Living a Dream Part 2: Cross-Country Road Trip

Free to Go

I closed my studio, Jerome attended his last day of school inservice, our house was packed up and rented, we had $5,000 in our vacation fund and 2 1/2 months to spend it. We were free to do anything except stay home.

Second Thoughts

We had been saving for and planning this trip for nearly 10 years and yet we still had to ignore the daily urge to call the whole thing off. Leaving the familiar and comfortable, opening ourselves up to financial failure and social judgement and relying on the cooperation of our temperamental pre-teens made the whole thing feel like a huge mistake. There were several times when we were getting ready to go that we understood why most families don’t do this kind of thing.

When I asked my Face Book community what they would do in a similar situation not a single person replied “I would drive across the country to hike several hundred miles in remote wilderness”.

But on June 21 we loaded ourselves and all of our doubts into our 2012 Mazda 5 to do just that. It took us three weeks to drive 4,000 miles from Blue Hill, Maine to Lone Pine, California where we planned to start hiking north on the Pacific Crest Trail.

General overview of our route from Maine to California. We wanted to avoid big cities and big trucks and took a route that allowed for easy camping and off-highway exploring.


We camped, stayed with friends and family and spent three nights in hotels (Bozeman, MT is oddly devoid of public camping and Las Vegas would probably welcome public camping but was an inhospitable 110ยบ when we arrived). We relied heavily on the crowd-sourced to find safe, quiet places to camp.

Camping in the Spanish Peaks Wilderness south of Bozeman, MT. Fourth of July and no reservations or fee required.


We cooked most of our meals. Variations of corn tortillas, refried beans, cheese, scrambled eggs, and salsa, pasta with ground turkey, frozen spinach and sauce and those family-sized pre-made salads in a bag. We stocked up on groceries for 4-5 days at a time though our small cooler had to be refilled with ice every other day. We brought a frying pan, saucepan, mixing bowl and spatula plus our camping stove, bowls and utensils and it all fit nicely in a box behind the kid’s seats.

Car camping at a shelter with a much needed bug-screen near the Appalachian Trail in Gorham, NH. Cubby the bear is trying to get into the bear canister. She never did figure it out.


Since we were heading into a month-long backpacking trip above 10,000 feet, we needed to get in shape. We tried to run or hike every day. Some days were a flat sight-seeing stroll and some days were more strenuous all-day hikes. We have an America the Beautiful Pass which for $85 covers admission to all National Parks and tons of other public lands. It’s a total bargain when compared to the cost of any other tourist activity for a family of four. Our two big entertainment splurges were an afternoon spent at an indoor water park in Sandusky, OH and a half day white water rafting outside Yellowstone. Georgia loves the water and those two days were pure delight for her.

The importance of Co-Piloting

Jerome drove while I juggled notebooks, guide books and my iPad in the passenger seat planning our driving route, fun things to see and where to camp, plus planning for the PCT hike (resupplies, trail conditions, where to leave the car, stream crossings . . .) Several times I had to force myself to look up and enjoy the view, and several more times I was requested to read a Wikipedia page aloud to the driver. Like every time we crossed a state line, or drove by iconic Americana such as “the world’s largest cow”.

Meanwhile, in the back of the car . . .

Thankfully, 11 and 13 are great traveling ages. They are happy to sit in the car for a couple hours at a time reading or listening to books, improvising outfits for their stuffed animals, applying fake nails, and putting considerable effort into improving their 9 cubic feet of personal space. They don’t have digital devices and of course there was boredom but it rarely devolved into full-on sibling attacks. Stuffed animals (animated by only too willing parents) make great mediators and almost every bad mood can be fixed with a spontaneous highway dance party.

Road-tripping on a budget can be stressful but I it helps that our family is comfortable sleeping together in a small tent, cooking with a camp stove and bathing in rivers. The key is to focus on the excitement and freedom of the adventure, not the limitations and stressors. The stress is real but as I tell the kids “we’re not going to make it less stressful by stressing about it”.

Car dance party on the way to Bozeman. While almost running out of gas.

We did our best to have a full, if not perfect, cross-country experience. We ran out of gas, we ran out of cell service (newsflash: there are huge swaths of this country that don’t have cell or data coverage), our phone charging cable quit right when we needed directions, our car exhaust system needed welding, there were some really weird left-over dinners eaten at really weird rest areas, there were horrifying hoards of mosquitos and no-see-ums (and a plague of giant crickets), scary thunderstorms and tornados and our AC doesn’t work on the uphills. But truly the most tragic trip moment was when Cubby, our dear stuffed bear, was accidentally thrown out and lost forever. RIP Cubby the gender-educator bear.

Photo Journal of our road trip (Maine to Las Vegas)

Section 1: Blue Hill, Wilton, ME, Gorham, NH, North Wolcott, Smugglers Notch, Burlington, Killington, Claredon Gorge, VT
Wilton, ME. Our first stop on the trip was to to visit my cousin Clarissa and her sons. Milo came with us on a hike up Mt. Blue where we narrowly escaped getting struck by lightening. We also did some damage to our low-riding rusted-out exhaust system on the rocky drive to the trailhead (which is why it needed to get welded back together in Las Vegas).
Mt. Washington, NH. We hiked up via the Lion’s Head Trail from Pinkham Notch. According to the Mount Washington Observatory there were 80mph gusts on the summit that day.
North Wolcott, VT, where Lucy was born. What could be better than catching up with an old friend in a field of flowers while the kids play in the pond?
Smugglers Notch, VT. We hiked around the caves in the pouring rain and proved that there is no such thing as truly waterproof rain gear.
Killington and Clarendon, VT. An example of Jerome’s least favorite way to cook a meal – squatting in the trailhead parking lot. It was a hot day and the hood of the car is open so the car can cool down after coming up the hill. We hiked a couple hours here before driving south to swim in Clarendon Gorge.
Section 2: Ithaca, NY, Sandusky, OH, Ann Arbor, Naubinway MI,
Ithaca, NY. We took a tour of the “new” Cornell Lab of Ornithology and it was amazing. I worked there when it was still a bunch of trailers. Even the girls were impressed with the beautifully painted Wall of Birds.
We also hiked and swam in a few of the gorges that make Ithaca gorgeous.
Taughannock Falls State Park, NY.
Sandusky, OH. After we spent the day at an indoor water park we found a little patch of nature to hike and eat at. This is a typical road-side scene for us.
Ann Arbor, MI. We visited Jerome’s family for a few days and enjoyed a restaurant meal – a gourmet vegan one at that!
We also took advantage of the inside space and grandparent entertainment services to prepare for our PCT hike. Here we are re-packaging the 120 freeze dried dinners that we bought in bulk from an apocalypse survival website.
Mackinaw Bridge, headed north to the Upper Peninsula. There was some debate about whether Lake Michigan and Lake Huron are truly two different lakes. This is a typical family driving scene for us . . .
St. Ignace, MI. We camped at this R.V. campground on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. It was pouring rain and we were very excited about the covered cooking pavilion and how it could double as a dance pavilion. Making up dances is an important part of road-tripping.
Section 3: Sand Point Beach, MI, Duluth, Glyndon, MN, Bozeman, MT
Sand Point Beach on Lake Superior. Jerome’s happy place.
Leaving Duluth under an odd cloud. Duluth and Fargo looked like big industrial waste piles to us. Sometimes you have to actually live somewhere to appreciate it.
Buffalo River State Park, Glyndon, MN (I borrowed this photo from Wikipedia). We camped here and went for a long walk through the prairie. The birdwatching was fantastic.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park, Western North Dakota.
Prairie dogs at Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The kids got lots of lectures on how prairie dogs and Bison were two of the keystone species of the historical western landscape . . .
Spanish Peaks, MT. Driving across the Turner Bison Ranch to get to our trailhead.
Lee Metcalf Wilderness, MT. We spent three days backpacking in the Spanish Peaks area where we acclimated to altitude (~9,000′), and practiced the sun protection and snow travel techniques we’d need for hiking in the High Sierras.
Shooting Stars and Lucy meet for the first time in the Lee Metcalf Wilderness.
Learning to plunge step and self-arrest wth ski poles. In the Lee Metcalf Wilderness.
Section 4: Yellowstone area, Victor, ID
Gardiner, MT. After backpacking in the Spanish Peaks we spent the morning white water rafting on the Yellowstone River. (We’re the front four paddlers.)
Yellowstone National Park. It was amazing! I spent some time working as a field tech in this area in the mid 1990’s and didn’t see half the wildlife then that we saw on this trip.
Badger! In Lamar Valley, Yellowstone NP.
Wolf pup from a den near Tower Junction (Yellowstone NP).
Prismatic Spring, Yellowstone NP.
It was much easier to find camping in Yellowstone National Park then just outside of it. Many of the park campsites are open to walk-ups and only cost $15/night. (Salsa not included.)
Victor, ID. We visited a friend I co-taught NOLS courses with long ago and spent a lovely morning with her six year old daughter hiking and building fairy houses. Maybe because it was a high snow year, the western wildflowers were spectacular this summer.
Section 5: Lava Hot Springs, ID, Zion National Park, Silver Reef UT, Las Vegas, NV.
Lava Hot Springs, ID. Somehow the kind who posted this site on failed to mention that the train goes by several times an hour. All night long. This was the worst campsite of the trip.
Silver Reef, UT. Lucy loves historical sites and she was very excited to walk around this ghost town. Note that she’s reading us the self-guided tour off my iPad. Also note the temperature in the next photo.
Silver Reef, UT. Once we hit southern Utah the temperature soared. It stayed this hot (or hotter) until we started our hike on the Pacific Crest Trail four days later.
Las Vegas, NV. We spent two nights in Las Vegas because it was our last stop to buy, repackage and send off the 30+ days of food we would need for our Pacific Crest Trail hike. The hotel air conditioning was a bonus.

Coming up next . . . Living a Dream Part 3: Hiking 300 miles on the Pacific Crest and John Muir Trail.

One Comment on “Living a Dream Part 2: Cross-Country Road Trip

  1. You are such an amazing narrator Charlotte, reading this almost brought tears to my eyes at the wonder of this experience you gave to your family and how all of you will remember this forever!

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