America the Beautiful: A Winter Road Trip in the Pacific Northwest

Under a blanket of stars in late December, we cuddled for warmth in the icy seclusion of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. We were the only campers on this cold North Dakota night, braving temperatures in the single digits to enjoy the snowy surrounds.

As we searched for constellations in the sky, we noticed a line of lights passing overhead. One … two … three … four … we stopped counting after twenty glowing dots flew silently and steadily above us, each exactly ten seconds apart.

“Airplanes?” I enquired.

“There aren’t any flashing lights,” Mike reasoned. “Satellites, maybe? Catching the last of the sunset over the horizon?”

We debated the possibilities for a few minutes, never reaching a satisfying conclusion, and then just like that, the light parade stopped, and our conversation returned to Hydra, Hercules, and the Pleiades.

We were three weeks into a wintertime exploration of the northwestern United States. We’d left the South quickly, taking turns sleeping and driving until we reached Oklahoma and historic Route 66. National parks were our focus, and we were eager to get to Arizona’s Petrified Forest and the Painted Desert.

The striated southwestern badlands gave way to the extremities of California’s Death Valley, where a Technicolor sunset was followed by the moon rising low and heavy over our campsite.

The next morning, the sun shone brilliantly above the crystal salt flats of Badwater Basin.

The country’s driest national park was followed by the lushness of Sequoia and Kings Canyon, where we strapped on tire chains to explore the snowglobe magic of the ice-covered evergreens surrounding the world’s largest tree.

Snow followed us to Yosemite National Park, where even winter crowds made it feel like an overstuffed commercial theme park beneath El Capitan and the cascading waters of Yosemite Falls.

The Northern California weather seemed like autumn rather than December in Redwood National and State Park, with jewel-toned leaves fluttering above the jade green water of the Smith River.

We skirted the edge of Crater Lake, disappointed the park was closed for the winter but eagerly anticipating the majesty we’d soon experience in Canada’s Banff National Park.

Heading back into the United States, we made our way to Glacier National Park and its famous Going-To-The-Sun Road. We skipped rainbow-colored rocks over Lake McDonald and sat in the silence of yet another park we seemed to have all to ourselves.

In Yellowstone, the underground sulphur springs sent up plumes of sparkling steam that froze mid-air and crystallized on the skeletons of nearby trees.

We were surprised by just how moved we were at the Battle of Little Bighorn National Monument, watching ribbons of remembrance dance in the breeze on limbs beside gravestones.

The charming park rangers at Theodore Roosevelt National Park were excited to see us — almost as excited as we were to see the deer tracks in the snow surrounding us when we awoke after a night of car camping.

We shared our excitement with the rangers as we checked out of the park and were told the deer were regulars. “I have a webcam on my doorbell at home,” said a ranger who lives in the park. “They like to ring the bell and wait for me to open the door and say hello to them.”

Mike was particularly excited for our next stop: Devil’s Tower National Monument. His grandparents took his father and aunt there on a road trip when they were children, and he grew up hearing stories about how alien the rock formation looked poking into the sky above the Black Hills of Wyoming.

The all-to-real location of the make-believe alien film Close Encounters of the Third Kind, this monolith in the middle of the prairie is indeed otherworldly, and we learned all about its history and the historical folklore of the Northern Plains Indians and the other indigenous tribes who hold it sacred.

In South Dakota, we explored the fossils of the Badlands and followed what seemed like a thousand billboards to Wall Drug, only to find it closed, which enhanced its ghost town atmosphere rather appropriately.

On this grand American adventure, we traversed mountains and deserts, oceans and prairies, lakes and plains, rivers and forests.

We marveled at the fertile beauty of orange groves, vineyards, olive trees, corn fields, and acres of sunflowers.

We drove past oil wells, solar farms, and windmills, and we crossed the historic Hoover Dam, not once but twice for good measure.

We spotted prairie dogs, bald eagles, bison, deer, rabbits, foxes, hawks, bighorn sheep, cattle, goats, and oh-so-many geese. We were prepared with our bear spray, bear horns, and bear-proof cooler, but not a single bear was spotted throughout our journey.

We observed a ridiculous amount of what can only be described as Americana. Some of it was amusingly charming, like Bitter’s Lawn Ornaments, home of Bitter’s critters in Nebraska. Some of it was entirely bewildering, like Jesus Park just outside Glacier in Montana. Some of it was quietly thought-provoking, like Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, a UNESCO World Heritage Site near the U.S. border in Alberta and not the only buffalo jump we saw along the way.

During a quick lunch stop at a fast food restaurant in middle America, we eavesdropped on a group of large young men loudly one-upping each other with what were certainly embellished stories about hunting animals in the woods and girls in the bars.

“You shoulda seen how big it was. It musta been the size of a tractor trailer!”

“You shoulda seen how hot she was, man. She coulda been a model!”

Back in the privacy of our car, we laughed ourselves to tears as Mike recited Dan Cummins’ comedy bit about compulsive liars.

“Kick a bear. Slap a salmon. Grab a bald eagle and fly to freedom.”

Oh, America the beautiful. Land of the free, home of the brave.

PNW Road Trip Map