In early spring of 2007 I decided to quit my job, sell my house along with nearly everything else that I owned, and to live out of my car while traveling the country. These are my stories (and pictures) of life on the road.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

First Taste of Winter

Although we haven't had the greatest weather since I got back to Iowa at least we haven't had any snow. Actually, now that I think about it I think I would have taken snow over the dreary, windy weather we have had. As I was packing up the van Saturday morning so Sarah I could take off for her job interview in Montana I was surprised to walk outside and find it snowing heavily. Other then a few random flakes the week before it was the first real falling snow of the year. It only lasted about 15 minutes and there was no accumulation but it was a reminder that winter was on the way and that we were living on borrowed time.

Late in the morning I pulled out of Estherville and headed to Lakefield to pick up Sarah. There we loaded up the rest of her stuff in the van and managed to get most of it packed out of the way. Knowing that we'd be driving into the mountains on this trip we also packed the small shovel that she kept in the trunk of her car, just in case. We were both kind of anxious to get out west so we didn't waste any time and hopped aboard I-90 to carry us through South Dakota.

South Dakota isn't the most interesting state to drive through and by the time we reached the Badlands it was almost dark, though it was only 4:00pm. We weren't ready to quit driving for the night though so after stopping in Wall to bum a free wireless connection at Super 8 we continued on through the dark. By the time we reached Rapid City near the Wyoming border we were ready to be done driving for the day. We did some shopping at Scheel's and grabbed some vegetables at a grocery store. We weren't quite ready for bed yet so instead we pulled out the laptop, connected it to the stereo in the van, and watched a few episodes of The Office before crawling in back of the van, me on my cot and Sarah on a mountain of Thermarests, for our night's sleep. I gotta say it felt really good to be sleeping in the van again.

We woke in the morning and continued on our journey to the west. We took a look at the map and decided we'd drive to the Bighorn National Forest where we'd stop to stretch our legs by taking a hike. As we got closer to the Bighorn National Forest we could see mountains appearing on the horizon and they were covered in snow. We'd been steadily gaining altitude all day long, culminating in a 9500+ foot pass in the Bighorns. There looked to be pretty fresh snow on the ground but thankfully the roads were clear. We found a small road that led back into the woods and followed it until we found a good place to park.

There was about 1-2 inches of snow on the road and we were both kind of excited to be in the snow. In her exuberance Sarah decided to wear her gaiters, which led to me making fun of her for wearing gators in less then 2 inches of snow. Once we got back into the woods though I had to eat those words as the snow was piled considerably higher and while I somehow managed not to get any in my boots I did get some wet pant legs and wished I had my gaiters on as well. It was a short hike but a nice break from driving. It felt great to be back in the mountains again.

We hadn't known for sure which route we'd take to get to Bozeman but now looking at the map we found that if we stayed on Hwy. 16 we could go right through Yellowstone and then straight north to Bozeman. We continued driving through the dark (which starts at 4:30) and when we got to Cody we found signs saying that Hwy. 16 through Yellowstone was closed for the season. Luckily we just hopped on Hwy. 296 North from Cody which would bring us to Hwy. 212, which went through the northern part of Yellowstone and that I knew was kept open all year.

It was still surprisingly warm in Cody at over 50 degrees. Once we left though we started climbing steadily on our way to Yellowstone. Once we turned onto Hwy. 212 West things started to get a little bit dicey. It started with a little bit of slush on the road and then it started snowing a little bit. The higher we climbed the harder it was snowing and the more snow was on the road. No plows had come out yet and soon we were traveling through one set of ruts in the snow. The snow on the road was about 6 inches deep and was dragging on the bottom of the van the whole way. The temperature had dropped into the low 30's and it just kept getting worse. I thought for sure we were going to get stuck in one spot but somehow managed to get through it. We were hoping that if we could just get to Yellowstone that we might find the roads clear but once the road started going downhill again we had to rethink the situation. We were afraid that if we started going down that we'd never be able to go back uphill if we were forced back. Instead we decided we decided to take the easy route and turn back, which would take is downhill and out of the snow. It only took a couple miles of driving until the snow was pretty much gone and we reached a trailhead parking lot to sleep for the night.

We woke in the morning just before the sunrise to find ourselves surrounded by mountains. It hadn't snowed anymore at our elevation but once we hit the road back to Yellowstone we also found that the plow hadn't been out yet and that the road wasn't in much better shape then the night before. There was no way we were turning back though and amazingly enough we made it to Cooke City. From Cooke City it was all downhill (literally) and on the other side of town we found the road clear the rest of the way to the park. The farther back downhill we went the better it got and by the time we reached the park there wasn't any snow to be seen, except on the surrounding mountains.

The park was nearly deserted and it was a nice drive. We could stop wherever and whenever we wanted without having to worry about anyone else. We stopped for about 5 minutes as a heard of buffalo crossed the road. They didn't look so tough from the other side of the windshield. It looked like mostly females with their young from the previous spring. We'd grabbed a map at the deserted park entrance and found every other road except the one we were on through the far north end of the park was closed for the season. When we got to Tower Junction though we stopped at the barricaded road and decided to hike to tower falls, only about 2 1/2 miles away.

It was actually a great time to be at the park and I enjoyed it a lot more then when I came through earlier this spring at the beginning of the tourist season. We had a nice leisurely hike down the road and other then one park ranger and two people on bicycles we didn't see another soul. We had the entire road and every tourist attraction to ourselves, which made us feel very un-tourist like. While on the way to the falls we passed a group of about four buffalo lazing around in the woods next to the road. It's a very different experience walking past them on foot with no vehicle for protection and made us feel extra cool.

Although it was very windy we were mostly walking through the woods which blocked most of it and made for a pretty enjoyable hike. The sun played peak-a-boo through the clouds the entire way to the falls and we got some great views. As soon as we started back from the falls though the sun went behind the clouds for good and it started spitting snow and sleet. It never got very bad while we were walking but it made for a different view on the way back to the van. We finished our short drive through the park with a short stop at the Mammoth Hot Springs before continuing north to Bozeman.

Leaving Yellowstone that evening was a very similar to the experience of arriving at the park that morning. That morning we'd driven through snow and bad road conditions until we got about 5 miles from the park. Now that evening we ran into snow and bad road conditions about 5 miles north of the park when leaving. I didn't expect it to to last very long but started to get a little nervous when we noticed the vehicles we were meeting that were coming from the north covered in snow. It started snowing harder but the roads were only wet. We nervously watched as the temperature dropped below 32 degrees and the road started to ice over. Soon we were down about 40 MPH in heavy snow. It was a slow drive to Livingston, MT where we'd catch the interstate the rest of the way to Bozeman. I was confident that once we hit the interstate we'd be in good shape since surely it would be better then the highway we'd been on.

It didn't start out too bad but quickly got worse as we gained more altitude. The interstate went from snow covered to ice covered and many trucks were pulled over on the side of the interstate putting on chains. Once while climbing the pass I looked in my rear view mirror and saw the car following 100 feet behind us turn sideways and go into the ditch. It wasn't until the next day that I was informed that the pass between Livingston and Bozeman is notorious for its winter conditions and at times has to be shut down because of strong winds making it impassable for trucks.

Thankfully we made it to Bozeman in one piece and after doing a little exploring around town we were able to meet up with relatives of one of Sarah's friends who would give us a place to sleep that night.

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You've reached the end of the page but that's not the end of the stories. If you want to read more (and who wouldn't!?) then click on the archive links to the right hand side of the page. They're listed by month; the adventure starts in May.

The February archives aren't actually from this trip but are previous adventures I've had, which are worth reading as well.