second day arrived, Bob and I packed up Lloyd once more and slowly made our way northwest towards the Wyoming border.
As is typical on our trips, Bob and I like to turn off on any dirt road that we think looks promising, a.k.a will lead us to a secluded camp spot. This strategy led us to what is now our number one camp spot of all time. Nestled in the mountains of Arapaho & Roosevelt National Forest, overlooking Rocky Mountain National Park to the south, we set up camp for the night.
When it comes to setting up our campsite, Bob and I have assigned tasks that we each accomplish immediately upon arrival. As with anything, it took us some time to find a rhythm and routine that worked, but now, it’s like a finely oiled machine. Bob is in charge of building and starting the fire after which he prepares the libations. During this time, I am responsible for unpacking and setting up the living quarters in the back of the Land Cruiser.
The next morning, we awoke to a herd of more than 30 elk parading just yards from our campsite. We stretched our legs with a sunrise hike through the mountains and sipping campfire coffee while overlooking Rocky Mountain National Park.
When Bob and I travel, we like to take our time as to not rush any experience. We don’t check the time and we don’t create a schedule. This allows for us to soak up as much of our surroundings as possible. Once we’ve caffeinated ourselves enough, Bob gets to work on cooking breakfast while I prep Lloyd for another day of travel. If there’s one thing you take away from camping, let it be this; everything tastes better over a fire. If Michelin stars were awarded for campfire cooking, Bob would be awarded three, without a doubt.
We were on course to Laramie, Wyoming, our fourth day on the road. The rest of our day played out like a beautiful indie film set to the soundtrack of a Lord Huron album. Once we crossed the state line and traveled further north into Wyoming, it was as if Mother Nature herself had put on a show just for us. The mountain range that stretched along the horizon and the dusty red hues of the rock formations that stretched for miles before our eyes had me in such a state of awe, you could have convinced me I had just entered heaven. Just when I was ready to accept that it was all a dream, two elk ran in unison alongside our car as we drove down the highway, a very fitting representation for how we felt at that time; wild and free.
As the day grew older, our landscape in Wyoming shifted from grassland to forest, and as the day turned to night, the temperature continued to drop. We found a campsite tucked between the pines of Medicine Bow National Forest. We woke with the sun the next morning and did our best to make up for some lost time. We had underestimated just how far we had until Sioux Falls, so we packed up and hit the road with our eyes set on the Black Hills of South Dakota.
I am more than willing to admit that I had very low expectations for South Dakota. I made the naive assumption that South Dakota wouldn’t have as much to offer as Colorado or Wyoming, but man oh man, I have never been more thrilled to be so wrong.
Upon our arrival in the great state of South Dakota, we had just about an hour before sunset to explore the back roads, clear trails of fallen debris, and set up camp in the gorgeous Black Hills National Forest. After an evening spent by the fire reminiscing on our trip, Bob, Kennedy, and I fell asleep in the back of Lloyd to the sounds of howling coyotes under the light of a full moon.
On the morning of our sixth day on the road, we packed up the cruiser and looked at the map only to realize we still had a full day of travel ahead of us, despite the miles we put in the day prior. We made an executive decision to move slowly on our sixth day, and it was the best decision we could have made.
As we made our way east across South Dakota, we fulfilled our patriotic duty and visited Mount Rushmore. That was followed by a visit to a roadside pumpkin patch, then a lakeside stroll to stretch our legs. It was a relaxing day spent exploring anywhere that peaked our interest along the way.
As we inched closer to Badlands National Park, my face held a close resemblance to what I can only imagine it would look like upon setting foot on the face of Mars for the first time. The landscape started to yield rock formations and canyons in the distance. The expansive views of warm earth tones beautifully contrasted against the cloudless blue sky. It felt otherworldly. As if everyone else had disappeared, leaving Bob and I to roam the land by ourselves.
We continued to drive, still awestruck of our newfound surroundings, when all of a sudden Bob pulled the car to the side of the road, turned around, and began to drive in the opposite direction. Confused, and slightly convinced we ran over something, I tried to ask what was happening but before I knew it, Bob had pulled off to the side of the road again, jumped out of the car, only to return with a map in hand and with the most satisfied grin stretched across his face.
Somehow, some way, Bob had spotted a small, yellow box next to a fence with a sign labeled Buffalo Gap National Grassland. The map was a self-guided tour of the grassland provided by the U.S. National Forest Service. You’d think we had struck gold after years of mining given our reactions. Unsure of what we did to get so lucky, Bob, Kennedy, and I explored the vast landscape surrounding Badlands National Park from the comfort of our (appropriately named) Land Cruiser.
Prairie dogs scattered about as their shadows cast over the hillsides. The sun, bright and hot in the autumn sky, illuminated the river that slowly wound through the valley. We climbed our way to the top of a hill that offered a lookout so awe inspiring and breathtaking that I’m convinced every mechanical mishap, missed turn, detour, and failed plans led us to that very spot at that very moment.
Speechless is a term that should not be used lightly in this case, and is still applicable today, as I cannot seem to string together the appropriate words to express the sheer beauty of the land we were so fortunate to explore. It was in that moment, looking out at the land stretched before us, land that existed long before us, and we can only hope will exist long after we are gone. Land that is unforgiving, relentless, and rugged. Land that caused me to realize just how small I am. I stood, humbled by all that the earth has to offer.
Struck by the remembrance of our final destination of Sioux Falls, Bob and I still needed to make it to the other side of the state by the next morning, we made our way back to Highway 44 and headed east.
We spent the majority of our time on the road talking over each other in excited storytelling fashion we hadn’t even realized the sun had gone down an hour prior. Desperate for a place to camp for one last night on the road, I whipped out our road atlas (the adventure edition) and found a place that looked promising near the Missouri River. It had been a long time goal of ours to find a way to camp in Lloyd on a beach alongside the Missouri River. We’ve been to campsites and state parks close to the river’s edge, yet, to no avail, we had yet to cross that off our bucket list.
When we arrived at the final camp spot for the trip, it was well past 10:30 at night and we barely finished our first drink on the back of the tailgate before we tucked ourselves in for one last sleep in the back of Lloyd.
Given our late arrival and delirious state the night prior, when we awoke the next morning, we were amazed to discover that we had spent the entire night just feet from the Missouri River. Who would have thought after all of these years of living in Missouri, it would take us camping in South Dakota to cross off a bucket list goal. Yet another reason I will forever be grateful for how wrong I was about South Dakota.
One of the perks of traveling with a puppy is that their small bladder requires a pre-sunrise wake up call. I will be thanking Kennedy for the rest of my days for waking us up early our last morning on the road.
I am thankful for the moments we share and the time we get to spend with one another while traveling on the road. The time spent away allows for reflection and rejuvenation. We set out to explore, to discover, and to disconnect. I think that’s what untamed means to me; the disentanglement from one’s surroundings. The peace that follows that disentanglement is what I believe can be found in Mother Nature.