Road Trip: 2021 Edition

After quarantining and spending a couple months in New Hampshire with family for the holidays and beyond, it was time to get back on the road. Sometime in January we settled on a place in Leavenworth, Washington. Stephan had been going back and forth with a friend from high school, and we ended up picking the general area of the state that she really enjoyed in the spring.

Between pandemic precautions and some other personal circumstances, we ended traveling from New Hampshire to Washington state via Maine and North Carolina. It was certainly a circuitous route, and about as insane as it sounds. Unable to see Stephan’s family for the holidays, we were finally able to have a masked, socially-distanced Christmas celebration in Maine the last weekend in February. After spending a week up there, we then had to return to Raleigh briefly. With all that, we managed to tack on an extra 1,070 miles and 16 hours of driving immediately before embarking on our 42-hour drive to Leavenworth. But hey, we’re entering pandemic year two… what would life be without a bit more madness?


Day 1: Raleigh, NC to Indianapolis, IN (634 miles; 9.5 hours)

Needless to say, when it came time to leave North Carolina for our cross-country road trip, we were less than enthused. We’d bounced around for the last two weeks, and weren’t particularly ready to add to how unsettled we were already feeling. That said, all our shit was booked, so this was just going to be how it was this time around.

Our first day of driving was uneventful and largely unexciting. We scooted up to Indiana via Virginia, West Virginia and Ohio, choosing to overnight in Indy simply for its convenience. The real highlight here was for Sanchez, who found herself with a king bed for the night. While she hates being trapped in the car for long rides in her safety harness, a poofy king bed almost makes up for it.


Day 2: Indianapolis, IN to Eau Claire, WI (511 miles; 8 hours)

We headed out of Indy on I-65 N towards Chicago, picking up I-90 W after we crossed the border and entered the city. As we cruised along The Windy City’s busiest freeway, the only hint that we were near a major urban center was the traffic. The fog was so impenetrable that we couldn’t see even the faintest hint of a single building, let alone the iconic skyline. We laughed as we tried to guess whether the Willis Tower was in front of us or out the driver- or passenger-side window.

When we threw our itinerary together, we tried to add a few breaks so we could get out of the car and see something other than the monotonous stretch of highway before us. While the drive certainly wears on us, I think it’s even harder for Sanchez to be cooped up in the backseat for days. Knowing we’d be traversing a good chunk of Wisconsin, I thought this would be a good place for our first stop. Having never been to (nor planned to go to) Wisconsin, I did a quick search for interesting towns. One that popped up was Mt. Horeb, the self-proclaimed ‘troll capital of the world.’ I was intrigued. I did a bit more reading, then plugged the location into Google Maps. After discovering it was an easy thirty-minute detour off I-90, our first adventure was set.

After a 5-hour drive from Indy, we spent the afternoon wandering the quiet streets of Mt. Horeb. This small village is nestled between the rolling hills of dairy country about a half hour west of Madison. Mt. Horeb’s quirky charm comes from its Norwegian heritage and its special fondness for trolls. In Scandinavian folklore, trolls were curious beings that lived in isolated mounds and caves by the sea. While they often seemed a bit untidy or menacing, they were typically good-hearted and gentle. Some were even thought to have magical powers and to guard hidden treasures, so it was always wise to be kind to the trolls.

Today, the thirty-six trolls of Mt. Horeb simply guard their beloved community, many choosing to reside proudly outside their favorite businesses and shops. The first troll was placed in the village in the mid-1970s by the owners of a Scandinavian gift shop. A decade later, that pioneering troll inspired the town’s Chamber of Commerce to create an official ‘Trollway’ as a fun way to promote the city while celebrating the area’s cultural ancestry.

We thought a little ‘troll stroll’ sounded like the perfect way to spend an afternoon on a long road trip, so we took a short detour to see how many of the magical beings we could spot. Many are scattered about Main Street and the neighboring blocks, while a handful make their homes inside local establishments. We decided to let the indoor-dwelling creatures remain undisturbed this time around. While I’m not aware of any troll-to-troll coronavirus transmission, we didn’t want to put their human companions at risk. We did manage to spot sixteen of the impish outdoor beings, though. I think some may have slyly abandoned their posts to hide from the blustery cold, however, because a few managed to evade our lenses. Even Sanchez couldn’t sniff them out.

Sanchez was pretty hungry after trying to snuffle out those trolls. Since her favorite thing to do is sample the local cuisine, we headed over to the Grumpy Troll to get her some fresh Wisconsin cheese curds. Sanchez perused the menu and decided she also liked the sound of beer cheese, so she and Stephan just had to order the one-and-a-half-pound soft pretzel to go with it. By the end, Sanchez was massively impressed with everything and asked us where Wisconsin had been all her life.

For my lunch, I went around the corner to Sunn Café. As usual, I was pumped to just find a place in a small town that offered something vegan (other than the predictable bowl of sad, wilted greens). I ordered the lime cilantro quinoa salad – a bowl of sweet potatoes, black beans and scallions in a cilantro-lime dressing – and was shocked at how delicious it was. I paired it with a bottle of Jake’s Strong Ginger, a concoction of organic lemon, ginger and water that’s made locally in Sheboygan. It was insanely intense, but really tasty. Both Grumpy Troll and Sunn offered online ordering and contactless pickup, so we were able to enjoy our meals while staying pandemic-safe (additionally, kudos to everyone around town for wearing masks outside).

If you ever find yourself remotely near this tiny Wisconsin town, we highly recommend a stop. It’s an adorable little community with a lot of charm, and we promise the trolls are all very friendly and welcoming (if not a little elusive).


Day 3: Eau Claire, WI to Medora, ND (652 miles; 9.5 hours)

With a bit of troll strolling to refresh us, we were back to the grind on our third day on the road. We drove clear across Minnesota and North Dakota on I-94 W, with not much to look at other than the endless stretch of pavement slicing through flat, barren farmland. Even though we we’re well aware of the monotony of driving through this swath of country, it never fails to surprise us just how wearying it is to sit behind the wheel and stare off into nothing for ten hours.


Day 4: Theodore Roosevelt National Park, Medora, ND

Instead of a second consecutive day staring into the interminable void that is I-94 W, we spent day four exploring North Dakota’s Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Tucked in the southwest corner of the state, the park’s rugged Badlands lie along the Little Missouri River, just outside the tiny, cowboy-centric town of Medora.

We kicked off our morning in Medora with an 11-mile hike along the Maah Daah Hey Trail. The trail’s name comes from a phrase from the Mandan Indian language meaning ‘an area that will be around for a long time.’ Indeed, the colorful rock layers here expose some 65 million years of geological history, from the muds and silts of primordial waterways to the solidified ash of ancient volcanoes.

With the scenic, dog-friendly trail running right outside our back door, it was an easy pick. Sanchez had such a fun time being back on the trail and we couldn’t have asked for a better day – sunny, mid-60s, and we walked the entire 10+ miles without seeing another soul.

After our hike we headed into the national park for some late-afternoon wildlife spotting. To our surprise, the park was much like the tiny gateway of Medora – an absolute ghost town. We figured it would be less busy being the off-season, but we never expected to have the whole place essentially to ourselves. It was amazing! We saw around 100 bison, a few dozen mule deer, a herd of wild horses, and an uncountable number of prairie dogs – much to Sanchez’s delight from the backseat. We capped off the day with a sunset from Wind Canyon, which overlooks a spectacular view of the Little Missouri River.

Read on: For more on the national park as well as a more detailed hike report, click here.


Day 5: Medora, ND to Missoula, MT (628 miles; 9 hours)

Continuing our pattern of alternating protracted driving days with sightseeing fun, we were back in the Subie for one more long one. By this point, it kind of felt like we were in Groundhog Day, reliving the same boring ass day on I-90/I-94 over and over. Akin to the dazzling scenery that transfixed us through previous midwestern states, we again watched for hours as nothing but desiccated prairielands rolled past. Luckily, we made fantastic time and in just under nine hours found ourselves at our absolutely gorgeous accommodations in Missoula.


Day 6: Missoula, MT

With another reprieve from driving, we spent most of the day checking out Missoula’s up-and-coming food scene. Since we habitually tried to avoid rural gas station restrooms along the way, where people ignorantly refuse to mask up, our day was dedicated to catching up on hydration and calories. We were beyond happy to be back in a place that unreservedly embraced mask wearing, and were again able to get all our orders through contactless pick-up (thank you, Missoula). Additionally, I was exceedingly grateful to take a break from the travel-friendly (yet dreaded) PB&J sandwich.

I was pumped to find some nutritious vegan offerings at Green Source, a juice bar and café that uses organic, locally-sourced ingredients. My level of excitement was so high that I ended up ordering three meals and two smoothies and throwing them into our studio’s mini fridge. For food, I opted for the Buddha Bowl (quinoa, spinach, chickpeas, avocado, black sesame, carrots, beets, cauliflower and broccoli with a sesame miso dressing), the Thrive Bowl (brown rice, quinoa, kale, red pepper, carrot, broccoli, cauliflower and a nut/seed mix with Thai peanut dressing), and the Easy Three (brown rice, avocado and kimchi). Shockingly, the Easy Three was the clear winner. I couldn’t believe something with only three ingredients was that incredibly flavorful. The vegan kimchi was out of this world, with a wicked spicy kick, and the bowl itself was right up there with the best things I’ve ever eaten. For smoothies, I tried the Shine (carrot, mango, apple, ginger, lemon) and Radiate (beets, blueberry, strawberry, apple, lemon and ginger). The Shine took the crown in the smoothie category, and even Stephan said it was one of the tastiest smoothies he’s ever tried.

While Stephan was keen to have a few sips of my delicious smoothie, he was ultimately looking for a more carnivorous lunch option. He ended up getting carry-out from Tagliare, a cute little delicatessen whose sandwiches are named for an eclectic assortment of bands. At the opposite end of the spectrum from my plant-based bowls, he opted for the ‘Megadeath’ – a mountain of ham, finocchiona, soppressata, pepperoni, hot capicola, and smoked mozz. Their website cites a 2013 Yelp review that claims ‘the Megadeath will make its way into everyone’s Pantheon of The Greatest Sandwiches They’ve Ever had.’ Stephan loved the quote and said the sandwich did indeed make the cut. His only regret? That he wasn’t hungry enough after to go back and try the Nirvana.

Although those two restaurants were pretty solid, our most exciting find of the day, perhaps, was Veera. The vegan donut shop opened in 2019, just a year after the owner began slinging her creations at the local farmer’s market. She’d fallen in love with Portland and Seattle’s vegan donuts, and aimed to create something similar in Missoula. She named the business after her dog and set a goal not to be known for making great vegan donuts, but simply for making great donuts.

Stephan placed his online order at Veera before we’d even arrived in Missoula. I told him about the place the morning we left Medora and suggested he check out their extensive menu. The next thing I knew, he was excitedly announcing when our order would be ready for pick-up while I was still careening across the flatlands of eastern Montana. When we went to snag our order more than twenty-four hours later, Stephan’s eyes widened when he grabbed the box. ‘Feel this thing,’ he chuckled as he handed me the package. The box of a half dozen must have weighed about five pounds. Our selections included the Fiona Apple pie, strawberry shortcake, blueberry cream cheese, the Veera (their signature French toast/maple syrup donut), the Love Buzz (espresso with freeze-dried raspberry), and my pick – a blueberry old fashioned. Look at those things… I mean, seriously?!

Next to Stephan’s elaborately-decorated donuts, I felt like the kid in khaki ordering a vanilla ice cream. I expected his more extravagant choices would be nothing but sugar bombs, but I was so far from wrong. The flavors were both intense and natural while not overly sweet. In addition to being delicious, the donuts were like little works of art. We both agreed the Fiona Apple was the tastiest, though they were all pretty special. If you’re looking for a great donut – not just a great vegan donut – don’t miss out on a visit to Veera.

After stuffing ourselves silly, we headed over to Pattee Canyon to enjoy some time outside. Part of Lolo National Forest, the recreation area offers twenty-seven miles of trails for hiking, biking, and skiing on the east side of town. Sanchez was super excited to be back in the woods, and we all enjoyed the short 3.5-mile out-and-back into the snowy mountains.

Finally, we couldn’t make a stop in Missoula without visiting Imagine Nation, a community-minded microbrewery that makes some killer IPAs. We discovered them last summer when we were passing through town, and loved their story, hop-heavy beers, and friendly service. Six months after our first visit, they are still doing solely carry-out service to keep everyone COVID-safe. Fortunately, they said business has still been going well, and they’ve even started distributing their beer both in- and out-of-state. We hope they continue with their growing success.


Day 7: Missoula, MT to Leavenworth, WA (405 miles; 6.5 hours)

Our last day in the car! After a crazy few weeks of driving across New England, down the eastern seaboard, and then across the entire country, we were more than ready to be done. With one last stretch of I-90 ahead of us, we were finally in the home stretch.

With just a six-hour drive and a time zone change, we were able to have a relaxing morning in Missoula and head out around 9:30 a.m. Unlike the previous portions of the route, this stretch was at least somewhat scenic, passing through the pine forests and high elevations of western Montana and Idaho. As we approached Lookout Pass, straddling the MT/ID border at 4,700’, we hit quite the unexpected winter storm. A few flakes quickly exploded into a full-on blizzard. It was gorgeous, but a little dicey at times along the higher-elevation sections of interstate.

Around 4 p.m., we finally pulled into our driveway in Leavenworth, Washington – the place we’ll be calling home for the next two months. While we’re excited to be unchained from the car for the foreseeable future, we’re equally excited to being exploring a new area. Given the time of year, we probably won’t be doing much in the way of high-elevation hikes, but we can’t wait to find some new outdoor adventures to enjoy. Maybe we’ll even get Sanchez over to see her second ocean while we’re here.


Stats:

Planned route: 2,830 miles
Actual distance driven (with stops): 2,941 miles
Total route time: 42.5 hours
States crossed: 12
Gas stops: 8
Sighs from a bored dog in the back seat: I lost count around 3,000 this time.

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