We stopped at the closest gas station once we had crossed the border. “We don’t know when we’ll see another one of these,” Michael said, leaning down to pull the lever to release the gas door.
As he got out, a surge of cold wind swept through the inside of the car, making the skin on my bare legs break out in goosebumps. Looking out the window, I calculated the amount of steps it would take for me to reach the gas station store – “30 at the most,” I thought.
I pushed open the door and ran toward the storefront, my arms wrapped tightly around my body, hoping to move faster than the cold air around me. A mud-splattered white pick-up truck pulled up in an empty parking spot next to the store and two men wearing worn baseballs hats and heavy work boots climbed out of the truck. They saw me running, lips already blue as I desperately tried to shield my body from the relentless wind. With matching amused expressions they both waved a hand, smiling, and said, “Welcome to North Dakota.”
A “Drive-Through State"
When Michael and I first started planning our road trip, we spent hours on Google Maps connecting all the places we wanted to go to each other. Montana was a must – we had been dreaming of seeing the Rocky Mountains together since we had started dating four years prior. “We can take Interstate 94 up through Wisconsin, Minnesota and across North Dakota and probably make it to Montana in a day or two,” Michael said as I watched his finger trace out our route on the computer screen.
“Sounds good to me,” I said, wondering to myself if we could get to Montana a little sooner. With a 10-hour day of driving ahead of us, we left our hometown in Virginia on an early May morning, 2014. Our first stop was a state park in Indiana and we were giddy with the excitement that only new places and open roads can bring.
This was our first and last night of warm camping weather. For the amount of research we had done, neither of us thought the upper mid-western states of America would still be cold at the beginning of May.
The next night, we camped in Wisconsin under layers of clothes and blankets, and woke up to a frost-covered tent and frozen shoes – an unpleasant surprise to tired campers who had a long day of driving ahead. We were stopping in Jamestown, North Dakota, a place we knew nothing about other than it had a cheap motel and a rather large buffalo statue.
Before our trip began, when it was still in the planning stages, we only thought of where we wanted to end up and the roads that would help us get there. Montana, Wyoming, Utah – those were the places we wanted to see, the places we wanted to explore. Everything else was labeled as a “drive-through” state.
We knew what we’d find in Montana – snow-capped mountains and big skies. We knew we would awe over Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons in Wyoming. And we knew, without ever having been there, that the red cliffs of Utah would captivate us. What Michael and I didn’t know was that the drive-through states, the ones that would lead us to these great places, would be the unexpected highlights of our road trip.
Welcome to North Dakota
So when we drove across the Minnesota-North Dakota line, stopped at an unassuming gas station and were greeted by the friendly men in hats and work boots, our opinions started to waver.
The drive from Fargo to Jamestown felt open and wild. It was the first time during our month-long trip that I realized how far away I was from the suburban sprawl I call home. I watched farm after farm pass by, wondering who owned such large pieces of land and how they managed it all. I suddenly felt silly about the times I complained while mowing the lawn back home.
We came up on Jamestown suddenly, realizing we were there only when we saw the outline of a giant buffalo.
“There it is!” I exclaimed. We ogled at it as we drove by, in awe that someone built something so massive.
After checking into our motel, Michael and I ventured to the laundry room to wash the dirtiest of our clothes. It had only been three days since we left home, but not knowing when we’d have access to washing machines again, we took the opportunity.
The room was lit by bright florescent lights that made the man leaning back on his chair in the corner hard to miss. “Hey,” he said.
We said hi back, avoiding eye contact while we sorted clothes. His bluntness caught us off guard. “So where are you guys from?”
Was it that obvious we weren’t from here? I looked at Michael’s Washington Nationals baseball shirt and my tie-dyed “Virginia is for Lovers” one – yes, yes it was.
We learned the man was a trucker skilled in driving through wintry conditions who had a passion for walleye fishing in the Missouri River. “The trick to catching them is to leave your hook 12 to 18 inches from the bottom. That’s a little secret I can tell you,” he said, winking at the end.
We said our goodbyes once our laundry finished, leaving in a glow that comes from unexpected friendly company.
That night we did some more research, something we were not as good at as we had thought. “I had no idea this state had all of these things,” Michael said as we both looked over the plans we had made for the next day. “Neither did I,” I said.
Embracing the State
Twelve hours later, we found ourselves on top of a hill standing next to the world’s largest Holstein cow statue – Salem Sue. Wind slapped our faces as we stood in front of the giant beauty, admiring the detailed work of the sculptor. I went up and hugged her leg and noticed the veins running from her stomach to her udder.
Michael and I climbed a small hill behind Salem Sue, being careful not to let the wind knock us back down. From up there, I could see everything and everyone, from a mile away to 20, and I wanted to see more. I wanted to see everything.
We jumped back in the car and I watched Salem Sue get smaller in the rearview mirror only to be replaced with large scrap-metal sculptures an hour later as we drove through the Enchanted Highway in southwestern North Dakota.
Larger-than-life pheasants and eerily realistic caterpillars lined the road. We stopped and took pictures, noticing that the camera was unable to capture their full size. But it wasn’t just these magnificent pieces of art that caught our attention – it was the surrounding land, as well.
There was no one on the road, so we pulled over and got out to admire the gray clouds rolling in. I looked at the empty road in front of us and the one behind us and tried to take it all in.
We thought this was our last stop in North Dakota before we crossed over into Montana, but as we reached the western part of the state, the landscape abruptly changed. Michael and I suddenly found ourselves driving by rolling hills of dark reds, burnt oranges and dusty yellows. “Where are we?” I asked. A sign soon answered my question – Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
Prior to that day, neither of us had known of the park’s existence, our minds too preoccupied with thoughts of Glacier National Park. We spent more than an hour exploring the overlook area and dodging massive piles of buffalo poo. “They like the parking lot,” a ranger told us. “They’ll come right up here and hang out all day.”
I read a sign describing the area below us as the Badlands and the dangers it holds. “What a funny name for such a beautiful place,” I thought.
The Greatest Adventure is the Road Less Traveled
Michael and I spent 24 days on the road traveling more than 6,000 miles. We camped in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains in Montana, stained our clothes with the scent of sulfur from Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming and waded our way through the Virgin River in Zion National Park in Utah – all things we had planned to do from the beginning.
We left Virginia looking for adventure in places we knew we’d find it, not realizing that the greatest kind of adventure exists only from a willingness to throw away plans and take a lesser traveled road.
We didn’t plan to fall in love with North Dakota, but we did. Sitting around a campfire in Colorado on our way back east, Michael and I talked about the freedom we found in North Dakota’s landscape and the friendliness that lived in its people.
“I want to go back someday,” Michael said. “There’s still so much to see.”
Sarah Chaffee is a freelance writer and soon-to-be college graduate who has no idea what she wants to do when she grows up. When she’s not behind a desk writing, she’s behind a lens taking pictures of her surroundings in Pennsylvania, where she is attending college.