[**This is the latest installment of our new community column, Valley Vagabonds, written by Doreen Currie, who relocated to North Bend from Connecticut. Instead of flying, Doreen convinced her family to make a cross-country RV adventure of it.**]
Since we moved to the U.S. in 1994 I had always wanted to do a cross-country road trip in an RV, but to my chagrin, nobody else in the family shared my enthusiasm. In a strange twist, I got my wish last summer when the company my husband works for announced that they were closing their Connecticut site and offered him a job in Seattle. I used our two dogs as leverage for a road trip, as nobody wanted to put them through the stress of flying.
I rented the largest RV from Cruise America. When I looked at one, it seemed roomy and the brochure stated that it slept seven people, so I invited my 17-year old niece from Scotland along. Then our oldest daughter invited a friend – so that made six adults and two dogs
Our best friends and camping experts helped us plan the trip and accompanied us in their travel trailer for part of the way. On July 4th 2016 we set off. Our first day we drove to Pennsylvania and saw some beautiful hill country. We spent the first night in a KOA campsite. My husband had watched the videos on the Cruise America website about how to set up a site and had guidance from our friend Jeff. Hooking up the water and waste pipes was easy. Disconnecting them the next day was also simple, but you just have to remember to empty the waste water holding tank last to flush out the pipe. As part of my quest to see the quirky unusual side of the country, I found a gem for day two: the most unusual ice cream/mini golf place ever. I’m still scratching my head over the theme: T-rex, Big Foot, vintage trains, and goats.
The hilly terrain of Pennsylvania gave way to the flat farmlands of Ohio. After an uneventful day, we spent the night in a KOA in Streetsboro. When we hit Indiana, we took a quick detour into Michigan so we could add another state to our tally. That day we ate in three different states: breakfast in Ohio, lunch in Michigan and dinner in Indiana. Our overnight stay in Portage, Indiana was interesting to say the least. There was no KOA close to where we wanted to stop for the day (we were trying to average 300 miles a day) so we reserved spaces in a Jellystone Park campground. It was nothing like the photos on the website. It was very run down and situated between a freight railway track and highway with a large stagnant pond in the middle.
The next morning we drove through Illinois and stopped in Wisconsin for lunch (cheese, of course.) The cheese curds were just as they had been described to me: squeaky and delicious. We pulled off I-90 for gas and to take photos with Pinkie the giant pink elephant overlooking the Shell gas station in DeForest. Back in the seventies the owner was looking for a way to make his gas station stand out. It worked, because it’s hard to miss a giant, 20-foot tall pink elephant wearing hipster glasses! Loaded up with a tank full of gas and arms full of Pinkie souvenirs, we hit the road again.
As we crossed the Mississippi River and entered Minnesota, the fairly flat landscape was dominated by wind turbines. There were too many to count, stretching as far as the eye could see. We stopped to see the Jolly Green Giant Statue; this 55.5 foot tall tribute to the nearby Green Giant factory was actually paid for by local businesses to attract visitors to the small town.
When we crossed into South Dakota and the landscape changed drastically. Lush green grass gradually gave way to drought burned scrub. The state is so big we spent two nights there; the first was in Al’s Oasis in Oacoma. The basic, lacking-trees campground afforded no shade. Thankfully it was evening and temperatures dropped so it wasn’t an issue, but I can’t help wondering how comfortable it is during the day. Across the street was the actual oasis, which was really a giant tourist trap/attraction consisting of a souvenir mega store and restaurant serving school cafeteria quality food.
Our second day in SD was by far the most memorable. We departed I-90 and took a trip through the Badlands. It was stunning and surreal. The landscape looked like a desert, but also strangely lunar. The scorching hot the sun bounced off the hard packed, light-colored sand, without even a whisper of a breeze. It may have looked like the moon, but I felt like we were walking on the sun.
Taking advice from a Road Trip website, we made a detour off I-90 again, this time to Wall Drug. It was nothing more than an overcrowded tourist trap. The drug store has now morphed into a giant complex of stores selling tacky tchotchkes nobody really needs.
As we climbed in altitude, the temperatures dropped and we had to dig our rain jackets for our next stop. Despite the rain and grey skies, Mount Rushmore was breathtaking. Whilst the scale of the sculptures was smaller than I imagined, I was still blown away by the magnitude of the work that had gone into creating such a large monument.
Our last night in South Dakota we stayed at the KOA near Mount Rushmore. It was the best campsite on the trip, with lots of amenities including a restaurant, coffee shop and a few swimming pools. The owners had done a wonderful job of maintaining the landscaping with colorful, flower-filled planters throughout the campground.
The next day we descended from the Black Hills and into the prairies of Wyoming. We left I-90 to see the Devil’s Tower, which is an impressive feat of nature that looks like a colossal monolith. Later in the day we arrived in Montana, which truly deserves the title Big Sky Country. Montana is a huge state. When we crossed the border from Wyoming, we saw the exit numbers in the 500’s. Because of this we had two nights in KOA campsites reserved.
Fun fact: exit and entrance ramps off I-90 have cattle grids, presumably to stop bison wandering onto the interstate. Most of the exits also have “No services” signs and many are unpaved roads. Because of this don’t let your gas tank get under ¼ full.
The next KOA was very basic and frustratingly, the laundry room closed as we arrived at 8pm. This kind of thing is not uncommon. My advice is to do laundry when you can as you never know if the next site will have 24-hour facilities. Oh,and bring plenty of quarters. All of the machines we saw were coin operated, and whilst many site stores will sell rolls of quarters, a lot of them close early.
We stopped to see the birth place of the Missouri River as we made our way to our last stop in Montana. We had a reservation in a KOA close to the center of a quaint little town – Deer Lodge. We were scheduled to leave Montana, cross a corner of Idaho then spend a night in Spokane, WA before the last leg of our journey home, BUT we decided unanimously that we were done. The “large” RV doesn’t feel so large after 8 days on the road with 6 adults and 2 dogs. Every night was a giant game of Tetris, putting beds together and moving everything out-of-the-way. For a clumsy person like me, who had bruises on every extremity from walking into the bed/cabinets/doors and had several hard hits to the head, eight days was enough. The two oldest girls had brought a tent and most nights had camped outside, but there were a couple of nights where it was pouring rain so they slept in the RV. Even with the large storage areas underneath the RV, when everyone is inside, there is no space. Cruise America may suggest it sleeps 7, but realistically 4 is a much more comfortable number.
We left Montana and drove the last 527 miles to home. As we crossed the state line into Washington I was surprised by the landscape. Having only been on the West side of the Cascades, I was not expecting the flat rolling farmland. In places it looked barren, and we even witnessed a couple of Dust Devils. By late afternoon we were climbing into the Cascades and stumbled upon the scenic overlook of the Columbia River. We stood at the edge of the gorge and watched a rainstorm further down river. We continued through Snoqualmie Pass and eventually arrived in our new home in North Bend.
This trip was everything I had hoped it would be. In 9 days we traveled 3,182 miles, passing through three time zones and 14 states, seeing parts of the country we would never see again and will never forget. We got to spend quality time together and with our best friends.
Would I do it again? Not in an RV. I would stay in hotels. As for my dogs, let’s just say they were happy when we arrived and have been leery getting in the car with me since!