Around 4am that morning, our alarms went off and I scrambled to find my phone. After checking beside the platform, under my pillow, and in the seat pockets, I found it on the fridge that was shoved in the front seat of the car. While I was relieved to feel cool air coming into the car windows, I could feel how exhausted I was in every inch of my body. I mean, my toes were tired. Jake must have felt the same because for 30 minutes we groaned and rolled around in the sleeping bags and snoozed the alarm.
But, if we were going to get to our next stop with any chance of finding an open campsite, we had to leave and we had to leave now. We jumped out, and by 5am, we were packed up and back in the truck - but in the front seats this time.
As I started the car, I looked at Jake and asked one last time: "Are you sure you want to leave?"
We had just found the most incredible hidden treasure in the Black Hills National Forest of South Dakota. I swear it may very well be the most peaceful place in the world. I'm not exaggerating. It was an oasis. We saw maybe a total of 15 people all day. And except for two flocks of geese and one fishing boat that went quietly out at night, we had the entire lake to ourselves. The sun was warm, the shade from the trees was cool. It was an incredible break after spending 4 full days driving across the endless Midwest and sleeping in Walmart parking lots.
After hiding out all day, I could feel my body healing - and between my mouth aching from a surgery and my horrible lady cramps, I needed it. And honestly, I probably needed a few day mores of it.
So the question I posed to Jake was really me begging - please, say we should stay. Say it so I don't have to.
But he didn't. And for good reason.
We only have two months to cover everything we want to cover. If we stop now, it means we miss something later.
So, off we went.
We said goodbye to South Dakota in the way it deserved - by not having any service to GPS our way out and guessing our way through the rest of the national forest on the nicest dirt road I've ever been on. The ranches high in the mountains were enough to make you want to give up your life and become a cowboy. But we kept going.
The dirt road ended at an intersection that said "Welcome to Wyoming." Our phone service came back. We plugged in "Bridgey Teton National Forest" on Google Maps and went on our way.
First, we entered a cloud. The temperature dropped to 60 degrees F and we found out that the only thing worse than driving straight for hours and staring into the distance at a horizon that never gets closer, is driving straight for hours into a wall of fog and mist that never gets closer.
We ate breakfast in a Starbucks parking lot in Gillette (honest question, is this where they invented those razors?). I got coffee, but Starbucks put sweetener in it. (Honestly, how do you people drink sweet coffee). Jake tried to get gas, but used the wrong pump (don't ask haha).
We left and seemed to exit the cloud. We thought, "Oh finally! This is great! We are out of the cloud!"
But boy, we were wrong.
Travel Tip: Never - and I repeat never - try to cross Wyoming in the summer in a black car during a heat wave.
A few hours later, the heat had settled into the car. No matter how high we blasted the AC, our knee, back, and ass cracks were sweaty. Miska sat panting hot, stinky breath down our necks with his eyes closed and drool dripping onto his paws.
I needed a break.
Somewhere in the middle of Wyoming - Casper, maybe? - I said, "That's it. We're pulling off."
What should have been a quick bathroom and leg-stretch break turned into a two-hour stress fest.
First, I don't know who designed the roads in Wyoming, but honestly what the hell is going on there.
Second, while I was driving, Jake had been researching some potential sites.
If you don't know by now, we have absolutely no set plans or reservations anywhere. We have a general idea of our route, along with some key spots we want to hit. But otherwise, we show up and hope for the best.
Anyway, he had been reading that the bear regulations were a lot more strict than he realized. The websites were saying that our car and our fridge weren't enough. Everything needed to be sealed and locked, even inside a locked car because bears have been known to rip car doors off.
Then he showed me this:
My heart sunk. How did we miss this? How are we not prepared for this? Where are we going to stay? I don't know if I can do another Walmart parking lot. Are we going to get attacked by a bear?
I sat and worried (and sweat) in the Sportsman Warehouse parking lot for what felt like eternity while Jake ran around looking for the approved gear. We didn't know what would work.
Finally, I decided to face my hatred of phone calls. This is worth it, I thought.
"Bridgey Teton National Forest," some cowboy ranger said through the phone.
"Heyyy, so we're coming through tonight and we are hoping to stay, but we read the regulations on your website and.."
"Oh no as long as you lock everything in your car you'll be fine."
*insert long pause*
"That's great, thank you, sir." I hung up.
Frustrated and relieved, we hit the road again.
I'm not exactly sure what else happened that afternoon. I felt like Frank Hopkins passed out on the back of Hidalgo, trying to cross the desert in Arabia to win the race.
Blue sky stretched out in every direction with no sign of clouds. We were surrounded by ranches and rolling hills, but no trees or shade. We would go miles without seeing anyone and then pass through towns of less than 200 people in population - without seeing anyone. Our service cut out, so we had to listen to the same downloaded playlists on repeat. I dozed off and woke up to my arm falling asleep or my leg cramping. Our water tasted like warm pool water. We would sweat, then immediately dry, then sweat, then dry.
The sun blazed. It beat down relentlessly.
My mouth was dry. My eyes were dry. The landscape was dry.
Then we saw them: the mountains.