Moving back to Raleigh three years ago and trying to reassimilate after a year overseas was an emotional struggle I never expected. Life outside the U.S. and nomadic life in general suited me more than I imagined, and I couldn’t imagine resettling in North Carolina. I was habitually depressed, and am convinced that at least part of my inability to find employment as a scientist was self-sabotage. I had absolutely no intention of once again putting down roots in the South.
About two months before the coronavirus pandemic, Stephan got permission to continue his job as a remote employee, a goal we’d been eyeing pretty much since our return to the U.S. Unfortunately, with the world on lockdown, any plan of escape was temporarily put on hold.
Now with restrictions easing somewhat, Stephan and I are heading to Whitefish, Montana for a couple months to hole ourselves up, explore some local trails, and slowly (and safely) transition back to the (semi-)nomadic lifestyle we’ve so dearly missed. Our roving year abroad was such a life-altering experience and we’re hoping to give it another go – this time with our fuzzy adventurer, Sanchez, in tow.
Day 1: Cary, NC to Louisville, KY (557 miles; 8.5 hours)
After some frenzied last-minute packing and trips to storage, due in large part to mutual procrastination, we hit the road around 9am. With pandemic closures and distancing measures preventing us from visiting some friends and favorite local establishments, our departure felt fairly anticlimactic and lacking in finality for both me and Stephan. Sanchez, on the other hand, was rather wigged out as her first home was emptied in chaotic whirlwind, seeking refuge at the side of her favorite neighbor (and fried chicken connection) when we tried to pull on her car harness.
The first day on the road was fairly uneventful. We traveled lightly-trafficked highways through rural Virginia, West Virginia, and Kentucky, eventually arriving in Louisville around dinner time. Our evening in the small city was fairly uninteresting, if not a bit disappointing. We first stopped by Ramsi’s Café on the World for carryout, as they had an extensive menu of global comfort foods with dozens of vegan selections. Unfortunately, the food was quite underwhelming, and certainly didn’t live up to my expectations for an inspired vegan meal.
Our hotel for the night was just across the Ohio River, in Jeffersonville, Indiana. Looking at Google Maps, I noticed that the Big Four Bridge – a former railroad truss bridge turned into a pedestrian walkway – was just up the street. I mapped out a three-mile route that took us from our hotel to historic Jeffersonville, across the bridge to Louisville, and back. Excited to give Sanchez a nice evening stroll after a long day in the car, we were beyond bummed to be met at the bridge’s entrance by a screaming yellow ‘NO PETS’ sign. Somewhat stunned (it was a multi-lane walkway with high guardrails) and considerably irritated, we retreated grumbling back to our hotel.
Overall, a good first day of driving but a serious fail of a layover in Louisville.
Day 2: Louisville, KY to Kansas City, MO (532 miles; 8 hours)
Claiming the title of “Barbeque Capital of the World,” our entire 2,500-mile route was pretty much planned around a stop in Kansas City. If we were going to be crossing the heart of the country, Stephan couldn’t imagine passing up the chance to try some burnt ends – a local KC specialty affectionately known as ‘meat candy.’ Even more fortunate for my meat-loving travel companions, Missouri’s highway system was undoubtedly designed with BBQ afficionados in mind: I-70, the major east-west route across Missouri, links two major BBQ hubs, St. Louis (famed for their ribs) and Kansas City. Consequently, our second day on the road became Mission: Meat.
The timing of our drive was perfect – we left Louisville around 7am and, with a cross into Central Standard Time, arrived in St. Louis around 10am. We wandered around Gateway Arch National Park, photographing the glistening 630-foot-tall structure from every angle. Because the monument itself was closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the greenspaces around the arch were devoid of visitors. While we were unable to go to the top of the iconic monument, the closure afforded us the opportunity to wander around an otherwise bustling space in complete solitude.
After enjoying some time outside, we headed a couple miles across town to get the two carnivores some ribs from Pappy’s Smokehouse, one of the top-rated BBQ joints in the city. With the pandemic still surging, we opted for curbside pickup and had a little picnic in the parking lot – Stephan and Sanchez with their half rack of thickly-sauced, grilled ribs and me with my vegan-friendly, hotel-room-made PB&J. Pappy’s ‘cue did not disappoint, and Sanchez scraped every bone clean (with supervised assistance).
And because Stephan and Sanchez couldn’t leave St. Louis without stopping for a gooey butter cake, we made a quick stop at Park Avenue Coffee on our way out of the city. A dense, sticky cake, the confection was supposedly created by accident in the 1930s, when a baker inadvertently added too much butter to his cake batter. The absent-minded cook was able to sell the flawed slices anyway, and the dessert has since become a local favorite.
From St. Louis, it was a quick, four-hour drive west to the barbeque mecca of Kansas City. With dozens of smokehouses to choose from, we settled on two that seemed to consistently battle for one of the top spots on most local ‘Best BBQ’ lists: Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que and Arthur Bryant’s. Joe’s has been a KC hotspot since the mid-90s. The owners started out on the barbeque competition circuit and, after quickly building a reputation, opened the original location in a humble gas station at the corner of 47th and Mission in Kansas City, Kansas. In a testament to their success, Joe’s even earned itself a spot on Anthony Bourdain’s list, 13 Places to Eat Before You Die.
Perhaps equally revered, Arthur Bryant’s has a much older legacy, dating back to the 1930s. Arthur Bryant and his brother, Charlie, started off in the barbeque industry under the mentorship of the ‘father’ of Kansas City-style barbeque, Henry Perry. After Perry’s death in 1940, Charlie took over the Kansas City, Missouri restaurant and eventually sold it to his brother. During his early ownership, Arthur developed a sauce that secured him a place in the barbeque history books and went on to satisfy the appetites of Presidents Harry Truman, Jimmy Carter, and Barack Obama.
With extensive menu options, Stephan was ultimately compelled to sample the burnt ends from both establishments, though Joe’s famous Z-man and Rocket Pig sandwiches were almost too enticing to pass up. Burnt ends originated as discarded trimmings from beef brisket, but have evolved into a sought-after regional favorite – a must try, really. From Joe’s, Stephan ordered a half pound of burnt ends, while from Arthur Bryant’s he tried the burnt ends on the 3B sandwich (according to the restaurant owner, authentic burnt ends are served on the sandwich, while their standard burnt ends are made “totally incorrectly” to appeal to the masses). One difference in preparation is that Joe’s smokes their meat exclusively in Missouri white oak, while Arthur Bryant’s uses a combination of hickory and oak smoke.
The verdict? While both places duly impressed, Joe’s edged out Arthur Bryant’s with a crispier bark. Sanchez seemed to disagree, however, voting for Arthur Bryant’s as her king of burnt ends.
After a dissatisfying first day, our second day on the road was a blast, easily exceeding all expectations.
Day 3: Kansas City, MO to Rapid City, SD via Badlands NP (707 miles; 11 hours)
With Stephan choosing Kansas City as his must-do stopover, I benefited from our ensuing route bisecting the southern half of South Dakota. While Stephan had visited the Badlands some twenty years ago, I’d never seen the national park and was anxious to take a peek at the labyrinth of gnarled rock formations. Because I-90 skirts the northern boundary of this unique geological region, a short detour was effortless.
Each terminus of the Badlands Loop road connects directly to I-90, traversing some 40 miles of the national park. We followed this road for some 30 miles, stopping regularly to take in the striking scenery. As we neared the end of the loop road, we opted to forgo a return to I-90 and instead head down Sage Creek Rim Road – a less-traveled dirt road that winds through the southern section of the park to connect to highway 44 (about 30 minutes longer if traveling to Rapid City). With no other cars on the road, we were able to stop and peacefully enjoy photographing some grassland wildlife. We spotted a small herd of bison relaxing in the tall grass a couple hundred feet from the road (note: 300mm zoom used here). Perhaps even more entertaining, though, was the neighboring prairie dog town. We could have sat there and watched the endearing rodents scurry in and out of their holes all afternoon. Sanchez was completely entranced, begging from the back seat for us to let her loose amongst the hundreds of scampering, chirping critters.
Note: If you’re interested in learning a bit about the unique geology of the Badlands and checking out some more snaps, check out the separate write-up here.
Day 4: Custer State Park, Black Hills, SD
With 40+ hours of driving across 11 states, we decided to use day 4 as a day to get off our weary asses and enjoy some outdoor time. With Custer State Park just a 50-minute drive from Rapid City, we thought we’d enjoy a beautiful day in the Black Hills.
We ended up choosing a loop trail that traversed Little Devil’s Tower, a short, easy scramble, in addition to Black Elk Peak, South Dakota’s highest summit at 7,242 feet. The hike clocked in at around 9.5 miles, and afforded us several hours of beautiful scenery and rejuvenating sunshine. Although the trail was more heavily trafficked than we’d typically seek out, it was a nice day in the forest and a welcome relief from sitting down.
Note: For a detailed hike report, click here.
Day 5: Rapid City, SD to Whitefish, MT (772 miles; 12.5 hours)
Our last day on the road was our longest, and I think all three of us were sufficiently done with the car by the time we pulled into our cabin apartment in Whitefish. The vast majority of the drive was through the barren prairies of America’s heartland, with cows and blackbirds the only signs of life for hundreds of miles. The highways were nearly deserted, and the 70- to 80-mph speed limits gave the feeling of being in a rocket hurtling through the desolate grasslands.
We hit a couple of decent rainstorms somewhere in the middle of western South Dakota/eastern Montana, and the lightning display was impressive out on the unobstructed prairies. Crossing into the foothills around Bozeman/Livingston, highway signs warned of severe crosswinds, and Stephan battled the steering wheel against 30–40 mph gusts for a good 30 miles along I-90. As we then hit the higher elevations along the mountains, low clouds gave way to short bursts of mixed precipitation, an unusual sight for us in June yet a joyful reminder that we were indeed finished with those blistering southern summers.
The last couple hours of our route navigated the western margin of Flathead National Forest, where towering spruce-fir forests enveloped highway 83. As we continued north through Kalispell and Whitefish, the skies suddenly cleared, welcoming us home. We were elated when we finally pulled into the driveway of our rural rental apartment, Sanchez with her head excitedly out the window taking in the host of inviting new smells. After a long journey, we’re very much looking forward to settling into a cozy little nook that we can call ‘home’ for the next two months of exploring.
Pro tip: Make sure you plan your fuel stops accordingly out here, because there is often NOWHERE to gas up on a moment’s notice if your tank’s nearing empty.
Planned route: 2,537 miles
Actual distance driven (with stops): 2,715 miles
Total route time: 40 hours
States traversed: 11
Gas stops: 8
Sighs from a bored dog in the back seat: 1,512