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The Return Trip Part 3: Glacier Nat. Park & East

9/7/19-9/22/19

Anuk and I left bright and early Saturday morning. I sipped on the remnants of my day-old ice coffee as we wound around the cold foggy mountains heading north-west towards Glacier National Park. I stopped at a gas station to refuel and decided to treat myself to a fresh cup of coffee and a donut. This was the first time in who knows how long that I had eaten a donut. When I went to the register she said it was $1.56. I asked her to repeat the amount, shocked at how cheap it was. And she explained that she thought it should be only $1.50 for a small cup of coffee and a donut. I laughed and said I had clearly been paying too much for my coffee all this time. By the way, it was an excellent cup of French vanilla (black, no sugar), and the sugary-glazed delight barely made it to the car. It was exactly the jolt I needed for the long day of driving ahead.

I took the winding scenic route along Flathead Lake which is in the north western part of the state, south of Whitefish. The warm sun was shining on the glistening blue water and all the people gathered to enjoy the late summer day on the lake. I was jealous of them savoring the beauty there amongst their friends. Summer has a special affect in the northern states. People go outside as much as possible to enjoy the lovely warm days while they last before the onslaught of winter. We hide away inside away from the oppressive heat and humidity of Florida; I wasn’t missing the summer there at all. I stopped for lunch at a cute little café for a veggie sandwich where Anuk and I enjoyed the shaded patio and a brief walk. We still had a ways to go.

We arrived in the afternoon as things were really humming around Western park entrance of Glacier National Park. I bought a few items from the store before we headed into the park. I looked into camping options, and found out that all the campgrounds nearby in the park were full. There was a one still open on the Eastern side of the park, but there was no way to reserve it. The chances of it still being vacant by the time I got there was very slim; it was the weekend after all. So I decided that we would drive East across the park anyway and see what was available outside of the park. The park ranger gave me a list of campgrounds.

We set out on the Going-to-the-Sun Road. The campers I met in Helena said the road was nerve-racking for people scared of heights. I’m far from comfortable with heights, but I was going to check it out anyway, besides, this was the only way across the park. We stopped along the way to admire Lake McDonald and its rocky shoreline. I some bear scat, but thankfully we didn’t see any bears; I hoped that they wouldn’t explore so close to the road during the day. The view across the lake was staggeringly beautiful. Heavens Peak stands out in the distance at the northernmost part of the lake with an elevation of 8987 ft. Our path led us up that way and beyond.

We encountered a little bit of traffic. There were sections of road where they only permit one lane of cars at a time. The speed limits were generally slow, and they had places all along for people to pull over and take photos. I didn’t mind the delays or going slowly at all. It was hard to choose the best places to stop for photos, but I also didn’t want to delay too long; there were only so many hours in the day.

We made it to the top of the pass where cars were parked all along the road just before the parking area, so I was amazed when we found a parking spot. I had been told about a 2.8 mile moderate trail called Hidden Lake Overlook that started from there, but sadly no dogs are allowed on the trail. Thankfully Anuk was passed out in the car which was comfortably warm despite the cool air. I left a window open, and made food and water accessible to her and set off.

I tied my hair up as I was walking across the parking lot when my laces on my left hiking boot caught on the hook on my right boot and down I went. I got my hands out just in time as I fell hard on the concrete. A small pebble punctured a hole in the palm of my hand, and my left knee was definitely bruised. I looked around to see if anyone saw my awkward fumble, but despite all the people at the mountain pass, there wasn’t a single soul on this side of the parking lot. I brush myself off, checked my camera which was hanging around my neck, collected what was left of my pride and made my way to the bathroom. Sadly there was no running water, so there was no chance of rinsing off my wound.

So I opted to hustle and get the hike underway. I practically ran up the mountain, no wait, I definitely ran up the mountain. The trail was heavily trafficked and they even had wooden stairs leading up some of the way. I heard other tourists grumble about how long the trail was. I warmed up quickly and shed some of my layers. The high altitude trail running was a challenge, but it felt really good to engage every part of my lungs and stretch my legs after being in the car for so long.

Melting glacier water formed sweet little creaks that ran across the trail and down the mountain. I rinsed my hand off in one of them; it was nice and cold. If it weren’t for all the people, this place was truly magical, like being on top of the world. The hidden lake was picturesque and totally worth the hike, and a family of white mountain goats hung out nearby. The trail continued on down to the lake itself, but I knew I needed to get back. I returned the same way at a fast-paced walk and running down the stair portion carefully. When I returned to my car, Anuk was exactly as I left her, curled up and cozier than ever. I chomped down some trail mix and guzzled some water, and we could continued on our way.

The sunlight was wanning by the time we finally arrived at the easternmost campground in Glacier National Park; it was full of course. So we left the park. I pulled over to find the other campgrounds in the area. My phone had no signal, so I couldn’t call any of them, and I had no data, so my map wasn’t working either, so I followed the road North to Babb where I saw signs for campgrounds. Entering Babb (part of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation), I knew immediately that I needed to turn around as that eerie feeling of being in the wrong neighborhood set in. I only felt it a couple times on this whole trip. When I doubled back, I saw a sign for a campground that I had missed on my way north. I followed it off the the main road heading east only about a quarter of a mile before I found the Leaning Tree campground.

They had sites open and it was $20 to camp and only $5 more to take a shower. My last real shower had been in Yellowstone (five days ago) so I was eager for a hot shower. Bathing with hot water also made it easier to pick the pebbles out of my wounded hand. I picked the campsite with a fake looking tree (this must have been the “leaning tree”) and made camp. Someone had left a welcome mat here which I placed just outside of my tent, and left it there in the morning when I packed up.

The next morning was cold and gray, and it felt like I took forever to break camp. My expectations usually exceed the pace at which my limbs are actually capable of. Fog hung heavily on the ground which made limited visibility for driving; at the most I could maybe see 100 meters ahead. I continued east on the same road I came in on. I drove through endless, treeless gray cattle pastures past cows that looked like dark silhouettes.

Suddenly I caught sight of a cow in the middle of the road, and I slammed on my brakes. I went from 60pmh to a dead stop with just enough time to break ten feet in front of a cow. It stood there and looked at me casually, and then it sauntered slowly across the street. I waited to see if her friend on the side of the road would follow, but she did not. So I continued on more carefully, thanked the good Lord for working brakes. I knew I would have died otherwise. And then I began to cry, I think I was in shock or just feeling fragile. Neither would surprise me.

The gray weather followed me all of the rest of my way through Montana, except for a small patch of sun I found in Great Falls. I stopped there at a park to give Anuk a good walk, and she got to see geese for the first time. I also picked up some more provisions from Walmart (only the third one I had been to on my entire trip). The need to buy food is pretty constant when my cooler is small and my car space is limited. It makes stocking up not an option; I only bought what I needed that could fit in one large grocery bag plus a 2 gallon jug of water.

It was a long day of driving as we covered most of the state of Montana arriving at Red Shale Campgrounds just after the sun had set, which is just east of the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation in south eastern Montana. The campgrounds are free and nestled comfortably in amongst pine trees and the grass was about four feet tall. This was the first time I stopped to camp and felt totally uncomfortable. Maybe it was because it was later in the day, maybe it was the way the grasses near our site had been pressed down by something very large, or maybe it was because everyone else staying there was in a camper or van. I opted for us to sleep in the car, which was a first for us. The temperature was just right, chilly even, so we snuggled in for the night. It wasn’t a comfortable sleep sitting up partially with limited leg room, and Anuk kept readjusting her position, but we made it through the night. I reasoned that I probably only got a few hours less sleep than I normally got while camping.

In the morning, I met a very nice lady who was also camping there in her converted van with her playful dog. They were coming from the east coast and heading to Oregon. She was surprised by the lack of water at state and national park campgrounds, and I told her that trend would continue for the rest of her trip west. And I gave her some pointers on how to take an alternative bath. We said our farewells and Anuk and I headed out.

We continued on the 212 down through a tiny sliver of Wyoming before entering South Dakota. I had heard such good things about Sturgis and the surrounding beauty that I included it into my return route. It was a lovely drive through the Black Hills National Forest. We went through Deadwood, but didn’t stop at any of the sights; parking seemed complicated. And we arrived mid afternoon at the Wind Cave National Park campground. It had been recommend to me by one of the women I met at the Crazy Creek campground back in Wyoming. After all the time driving, this spot was an oasis.

After I set up camp, I laid my blanket out in the sun so I could sit and paint. Anuk thoroughly enjoyed romping and rolling around in the green grass. I was tempted to go check out the park itself, but sometimes its just better to do less. We both needed this break.

I enjoyed the sunset while I cooked a delicious hot meal. I could do my washing in their facilities (restrooms with running water, and a sink for washing up dishes with hot water). I didn’t see a shower though. It was okay, the weather was warm during the day, but cooling off nicely at night (low 50’s) and there was very little humidity in the air.

I got up early the next day and we continued our journey east. As we were leaving the park we passed a couple of bison who were just off the road. One was only about five feet from my car using a sturdy brick sign post as a scratching board. I laughed at all the silly tourists squinting to see the heards of bison in the distance at Yellowstone. Here in South Dakota, they were right next to the road and practically no one around to see them. I love catching unexpected sightings like this in nature; its so much more special, like all the times is saw dolphins while surfing in the Atlantic.

We took a route that I created through google maps that would take me into the ‘back’ entrance of the Badlands. This meant that we traveled through miles and miles of farmland on fairly decent gravel roads. They were the kind of roads that go in straight lines up and down hills past fields and more fields with no other soul in sight.

The Badlands were a beautiful sight to see with the multicolored mounds of earth rising up all around and accented by the ominous clouds that built up in the east. I stopped as many times as I could to take photos before the rain poured down. This was our first rain since Oregon, and man did it come down. We stopped at the gift shop on the way out, and I bought a few souvenirs. I realized that this would be the last national park that I would be visiting on my walkabout, so its only fitting that it was raining when we left the park. It was sad for me to realize my trip was coming closer to its end.

The rest of my trip east was full of long days of driving and listening to lots of audio books as I crept back into the humid, rainy summer weather I knew so well. I stayed at a hipcamp in Nebraska where I set up late in the dark, and broke camp in the rain the following morning. I stopped in Arkansas briefly for a short but sweet visit with Greg and the Cross family. Then I bee-lined it straight for Houston, Texas to visit my best friend and her family for a couple days. These end of summer days were hot, and I was thankful for air conditioning and a roof overhead as the rain continued to follow along with me.

I attempted to do some sight-seeing in New Orleans, but instead found myself in a sketchy, rundown neighborhood. After many wrong turns and finding traffic everywhere I just gave up and left. I could see where new construction was being done, but also where many buildings were still in ruin. I’ve heard many great things about New Orleans, but sadly I didn’t get to see or experience any of them. So I continued on.

I camped that night in the DeSoto National Forest in Mississippi. By the time I had set up camp I was drenched entirely in sweat. I hadn’t missed the humidity at all, so I was very thankful for a shower that night. But it didn’t do much good because I just lay there sweating all night. Its one of the many times I wished I could have explained to Anuk what was going on. She whined and cried most of the night, clearly she was just as uncomfortable as I was.

The next day I woke up pretty stiff. I had gotten used to sleeping on the ground, and I found that the lower back pain I used to get from sleeping in a bed was long gone. But something that night was off. Maybe it was all of the driving, lack of exercise and proper stretching that did it. When I broke camp, I moved a bag from the driver side into the passenger side, and I pulled something in my lower back. It was my sciatic nerve. The pain was excruciating. I did my best to finish packing up and get in my car; I could still move my legs (barely) and my feet and therefore I could drive. It was very difficult to use the clutch, but near impossible to reach over to the passenger seat where I kept food, water and such.

I had booked a hipcamp at a farm in Tallahassee, but I knew that it would be impossible to set up camp in my condition. So I canceled my booking and called my massage therapist in New Smyrna. If I drove straight through, I could get there by 8pm or so. He said he could help me out. I called my friend Michelle and asked if she could watch Anuk for that hour, and I called Kat to see if Anuk and I could stay with her that night. Both friends willingly agreed to help me out. At this point the pain was so intense that talking was more like crying and wincing as I tried to breath through the pain. I probably sounded like someone caught underneath a fallen tree.

So I headed straight toward New Smyrna Beach. I stopped at the Florida welcome center to use the bathroom, slowly inched my way out of the car and hobbled over to the building. I suddenly felt the pain of every person who struggles to walk and move around like a healthy person. When I saw my face in the bathroom mirror, I cringed. My face was wrenched and twisted in pain with fresh tears clinging to my eyes. There was no mistaking that I was in total agony. Its a miracle that I was able to walk Anuk and lean over to pick up her business. I cried trying to hold back the screams of pain as I leaned over the slowest I have ever leaned over in my entire life. Then I took four minutes or so to carefully get back in the car and on our way again.

I am thankful for the seat heater in my car; I kept it on high all day. I picked up some ibuprofen at a gas station. I had some in my car topper, but there was no way I was going to be able to maneuver myself to get up in there. I phoned friends and family and asked for prayer, and as the day went on I was able to manage as best as I could.

Thanks to GPS I was able to predict my arrival time in New Smyrna and set up my appointments accordingly. Henrik attended to my broken body, he worked mostly on my hips. Everything was still pretty tight when I left, but he performed nothing shy of a miracle. All of the driving I had done (with so few breaks) had done a number on my body. By the end of the next day I was able to move about more normally with significantly less pain. He said that it would get better as the days went on, and it did. In a couple days, I was a normal functioning human again, and I was back amongst my friends. It was so great to be welcomed back to New Smyrna Beach, even if it was only for a brief time.

After a few days I headed further south to Indialantic where my parent live. I sit here now in their garage apartment reflecting on my life-changing American Walkabout. Its hard to resurface from a trip like this, and the question that continually haunts me is, “Now what?” I was hoping for some clarity on my trip, for something to really grab me. I loved lots of the places I visited, and lots of the people I met. There are plenty of reasons to return, but there wasn’t a job to give me a reason to stay somewhere permanently. So I still wrestle with, “Now what?”

What I do know is that this trip has drastically shifted my priorities. I do not want a career, a house in the suburbs, a garage full of toys or a closet full of clothes. There are so many other ways to live; I’ve seen different and wonderful examples on the farms I visited across America. I can’t fit myself into a cubicle to work for a paycheck for a job that is meaningless to fill a box full of stuff and ever be happy. I was never made for that kind of life. My goal is to figure out how I can grow a life outside of society’s confining box. This is a life that beckons me forward into more than just surviving, a life that is thriving, and this will be a life worth living.

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