Cross-country road trip: It’s not just about the destination.

It has been quite a while since my last blog post. I’ve been pretty busy the last few weeks wrapping up my life as I know it, finishing up my job, moving out of my apartment and tying up many loose ends. I’ll be driving across the country for the next several weeks so my blog posts are going to take a bit of a turn from their usual nature. For those of you uninterested in my personal exploits, I completely understand. Tune back in six weeks from now. But if you can handle extremely wordy posts (for the benefit of family, close friends and myself) about my more physical journey, filled with gratitude, courage and sarcasm all the same, then stick around. Maybe it’ll be a book one day and you can say, “I read that before it was even a thing!” Or maybe not, but a girl can dream.I’d like to begin this post by acknowledging the traditional territories on which I reside and am traveling. I am a Settler to what we now call Canada. I grew up primarily on Salt Spring Island, British Columbia in W̱SÁNEĆ and Hul’qumi’num territory. I feel so grateful and privileged to be able to have the opportunity to live in these amazing locations, and now, to travel across Turtle Island. I want to ensure that I do so while recognizing the ongoing violence inherent to our colonial systems.  I have done my best to figure out all of the traditional territories in which we stayed throughout our trip. It is really important to me, as someone who identifies as a Settler, to acknowledge the indigenous nations who have, and continue to, reside on these lands. I apologize for any errors I have made and am open to feedback and corrections.

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On May 4th, I said goodbye to one of my closest friends and headed on a plane from Victoria, BC to Edmonton, AB. While tears were shed on the west coast, new adventures were about to be born just one province east. I had a plan for the next six weeks, and after that I had no idea how my life would unfold.

What I knew was this. I was driving across the country and back with one of my closest friends whom I have known since we lived in residence together during our first year of university. She was attending medical school in Edmonton and I had just finished my degree in Victoria. For six weeks our worlds were colliding again. After that, I had no plan; I had no job, no home, and a whole lot of open road ahead of me. I was half terrified and half excited. But for now, there was this adventure. And for now, that was enough.

I landed in Edmonton to the open arms of my friend, Charissa. Now let’s set the record straight. Charissa is a star. She is a beauty, one of the hardest workers I have ever known, and has a heart made of pure gold. I hadn’t seen her in several months and we did one of those run-and-almost-jump into each other arms type of greetings, completely oblivious for that moment to the world around us.

I got to meet her boyfriend, Chris, who is quite the charmer. We had lunch at a fantastic little diner in Edmonton, Daddio’s, with more character than I could fit in my sautéed veggie po’ boy. Before hitting the road for our first destination, Calgary, we stopped at the University of Alberta so I could see where Charissa spends most of her time. The medical building there is gorgeous. It felt so safe and structured to me. Whenever Charissa talks about med school there is always a little part of me that feels a sense of jealousy. The next several years of her life have so much order, there is a concrete plan. Of course there will be ups and downs and unknowns, and the massive challenges and huge amount of work and effort it takes to become a doctor, but sometimes I wish I had such structure. Meanwhile, I am an aspiring environmental or political organizer. I can hardly tell you what exactly that means, let alone how to get there.

Three hours later, we said hello to Calgary and Charissa’s amazing parents, in traditional Niitsitapi, Nakoda and Tsuut’ina territory. If there was an acknowledgements section to our road trip they would definitely play a starring role. Not only did they lend us their van, but they equipped it out with a camping stove, water for days, safety gear, blankets, yoga mats, air mattresses, towels, and adorable curtains they made for the windows in the back. Chris also hooked us up with his camping gear and some tunes, so definitely deserves a shout out as well.

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Charissa and I set to work packing the van and transforming the back into a mobile fort. It was pretty cozy, and although we would need to learn to sleep without being able to stretch out our legs fully, it definitely scored a lot of cute points.A last family meal, many safety tips and concerns expressed, and last minute map printing for maps I thought I had left at home (only to find them later in the safest possible place). We made sure that we had enough Harry Potter audiobooks on our iPhones and called it a night. Clearly we have our priorities straight.
Day One:The first official day of our journey! We left Calgary early in the morning to head down to Yellowstone National Park. I’ve decided Alberta isn’t for me, at least not at this time of year. I just couldn’t get used to the gloominess of it, although I suppose 24 hours of experiencing the province didn’t really give it a fair shot. It’s just hard for a West coast girl who grew up on a boat in the tropics to fall in love with the prairies when it’s still winter in May.

I won’t bore you with the details of our uneventful drive to the border, except to say that once we got there it was the easiest border crossing I have ever experienced. The border crossing agent, Laroque, was a large gruff man with a wicked sense of humour. He gave us a good razing filled with his jokes, and him laughing at them. He even managed to pronounce Charissa’s Chinese name with some ease. We were impressed. Just as we pulled away two Canadian geese took up flight headed back north. (If I was one of those writers who filled their stories with symbols, that would be one).

As soon as we crossed the border into the States the sun came out, greeting us with its warm beams. Almost right away the gorgeous scenery of Glacier National Park in Montana took our breath away. Snow capped peaks pierced the blue sky and quaint wooden homes nestled in the nooks of the earth. The winding road led from one jaw-dropping view to another, weaving over rolling hills and babbling creeks through the snowy mountains. Pure beauty.

The show hardly took a moment to pause all the way to Yellowstone. One moment we were passing through small towns that could claim the inspiration for many Western films and the next we were snapping shots at a massive frozen lake, the sounds of cracking ice nearly audible from the road.

Once we actually entered the park I nearly lost it when we saw a flashing road sign that read “Bison on the road”.

“Haha, how amazing would it be to see bison?” I said to Charissa, as I leaned out the road to snap a picture of the sign.

Moments later we were driving along a river within the park only to see several bison on the hill in the distance. Shrieking with excitement I pointed frantically as though I would never see such a sight again, “Buffalo! Buffalo!”

“They are bison, Kelsey, bison.” I’m a biology major and it took me until well into the next day to get it right.
Entering Yellowstone National Park

Entering Yellowstone National Park

Now, if that wasn’t enough, just around the bend we slowed to the sight of three young elk lazing in the sun on the bank of the river, soaking in the rays of sun. It was too perfect. But still, this wasn’t our final welcome to Yellowstone. That came just minutes later when we encountered a herd of bison meandering their way down the road in the direction of Sienna, our van.
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It was such a magical and humbling sight to witness over a dozen of these massive creatures slowly amble on by, completely ambivalent to the presence of our vehicle in their territory. They sauntered so close to the van that we could have easily, although we didn’t, reached out and touched them. It was spectacular.That evening we set up camp at Madison campground, located in traditional Shoshone territory, the only site open this early in the year. We were there early enough in the evening to journey several kilometers from camp to the Fountain Paint Pots, a gorgeous array of bubbling geysers and fumaroles connected by boardwalks. The name describes them perfectly as each pool of water or mud is an entirely different color, ranging from rusty red to the kind of vibrant blue only seen in tropical oceans or glacial lakes. The boiling, frothing water emits a sulfuric steam over the otherwise dark and eerie landscape.”Holy shit!” shrieked Charissa when we stumbled across the first one. “Holy shit!” It was a refrain that continued throughout the rest of our time around Yellowstone park.
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View from Fountain Paint Pots, Yellowstone National Park

That night we enjoyed, although that might be somewhat generous, our first sleep in our mobile fort, as we came to call it. Although it was cramped, it kept us warm, and with the snow outside, that was enough.Day Two:Yellowstone National Park!! That is all. This place is truly a natural spectacle. The diversity within the park itself is astounding and I’m so excited that we decided to detour to spend a day here.In the morning we got an early start and headed to Old Faithful, he quintessential geyser within the National Park. Unfortunately, it was snowing fairly heavily and the visibility was pretty low. We wandered around the many smaller geysers in the area, coughing and spitting up sulphur from their bubbling pools. We got to see Old Faithful blow from a distance through the snow, but unfortunately missed out on an impressive showing.

From here we headed to the northern part of the park to check out Mammoth Hot Springs. What a treat. Gorgeous rock formations blanket the slopes of the hills creating crystalline ivory-colored pools of water. Above this, the rock plateaus out into a serious of spewing geysers slowly encroaching on the green landscape. Lone dead trees, frozen in time and space by the calcium carbonate solidified within their xylem and phloem, create an eerie apocalyptic scene.

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Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone National Park

Upon our departure we headed toward Yellowstone Lake and Fishing Bridge in the eastern end of the park. Although the snow was coming down quite heavily, the drive was still beautiful with the road snaking along the gentle curves of the frothing Yellowstone River. At one point we pulled up along side several stopped cars on the road, cameras poking out of half shut windows, and to our delight got to see a bear ambling along in the snow. We feel so blessed with how much wildlife we saw during our time in the park.To cap the amazing day off we stopped at Yellowstone’s Grand Canyon.  This was the most spectacular view we had seen yet. The red rocky walls of the canyon come together to embrace a massive waterfall, gushing into the chasm hundreds of feet below. There are those moments, when bearing witness to the beauty of Mother Nature, when my heart hurts from the magic of it all. I ache for the land, for the connection, for my roots. My soul swells with gratitude and I cannot help but whisper a prayer of thanks. This was one of those moments.
We arrived back at the campground fairly early and decided to go for a walk by the river near Madison. As we were strolling along we stumbled across a bison, no more than 50 meters away from us. While the park is dotted with warning signs regarding the bison and other wildlife, from a distance, and even from nearby as we had experienced the previous day, they seem like such gentle creatures. Charissa wouldn’t let me bring one back to the van to cuddle with us though. Complete bollocks, if you ask me.Day Three:

Today was our first really long driving day, and we definitely felt it. We rose early and were out of our campground by 6:30. Go team. Driving through Yellowstone on the way out was a lot of backtracking, but this time through even more snow. On the last leg of the journey out the east entrance of the park it became pretty treacherous  and we were gripping onto our seats. Snow banks were piled high on either side of the road and the surface was often slick with fresh white powder. All we could see for miles and miles was snow and more snow and we had no idea when it would end. Charissa’s expert snow-driving skills were definitely appreciated.

Bighorn National Park

Bighorn National Park

We thought we had gotten through the worst of it when we reached the entrance of the park and hit the Wyoming highway, but boy, were we wrong. As we were distracted by the natural beauty of the Shoshone National Forest, trouble was looming up ahead. First, on the road between those two parks we hit a straight stretch, which came with a nice serving of blizzard on the side. Charissa was in full on Alberta driver mode and had us clipping at a nice pace. Turns out the local sheriff wasn’t such a big fan. We got pulled over by a lovely officer, donning the traditional green hat, who was kind enough to let us go without a ticket and just two warnings… One about our speeding, and another about the road ahead which apparently he was quite surprised wasn’t closed given the weather conditions. Of course, we thought nothing of it.There is a little stretch of the 14 highway through Bighorn National Park in Wyoming that now has a special place in our hearts. Picture this: you’re driving on the side of a cliff with a gorgeous back drop of scenic mountains speckled with stoic pine. Now, picture this: you’re driving on the side of a cliff with a gorgeous backdrop of pine-covered mountains, but the road you are driving on and the landscape all around is covered in snow… And not just a light dusting, a proper winter dumping at a 3000 meter elevation. Now, imagine all this and add a steep decline, driving warnings, a van with summer tires, two girls with no phone service, in the middle-of-nowhere Wyoming. Welcome to one of the most terrifying hours of our lives. Luckily we made it out unscathed, thanks again to Charissa’s driving and willingness to slowly crawl down the mountainside, but there were definitely a few times in which I honestly wasn’t sure we were going to make it out of there. That’s not to say it wasn’t gorgeous, it was, mind-blowingly so. But in those moments there was a fine line between awe and terror, and we definitely crossed it.
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This doesn’t quite do the fear factor justice.

When we emerged out of what felt like the land beyond the wall in Game of Thrones (honestly, I was half expecting to drive into a snow bank and either be taken hostage by wildlings or killed by White Walkers), we stumbled across the small town of Cody. I have never been so excited to hit a McDonalds in my life. Usually, I steer clear of them like the plague, but this was our best bet for coffee, and we needed it.  Creating a concoction of adrenaline and caffeine in our veins was definitely first on our to do list.As I was paying for the coffee, I accidentally whipped out a Canadian bill instead of an American one. The man across the counter’s jaw dropped.
“What is that?” he asked.
“Uhhh, Canadian money.”
“Canadian?”
“Yeah, like you know, from Canada.”
“Wow, can I look at it?”
I handed over the bill to the server who carefully examined it like I had handed him the finest gem.
“This is amazing. Why do you have it?”
“We drove down from there. We’re from there.”
“Wow…. Oh fuck, your coffee.”
He handed me back the bill, daintily, like it was worth far more than $20. As he filled up our coffee cups he asked, “What brings you here?”
I responded, “We were just in Yellowstone.”
From around the corner I heard a voice, “Yellowstone?” The man to whom the voice belonged strolled over, “I heard you were in Yellowstone. I am a guide there. Was there much snow?”
Charissa came back from the bathroom. “Yes. There was much snow. Lots and lots of snow. All the snow,” she chimed in.
As we were heading out the door of the McDonalds another gentleman, hunched over his coffee in the corner, called over to us, “I heard you were in Yellowstone.” Yes, you and everyone else in this building.
“Once, I was there in mid June and got caught in a blizzard. Mid June!”
I love small town America. We are all immediately old friends finally re-united at a little shindig in the local McDonalds. I absolutely love it.Finally, we hit a real highway, like the one we were expecting to be driving on when we talked about “driving across the States”. Boring has never been so beautiful. We drove for the whole afternoon, averaging 130 sweet sweet kilometers an hour. With plenty of rolling hills on our left and right and not a lot else to see we got some much needed journal writing catch up time… Ergo this novela in your hands.Once we entered South Dakota we kept seeing signs for Wall Drug. Billboard after billboard tried to grab our attention and take us to the biggest and best drugstore in all the lands. Sign after sign demanded we visit this family friendly venue with a cafe that seats over 530, exclamation point. However, we couldn’t even take the time to detour to the Badlands or Mt. Rushmore, so despite the temptation, Wall Drug didn’t get to see our glowing, shower needing selves either. Instead, we opted for more driving through the gloomy, rolling hills to Chamberlain.There was a whole lot of not a lot for a long way and as I was in need of a bathroom, and the Sienna was in need of gas, we pulled onto an exit for Okaton, South Dakota.  As we drove into what could only be called a hamlet we felt a little unnerved by the ominous nature of the broken down cars, ramshackle houses and tiny church with its cross askew. I’m sure Okaton is a lovely place but with the backdrop of the dark sky it felt more like something straight out of True Detective. So much to the chagrine of my bladder, we bee-lined it back to the highway instead. Damn that large coffee. Onward bound with Charissa gripping the steering wheel with all her might every time a large truck passed us in the other lane, making the van tremble with the gust of wind it created. We have become so grateful for cruise control.

That night we slept in Chamberlain, South Dakota at a campground along the banks of the Missouri River, in Dakota and Yankton Sioux land. We fell asleep to the sound of rain pounding on the roof, thunder beating its way through the clouds, and the flickering strobe of lightening flaming through the dark sky. We fall asleep singing The Strumbellas to keep the scary night at bay.

Day Four:

Another driving day along over 1300 km of highway covering six states. But the day was off to a good start before 7am. Why? One word. Showers. Please, for me, during the next shower you take, enjoy it, every drop of it. We so often take for granted all the little things. But how much more amazing would life feel if we were actually present for every single moment of it, for every drop. The hot water trickles down your face, grazing your chest with its warm caress, then tickles your thigh and makes a faintly hollow sound as it hits the cool tile floor. Follow the drop. See where it will take you.

Now, here’s twelve hours of driving along the I-90 summed up for you in as succinct a way as I can muster:

South Dakota. We drive for miles. Charissa crawls into the back to sleep. I pass a chicken truck that reaffirms my vegetarianism. Feathers blend with beaks and only beady eyes pierce the mess of white and red. One wing sticks out through the grated walls, bones almost visibly snapping in the 130 km an hour wind. A sailboat in the divider between the two sides of the highway; dreams that didn’t pan out. I can’t keep track of the number of road kill and “Abortion kills” signs we pass. One kind of death so easily accepted, another so-called “death” the subject of so much controversy and protest. 150 miles later Charissa wakes up to another state.

Minnesota. We are bummed that we have to slow to 120 km. Nothing. Literally nothing for over a hundred miles. I crawl into the back to sleep. Just gently rolling hills and a little farm town here and there.

Wisconsin. We are bummed that we have to slow to 115 km. The smell of manure. More farms. One semi truck for every two cars on the road. And hot hot heat. We realize the air conditioning doesn’t work. We change into shorts and sing along to Avicii.

Illinois. We are stoked that we get to speed back up to 120 km. The heat begins to penetrate our pores. We have reached our destination: summer. Walls of semi-trucks on the road. Windows down, wind tearing at our hair as we speed toward Chicago, blasting The Strumbellas, our road trip soundtrack. We hit Chicago and everything slows down. Charissa seems to get stuck with the wheel for all the tough parts. Five lanes of traffic each way. Gridlock. The swearing from the driver’s seat is almost constant. Cover your ears, kids. “Fuck, this is fucking stupid. Yeah just go ahead of me, whatever. Don’t signal. This is why I’m going into rural medicine! Do you think you can let me into that lane? Nope. You bitch! Of course I change lanes and the other lane is faster! Why does this always happen to me? Fuck!” We pass under a sign that tells us there have been 249 car accident related deaths in Illinois this year alone. Welcome to America, land of the free. “I don’t even know if I’m in a lane! There are so many. Kelsey, oh my god, there are seven lanes all going the same way. This is fucking insane!” I was sitting there munching on cookies watching all this with a bemused look on my face. Charissa turned to me, “Why are you eating cookies and watching this like it’s a movie?!” Well, it kind of was. Equally good entertainment. We make it out of Chicago, listening to The Strumbellas again. We needed happy music to survive the mess of rush hour traffic. Charissa proclaims that she just got a life Victory Point for making it back and forth across five lanes of traffic. You can have that Victory Point, in fact, just have all ten and win the game.

Indiana. Seven tolls later. The Interstate.

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Michigan. Finally made it to our sleeping state. Found Van Buren State park, in traditional Potawatomi territory, just before 10pm. Happened to luck out a bump into the ranger on our way out who got us all set up and couldn’t believe that we had driven across six states, all the way from South Dakota, all in one day. Apparently this isn’t something people normally do. Set up the tent for the first time in the pitch black. Tried not to snap at each other too much after fourteen hours of driving. Thought we might luck out and have a warm beach morning to wake up to but half way through the night the storm caught up with us and pounded our tent with rain and thunder.Day Five:Woke up to more rain but decided to hit up Oval Beach on Lake Michigan anyway. We were the only ones crazy enough to brave it in the wind and rain, but we enjoyed a nice, albeit wet, walk along the beach. We dipped our toes into the icy Michigan waters, as churned up wavelets slapped the shore. After a good soaking we hit the road to head back into Canada. It was really nice to return to our own country. It definitely feels a little bit more like home, even if it’s still thousands of miles away.
Oval Beach, Lake Michigan

Oval Beach, Lake Michigan

We briefly hit up both the towns of Stratford, to grab some lunch at a cute little sandwich shop, and St. Jacobs, where we got to taste test some Southern Ontario maple syrup. So delicious. Driving through the back roads was definitely a nice change from the highways. We even passed by some Mennonite farms with traditional plow and horse, as well as black horse-drawn buggies along the side of the road. Once we were back on the highways, driving through the GTA was a little scary, not going to lie.  For a girl who has only ever driven on Vancouver Island, and learned how to drive on Salt Spring, this was a bit of a shock. Imagine a repeat of the swearing episode, but this time I got to play the starring role instead of Charissa.

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Hit Oakville, in traditional Mississauga territory, for dinner and arrived safely at my sister’s house. The warm welcome of family is always so lovely and appreciated. (Love you Terry!) Got to do some laundry, which was more exciting than it should have been. Charissa and I both loaded our clothes from the washing machine, into another washing machine, without noticing, in order to try and dry them. My sister pointed out that they likely would still be wet. We are clearly tired. Not sure why our parents are trusting us to handle driving thousands of miles when we don’t even remember how to do laundry (Love you parents!).Well – that’s a wrap for now. We hit the road bright and early tomorrow to head to Maine, and then on to Halifax! Talk soon. Much love to all of you.
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