Driving 'The Beast' through North-America
by Isabelle Demaeght, October 23rd, 2022
Now that we can enjoy the sun again after a month of cold nights, I take up blogging again and decide to write my (penultimate?) story. This is a report on national parks and cold nights.
In the southern of Canada, we visited the beautiful Waterton Lake National Park which seamlessly transitions into the equally beautiful Glacier National Park in the United States. Seamless in terms of nature, because our transition was less smooth. We had to leave the "Canadian" avocados, three eggs, onions and other produce at the border. (Exceptionally, we smuggled cherry tomatoes, citrus fruit and a full box of eggs across the border with us.)
Because I wanted to spend one day in Hyder (very small part of Alaska and thus the US) watching the Grizzly bears, we were not officially in Canada for a full consecutive 30 days and our residence permit will not be renewed. Rather unexpectedly, this has given us an end date: we must have left the United States by December 6. Suddenly there are lots of questions: how, what, when with us and with The Beast, is this the end of our trip?
While hiking, we enjoy both parks. The tourist season is over so we can forget about our coffee at the stately "Prince of Wales" hotel. Labor Day (Sept. 5) turned out to be the ending of the summer season in many places here. In Glacier National park we get to drive the "Going to the Sun" route right through the park ourselves (during the peak season it is accessible only by buses - no private cars). The name gives away enough. In the summer months you must have a reservation for this.
We are stopped by two Belgian couples. They are a little disappointed because they still haven't seen a bear after a long trip. We tell them about our bear-encounters and assure them that they will. An hour later, after we have all seen a young black bear, we meet them again. "You bring luck" they say.
Looking for a place to sleep, we find ourselves in the vicinity of a Ghost Town. There are several in the area. 150 years ago, this was a thriving village populated by prospectors. Structures of a bar, a hotel and even a prison can still be found.
Driving south, we arrive at a place where a young farmer is displaying his produce. I ask Adriaan to stop for a moment. This also allows me to fulfill my goddaughter Elise's 'challenge'. She challenged me to be photographed with someone wearing a MAGA cap (Make America Great Again). This Trump supporter was only too happy when I praised him (for all the wrong reasons) with his choice of cap....
Passing through the state of Wyoming, we arrive in Yellowstone, the oldest national park in the US. The park is large; many facilities in the park are already closed because the season is about to end. The remaining campgrounds in the park are fully booked months in advance so we find a place in a forest outside Yellowstone for three nights in a row. The park is more than worth it with its 300 geysers, boiling mud, bubbling hot springs and a beautiful valley.
Old Faithful is a geyser which blows boiling water 20 meters (60 feet) into the air every hour and a half. It was worth listening to an enthusiastic park ranger as we quietly waited for the next eruption.
The colors in and around the hot springs and rivers are hard to describe, even my photos don't capture them. We see bison. And signs that say bison seem gentle but are dangerous. Nevertheless, we see Americans who take close-up pictures of the huge beasts even with their young child. Regularly people are injured (or even worse).
A visit to Yellowstone is often combined with a visit to Grand Teton. Less known, but certainly as beautiful, because of the majestic Grand Teton mountain. Because of the bad weather (hail the size of pigeon eggs) we see little of it.
We also look for a place to sleep outside the park, but on the way The Beast sinks through the left front suspension. (In Argentina the lower wishbone cracked, now it's the spot on the other side of the torsion bar which is cracked. The metal there is quite thin and welding will be difficult. In Argentina, someone temporarily put a metal bushing over the end stop, which allowed the wheel to turn again and we could drive (very slowly). For some reason I kept that bushing - which comes in very handy now. - Adriaan)
We can't go any further and ask to share a camp site with Mark, who has a caravan here. He has chosen this spot because as of Monday the hunt for Elks (a deer species) is open. He installs his "hunting camp"; a few more men will come in over the weekend. He talks about his 'untin' camp - the 'h' at the beginning and the 'g' at the end are gone. Adriaan has been pronouncing 'untin' as a parody for days, and I catch myself mimicking Mark (fortunately he didn't notice).
Adriaan helps him compulsorily hoist of his still empty frigoboxes (the smell, even empty, attracts bears). He then crawls under the car and makes sure which is provisionally drivable. I make pasta and I invite Mark over.
It is very cold and we have dinner in his caravan. The place is so dirty that I dare not look around but Mark wants me to use his toilet because my urine might attract bears. The gentlemen don't have that problem, because they don't have a monthly "problem" either. Mark uses only euphemisms and is visibly embarrassed about his request. I thus do 'my thing' a little further away from our camp.
Mark is a war veteran and whatever topic we bring the conversation to, it always comes back to Vietnam. Adriaan asks him how long it has been since he came back from the war and he replies, "Last night." He still has nightmares and warns us to leave him alone should we see him wandering about the camp site at night. We feel "safe": he has 2 revolvers and a rifle against bears and other intruders. No, really, because this veteran has something disarming about him.
The next morning we get a still glimpse of the Grand Teton and drive to Jackson where we search fruitlessly for someone who can weld the attachment. No one has time to even look before next Thursday. We drive slowly to Idaho Falls where there is a Toyota garage which will express-order a new part this Friday. They can install it after the weekend. We camp in anticipation among many other weekend guests along a river. It is reasonably sunny, our solar panels are doing their job and the unplanned quiet weekend pleases us. We check into a hotel on Monday and the Toyota mechanics do their job.
We can go to our next park: the relatively unknown Badlands in South Dakota. We sleep ín the park and enjoy a beautiful sunset and sunrise. Along the way, we accidentally stumble upon Mount Rushmore: heads, carved into a mountain, of former American presidents (George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt) who played an important role in the history of the United States.
The sculpture is impressive, the American citizens on site are very proud but all in all has an after taste. Most of this land was inhabited by "Native Americans" (which we used to call Indians) which were eventually driven from their native lands.
After Badlands, we drive to up-state New York. It is the weekend already and there is no campsite or hotel bed to be found. Everything is full - New Yorkers leave the city over the weekend. The ranger at the last campsite we visited gives us the address of the Walmart parking lot! We spend our least romantic night among several big trucks and run-down, semi-permanent residents. The opening hours of the supermarket here are from 6 in the morning to 11 at night, which gives us the opportunity to warm up a little and to use decent sanitary facilities. Fortunately, it is only for one night - being stranded (in life) is no fun in this country.
We do find a decent hotel near New York (in The Bronx) and enjoy Manhattan for a few days, where we take the subway every day. We strolled from one place to another. We have been to New York several times and don't need to see all the highlights again. The only "must" is the 9/11 memorial. Adriaan is not impressed - he had expected more.
The most obvious route south is through Washington. We are lucky enough to find a parking lot close to the Capitol and can walk along the large lawn to the building. In front of the Capitol, Trump supporters and opponents have been keeping watch for years. Adriaan feels compelled to argue with them. For me, it produces funny pictures. We are not going to change their minds in one short discussion. The polarization in this country can be felt daily. Trump is still everywhere.
We also stop at the "Arlington National Cemetery," where many important military personnel and other veterans (who want that) are buried.
We drive from park to the next. It becomes a road trip through the United States of which the pace is faster than we would like because winter is on our heels. There is a cold snap which blows all over the United States from the north. There are nights around and near freezing point and sleeping in our rooftop tent is no problem but the mornings are no longer comfortable. We talk about "travel fatigue" for the first time.
Each state has its own specificity. We meet all types of people which is instructive and enjoyable. Even further south, we drive through two beautiful parks: Shenandoah, which turns into the Blue Ridge Parkway. It is very busy because autumn has set in. Nature is a colorful display. I feared missing the colors of the Ardennes autumn, but this makes up for it. We did decide to skip the Great Smokey Mountains because of the cold.
Eventually we are so south enough to end up in the state of Mississippi. It looks neat, with the stately homes and their cotton plantations. The information panels along the (Natchez Trace) Parkway, with a little imagination, make you imagine how things used to be. To make it even more exciting, we watch (true) movies which took place here. (Missisippi Burning, Green Book, The Color Purple and others). The Parkway is very well maintained.
We take a side trip for a meal in a surly, local joint. We (and the white Americans in the joint) eat food prepared by exclusively colored kitchen staff. The white staff which serves us has long since cleaned - the place is tacky. The people there do have a very nice southern accent. We hear words like "Yessir," "Hon," "Much obliged."
We are stopped by the police twice in one day for the first time in the United States. It happens as we see in movies. A police car drives slowly behind us. Adriaan says, "They're going to stop us." The many colored lights on the police car come on and we have to pull over. Both times our Belgian license plate prompted the curious officers: they have never seen anything like this before. "Is this even legal?", after which we explain that we are here based on a 1949 UN treaty, which regulates that they can drive their car in Europe as well. They look at our Belgian registration certificate as if it were alien.
We are leaving the USA before December 6, but we don't have a solution for The Beast yet....