The Road To The West, Part One
A Journal Of Our Yearly Adventure Into The American West
For all of us, 2020 has been a wildly strange year. There is little reason to doubt that back when the clock struck 12:01 on January 1st, none of us would've predicted the year that lie ahead. We certainly didn't. Like anyone else, we had plans. Big plans. We were going to Mexico, France, England. And like every year before it, we were going to Wyoming and Montana. It was going to be a lovely one, 2020.
We did actually go to Mexico. It was late January, and Covid was only a distant whisper when we left NY's JFK Airport for Tulum. And we did go to the UK and France. Well, I went to the UK to work, and my wife met me in Paris afterward. That was smack in the middle of early Covid panic, when the numbers were skyrocketing and the US was about to shut down. We returned to a panicked New York, and a growing call to shut down the country. The rest is history, really. We took the extra time off to build a deck, work on our cars, and work on art projects that we'd left neglected.
As the year wore on, it became clear that we had to give some real thought as to whether or not to take our yearly road trip out west. You see, road trips are a big part of our lives. It's basically the only reason we own an SUV. With our two dogs, Trotsky (the Doberman), and Mr. Tickles (the Cocker Spaniel), and our photo and filming equipment, an SUV is an absolute necessity for long road trips. And we normally take many of them every year. 2020 has been an exception, but we were determined to still forge ahead with our yearly sojourn to the mountains of Wyoming and Montana. So we did.
Silly Underpowered Vehicle (SUV)
I have never loved SUVs. Like most of us car nerds, I find them to be too big with too little power, and fundamentally flawed in terms of handling. The problem is that when you need size and the ability to travel off-road, a nippy coupe won't cut the mustard. And considering that we travel as much as we do, with our dogs in tow, we decided a few years ago that an SUV was a necessary evil. Volvo was the obvious first choice, but until this recent facelift, I hated the look of the XC60 and XC90. They suffered from an outdated facade, and wildly underperforming off-road capability. So then we looked at the Range Rover, which was always stunning to look at. Problem is, the ones we liked were too much money to justify. We vaguely looked at the Audi and BMW options, but they seemed way overpriced as well.
So in 2019, we ended up with a predictable but handsome Jeep Grand Cherokee Limited. I installed a black SRT grille face, because it looked far better than stock, and because this one is loaded with every option and still reasonably priced, it made sense for us. And yeah, it has the panoramic moonroof, which at first I thought to be a money grab, but it turns out it's a cool feature. With 295 horses at the wheel, and a two and half ton curb weight, it certainly isn't winning any races. But frankly, the Range Rover was only 40 horses more powerful (and heavier), and the Volvo was only 15 horses more.
I don't want to ramble on about the faults of the Jeep. It's a capable vehicle, and has honestly treated us very well, especially this year, which you'll read about later on. But man, is this thing cheap. The cabin buttons are all plastic of course, but the fonts they use are awful. The fonts are the kind that you'd find on some unbranded Taiwanese phone charger from 2008. They're just ugly and thoughtless. It all feels rather flimsy too, and even though this is the fully loaded version, it doesn't say luxury. It doesn't even whisper class. It just exists, and here in Upstate NY, it seems as though every third car is either a Subaru Outback or a Grand Cherokee. At least ours looks sort of like an SRT.
the Grand Cherokee, sans roof rack, 2019
The virtue of this car is really in how it deals with being off road. And the Grand Cherokee does an excellent job of that, without question. There may be better performers, but this one has taken us some pretty cool places, with a minimum of coaxing and forethought. The handling tradeoff of the bouncier and taller suspension has been worth it for us. You do get used to the ride, and it certainly isn't the worst thing in the world, but you really do smile when you get crawling over hills and boulders that you wouldn't dare take a Volvo XC90 on.
My big overall irritation with SUVs is that they actually don't have a ton of space. There is more legroom certainly, and there is also more headroom. Those are nice. But in terms of cargo, it's well known that they're not all they're cracked up to be. After our dogs, our camera gear, and our bags and suitcases, the Jeep is literally full to the gills, and rather cramped. So this year, we decided on installing a Thule roof rack and cargo box. Even though it adds weight and resistance, it turned out to be a very smart decision, if not just for our comfort, but for our dogs too. We all had a little more room to breathe, and more room to collect things as we traveled.
The plan for this year was to leave NY on the northern path of Interstate 90, and pretty much stay on 90 until we hit Wyoming, where we'd branch off onto Rt, 16 in Buffalo. And so we did. We packed the car in the early morning, and set off. With so much room in the cabin this year, we were all a little more comfie, and we even set up a little booster bed for Tickles so that he could see out the back window.
Trotsky & Tickles, prepping for the journey
The highway part of this trip is typically pretty uneventful. Monik and I take turns at the wheel, usually pulling a healthy 6-8 hour shift, while the other reads or snoozes. This year, I took us from NY to just past Chicago, where Monik took over and got us past the Mississippi River at La Crosse, and ended up stopping for a nap somewhere near Rochester, Minnesota. It was actually a remarkably fast first day, and the usually quite boring I90 corridor scooted by in record time.
This is where I have to admit that the Jeep is not bad. It's a good long distance ride, being quite comfortable and supportive, and the vented air conditioned seats are a true work of genius (though Jeep was of course far from the first to do it). We usually cruise around 80-85mph, and the cabin stays quiet, so the upgraded sound system sounds fantastic, and a passenger can just stretch their legs while the driver comfortably relaxes into the road. This is one area where the Jeep is a fine choice, admittedly.
The next morning, we woke at sunrise, walked the dogs around one of Minnesota's pastoral rest areas, then set off again, this time hoping to get to Wyoming by day's end. As the clock ticked along, we realized we were making excellent time, so we stopped in Chamberlain, South Dakota, right on the banks of the Missouri River. This is where the scenery really starts to change, and the flat expanses of the South Dakota plains begin to roll and splinter. We pulled off I90 and into the historic area of Chamberlain, in search of any sort of lunch and antique store. Even though South Dakota had largely been spared by Covid fallout to that point, we found much of town closed down, but we did manage to pop into a small antique shop where we bought a few neat things, including a sweet green pilot's jumpsuit that fit Monik like a glove.
We got back on I90, and quickly realized that the SatNav was going berserk. We didn't really need it, as we knew where we were going, and we also had our phones to guide us if necessary. But there is something unnerving about your nav system thinking you're floating on a lake in Texas, when in fact you're on very dry land in South Dakota. So we pulled off the highway and after a long phone call with Jeep's customer support, we were able to download an update and get back on the road.
At this point, the Jeep was averaging nearly 26 miles per gallon, which is a nice increase from its usual 18 or 19 back home. This of course, means many fewer stops for gas, so we were able to cruise right along back on the old trusty I90. We started seeing signs for the Pioneer Auto Museum in Murdo, SD, which is somewhere we always wanted to visit, but never were able to, because we were usually speeding past Murdo in the evening, on a mad dash to make it to Wall Drug, one of our favorite annual haunts. But this year, we were doing it.
The Pioneer Auto Museum
With as much road tripping as we do, it's a wonder we don't stop for more roadside attractions, as it were. I guess it's just that they're usually pretty underwhelming and often it seems these attractions are just holdovers from a different time, when entertainment was harder to find, and had a much lower bar to clear. We truly had no idea what to expect. In fact, we didn't know if it would actually be open, with Covid and all. But lo and behold, we pulled into the rather unassuming parking lot, and found that it was indeed open, and we were weren't alone.
First off, this place is awesome. If you ever find yourself running through South Dakota, and seeing signs for this joint, don't give it a second thought. Just go. It's been around since 1954, when a man called Dick Geisler moved to Murdo from California, and bought a Chevy dealership and a gas station. After seeing the passers by and their interest for the antique cars he had parked out front, he started collecting more and more of them, eventually becoming what it is today - building after building of old cars, trucks, motorcycles, tractors, and artifacts.
One of my favorite parts of the museum is that it's not precious. You pay your $12 admission, and they open the door for you and tell you to have fun. We got lost in just the first building alone, looking at old bits of motoring history, from signs to single cylinder engines, to rare muscle cars. It really is a petrolhead heaven, and we were fortunate to be there on a very pleasant and sunny day, where we could really take our time. If not for our dogs, patiently waiting in the Jeep, and our self imposed Wall Drug visit deadline, we'd have spent even more time there, going from car to car and building to building. There is something like 400 classic vehicles scattered throughout, not to mention all of the collectibles and oddities. It truly is like Disneyland for gearheads.
Wall Drug Redux & The Badlands
We've been to Wall Drug countless times now. It's seriously one of my favorite places on earth, probably because it sort of marks the point in our journey where the land becomes truly interesting and beautiful. It's sort of like our own personal gateway to the West, as we know it. When we arrive at Wall Drug, we know we're gettin' close, and even though we're long past the naive surprise and wonderment of our virgin visit, we always manage to find great joy in roaming its long stretches of goods and sundries. It may not hold the same allure for others, but it's at least worth one visit whilst passing through. Whenever I see a car back in NY with the bumper sticker 'Where The Heck Is Wall Drug?', I'm always compelled to strike up conversation with the driver, like a crazy person.
We did our usual stroll through the various stores of Wall Drug, and we topped off our tummies in the canteen with some hot turkey sandwiches and 5 cent coffee, then we headed out of town onto Rt. 240 which turns into the Badlands Loop Road. Being fans of the National Parks, we always buy a pass that covers our entry into any and all National Parks for a full year. It easily pays for itself on a trip like this.
The Badlands is perhaps the most otherworldly of any place I've been in my life. If you haven't been, you've no doubt seen photographs of the jagged and multicolored landscape, nary a tree in sight, looking like Mars or the home of some nefarious Star Trek villain. This year, we were lucky to be there near sunset, and the deep oranges and ambers were glowing alongside the long shadows. We've still never done any off-roading here, but one of these days, those winding dirt tracks will beckon us, I'm sure of it. We did have the amazingly good fortune though, of seeing a small herd of bighorn sheep on our way out of the loop, which is something we'd always hoped to see. Naturally, Monik staked out a good spot to take some amazing shots with her Sony A7r3, and then on we went, into the sunset, toward the Black Hills and beyond.
(select photos by Monik Geisel / www.monikgeisel.com)