Finishing Touches

Fin. After six weeks, the build is finished, finally. Our last update covered construction through the cabinetry, leaving the electrical system, plumbing, and finishes to wrap everything up. Most of what we highlight here actually happened gradually over the past few weeks, but the final pieces didn’t come together until the end of the project.


Right from the start, we knew we wanted to equip our van with a self-sufficient power system. This meant hours of research, design, and product sourcing to ensure we understood what we were building and to procure the correct items for the build. In a stroke of great fortune, Joe (Emily’s dad) happens to be well versed in electrical engineering and was gracious enough to accept our offer to be our electrical consultant. We paid well (in good-nature ribbing and eye rolls) so how could he say no to us? In all seriousness, this build would have taken twice as long if we didn’t have his help. More about that later.

After completing the aforementioned research and design, we landed on a 12-volt electrical system that included the following equipment:

  • (2) 200ah (amp-hour) 12v back-of-house batteries (400ah total capacity)
  • (4) 100w solar panels to be mounted on the roof
  • (1) solar charger
  • (1) battery-to-battery charger (to charger our back-of-house batteries using the van’s alternator)
  • (1) 30A shore-power charger
  • (1) 2000W inverter
Back-of-house electrical setup.

The major electrical components listed above come together to give us the power we need to run our smaller equipment while also keeping our battery bank as close to full capacity as possible. This configuration should allow us to remain “off-grid” for several days without having to plug in to shore-power (a conventional household power outlet) to recharge. Longer with consistent sunny weather or a lot of driving.

As far as installation of these components (batteries, chargers, etc.) we couldn’t have done it without Joe. He helped us fine-tune our design to fill gaps and adjust anything that didn’t quite come together cleanly. He also made the majority of the major connections in the electrical system and even went as far as to custom fabricate various components to fit our space and design.

The back of house system is in place to run the front-of-house system, or the items visible within the finished van. The front end of the system is made up of the following:

  • (2) MaxxAir ceiling fans
  • (6) LED ceiling puck lights
  • (2) LED under-cabinet puck lights
  • (2) LED back-of-house puck lights
  • (1) LED exterior flood light
  • (2) dual USB charge ports
  • (1) 44 quart 12v refrigerator
  • (1) water pump
  • (1) gas/CO detector
  • (1) 110V duplex GFCI receptacle
  • wiring for (1) diesel heater (a future upgrade)

The wiring for these items went in prior to the cedar wall/ceiling cladding, leaving the final connections to happen once cabinetry was finished. The connections for the 12v components were relatively simple after a tutorial from our consultant.


Besides the electrical system, the other major “system” is our plumbing. While we did not elect to go with a full fledged bathroom (shower, toilet, etc.) we knew we wanted running water and a sink. Our plumbing system is made up of just a few pieces:

  • (1) 30 gallon fresh water tank
  • (1) 10 gallon gray water tank (sink drains to this tank)
  • (1) water pump
  • (1) accumulator
  • (1) faucet

That’s it. Simple. Our fresh water tank is positioned under the second bed and the gray water tank is below the sink under the adjacent bench. The pump and accumulator are both mounted in the cabinet below the sink. Each water tank includes a vent and a valved drain that can extend to the exterior of the van to drain as needed. To fill the fresh water tank we’ll use a gravity fill system (non pressurized) which can be filled via any water tap or hose. The hardest part of assembling our relatively simple plumbing system was finding all the right size and type of connections to tie everything together.

We set aside a Friday to install everything and started that morning knowing pretty much nothing besides that we needed to get water from point A to point B. After THREE frustrating trips to Home Depot and/or Lowe’s, and a few more Amazon orders, by Saturday afternoon we officially had running water.

Finishing Touches

With the major technical portions of the build behind us, it was on to the fun stuff. In the first few weeks we clad the walls and ceiling in cedar plank. We selected dark wood-look vinyl flooring to provide some contrast to the cedar, and went with a light colored birch butcher block for the countertops. We painted the upper and lower cabinets white, added black drawer pulls and hinges, and used burlap in the upper cabinets to keep things light and allow some air flow. We had a few nice pieces of pine from Mike’s dad that we used to frame out our bed and the front edge of our slide out table.

We had some extra fabric left over from the cushions, so we enlisted both of our moms for help (thanks moms!). We added a thick curtain between the cab and the back of the van using two layers of fabric that will hopefully keep us warmer over the winter.


Lastly; the bed. We were able to fit a full size mattress without taking up too much livable space in the van by positioning the bed side-to-side, bumping the walls out on each side, and thinning out the insulation here. With a 6″ thick memory foam mattress, a 0-degree-rated sleeping bag, some fluffy pillows and a quilt, it’s incredibly cozy and feels just like home. It’s high enough off the floor to leave room for the guest bed and storage below, yet still low enough that we can sit up in bed without knocking our heads on the ceiling.

Well, we did it. Six weeks ago we contemplated our next move as we watched forest fire smoke roll through Wyoming and Utah. Pivoting, yet again, on our year off, we changed course and bought a used cargo van in New Mexico. We couldn’t be happier with how she turned out. A massive thank you to Joe and Vickie for providing a fully functional workshop and also for housing, feeding, and just dealing with us during the build. Our next move given the rising number of Covid-19 cases is to keep to ourselves as we head south and west in search of some warm weather and good food and drink before we circle back east for the end of the year holidays.

Van-sized Christmas tree.
  • Mike & Emily

Making Progress

Hey, what do you know, it’s been a long time since we posted. Again. Sorry about that (again). To be honest the conversion has been even more demanding than we anticipated and has taken up nearly all of our time, thus the gaps in post frequency. Our days are spent attacking the to-do list developed the day prior as well as any and all leftovers from previous day’s to-do lists (which seem to add up quickly). But here we are, finally, to go through some of the awesome progress we’ve made in the past few weeks.

The first feature we will detail today actually happened quite a bit ago; roof-mounted fans and solar panels. In my haste to put together the last post I blew right past these additions, so we’ll highlight them now.

(2) Fans and (4) 100W Solar Panels mounted to the roof of our girl, Wilda.

Our plan always included (2) roof-mounted fans. It did not, however, include (intentionally) two different colored fans. Long story short: we ordered two fans with white lids and were sent one correct fan and one incorrect fan (not only a ‘smoke’ colored lid, but the incorrect fan model altogether). After discussing things with customer service, it turns out that the correct fan model is not available until January 2021 and has nearly doubled in price. The rear fan is nearly the same as the forward fan, except it does not have a remote control, which is why we located it in the rear above our bed. So now we have two different colored fans; cool!

Moving on now to progress that actually occurred after the previous post; cedar installation on the ceiling and walls. Early on in our planning process we knew we wanted to use tongue-and-groove cedar plank based on durability and look. It is readily available and relatively easy to install once you’ve got a few planks under your belt. Another positive of using cedar plank is it’s flexibility which goes a long way into cleanly transitioning the van’s various curves and irregularities within the frame.

To start, we found the center point of the ceiling at the front of the van and placed our first plank. This first piece was just a small section in front of the forward fan, but having a few small pieces to start was probably a good thing. To attach the cedar plank to our plywood furring (outlined in the previous post) we decided to use zinc-coated screws. The zinc-coating has a reddish-gold finish which blends nicely with the knotty cedar. (Other van conversions we’ve seen have used typical black drywall screws, red deck screws, or even finish nails, but we liked the color of these and preferred screws to nails for an added layer of security against the constant jostling these planks would be under in a vehicle).

Installing all of the cedar plank required a few days of dedicated work and a good bit of patience. During the wood furring process we did our best to anticipate problem areas and add appropriate blocking, but you just can’t plan for everything with so many irregularities. In the end, though, the finished product looks fantastic. With cedar installation all-but finished (cedar-clad panels to cover openings on the sliding and rear doors will be added later) we transitioned into the cabinetry portion of the build.

Both of us having interest and real-world experience with building construction certainly helped throughout this portion of the project. Additionally, both of our dads know their way around carpentry, which added another level of confidence in our planning and design of the cabinetry elements. We planned for two sections of wall cabinets (at the foot of our bed, matching the width of the bed, and above the base cabinets behind the driver seat, matching the width of the base cabinets). We left a gap above the bench on that side (driver side) of the van to reduce the likelihood of having a head-knocker directly above the bench.

On the passenger side of the vehicle our cabinetry is limited to a single, stand-alone base cabinet to house our sink and faucet. We located the cabinet here in front of the sliding door on the side of the vehicle, to allow us to use the faucet to wash our hair if needed. Yes, the “we” and “us” was a joke; only Emily will need this feature. In all seriousness, this location allow for use of the faucet from outside the vehicle if needed. Another benefit to having a cabinet with the back accessible through the open sliding door is the option to add an outside table, which we decided to do. This table will be mounted to the back side of the cabinet on a hinge and will fold down for outside use. As far as wall cabinets on the passenger side of the vehicle, we kept this side of the vehicle clear of any overhead obstructions.

Our cabinetry work began with the base cabinets, starting with the sink cabinet. We put together a simple box, glued it down to the floor, and fastened it to the adjacent bench (which is bolted to the vehicle chassis and also tied into the elevated bed platform). Additionally, as this cabinet is somewhat free-standing (no wall to attach to based on it’s location directly in front of the sliding door), we planned to have the back of the cabinet (plywood) extend just past the door opening to allow for attachment to the frame.

On the other (driver) side of the vehicle, we filled the remaining wall space between the bench and driver seat with base cabinets. The primary storage in this cabinet space will be for the refrigerator and propane camping stove, as well as other kitchen accoutrements.

With the frames for the base cabinets complete, we moved our attention to the wall-hung cabinets. The photo below highlights our biggest challenge with the wall cabinets, the radius transition between the wall and ceiling of the van. Our main concern was ensuring these wall cabinets were fastened securely at both the wall and ceiling. Emily worked up a great cardboard template which allowed us to fabricate a frame that allowed us three points of contact for attachment.

After completing the cabinet framing at all locations the next step was custom drawers. The base cabinets on the driver side would be entirely drawers, again primarily for the fridge and stove. We divided the remaining cabinet space into three equal drawers, providing lots of storage. We made the drawers as deep as possible and will be using magnetic child locks to keep them from opening while driving. Our favorite feature here will be a “hidden” silverware drawer, which will sit just above the stove (top right drawer), accessible and visible only with the main drawer open. We realized we had more than enough space for the stove, so we added this hidden drawer after the fact and couldn’t be happier with that decision.

I have to admit we’re quite proud of these. It was tedious to measure and align all the drawer glides, but they make great use of the available space and are sturdy with clean lines. We’ll finish off the front of the drawers with a frame and paint. These were satisfying to complete and use.

Some other things have been progressing throughout this framing process but we’ll leave those for the final build-out post. Next: electrical, plumbing, finishing touches, and back on the road.

  • Mike

Buildin’ Wilda

Sooo it’s been a while. Sorry about that. We’ve been at Emily’s parents just outside of Binghamton, NY for the past several weeks spending as much time as possible converting our cargo van into a camper van. As of this post it will have been three weeks and we’ve made some great progress thus far.

After deciding to buy a van, and finding our van in New Mexico, we immediately began thinking about and designing the interior. We had discussed potentially converting a van in the past but had never really formally made plans about what our van might look like on the inside, so that was the first step.

Based on our research (looking at other vans on Instagram) we came up with our list of “must have” design elements; solar to re-charge our house batteries, two roof-mounted fans for circulation, a fixed bed (that does not need to be ‘converted’ each night), a second bed, a sink with a spray nozzle that is accessible from the outside if needed, and the list goes on. We mapped everything else out using a simple 3D modeling software (SketchUp) so we could see how it all worked together within our van’s shell.

Our primary design for WildaHa

Having sorted our our design intent, and also having committed to purchase the van, we jumped right into sourcing some of the long-lead time materials for our build, namely major electrical and plumbing components (roof mounted fans, solar array and charger, battery-to-battery charger, house batteries, water tanks, etc.). By the time we arrived in Binghamton, the front foyer looked like a department store with all of the boxes. We took that first weekend to relax a bit, but jumped right into the build that Monday.

Our first task was to install wood furring/strapping on the interior of the van which would serve at the skeleton for our build. Our van was a true cargo van, raw exposed metal and no interior wall construction, so there was little to no demo needed (save the removal of some plastic caps/covers).

Pictured: my nephew, Orion, seeing for himself how comfy the RAV bed really was.

For the wood furring we elected to use 1/2″ plywood cut down into 2-1/2″ strips. This furring was mounted directly to the metal “ribs” on the van walls and ceiling, and would serve as the structure to which our wall/ceiling finishes would be mounted. Cutting plywood into thin strips also allowed for some flexibility, which helped the furring roll with the various contours of the van. We learned early on (as forewarned in much of our preliminary research) that nothing is straight or square in the van.

Once the furring was complete we added some sound deadening sheets on the raw metal walls of the van to cut down on noise. The van was not terribly loud, even when completely empty, but the sound deadening sheets certainly reduced any noise or rattle that we noticed while driving. Next we continued with framing and installed our bed frame. Based on the Ram ProMaster cargo body dimensions you can actually fit a full bed side-to-side, which saves a ton of space (as opposed to having to orient your bed front-to-back). As I am just under 6 foot (as is Emily), we elected to go with the sideways bed and save the space.

We mentioned above the must-have element of a guest bed (will also be a full bed; more about that later) which dictated how much space we needed to leave beneath our bed frame. After working that out, we mounted a 2×6 ledger to each side wall using an awesome little bit of hardware called a riv-nut. In short: you can insert a threaded nut into a metal wall assembly without even needing access to the back of the nut. This allows you to add connection points that do not occur naturally in the van. The process is simple (provided you purchase the special riv-nut tool); drill the correct diameter hole, insert the riv-nut, use the tool to compress the riv-nut (which clamps around the metal through which you previously drilled the hole), and voila, you have your connection point.

With the bed ledger installed, we completed the bed frame which is entirely suspended from each side of the van. The bed frame will also house our slide out table, which will hang from the two deeper mid-span supports of the bed. The last bit of the bed frame is some bed slats, which will span the entire width of the van and be one of our last installations (to keep as must space open to work as possible).

Bed frame installed (bolts on the far ledge are installed into riv-nuts) and sound deadening (silver) sheets.

After completing the bed frame we jumped into the least fun part of the conversion yet: insulation. We elected to use mineral wool insulation for the walls (to be covered with a thin foil-faced insulation to encapsulate it) and thinsulate insulation in the ceiling. Our goal was to fill as much of the van wall cavities with insulation, including within the “ribs” and all other pockets that we could reach. Our biggest areas of concern were the wheel wells (bare metal exposed from beneath) and thin paneling at the walls and doors, so we made sure to cover them as much as possible. Although tedious, messy, itchy, and boring, the insulation process was extremely important and should go a long way in keeping the van temperature where we want it (as we will likely be without a heater, at least to start).

With insulation complete, our first major “finish” installation began; flooring. We are using some wood-look vinyl plank flooring, installed using adhesive directly on the sub floor of our van (which was installed in the van when we bought it). The first flooring piece was aligned directly with the exposed edge of the van floor adjacent to the sliding door. This piece would be completely visible, and the size of the van would leave the (1) less than full piece against the back wall, which would be completely covered by our bench and \ base cabinets. The installation took a while, as we installed the adhesive in sub 50 degree weather, which required around 18 hours of dry time. After impatiently waiting overnight, the adhesive gained full tackiness, and we laid the flooring down.

Flooring installation.

Following the flooring installation, the next step was to install our benches. Our benches will sit right in front of the bed frame on either side of the van. They are separated enough to allow the slide out table to fit between them (reference 3D model photo above) and, more importantly, act as part of the bed frame for our second bed. The second bed will also be a full bed, but oriented front-to-back in the van, half of it supported by the benches and half of it on a bed frame hidden beneath our own bed. We wanted to have a legitimate, full second bed so we could host guests on trips in the future, and did not want to subject them to sleeping on the floor between the cabinets as we had seen in so many other van conversions.

Next up: adding fans and solar panels to our roof, wiring for our electrical components, and finishing the walls and ceiling.


After departing southern Colorado we headed back to New Mexico; as mentioned in our previous post we stopped in New Mexico in late September. Our plan had always been to head to the Pacific Northwest and drive down the coast of California, but the wildfires forced us to reconsider. We figured we would wait to hit the west coast until the smoke subsided some, so we could see that part of our country in all of it’s glory.

We started thinking about our next move while taking a rest day in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. We’d been casually thinking about buying a cargo van and converting it into a camper for the past few months, but we hadn’t gone past just looking at photos online of other converted vans. Before we started our trip we decided that we would make the RAV work as long as it continued to run. It had a few minor problems but overall was working great. After a month of road tripping in a small SUV and further inflamed by the west coast wildfires and some really cold nights, we finally committed and started looking for a van to buy.

Our main priorities for a van were: at least a 150” wheel base (WB) dimension, 76” interior vertical clearance (so I could stand up freely), and relatively low mileage (as cargo vans go). Our internet research revealed three main options: Mercedes-Benz Sprinter, Ford Transit, and Dodge Ram Promaster. Our research also revealed that we were not the only people looking for a high-top cargo van. While many cargo vans are available for sale, it’s quite difficult to find an extended high-top van at a reasonable price, with low-ish miles, that isn’t 10+ years old. Fortunately for us, we had nothing but time on our hands, the ability to drive pretty much anywhere in the country, and found a couple of options and immediately headed to check them out.

Our first stop was in Orem, Utah to investigate a 159” WB extended (extra 14” length), high top 2014 Dodge Promaster van. After a couple days of driving we met up with the dealer to see the van and test drive it. The van was a passenger van with continuous windows on both sides and the rear. It drove great and was a fantastic option for us. We were interested and almost ready to pull the trigger then and there, but we had already arranged to see a second option in New Mexico and wanted to at least have two vans to compare before making such a big purchase. So, difficult as it was to do so, we left UT and headed south towards New Mexico.

We arrived in Farmington on a Saturday and saw the van that day. It was a 2016 Ram Promaster, 159” WB, high-top with no back windows, and looked like another great option for us. A test drive around the small town confirmed this and we were sold. We’d need some time to get the paperwork organized so we spent the next week camping around the area. We spent a lot of time on the phone working out how to trade in a car in New Mexico when you live in DC, your current car title is in PA, the bank you’re working with is in NY, and there’s a global pandemic so everything is just a little bit slower and/or closed. Our first night camping we met some awesome, welcoming van-lifers (TnT; TJ and Terri) who were generous enough to give us a tour of their own custom-conversion van. They walked us through their process, the build, do’s and don’ts, and much more invaluable information for our upcoming build. Thanks again TnT!

After a week sorting out the paperwork, we returned to New Mexico to seal the deal on our new van. That Friday included a tense wait for the FedEx delivery man, demolishing the RAV sleeping platform we had built (and re-construction of the same in the back of the van), taking the car-top clam shell off of the RAV and stuffing it in the van, and ensuring we removed every item from every nook and cranny in the RAV, and, finally, us driving away in our new van!

Emily in our new van, which we named Wilda.

We took the license plates off the RAV (which was included as part of the deal for the van, thanks for the memories!), strapped our belongings down inside the back of the van as best we could and immediately hit the road. Our target of Binghamton, NY is where Emily’s parents live, who both generously agreed to host us while we converted the cargo van into a camper. Seeing as it was about 6 PM when we left Farmington, we didn’t have much daylight left but decided to get as much driving in as possible and headed to Albuquerque, New Mexico where we would sleep in a Walmart parking lot for the first time. Most Walmart stores allow free overnight parking, and the fact that you can find a Walmart almost anywhere makes it pretty convenient. There were 3 or 4 other vans parked there when we got there. In all honesty, it was great. We didn’t have to go outside, and were able to use the bathroom in Walmart that night and in the morning after. Thanks Walmart!

The next day, we headed to Oklahoma City in hopes of getting a manufacturer recall repair completed. Long story short: the recall requires a part that many places in the country do not have and/or cannot get, but we found a dealer in OKC who was able to get us scheduled. We had booked a hotel stay for two nights (Sunday and Monday) with the repair scheduled for Monday. Unfortunately for us, as we parked after picking up some Thai food for dinner that night our radiator blew and began dumping coolant out of the bottom of the engine. Longer story shorter: the dealer in OKC was able to get the radiator repaired on Monday, but was in fact unable to get the recall part, so while we were able to keep driving but we still have to deal with the recall down the line. Such is life I suppose.

With the stress of a broken down van behind us, we continued east. Another big question mark in the van buying process was how to register it in DC. We had temporary tags from the dealer but they were only good for 30 days. Due to Covid-19 the DC DMV is operating solely by appointment, all of which are booked through March 2021. Our current appointment was scheduled for April 2021, so our plan was to at least get the van inspected in DC so we would have that paperwork in hand. The only way to get an earlier appointment is to regularly check online for cancellations and, frankly, get lucky. Fortunately for us after a few days of trying, that’s what happened: we were able to book a Friday appointment at 9 AM (which was the only available appointment across all five DC DMV locations for the foreseeable future). With our appointment scheduled, we booked it across the country to get there in time. This meant a few very, very long days of driving.

While in DC to take care of inspection and registration we were able to stay with our good friends Ben and Chelsea, and see some other friends as well. To top off a solid week, the van passed inspection and was registered using the same plates as the RAV. A great success considering the whirlwind of a week we’d had.

From DC we headed north to see our families. A stop in Downingtown, PA was a must as my grandfather, Hairig (pronounced high-dig), turned 92 years old. We ate some fantastic steaks on the grill and enjoyed some much missed family hospitality after more than a month on the road. It was also great to see our nephew and niece (Ori and Wren) any time we can. Emily also took a trip to the fabric store with my mom to pick out some materials to be used in the van. Patti knows a thing or two about sewing and fabric, so we happily took her up on her offer to help us with that.

After one more long drive for a while, we finally made it to Emily’s parents. The van build starts next…

Empty van pre-renovation.
Empty van pre-renovation.
  • Mike

Southern Colorado

Don’t worry, we’re fine. Just a lot to catch up on, so here goes; we last posted in Wyoming…

From Wyoming we continued south in hopes of avoiding the bulk of the west coast wildfires, and because we had a new mission which included a few unplanned stops in Utah and New Mexico (more on that later). As we left the mountains and drove south the warmer weather was a nice bonus. We camped for a night along the Snake River just outside of Alpine, Wyoming, and for another night just outside of Moab, Utah. (There was a bald eagle that landed in the tree we were parked beneath, but Mike scared him away before he could get any good shots). Since we had a date and time we needed to be in New Mexico we flew through Utah, really only stopping to eat tacos and sleep, but we definitely plan on coming back.

After making it to our destination of Farmington, New Mexico, we found ourselves with some time to kill near the Four Corners region, which is where Utah, Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico all meet. When we have free time in a city our go-to is either coffee shop or brewery with free WiFi, and since it was after 12 pm we opted for brewery. That night we found a free spot to camp on BLM land just south of Farmington at Angel Peak Scenic Area.

Views from the Angel Peak Scenic Area.
Views on the way to Angel Peak Scenic Area.

The next day we drove over the border into Colorado with plans to visit Mesa Verde National Park, which we didn’t know much about. At most national parks we look for the best hikes but this park is more known for its archaeological history, ruins, and the people who used to live there. There are Pueblo cliff dwellings built into canyon walls that are hundreds of years old. It was interesting and a bit surprising to know that historical ruins like this exist in the US, which we usually think about having to travel outside the country to see. Parts of the park were closed, including tours of the actual ruins, but we were able to enjoy them from afar and see some great fall foliage.

Cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde
Cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde

Throughout the park there was evidence of forest fire damage, which by this point we were well aware was a regular occurrence in this part of the country. Different parts of the park were in different stages of recovery and we noticed plaques along the main road through the park with the name and year of large fires. There were areas damaged from fire close to 20 years ago that still looked like they were years away from fully recovering. We stopped at a fire lookout near the north side of the park where apparently you can see all four states in the Four Corners region on a clear day.

Mesa Verde
Mesa Verde

After leaving Mesa Verde we spent the afternoon/evening hanging out in Cortez, Colorado, to enjoy a few drinks and delicious dinner. After dinner we drove west just outside of Cortez to camp in Canyons of the Ancients National Monument. The dirt road we targeted followed the edge of a canyon and we found a spot to park with 360 degree views of the sunset and (full) moon rise and, after a few games of cards, we called it a night. In the morning when we were getting ready to leave we saw a woman cautiously walking down the road towards us, which was a little unusual for camping in the middle of nowhere. Turns out she and her husband were camping down the road and had accidentally locked their keys, phones, and everything else important in their car. Fortunately we had cell service and we let her borrow a phone to figure out how to get back into her car. The fact that they were also from out of town and were parked on a random numbered dirt road with no address made it a little difficult to describe to a towing company. We ended up sending GPS coordinates, which worked. Shortly after we left the campsite we got a phone call from a random New Mexico number – it was the woman calling to thank us again and let us know they were already back in their car. We’re crossing our fingers that if this ever happens to us we find some nice neighbors to help us out.

That day we drove around to the other side of the valley to hike up into Sand Canyon. The trail was long, really quiet, and really hot. We followed the edge of a canyon and passed by more cliff dwellings and only passed a hand full of people the entire day. By the afternoon when we finished we were almost out of water and pretty wiped. We decided we really needed a shower, even if we had to pay for a campground, and fortunately found one close by in Cortez. We booked through Hipcamp, which is kind of like Airbnb for camping. The hot shower was totally worth it and as a bonus we had access to a fully stocked shared kitchen and outdoor seating area. Between the community showers and bathrooms, shared common space, and other campers hanging around, the place reminded us a lot of a hostel, which was a nice change of pace from camping in the middle of nowhere. The fluffy camp dog named Luna who hung out with us was another bonus.

The next morning we woke up early to head back to Farmington, New Mexico for the next leg of our adventure…

Grand Tetons (Wyoming)

On Monday morning we took advantage of our Airbnb in Idaho Falls and slept in, before making the drive to Grand Teton National Park. It was a great basement apartment and included a friendly outdoor doggo. He was nice. We stopped to grab some breakfast at a highly-rated place we found online called Mitchell’s, which we discovered upon arrival was a gas station diner. To clarify, the diner was in a building shared by the gas station convenience store. I digress. The food was solid and kept us moving which is all we needed.

The drive in search of a free camp site for the night took us up and over the mountains (a slow drive, especially when you get stuck behind a livestock truck), across the valley, and up a long and questionable dirt road. Emily found a nice quiet spot with a great view of the Teton Mountains and we arrived early enough to relax and play some pitch. The next morning we got up early with plans to do a pretty lengthy hike through the park and were greeted by some new wildlife we hadn’t seen yet! As we turned out of our camp site, not 50 feet from where we had slept, we saw a bull moose on the dirt road. We startled each other and he picked up his pace to get away, but we were able to snap a few great shots.


Thrilled that we saw a moose for the first time on the trip, we drove back down the questionable dirt road, back across the valley, and towards the park with a brief stop at a scenic overlook. This was one of Emily’s top National Parks she wanted to visit and even though the smoke continued to mute the mountains a bit, it was an incredible few days for us.

Our first full day was spent hiking through Cascade Canyon, which brings you up through a valley between two of the massive peaks which makes for some incredible views. The trail starts at Jenny Lake, and while there’s a ferry that takes you across the lake to get to the trail head, in the off-season the ferry doesn’t start running until 10AM. We wanted to get moving earlier than that so we added a few miles to our trip by hiking around the lake. The full trail continues on to Lake Solitude, but we opted to turn around where the trail splits and were happy we did by the end of the long day (13.5 miles all in).

Within the first few minutes of the hike we were blessed again by the moose gods and saw a mother and a calf chomping on the nearby greenery. They were so well camouflaged in the brush that we weren’t even able to get any clear photos. An awesome site to begin the morning.

Once we made it around the lake we made two brief stops and Hidden Falls and Inspiration Point. As we continued the valley started to open up with views of the mountains on either side, and between the two of us we must have mentioned how amazing the colors were at least a dozen times. Each new view of the adjacent mountainsides brought more fall colors, patches of ice and snow, and even some waterfalls.

After lunch (which consisted of the usual P(A)B&J sandwiches and was enjoyed on a log, riverside, with a view of the overhanging mountain) we put it into high gear and made our way back to the car. Before leaving the park in search of free camping for the night we made a pit stop at a campground with public showers ($3 each, a little pricey) and savored every minute (before the shower started loudly beeping at you to let you know your time was almost up and the water would shut off). Feeling refreshed, we headed back up another long, questionable dirt road in search of a spot for the night.

Unfortunately for us we arrived a bit too late and the camping area was completely full. Fortunately (or unfortunately) for us there was a fellow camper who’d met the same fate as us and was also trying to figure out his next move with limited cell phone service and dwindling sunlight. He asked if we had a backup plan and mentioned that he did and offered to lead the way. (Also important to note is that he was alone, in a black Astro van, with very few windows). So, naturally, we followed. We drove behind him up another dirt road and he took a spot right at the entrance to a forest road and we took a great spot up the mountain a few miles in. At this point we’d been on quite a few rough and uneven dirt roads, but this one was pretty bad. No need to worry, our Astro van friend was just a friendly stranger and we’re fine. (Wildlife note: Before heading up the mountain to find a spot to park, we saw TWO MORE MOOSE, a male and female adult pair, to bring the total for the DAY to 5 moose. Super cool).

The plural of moose is, moose.

The next day we woke up all kinds of sore and decided we needed a rest day, so we drove down through the valley to Jackson Hole to find a coffee shop with free wifi. We spent the morning at Jackson Hole Roasters eating breakfast, drinking coffee (or tea), and catching up on the past week’s blog posts and photos. Around mid-day we swapped the coffee shop and coffee for a brewery and beer on the other side of town which was located at the foot of a ski slope.

After a day well spent sitting, off our feet we headed back towards the park to find a camp spot for the night (this time a little earlier, to hopefully avoid last night’s scramble). We found a spot in Custer Canyon with another great view of the Tetons. The designated spot that we took for the night showed clear signs of a vehicle path up to the top of the nearby hill but multiple signs and barriers prohibited vehicular access. That said, we left the car at the base of the hill and walked up with our chairs, and the view up there was awesome. (It was also my brother Jack’s birthday that day and the hill gave us enough cell service for a family Zoom; happy birthday borther).

The next morning we got up early for a hike that would take us up the side of a mountain (around a 3,000 foot elevation change over 4 miles’ distance or so) to one of the numerous alpine lakes in the park, Delta Lake.

The way up was split into two types of trail; Part 1: a marked dirt trail (left photo) which included great views of several lower-elevation lakes, and Part 2: unmarked, full on rock scrambling (right photo). Although well-trodden and not particularly difficult, the dirt trail portion included plenty of rocks, switchbacks, and elevation change. The second half of the way up, however, was basically straight up hill. The final mile (or more) felt like we were climbing a 50-60 degree incline which was a challenge but also good fun before the ultimate payoff of the hike.

There wasn’t really a marked trail and at one point we had to bushwhack our way across to the “path” just before reaching the rim of the lake, but we made it to the top nonetheless. As the lake came into view the morning’s effort was quickly confirmed to be well worth it. Delta Lake was like something off of a post card with turquoise water and beautiful snow-capped mountains.

Before our well-earned lunch break we each took the opportunity to dip our feet into the water. At maybe 40 degrees Fahrenheit (total guess), our feet remained submerged for about 10 seconds combined and we scurried back up to the top of our rock to lay down and relax for a while. Sandwiches, some cucumbers and hummus, and some pitch made for a nice lunch in this amazing location.

The reverse trip back down was tough, especially the top portion (rock scramble). At such an incline it’s tough to keep your balance, especially when any step could be onto a loose rock. This is probably the first trail where hiking sticks really made a difference. After a few hours the RAV came into view and we plopped down ready to head to a camp site for the night. We stopped back at the $3 shower campground and took advantages of the hot water and great water pressure one more time. A shower makes a world of a difference following a long hike, especially before seeping in a compact SUV.

We drove a few hours south through the mountains of Wyoming and found a spot to camp along the Snake River. While Google Maps showed a huge reservoir next to our site, the water level was way down, so we were really just camped next to a huge sandy beach. The water was far enough away for a few people to be tiny dots in the center of the reservoir enjoying a beer in some camp chairs along the actual shore line. The sandy, open terrain and low water level also attracted several motor sports enthusiast, including a lone dirt biker and an off-road pickup/dune buggy type of thing that came flying around the corner of the path and completely dusted us out (to his credit, the driver tried to stop and even apologize, but the dust storm was already surrounding us at that point). A quick meal of ramen and veggies and we settled in for the night.

Camp site views of the Snake River.
Camp site views of the Snake River.

TBD on our next stop…

  • Mike

Yellowstone (Wyoming)

We headed west out of North Dakota and made for Yellowstone, arguably one of the most famous National Parks (and the oldest). Our route took us through Montana where we stopped for one night and camped along the Yellowstone River. The highlight of that evening was a bald eagle perched on the tree overhanging our car, who then quickly flew across the river. No great photos as he was quite a ways away, but still awesome to see.

In the morning, we continued south towards Wyoming and took some time at a coffee shop in Billings, Montana to sit down an unwind with some internet service. We also made our first stop at Plant Fitness for the sole purpose of showering, and it was glorious. Clean, private showers with great water pressure and temperature. A great decision. We finished our brief stay in Montana with a stop at a local Billings favorite, Kings Hat, for a quick dinner, before heading into Custer Gallatin National Forest to spend the evening just outside of the park.

On the way to find a spot to park we starting seeing signs warning about bear activity and food storage. While stopping to read a sign at the entrance to the National Forest, we spotted just the leg of an animal (deer? elk?) on the ground. We found a spot just off a dirt road with an incredible view of the valley and the town of Gardiner. We were pretty happy with our spot, until Mike went for a short walk down the hill and stumbled upon a grave yard of animal bones…

Graveyard next to our camp spot for the night, just outside of Yellowstone.

We felt a little uneasy going to sleep that night. At some point in the early morning hours we both woke up to the sound of something outside our car. We’re pretty confident it wasn’t a bear (it sounded like it had hoofs), but still an uneasy feeling. We eventually fell back asleep and woke up feeling grateful we were sleeping in a car rather than a tent.

Yellowstone National Park

We planned to head to Mammoth Campground, which is just inside the park. We heard almost all in-park campgrounds are filled each day, so the only way to get a spot is to show up early and wait. We arrived around around 7:15 and were the 17th car in line (they give you a number to make sure everyone gets a spot based on when they arrive). Looooonnnggggg story short; we waited 2.5 hours until we got our spot. Though I was quite cranky during that time period (no cell service, oof), it was worth the wait.

We got a great spot on the outside edge of the campground in close, but not too close, proximity to the bathrooms. We picked Mammoth largely because the bathrooms here were flush toilets (rather than pit toilets) and had sinks with running water, which again was well worth it. Our spot also overlooked the main highway but at enough of a distance that sound wasn’t an issue. The coolest part of the campground experience, though, was the full herd of elk that stayed there during the day.

The herd had to be two-dozen strong and was made up almost entirely of doe with one large, boisterous, male bull elk. The attendant at the front of the park even warned us that he was rutting and very active, and that he had actually chased campers several times this week. She warned us to have an escape plan in case we came face-to-face with him. Thankfully we never had that issue, but did see plenty of elk throughout our stay.

About midday after finishing our coffee we headed to the trail that Emily picked out to hike Bunsen Peak, which is about 8,500 ft elevation. Fun fact: this peak is named after the same Bunsen who invented the burner. What a guy. The hike required a vertical climb of over 1,500 feet over a 2 mile distance, which catches up with you quickly. We crushed it, though and found a nice spot at the top to stop for lunch.

Unfortunately due to wildfires both in the park (in other areas) and perhaps even from further away on the west coast, the views were significantly muted with smoke. We couldn’t see any direct evidence of ongoing forest fires in the immediate area, but the air was full of smoke. That said, the view was still incredible. We finished our PABJ (peanut and almond butter and jelly) sandwiches and made the return trip down the mountain.

We arrived back at the campground just at dusk which was maybe a bit later than we wanted, but this timing came with a nice surprise. The elk were quite active, including the bull, who was bugling constantly as he shepherded the rest of the herd from the adjacent plains back up into the campground. We think the herd stayed in the campground for safety from predators (lots of people and noise around). Note: The shot below is not from the campground but rather from our trip around the park, but a great shot and worthy of inclusion.

Elk heard in Yellowstone
Elk heard in Yellowstone.

Dinner was a quick meal of broccoli and cheese tots and beef raviolis, and we settled in for the night. The next day brought rain, which thankfully we anticipated, so our plan was to drive the loop road around the park for the day and target stops at some of the most popular/famous features. Another benefit of the rain was it helped clear up the smokey skies.

Our first stop of the day could not have possibly been anticipated. As we rolled through the park we saw dozens, even hundreds of people congregated along the banks of the river. We knew this meant some sort of wildlife, but could not see for ourselves, so we parked along side the road (half a mile away was the closest available) and headed back to the scene. Where we parked, a man in the car next to us told us there was a grizzly bear laying on top of his freshly killed elk at the bank of the river. Uhh, what?

We nestled into a small opening among the crowd and used our camera with 300 mm zoom to get a better look. What a scene. The grizzly bear (bear #791, a 600+lb male according to the chatter we heard) was sleeping, stretched out atop a mound he’d built over his freshly killed bull elk. The elk’s head and front left shoulder/leg were exposed, just above the water level at the river’s edge, with the rest of the body covered in soil. I’d guess that two thirds of the elk was covered, which gives you an idea of how big this elk was.

The other people standing on the side of the road filled us in on the action that had happened the day prior at 6:00 am or so. The bear apparently chased some elk from out of the woods (on the opposite side of the road we were on), across the road, and singled out this big bull elk. He managed to get a hold of him and drag him down into the river. Ultimately, he got the elk across the river to the other side and drowned him on the way. Are you kidding? How amazing is that? When we showed up, the bear was napping, but some people said he took a few bites out of the haunches before covering him up. Though we just saw him sleeping, this was still a crazy site. Later in the day, after our 2nd and 3rd passes by this location to check on the bear, we were able to snap some photos of him standing over his kill. So cool!

While writing this post we found there’s a ton of data and information about grizzlies and other animals in Yellowstone, and according to Wikipedia as of 2017 there are over 700 grizzly bears in the park. That’s just grizzlies. There are also just as many black bears.

Though we wanted to stay and see what the bear would do next (which a lot of people were doing; some people had been there nearly the entire time since the kill took place), we kept moving along our loop to see more of the park. Our next stop was “The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone”, which sounded like a potential dud but was actually really cool. Obviously smaller, the canyon was not nearly was wide but still super deep. We stopped at a parking area adjacent to a water fall, which made for some pretty great shots.

Shortly thereafter was our first return trip to the bear, only to see he was still sleeping. We’d be back, though. Our next stop was the West Thumb Geyser basin, which is home to numerous geysers of all shapes and sizes. FYI: Geysers are all hot springs that discharges water when pressure builds up beneath the surface (but not all hot springs are geysers). Speaking of geysers, of course was had to go see the most famous one.

Old Faithful is arguably the most famous geyser out there since it’s eruption is so predictable. There are several large inn’s and restaurants nearby and quite a crowd had gathered when we arrived around midday, which was to be expected. Old Faithful erupts every 35 to 120 minutes and, fortunately for us, erupted just a few minutes after we arrived.

Though one of the employees said the day’s eruption wasn’t as big as normal, it was still an incredible sight to see. Following the eruption we took a lap around the geyser (which brought you up to a number of other geysers near Old Faithful) and got back in the car to head to the Grand Prismatic.

A small hike took us to the upper viewing platform of the Grand Prismatic spring. The spring is massive, over 350 feet in diameter, and showed off numerous vibrant colors, apparently due to different types of bacteria. On a cool day (like the day we were there) steam is constantly rolling across the surface of the spring, so the colors may be somewhat obscured compared to a warmer day. I think we hit the sweet spot with temperature, though, as we were able to see the entire range of colors as well as a great plume of steam coming off of the surface.

With our loop complete, we felt compelled to return to check on the bear. During this pass, he was finally up and standing over his kill. It wasn’t clear why he’d moved (whether he was finally eating, or if something else had come into the area [wolves?] to challenge him for the meal) but it put on display just how huge he was. I’m not sure photos do it justice, but that is a massive elk beneath that mound. And, on another note, the amount of river bank that he cleared to dump on top of the elk is massive unto itself. Emily and I both agree that this may be the single coolest wildlife/nature experience we’ve had, and that it will be incredibly difficult to top.

Grizzly bear guarding his dinner.

With light fading we were forced to head back to the campsite for dinner and our final night in the park. Much less visible elk activity on the second night, but we still heard our man bugling through the night and early morning. We awoke early and set off through the park to the west entrance towards Idaho Springs (a quick stop in Idaho, mainly based on proximity to our next stop) for our once-a-week AirBnB day. Grand Tetons next…

  • Mike

North Dakota

From one Dakota to the next.

White Butte

After our last night in South Dakota we kept driving north and crossed over into North Dakota. The driving scenery remained pretty much the same and while normally I’m sure you could see for miles in every direction, we were still surrounded by a smoky haze in every direction. We saw a lot of farm land, cows, and a few ginormous birds of prey posted up on telephone polls along the highway, which seemed to be the only elevated spot for them to perch and look for unsuspecting prey.

Our first stop was White Butte, the highest point in North Dakota at 3500 ft. According to Google a butte is “an isolated hill with steep sides and a flat top”. White Butte is located in Little Missouri National Grassland, but it’s technically on private property, so when we pulled up to the parking area we parked between a field of cows and a farm. We were the only ones there on a weekday afternoon, besides all the cows curiously checking us out, and enjoyed a relatively simple hike up. The smoky skies made for an eerie backdrop from the top.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park

From White Butte we kept driving north and made a stop at the Dollar Store for essentials (snacks, marshmallows, chocolate, and graham crackers). We found a spot to camp for the night on top of a hill in Little Missouri National Grassland, just outside of Theodore Roosevelt National Park (the south unit; turns out there’s also a north unit farther up which we didn’t make it to) with incredible views of the badlands. The trees and and shrubs were all starting to change colors and it started to feel like fall. We enjoyed some camp stove s’mores, but both agree that s’mores roasted over a fire just hit different.

The next day we drove into the park with plans to do a 7 miles hike through a valley, along the Lower Paddock Creek Trail. Even with smokey skies we could see pretty far along the valley and up onto the hillside, and the trail wasn’t crowded. The reviews for the trail all mention wildlife sightings, and we were not disappointed.

Lower Paddock Creek Trail
Views from the Lower Paddock Creek Trail

Immediately after getting out of the car at the beginning of the trail, we were greeted by hundreds of fluffy little prairie dogs popping out of their holes. They squeaked at each other when people got too close, and then scampered to their holes to take cover. Along the trail we came across several other prairie dogs towns, and honestly the hike probably took longer than it should have because we stopped at all of them. While writing this post we looked up some fun facts about prairie dogs and learned that their vocabulary is more advanced than any other animal language that’s been decoded.

“To a human ear, prairie dogs’ squeaky calls sound simple and repetitive. But recent research has found that those calls can convey incredibly descriptive details. Prairie dogs can alert one another, for example, that there’s not just a human approaching their burrows, but a tall human wearing the color blue.”

Cute and smart. This further confirms that prairie dogs are Emily’s new favorite animal.

We also saw three wild horses hanging out in the shade and a few lone bison in the distance. After we got back to our car we decided to keep driving around the park looking for more bison. Fortunately, as soon as we got back to the main loop around the park we found a very large bison patiently waiting to cross the road, which caused us an an oncoming RV to stop and wait patiently. It was a standoff. The bison, clearly demonstrating his dominance, finally went first and crossed the road.

After leaving the park we made a pit stop at a nearby campground to shower and fill up on water. We continued heading west and crossed into our next state, Montana, on our way to Wyoming.

P.S. We have more pictures of North Dakota saved on our photo page, and it’s starting to become mostly pictures of animals.

South Dakota

Driving through South Dakota featured a lot of long, straight highways, fields, cows, and (on the plus side) mostly 80 mph speed limits. This area is also known as the badlands, and according to Google the official definition is “extensive tracts of heavily eroded, uncultivable land with little vegetation”, which we can attest is accurate. Fortunately the drive was broken up by some pretty great stops along the way including the World’s Only Corn Palace and a great camping spot along the Missouri River.

Badlands National Park

Badlands National Park
Badlands National Park

We spent a day hiking through Badlands National Park which was full of strange-looking rock formations, lots of grass, and more rocks. It’s definitely unlike any other place we’ve been. We did a 7 mile loop around the park and ate lunch overlooking a valley. The trail was pretty empty and the park wasn’t too crowded. The most exciting part was actually on the drive after our hike to get to the other side of the park and keep driving west.

First we stumbled upon a group of big-horned sheep just chilling on the side of the road. They didn’t seem to care that there were a bunch of cars and people around taking photos, but they also looked like they would ruin your day if you crossed the line.

Feeling satisfied with our first big-horned sheep siting, we kept driving and found a few bison hanging out on the side of the road. If the big-horned sheep would ruin your day, a bison would ruin your week, and your car. They. Are. Meaty. To top of the drive, just before the park exit we found a prairie dog town and saw a coyote roaming in the distance, possibly eyeing up the prairie dogs.

What did the buffalo say to his son when he left for college? Bi, son.

Black Hills National Forest

Near the southwest corner of South Dakota the endless flat landscape gave way to actual mountains. We drove into Black Hills National Forest and found a spot to camp for the night just before it got dark. The next day we woke up early and made the quick drive to Custer State Park to climb to the highest point in South Dakota, also the highest point east of the Rocky Mountains and west of the Pyrenees Mountains in France – Black Elk Peak. There’s a fire tower at the top and incredible views, and on the way back down we made a detour to scramble up some rocks to Little Devils Tower.

On the way back down the mountain you could see the back side of Mount Rushmore in the distance. We spotted some rock climbers on one of the rock formations, and could actually hear them yelling across the valley.

After our hike we drove around the front side of Mount Rushmore to see four of our Nation’s most revered commanders in chief. Our biggest takeaway was: why is Teddy squished back in the corner? He literally put public lands and nationals parks on the map. Put him front and center! In all seriousness though, it’s hard to comprehend the scale of these giant heads carved into the side of a mountain.

Mount Rushmore National Monument
Mount Rushmore National Monument

Following a long day of hiking we rewarded ourselves with ice cream, a quick dip in Pactola Lake (very cold, but counts as a shower for the day), and set off to look for a place to camp for the night.

Spearfish Canyon

After some rest and relaxation in Rapid City we packed up the RAV again and set off on a 22 mile scenic drive from Cheyenne Crossing to Spearfish, and through Spearfish Canyon, which is also in the Black Hills of South Dakota. We planned a few stops along the way, starting with Spearfish Falls, one of several waterfalls in the canyon.

A few more miles down the road we pulled off for a quick hike through the valley. We walked along, and through, a creek bed to Devils Bathtub. The water was freezing, but felt good after being on our feet nonstop.

Our last stop in the canyon was another quick hike which was really just a scramble up the side of the mountain. The reviews we read on this spot pointed out that it wasn’t marked very well and there wasn’t much of a trail, but reading comments gave us a good enough idea that we figured we’d try it. The terrain was quite difficult to navigate with the vast majority of the ‘trail’ made up of loose rocks on an incline of around 30 degrees or so. At the top we found a huge cave-like opening with a small waterfall, and no other people in site.

The return journey down from the cave was actually pretty difficult due to all of the loose footing, but it made for a good challenge to end the day. Back in the car we made a stop in the town of Spearfish for smoothies and continued driving north. To the other Dakota.

Big 10 Country – Part 3


Wrapping up our time in the Upper Peninsula, it was time to head south. From the time we crossed the border to Wisconsin to the time we left, it did not stop raining. Before we left Michigan we stopped for a pasty, which we heard is a UP staple. A pasty is like a little pie pocket filled with meat and potatoes and a buttery, flaky crust. It was filling and delicious; the ultimate comfort food. (“In fact, after reading what Emily just wrote, I want another one now” – Mike). And thus began our culinary tour of the Midwest (with nonstop rain in the forecast for the coming days, outdoor activities were limited).

Pasty from Lawry’s Pasty Shop

We made a pit stop in Green Bay, drove by Lambeau Field, stopped at a bar called Title Town for a beer, and ate some cheese curds for an early dinner. From there we kept driving south with plans to spend time in Madison and hike around Devil’s Lake. We found a spot to camp in a park in a small town called Juneau. It was still raining.

The next day we woke up and drove the remaining hour to Madison, which is really the first city we planned to spend time in. We’d gotten recommendations from a few different friends on places to see and things to do, but after finding a place to park downtown we quickly realized our plans may have to change. The main streets downtown were mostly vacant with the exception of a few students, storefronts were boarded up and covered with BLM murals, and many places were closed because of Covid or the weather. What I’m sure is usually a bustling college town had an eerie, deserted feeling that reminded me of what downtown DC has felt like the past six months. Also, it was still raining. We were feeling pretty down about our time in Wisconsin, and walking around all of the Black Lives Matter murals and boarded up shops was a quick reminder of reality.

Since the forecast for the next few days wasn’t looking promising, we gave up on our plans to hike and camp at Devils Lake and focused on our true priority for this state: dairy. We visited a fancy cheese shop called Fromagination, bought a bunch of samples, and ate them immediately. Then we began our search for beer, brats, and more cheese curds. After several strikeouts we finally found a great spot and enjoyed a delicious Midwest meal.

Cheese curds, brat with sauerkraut, and a Spotted Cow from New Glarus Brewing.
Cheese curds, brat with sauerkraut, and a Spotted Cow from New Glarus Brewing.

For dessert, we hoped to try some ice cream from the University of Wisconsin’s Babcock Dairy Store or another Midwest staple, custard. After at least three more strikeouts (Covid, weather, etc.), we finally surrendered and got custard from Culver’s, a fast-food chain, and called it a day. We got in the car and drove west across the Mississippi river to…


Unfortunately we did not escape the weather. In our last minute search for a spot to camp we luckily come across some free showers and a place to fill up our water at a state park. Feeling clean and determined we drove around a National Forest looking for a spot to camp for free. After a number of strikeouts (seems to be a theme of the day), it was getting dark and we were getting desperate. Finding a good free spot involves navigating the NPS maps, checking each state’s and each park’s rules about camping, getting enough cell phone service to navigate, checking a few camping apps, and googling “free camping near X”. We’re learning that it’s a trial and error process. We finally parked in a campground at the end of a long dirt road next to a cornfield and ate cold pizza in our car in the dark for dinner. It was still raining.

The next day we woke up, retraced our tracks down the long dirt road, and continued heading west. The last box we wanted to check on our culinary tour of the Midwest was a Juicy Lucy, a cheese-stuffed burger, and a must-have in Minnesota. We stopped for take-out at a restaurant just over the border in South Dakota and ate in a park down the street. The burgers were delicious, but most importantly, it was sunny.

Juicy Lucy from Crooked Pint.
  • Emily