Everyone’s been there…
“Hey honey, What do you want to do?”
“I dunno, what do you want to do?”
“I asked you first.”
“Come on, don’t start that again.”
“Okay fine, whatever you want to do.”
“Okay now you’re making me mad.”
This time-honored husband and wife mating ritual was the beginning to one of the coolest road trips Aline and I have ever done. After, we did the dance to see who gets to do what they want to do, it went like this:
“Screw it. Let’s do it all.”
“Really? You can’t be serious.”
“Well you know what Waylon Jennings said – I’ve always been crazy, but it kept me from going insane.”
“Okay, then wild man. Let’s do it all.”
This is how our 2017 summer adventure began. After 24 years in the Army, I’d dropped my retirement letter and we were looking at places to retire. So, doing some reconnaissance in Montana was on the list. We also wanted to see the Zach Brown Band play an open amphitheater and they were doing that in Milwaukee that summer. Then there was the desire to see the Black Hills, wild buffalo and Mount Rushmore. Throw on top of that, I wanted fish for trout in the Flathead River and Aline wanted to horseback ride in Wyoming. We had to get a serious plan together. No problem, I’m a trained military planner. I got this.
The expedition set out in humble fashion from our home in Kentucky aboard our Mercedes-Beast 2500 4x4 Sprinter van on June 30th. The first stop was the Marcus Amphitheater on the shores of Lake Michigan in Milwaukee. The Zach Brown Band (ZBB) was headlining the 50th Anniversary of the Milwaukee Summerfest and we weren’t going to miss it. The trip was uneventful. We arrived at the Wisconsin State Fair Park RV Park late that afternoon and set up camp. After a nice meal and a couple sundowners we retired for the evening.
It’s hard to visualize an RV park in the middle of a huge metropolitan area, but when the sun rose it was as plain as the nose on my face. My coffee smelled like heaven as I listened the traffic whine and groan it’s way along Interstate 94, one hundred yards north of our camp. The sun was just coming up over Lake Michigan to the east, when my sunshine rose up out of her bed to join me. We sat quietly with our coffee and were brimming with anticipation. A road trip to see ZBB on their, “Black Out the Sun Tour” would have been cool enough, but this was simply the first stop on our badass summer tour.
The bus to the Summerfest events pulled right up to the RV park and we jumped on. We got out on the shore of Lake Michigan and waded right into the festival. Fun was the order of the day and we complied. Shopping, eating, drinking, hitting golf balls into the lake, listening to local bands and acting like teenagers caused a middle-aged phenomenon – nap time. We got to our seats in the amphitheater early and rested our heads on each other. I’m not sure how long we were out, but the first people to excuse themselves down the isle in front of us interrupted out slumber. No worries, time for our first beer of the concert.
It is a terrible understatement and almost a disservice to say that Zach Brown and his band mates are talented. Yes, they’re country music super stars, but dear God there’s nothing they cannot do. I’m probably blending memories of multiple concerts together here, but I heard them cover: the Beatles, Charlie Daniels and the Beastie Boys and all three would have been proud to hear their music done by ZBB. Maybe it was the nap. Maybe it was the quality of the concert. I’m not sure why we left the amphitheater bouncing across the parking lot like kids, but we were. The second wave of the mysterious middle-aged phenomenon, napping, hit us on the bus ride back to camp. We didn’t miss our stop and arrived safely back to the warm bed in the Mercedes-Beast.
We were on the road by mid-morning and rolling across Wisconsin. Our first way-point on our journey was Sioux Falls and we were in no hurry, there was no reason to be. We took our time. We talked. We enjoyed each other’s company. We blew threw Meat Eater Podcasts, as the miles rolled away.
“I’ve never seen one before!” pulling the van over.
“A white buck…oh my Lord.”
“What, you’re kidding?”
“No, hand me my binoculars.”
“He’s coming out of the corn.”
“Oh my God. How did you see that driving down the interstate?”
“How cool is that, here you go.” Handing her the binoculars.
Before you know it, we were in Sioux Falls. We set up camp and uncorked a bottle of wine. Then just sat there and acted like tourists or RV’ers – real retirees. It was kind of fun. Smiling and saying hello to all the old folks who were walking their dogs. I did learn something. It is apparently mandatory to have a small dog if you’re going to be an RV’er. We were deficient in that area.
“On the road again…Goin' places that I've never been…Seein' things that I may never see again...”, thanks Willie.
We rolled out of Sioux Falls very early on the way to our next waypoint – the Sioux Indian Museum in Rapid City, South Dakota. I’ve always been intrigued by the nomadic plains Indian culture. We spent hours in the museum and it was well worth the stop. The Sioux are an amazing people. We could have stayed all day, but it was time to roll.
“Here we go, on the road again…Like a band of Gypsies we go down the highway…We're the best of friends…”
We made it to Hot Springs before dinner and rushed over to the Mammoth Site and Museum. The story of how the archeological dig came into being is remarkable. The young archeologist, fresh out of college, who gave the tour obviously loved her work. Aline is always scouring the Earth below our feet for shark’s teeth or arrowheads and the mammoth bones in the dig site made her almost giddy. I enjoyed it, but fell in love when I exited to tour into the museum and saw the short faced bear exhibit.
Friends, if you think a grizzly bear is a fearsome critter, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Short faced bears are extinct, thank God. But try to imagine a bear that weighed two-thousand pounds, stood twelve feet tall on it’s hind legs and could run down a horse or a camel for dinner.
“And our way is on the road again…I just can't wait to get on the road again..”
We rose, broke camp and pulled into the Crazy Horse Memorial just as they were opening. The idea to have a similar memorial to Mount Rushmore for one of the most influential heroes of the plains Indians is inspiring. It’s also admirable that the memorial will be a campus for Native Americans to pursue their education. We loved it and will have to go back when the memorial is finished.
It was still early when we rolled up to Mount Rushmore. It was the first time I saw Mount Rushmore. It is impressive. I suppose the life and times of the Presidents immortalized there is lost on many of this generation, but three of the four are personal heroes of mine. And I don’t know where this Nation would be today without the leadership of all four: Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt. Seeing Mount Rushmore right after the Crazy Horse Memorial drew a linkage in my mind about the struggles of our Nation. I hope we do a better job teaching our children U.S. History. The struggles of the past put our current struggles into context and knowing about them might serve to calm our people.
As we left the monument park, the tour busses started showing up and the line to get in wound down around the mountain. Our early start saved the rest of the day, which was key because we planned to purposefully linger in the Black Hills. Aline and I had both recently read Steven Rinella’s book, “American Buffalo: In Search of a Lost Icon.” We desperately wanted to see wild bison wandering the Black Hills. So, we took a circuitous route through Custer State Park and Wind Cave National Park to find them.
Minutes after crossing into the Custer State Park we were lost in the crowds of people on the paved roads. It felt weird. It felt wrong. I didn’t want to see bison this way. We are normally backcountry people that avoid crowds. We were suddenly accidental tourists, caught up in the line of cars. I pulled the van off at a historical marker and decided to hike to the top of the adjacent knob. I needed the exercise and Aline wanted to cook lunch. Near the top, I jumped a nice ten-point whitetail buck. As I stopped to take his picture it occurred to me that there were dirt roads in both parks. I needed to put the van into four-wheel drive to do this right. After lunch we did just that.
We found them and not by the road. There was a herd of bison grazing in a green valley half mile away. We stopped, alone on the ridge, not unlike the hunters of old and took stock of the herd. I couldn’t contain my happiness. Aline took picture after picture through her telephoto lens. We continued along the two track in four wheel drive and ran into our own herd. Then it happened. We turned into goofy tourists too. We parked, rolled down the windows and took pictures at close range. There was no avoiding it. Didn’t matter that we were all alone, it felt touristy. But, it was so cool. Time was starting to work against us and we had to get to our next waypoint.
We rolled into the Devils Tower KOA right on time. We got camp set up, had a bite to eat and cracked open a couple beers. It was just starting to get dark. We collapsed into our chairs and exhaled. Then I lost my breath.
“Babe, babe, babe! Get my binoculars!”
“What? Calm down.”
“Where are my binoculars?!?!”
“What’s the matter crazy man?”
“Holy shit look at that!”
I was right. I did see lights on the side of Devil’s Tower. It was headlamps. People were climbing it and they were moving fast. Then it sank in. They were going to watch the fireworks from the top of the that 867-foot butte of igneous rock. I couldn’t help but respect the climbers. What an amazing way to enjoy the fireworks and celebrate the birth of our Nation. We kept track of the headlamps in our binoculars as they rose to the summit and darkness fell. Just as the last headlamp disappeared over the crest of the summit and the first boom of the pyrotechnics lit up the night, I heard myself say, “Now that’s badass.”
The party atmosphere died down shortly after the finale. As Aline got cleaned up for bed, I took a walk. I’d spent my entire adult life as a Soldier and was proud of it. I took stock of everyone in the campground. Some were getting ready to turn in, like us. Others were sitting around the campfire talking. Still others were gathering their children. I turned and looked at Devil’s Tower, now an imposing dark shadow backlit by the moon and stars. A rush of pride welled up inside my chest and for the first time since I submitted my retirement letter, I felt like I belonged again. Soon I could drop my ever-vigilant mind and watchful eye. I would no longer be responsible in my own small way for the defense of the Nation and the safety of our citizenry. Soon, I could be just a proud citizen. I could be just like the rest of the campers. I turned for home with a smile and said a prayer of thanks.
The next two days we hit Bozeman and Missoula, Montana on our way to Glacier National Park. These were reconnaissance days. The undercurrent of the trip was to look around out west and think about retirement locations. We did some shopping. We talked about living in the area. We toured the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation Headquarters and museum. We also toured the Boone and Crockett Club Headquarters. There was much to discuss as we pulled into Whitefish Kalispell KOA and made camp. The beauty of the land, the terrain, the culture and the wildlife were certainly magnetic and were drawing us in. But there was one lingering worry – fire. The west was burning. There were major wildfires in eleven states and at times you could smell it, even though is was hundreds of miles away.
The next day we rose early and went to pay homage to George Bird Grinnell, the man whom much is owed for saving the bison and founding Glacier National Park. Most folks take the Going-to-the-Sun Road and traipse through the park without knowing its history. Aline and I know it all too well and this part of the trip took on a feeling all its own. It was almost like we were on a little bit of a pilgrimage. If ever there were Holy places in nature, sitting next to Saint Mary’s Lake in the park has got to be one of them. It saddens my heart that so many Americans will live their whole life without seeing such places. They really have no idea where their clean air and water comes from.
After our short hike to the lake and time of introspection, we decided to do the touristy thing and drove off towards the Sun Road.
“Really, are you kidding me!”
“There should be signs that says – no big trucks” white knuckled on the steering wheel
“This is awesome honey…you’re doing great”.
“What the hell were they thinking making this road so thin…some guardrails would be nice.”
“Wow, that’s beautiful.” hanging out the window with her camera
“This sucks.” focused and trying not to crush little cars or drive off the mountainside
“You’re doing great.” this goes on for two hours before we can pull off.
“I need a beer.” finally off the Sun Road.
Now, folks let me tell you. There are two points of view about The Going-to-the-Sun Road or the Sun Road for short. The driver’s point of view: it is awful high up in the mountains; there ain’t much for guardrails; there’s a lot of traffic; the visitors center near Logan’s Pass is crowded; driving a 2500 4x4 Sprinter Van with a lift kit was a bad idea. The passenger’s point of view: this place is gorgeous; my husband is a good driver; if I lean out the window, I can get better pictures; let’s stop and ask the Ranger at the visitor’s center questions; this tall van really helps me see over the edge down into the valleys. Back at camp we cracked a few beers, ate some dinner and collapsed into a deep rest.
The next two days we planned to recon the Whitefish and Kalispell areas for a retirement venue. The area around Columbia Falls, Kalispell, Whitefish and Flathead Lake area must be considered if you’re thinking about moving west. Aline was busy looking through the local paper when she saw there was an archery tournament in Missoula during their outdoor expo at the fairgrounds. I brought my hunting rig with me and a block target. Season opener is September and taking a long trip like this without being able to shoot my bow seemed just plain silly. So, we decided to add an archery tournament to the mix – why not.
We got to the outdoor expo and walked around a bit. There were some really cool vendors and displays. The Montana Trappers had an exceptionally cool exhibit. The bear spray people had a demonstration where they launched a fake bear down a track and showed how fast a bear at full speed could get to you. Then they explained how bear spray was superior to firearms. Of course, they were selling bear spray. I stood mute. The fact is that most people will freeze up if a bear comes at them full speed with no warning. There won’t be time to figure the wind. The bear will be on you so fast that honestly, you’re bear food. You simply cannot use the spray once the bear is already on you, because you’ll spray yourself. Most folks don’t take into consideration the limitations and downside of bear spray. It has it’s place, no doubt. It works best when you see the bear first. Let’s think about that a minute. Bear’s sense of smell is many times greater than ours. Generally speaking, for you to walk up on a bear without them knowing the wind will be in your face. That’s not the time to use bear spray. It will blow some of it back into your face and incapacitate you. So, I’m sure it works on calm days when there’s no wind and you see the bear first. What are you going to do at night in your tent? If a bear is pawing at your tent and you hit your bear spray, you just turned your tent into a gas chamber. You’ll pray the bear kills you after you do that trust me. If you live, you’ll have to burn your tent. For my protection I will always bring a very reliable heavy automatic. Yes, automatic. I’ve trusted them in combat, none of us bring revolvers to combat. Yet, every bear defense person thinks revolvers are the way to go and heavy ones. They recommend heavy guns in heavy calibers. You know where those guns end up? The end up in holsters or worse yet, in packs. Even better, you’ll only get one aimed shot off in the 3-5 seconds you have if a bear’s charging you. With my .45ACP Glock 21 I can get at least seven rounds off and my record is nine. I’ve had my Aline and Dave time me. Yes, up to nine aimed shots as I’m walking backwards. All hits into a bear sized target at 10-20 yards. Then when the bear is on me, I’ve got another four or five still left in the magazine to pump into them at point blank range. The hard cast flat nosed bullets from Buffalo Bore are made to penetrate straight line through bone and flesh. I don’t think it’s even a discussion of which is better.
But I digress, the tournament was scheduled for two days, a qualification day and a single elimination match up final day. So, after we toured the expo I went and got my bow. The tournament was unlike any I’d ever shot before in ASA or IBO. It was all pop up and moving targets. It was as much about speed as accuracy. In the infantry, we always say, “Slow is smooth and smooth is fast.” That’s how I was going to have to shoot this thing. They let us shoot a practice round and then it was on. After I shot, I thanked the organizers and reported to scorers table. I asked the nice young lady sitting there, “How’d I do?” She replied, “Best score so far.” I couldn’t believe it. I then asked the organizer if they’d be so kind as to call me if I qualified for the second round, because our campsite was a couple hours north up in Whitefish. They agreed.
Aline and I left the expo and went about doing more reconnaissance. We drove out to Helena and looked around. It was yet another wonderful place to buy a home and retire. We especially liked the Helena National Forest east of the Missouri River. As we drove back to the campsite, we discussed retiring out west. We both agreed it was dreamy and we loved it, but we always circled back to wildfires. Hurricanes were the reason we gave up on our first love, the Gulf Coast. I was a fisher before I was a hunter, not by much, but it is certainly my first love. Aline and I have run boats in the Gulf, the Atlantic and the Bahamas. When we were deciding to retire there, we just couldn’t get over the thought of catastrophic loss due to hurricanes. Now, as we toured our other love, the mountains, we couldn’t get around the idea of catastrophic loss due to fire. That night we ate at the campground café, where they also had a few good beers on tap.
Before we could go fishing, we had to contact the folks at the expo and see if I’d made it into the second round of the archery tournament. I was shocked to hear, “Yes, Michael you’re the number one qualifier. You shot the highest score of the first round.” I had never heard that before – number one qualifier! We hustled down there to the expo in Missoula, doing more real estate reconnaissance along the way of course. I asked if we could lay off all the heavy conversation. I wanted to relax and not think about shooting my bow or retirement decisions, nothing stressful. I changed the subject to fishing the next day.
At the tournament I realized they had a single elimination, head to head bracket laid out. As the number one qualifier I would get a bye in the first round. The tournament organizers allowed the four top qualifiers, who all received a first round bye, to shoot a round. Thank God they did. I was a pile of nerves. They sped up the target presentations. They were popping up and going down much faster than the first round. The moving target was flying down the track now. I shot so bad I missed a couple targets completely. When your arrow flies off and hits the backstop it makes a huge clang sound and everyone in the crowd knows you missed – so embarrassing. Then I got to watch the rest of the head to head matches. I didn’t stay long enough the previous day to see all the other shooters. There were actually two guys in their Cabela’s Team outfits and they both made it through to the next round.
The best shooter in this round was a young country boy. It became apparent that the name of the game in this round was how fast you could reload you bow and get to full draw. The targets were popping up and going down much faster and in random order. That young country boy was very fast reloading and getting to full draw, as such he got an arrow in every target. Most of us precision shooters were trying to hit the x-ring, which put us behind about one extra second on each target and by the final target we were all pulling the trigger as the target was falling, no chance to hit the x-ring, just hope to hit foam at all. After calming down I shot well and made it through the final four and that’s where I finished – fourth.
I was proud of my performance. I was also proud of the plaque and money they gave me for fourth place. Entry fee for the entire outdoor expo was free if you brought canned or dried food. The expo entry fees and food were all going to a local food bank and they had a booth at the expo. I didn’t plan it this way, but I walked straight over to the food bank booth and signed the check and donated it to them. It just felt right.
We celebrated with a little dinner in Missoula and the real estate reconnaissance and retirement discussions resumed as soon as we were on the road back to the campsite.
First rule in fishing a new area – lose the ego and start asking questions. So, we hit a few bait and tackle shops and had some fun looking around, but didn’t get much direction from the folks working in there. Seems they wanted to keep their spots to themselves. I totally understand. Maybe also because we were not fly fishers, but spin fishers. I’d been a fly fisherman years ago, but gave it up. In my mind it’s just too much work to have fun. We finally stopped in a little place called Arends Fly Shop in East Glacier, Montana. Bob didn’t turn up his nose at us spin fishers. He said, “All you need to catch trout on the Flathead is salmon eggs. Let me show you where to go.” We rushed over to the map and he gave us advice. I drew a little strip map of where to go. We bought our salmon eggs and rolled out. In about an hour we were parked along the Flathead River and putting on our waders.
The river is beautiful. Deep clean cold water rolls over smooth round rock all around you. The banks are flat enough to park and get ready to go, but soon they rise straight up into mountains. Those mountains frame the view in every direction you look. I was still admiring the view when I heard Aline, “Fish on.” She was busy playing her first Montana trout. I hustled down the bank to get pictures of the westsplope cutthroat trout she was holding.
After a quick picture we got the little guy back in the river. I hustled up river from Aline to give her some space, found a deep pool behind a boulder, cast above it and let my bait drift into the hole. The first cast produced a nice little rainbow. We fished until almost dark and had a blast. None of the fish were trophies by normal standards, but they were Montana trout and for us, this being our first trip, they were trophies to us.
Around sunset a small group of younger folks showed up, dunked a twelve pack into the cold water and built a fire on the bank. They were playing drinking games and it was obviously a group date of some kind. I could only smile about how cool they all looked. Aline was still fishing downstream as the sun was setting and appeared to be committed to fishing until it was dark. I was a little lost watching her, when my line came tight and I landed my first westslope cutthroat. I noticed her taking my picture as I released the fish and waived for her to come to me. I started walking out and when I reached the bank one of the young men offered me a beer. I smiled wide and said, “No thanks brother.” When Aline arrived I simply motioned towards the beach party and walked to the truck. It was getting dark and it was probably time to go, but I wanted those young folks to have the river to themselves. We had an absolute blast and I can see a week-long float trip where we camp along the banks in our future someday.
The next morning it was time to leave Montana. We accomplished the goals of our trip here and there was really only one thing left to do – horseback riding and reconnaissance in Wyoming. As we drove south from Kalispell I kept an eye out for any creeks with bank access I could find. I wanted to fish a little more. There it was. A pull off that had been used before, right along a deep clear stream. I had no idea what stream it was, but I was pretty sure it was public land and I had my fishing license. I pulled off the road a little suddenly for Aline, but she knew instantly what was up. I’d left an ultralight spinning rod rigged with a small white spinner. I bounded out of the van and to the creekbank. The water was clear, cold and running fast. There was a little bend just above me that I couldn’t get to because the willows were so dense along the bank. But there was another bend with an undercut bank below me that I could cast to. The third cast hit right where I was aiming it and the current pushed the spinner under the cut bank. As soon as I turned the reel, the line came tight. I was positively giddy, giddy as a five-year-old boy with his first trout. I let the little fellow go and decided there was no way that little creek held more fish, so I jumped back in the truck and pointed the van south.
The country is just as beautiful in northern Wyoming. If we do move out west some day, I don’t know how we will decide. The Southfork Mountain Lodge has a fine little restaurant and gift shop. After lunch, we booked an afternoon trail ride. While we were waiting, we decided to take a hike. We didn’t go far, just up the hill and around the lodge area and paddocks. There are so many wonderful things to do out west. Before long we were at the horse stalls meeting out guide for the trail ride. It was just going to be Aline and I with one guide. He asked if we were experienced and I responded, “Well we’ve ridden before.” He responded, “Good we will get off the trail and go up the mountain.” Aline looked back at me and smiled. I leaned over to her and reminded her to trust the horse if she got scared or worried. Off we went.
The guide wasn’t kidding. We went up the mountain, through the timber, across some deep fast streams and then we popped out into a ridge top meadow. The views were glorious. There’s no other way to explain the feeling. There’s a sense of tradition, of being in touch with the old ways of things, when you’re mounted on a horse in the mountains. Even though you’re only a few feet higher than if you were standing on your own two legs, you also feel as if the view is better from horseback. The whole experience had us smiling ear to ear the entire ride. I know there are people that do it every day. I know we are novices or green horns, but it was special to us. This was our last day in the mountains. We were heading home as soon as we got back to the van. As we dismounted and walked back to the truck hand and hand, we agreed that even if we didn’t move out west, we would visit every year until we died.
This is a vagabond dish, that is easily prepared:
____ A desire to wander and not take anything too seriously – priceless
____ A willing spouse or partner – priceless
____ Time Off – whatever it’s worth to you
____ Two-day non-resident fishing license $25 each = $50
____ KOA Campgrounds all over the Midwest and Rockies – average $45 a night for RV sites with full hook up x 15 days = $675
____ Zach Brown Tickets $85 each = $170
____ Gas – roughly $1,000
____ Food and booze – roughly $700
____ Trail ride $125 each = $250
____ Fishing tackle – $25
____ Archery tournament entry fees and practice rounds =$85
____ Park entry fees - $35 each = $70
____ Museum and monument entry fees/donations – approximate total = $80
____ Shopping – whatever you spend
____ All the little expendable items you’ll need; up to you and no idea on the cost
Total Cost of this adventure: $3,105
This is probably the easiest recipe in this book. Figure out what you want to do and just go. If you don’t have an RV you can do two things: (1) rent one or (2) tent camp. Renting an RV is expensive, but it’s not hard. If you’ve never done it, make sure you get a class and take notes from the rental company. Tent camping is super easy. Every KOA in the country has tent camping areas that you can park right next to. You can sleep in the tent or in your car, they don’t care. The KOAs also all have good to great bathrooms. It’s very inexpensive to tent camp at KOAs as well. The Midwest will be hot in July for tent camping, but you’re saving money. The mountain west might be a little cool for tent camping, but that means there’ll be less bugs. There’s literally so much to do. Just develop a simple “to do” list, then get on Google maps and figure drive times and the KOA website and make reservations for campsites. KOA has a value card you might want to purchase if you’re going to stay at KOAs the whole time it will save you money by the end of the trip. After you figure out the itinerary add in a half day for each adventure, so you can relax and enjoy the trip and don’t feel rushed. Then just go!