I think it’s safe to say COVID-19 has taken a toll on everyone. Maybe in different ways for all of us, but in some way or another our lives have been changed. We quarantined. We practice social distancing. We had events canceled. We wear masks. Things are different and every day we are facing this new way of living.
I needed a reset. A reset for my mind and my body. I had (somehow) been busy this whole quarantine/COVID. It's really no surprise as I always like to keep both my mind and body busy. I definitely had to get more creative in this regard with COVID but I was still busy with somethingggg. I tried new workouts, read new books, hosted new basketball camps, and hell I even created my LLC in hopes to getting my business going. With "so" much (self prescribed busyness) I needed a reset. My legs needed a break from workouts and I wanted a fresh mind. I know one clinically (my own clinical) proven way, Mother Nature. I love being outside and breathing in the fresh air, it’s therapeutic. Knowing this, I began my planning process for a road trip out West. Whenever I get the itch to travel I usually share my newest concoction of a trip with my friends and see if anyone is crazy enough and accepts the invite. I always promise the trip will be relatively cheap and an adventure. I’ve had good luck thus far. They say surround yourself with likeminded people and this indicates I’m doing that quite well :)
I had an idea of what I wanted to do and what I wanted to see, however, the details of the trip were pretty vague. That’s when I decided to start reaching out for recommendations. I posted on both Facebook and Instagram and the suggestions I got were everything I needed and more. So THANK YOU to everyone who sent over all the bad ass recommendations because when it all came together it was one of the best trips I’ve taken!
I’ve never really traveled through the Dakota’s, Wyoming, or Montana so I knew that everything I did was going to be a new experience. AND I was taking my first “road trip”. I traveled almost every summer in College but due to being a Division 1 athlete my window of free time was small. Therefore, a road trip never seemed like the most efficient use of time. I was always flying to my destination, renting a car and then exploring that way. Now with ample amount of time and the fact I really didn’t want to be flying in the mix of COVID, I decided a road trip would be perfect. The road trip was sponsored by my childhood minivan. The same minivan I took my drivers test in 9 years ago. I took out the back seats and all of a sudden I had recreated a scene from Step Brothers... SO MUCH ROOM FOR ACTIVITIES. I had my itinerary completed, my friend Trent convinced into the trip and most importantly an indestructible mini van for wheels. So we piled in all of our bags, camping supplies, and even had enough room to layout our two sleeping pads. Perfect. So with about 230,000 miles and a full back seat, we were set to take a trip across the country.
Whenever I travel I journal, I like to look back and remember where I went and things that happened along the trip. This time, I have decided to share my journal through my blog. For a couple reasons..
It was an incredible trip based SOLELY on recommendations so why not lay it out for others to use
Inspire more people to get out of their comfort zones and travel
Show that traveling doesn’t have to be expensive (although you have to be willing to embrace the hippy life)
Lastly, BE ACTIVE AND GET OUTSIDE. It’s the best therapy and let’s face it.. We all need more of it during these difficult COVID times.
Day 1: (August 2nd)
We left Oconto at 7:30am and the drive began. Again, I had never taken a road trip like this and I honestly have never driven (myself) more than like 6 hours so when the first stint of the trip is a 11.5 hour trek one could say I didn’t know what I was in for. Surprisingly, I didn’t mind the drive. Maybe it was because of the views… JK have you ever driven through South Dakota?! But really, it wasn't all that bad. We had bought an Audiobook, Endure. Riveting, I know. We’d listen to that for a couple hours usually until we both completely lost focus and spaced out the previous 10 minutes. At that point, we’d switch back to music and talk life. That’s my favorite. Whatever comes to mind and diving deep into the conversations because why not? Time isn't a factor. We'd jump from one topic to the next and then when our conversations would die down and the minivan fell to silence and all we had was music, I organized my thoughts.
Before leaving for my trip I had promised myself to disconnect from reality the best I could and embrace all my thoughts and feelings. My main goal was organizing my dreams and aspirations. COVID left the whole professional basketball situation a complete question mark. I had an offer to return to my team in Germany but I had to decide whether to take that or continue waiting for a new opportunity or welcome the unknown. COVID has made much unknown these days and leaves us in the state of “going with the flow”, making a planner like myself get quite uncomfortable. So I decided I needed to figure out what I wanted and what could be my next move if it indeed wasn’t basketball. The good thing about that is, I never lack ideas. I have dreamed up every idea in the book. Aspirations usually aren’t the problem, usually my problem is I have more ideas than time. BUT what better time to organize all these thoughts and unknowns than a road trip with your best friend??
After a full day of driving we finally made it to our first accommodations of the trip. So just to clarify; I’m practical, frugal, spontaneous and a little crazy.. But night #1 was spent in the back of the minivan in a Sinclair parking lot. But isn’t that illegal?!??! Nope. There's a fancy little App called Campendium that allows for you to see nearby places to legally car camp or even better Dispersed camping.
"Dispersed Camping is the term given to camping in the United States on public land other than in a designated campsites. This type of camping is most common on national forest and Bureau of Land Management land.”
Our plan for the next morning was to get up at 5am and finish our short drive to The Badlands and catch the sunrise. Knowing this, we didn’t feel the need to hunt for a campsite as we arrived at our destination around 11pm and had to be up in just a few short hours. So blew up our sleeping pads, unrolled our sleeping bags and tucked in for bed. I was giddy. This was the first night of the trip and we found ourselves closing our eyes to fall asleep in a gas station parking lot in South Dakota. I’m someone who keeps my promises. As you recall, I can promise an adventure and a cheap trip to my travel companions.. Check.. Check.
RISE AND SHINNEEE. GSDD (Get shit done day) I usually use this in terms of getting things crossed off my to do list at home but today it represented seeing and doing as much as possible. 5am came quick but the sunrise over The Badlands was everything we could have hoped for and more. We entered the park right around dawn and our goal was to find the best viewpoint facing the East to catch the sunrise. While searching for just the right spot, we weaved throughout The Badlands. Every bend in the road offered a completely different view. The Badlands had some of the most unique landscape from all the erosion throughout the years but not only that, the off-white rock was complemented by horizontal streaks of vibrant red. While we continued driving, the sun slowly began to rise. With each minute that passed the red became more and more vibrant. The color and the texture of the landscape was hidden with the darkness of the morning and when we finally found the PERFECT viewpoint it was like we got to watch the unveiling of the Badlands. There was stillness in the air and not a sound to be heard. We were alone in the park. In moments like this I always wonder where the heck is everyone else or what are they doing?! Do they know that they are missing an incredible sunrise?
While catching the sunrise was amazing, it also had us awake and ready to tackle the day at about 6:45am. That’s great, besides the fact nothing opens that early and with WallDrug next on our todo list, we had no option other than to wait. WallDrug is a little piece of South Dakota taken directly out of a Western movie. It’s your typical “tourist trap” but I’m still a sucker for this kind of thing, PLUS they had 5 cent coffee... That alone is something worth sticking around for. While the actual experience at WallDrug wasn’t anything spectacular, it is worth noting that while we waited we named the minivan... Rhonda. My love and appreciation for Rhonda was already overflowing and it was only day two, so this was a big moment.
The rest of the day was on warp speed, remember it was a GSDD. We then headed to Mount Rushmore. Really cool but it’s kind of one of those things you do just to say you've done. So I’ve done it. Box checked. Next we headed to Custer State Park. Underrated you guys! The park is filled with nothing but lushes green. Trees and beautiful granite spirals filled the hillsides. We drove Needles Highway, which is a loop that covers the majority of the park. The loop takes about an hour to complete. The roads were narrow and twisting and turning the whole way. We even went through a few narrow tunnels while on the Highway.
We did our first hike of the trip this day. Sunday’s Gulch trail in Custer. It was a 4 mile loop starting at Sylvan lake. FIRST, Sylvan lake is gorgeous. It’s located in the middle of the park and surrounded by large rocks, giving it an almost fake or animated look. The hike was along a creek and was a little technical as you were climbing down rocks the first part of the hike. This is one of the more popular hikes so they have implemented handrails running along the trail for assistance while making your way down. GREAT idea minus the fact that we are in the middle of a pandemic and sliding my hands along the metal handrails just didn’t seem like the most educated thing. So I tested my coordination, balance and everything in between trying to make my way down.
It was funny because here I am thinking I’m escaping reality and I'm still worrying about COVID. It became most evident I hadn't escaped COVID, when we approached a family on the trail. The family was walking towards us and a young boy led the family. He was picking at his younger sister and walking backwards towards us. When he finally turned around and realized we were also on the trail, he froze in his tracks. Which then in return made me freeze in my tracks. He looked at me with literal fear in his eyes, he quickly looked back at his parents, took two big steps to the left, grabbed his mask from around his neck pulling it up over his nose and turned his back to Trent and I. His family followed his lead, turned their backs to us and allowed for us to pass. No.. I didn't have a mask with me. It was the first hike of the trip and it didn't even cross my mind. I was in nature and would be practicing social distancing with everyone I encountered. I don’t fault the young boy, nor do I fault the parents for keeping their children aware of the situation at hand but what does break my heart is the literal fear the young boy looked at me with. It breaks my heart to think that that is where our society is heading. When I walk past someone I smile, it’s natural and a simple way to spread kindness and now we are afraid of one another and it’s sad. I’m not saying it’s unjustified, all I’m saying is it’s sad. Anyways, COVID tangent over… for now.
Now for some ice creammmm. I am an ice cream fanatic. When I started traveling I always wanted to make sure I tried the best ice cream around, which then sparked my curiosity on the best ice cream in every state. Which THEN after a quick google search, I found my new Ice Cream Bible. How did I decide this particular website was going to be my Go To site? Simple, they had Kopps as the best ice cream in Wisconsin.. That’s all the credibility it needed. I would say that I do this for fun and it’s not that serious but then again one time I made my mom and grandma take a 30 minute uber ride (one way) with me in Louisiana to get an ice cream cone.
This experience was a little less complicated. We were spending the night in Rapid City and Armadillos Ice Cream was about 5 minutes from our accommodations. They had an array of options and I got the Triple Threat which was essentially vanilla soft serve ice cream with every different combination of peanut butter and chocolate. Recess cups, pieces and swirls of peanut butter. Ya I know. Yum. It ended up receiving a 8/10 and also serving as our dinner. Have to love the unorthodox eating habits you acquire when traveling.
We explored the city and found ourselves in a store called Roamin’ Trails. A much needed stop because I needed to purchase a few last minute things before we really began roughin’ it. They gave us a free sticker and Roamin’ Rhonda was born. We spent the rest of the evening playing cards in the downtown square and people watching.
We improved our sleeping accommodations 10 fold. We would end up with our own beds in an air conditioned home. We were CouchSurfing. I believe I have mentioned CouchSurfing in my previous blogs but as a refresher, CouchSurfing is a community of people that love to travel and host other travelers during their adventures. It’s an app that allows you to request your stay and you connect with your host through there. It's a great community of people and I LOVE it. Want good recommendations on the area? Yeah, ask the locals that thrive on travel and adventure. You'll never be disappointed. We were able to shower and enjoy our second night with a roof over our head and the comfort of a warm bed. I smiled as I fell asleep that night knowing that we have already done so much and it was just our second night of the trip and there was still so much to see and experience.
Woke up at David’s. Survived another CouchSurfing adventure and was even gifted with a donut as we left and continued on with our journey. Of course we stopped for coffee. Scooter’s Coffee. It was just a cup of coffee.. yes.. but the great vibe made it noteworthy. We headed back into Custer to tackle Black Elk Peak. It is known for being the highest summit in the US East of the Rocky Mountains at 7,244 feet. Challenge accepted. It was a 6.4 mile hike that climbed nearly 1,500 ft. With it being an outback, you can assume you are gaining those 1,500 ft during the first 3 miles and descending on the way back. Still nothing crazy and with a little giddy up in our step we made it to the top in an impressive 1 hour. Assuming the way down would be just about the same right? WRONG. We took a wrong turn and headed 2 miles off track. It’s an out back people.. You’d think that at some point during those two miles we’d recognize the fact that the trail was drawing more and more narrow and our scenery was strikingly different. Even with all the red flags, it wasn’t until we ran into an older couple on horses where I was finally like WTH? Where are we? Coming to the conclusion we were definitely going the wrong way, we turned back. The less fun thing about this small error was that we had been descending the whole time… SO back up we went and fast. I was maybe a little irritable at this point and decided the one way to make up time was basically jog back up the mountain. Sorry Trent hehe. Our total descent turned into a 4 hour mini workout. To say the least, the swim in Sylvan Lake was refreshing and much needed!
Next we headed to Bighorn National Forest. Bighorn wasn’t even on my radar when planning the trip but I’m thankful for a few recommendations that landed us in the forest for the night. We camped for the first time and Rhonda had to experience her first off roading experience. There’s a disclaimer about these free (dispersed) camping locations.. The majority of them are 4WD recommended. The key word there is “recommended”. Rhonda is gritty.
After a few bumps and bruises, we found the perfect site tucked away in the woods. Trent set up camp and I made dinner. I drew the long straw here since dinner only entailed boiling water in the Jetboil and adding it to our freeze dried meal. Beef stroganoff in the forest isn’t the worst thing. Neither was the sunset this night. Watching the sunset is one of my favorite things. Wisconsin offers some beautiful sunset but watching the sun disappear behind the mountains and the rays still shining through the sky just hits a little different.
As we sat around the fire that night I felt calm. I took a deep breath, fulling my lungs with the fresh crisp air. I closed my eyes and as the air left my lungs, a smile painted on my face. I was completely present and appreciating the moment. There was a peaceful feeling in the disconnect from the world. No service, no lights, no noise. Just your thoughts. The forest was silent. The only noise was from the crackling of the fire. Our worlds are busy, often crazy and full of distractions. In our every day life it can be difficult to escape this reality. It’s the reason people meditate, because just for a brief period of the day we get to escape the world and be present. Nature provides that same sensation of peace. I was thankful for the simplicity of this moment. I should have sat in this moment longer but soon I found myself falling 0-2 in cribbage. But again, it’s early in the trip, wait on the comeback.
To be continued...