Cars line up as we approach the Chicago Skyway toll plaza on I-90 near sunset.

RealImaginaryWest Day 1 – Our Adventure Begins in Wisconsin

We drove from Middleburg Heights, Ohio, to REI & Whole Foods in Chicago, and then to Motel 6 in Janesville, Wisconsin for the night.

So it’s been a slog to get ready for this trip—fun much of the time—but anxiety-laden as well! I have struggled a great deal with anxiety all my life, often worrying about things I know will almost certainly never happen, especially when I’m getting out of my comfort zone and doing something I’ve never done before…or at least doing it in a way I’ve never done before.

Cars approach the Chicago Skyway toll plaza at dusk

Toll plaza on the Chicago Skyway just after crossing into Illinois on I-90 at dusk

But either way, the preparation is for the most part over, and now the adventure has commenced! I’ve wanted to do a road trip like this for a long time, and see the places we’re going to see on this one. I’m really glad I have my lovely “real imaginary” wife, Rebecca, with me on this whole expedition! Without her, I’m sure I’d have neglected to prepare for all sorts of things and I’d be spending more time at the ubiquitous Walmart than enjoying our unique surroundings.

So to finish off the preparation thread, I want to mention that researching so many places in just a few months was daunting! I wish I could have been a bit more thorough in parts…but oh well.

Here is our itinerary:

Day 1 Thu Leave after picking Becky up from work in Middleburg Heights, Ohio (suburban Cleveland) and drive to Madison, Wisconsin where we’ll stay in a motel. We’re also stopping at REI in Chicago along the way for a few last-minute items.
Day 2 Fri Drive to Pepin, Wisconsin, set up camp at the Lake Pepin Campground, tour the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum, and enjoy a sunset cruise on Lake Pepin.
Day 3 Sat Drive to Walnut Grove, Minnesota and visit another Laura Ingalls site, perhaps the museum there as well. Then we drive to De Smet, South Dakota and set up camp at the Ingalls Homestead, which Becky wants to see most.
Day 4 Sun Tour the Ingalls Homestead and other Laura Ingalls Wilder sites around De Smet.
Day 5 Mon Pack up camp and head across South Dakota through the capital, Pierre, and pitch our tent at Cedar Pass Campground in Badlands National Park, and then tour the Badlands.
Day 6 Tue Pack up and take a tour at Wind Cave National Park and pitch our tent somewhere near Mount Rushmore. Then see Mount Rushmore, hopefully getting some great night photography with the monument all lit up.
Day 7 Wed Leave first thing for Devils Tower National Monument, just a bit into Wyoming on the other side of the Black Hills. Then we’ll proceed to Cody, Wyoming via Ten Sleep, where we’ll set up camp and see our first rodeo (which after that, we’ll be able to say “This isn’t our first rodeo!”).
Day 8 Thu Tour Cody before heading on to Yellowstone National Park, where literally the day we left, I booked our campsites at Canyon Village for two nights and Grant Village the following night.
Day 9 Fri Camp at Canyon Village for a full day and tour Yellowstone.
Day 10 Sat Move camp to Grant Village and see even more of Yellowstone.
Day 11 Sun Break camp and migrate south to Grand Teton National Park, where you can’t reserve a campsite…and hopefully we’ll be able to score accommodations at either Colter Bay or maybe even Jenny Lake.
Day 12 Mon Maybe break camp and head to Rocky Mountain National Park…or maybe we’ll just stay one more night at Grand Teton. Not really sure, we’ll play it by ear!
Day 13 Tue Definitely head down to Rocky Mountain National Park, or maybe we’ll have already been there the day before. Again, I seem to recall that you can’t reserve a campsite there anyway, so who knows what will end up working out.
Day 14 Wed Packing up and leaving Rocky Mountain National Park and moving on to visit my cousins and aunt in Denver, Colorado, where a barbecue and quite likely our first real bed since Wisconsin awaits!
Day 15 Thu Head down to Colorado Springs to spend the day with friends, with whom we will take the cog railway up Pike’s Peak and visit Garden of the Gods.
Day 16 Fri Spend another day in Denver with family.
Day 17 Sat Depart Denver and head to St. Louis, stopping for authentic Kansas City barbecue along the way.
Day 18 Sun Catch a photograph or two in St. Louis and head back home to Cleveland.

As you can see, some of this is very well-planned, and some of it is less structured. I’m hoping it will be a good mix with enough flexibility that we won’t feel completely overwhelmed by the time we’re through! That’s one part of what gets me so nervous about this trip: I’ve camped before, and I’ve visited big National Parks before like Yosemite—but I’ve never moved around and camped my way across the Great Plains to the Rocky Mountains—where you’re literally sleeping among the animals and the sometimes extreme weather, with heat and no shade in the Plains and the general craziness of mountain weather and the cold nights at high elevations. I’m also hoping my physical condition will hold up to hiking at altitude and that I won’t destroy the adventure by lugging around too much photo gear, or that I won’t miss opportunities by not bringing enough gear because I’m too tired.

Maybe it won’t matter though. Maybe because it’s just too much of an adventure, my anxiety will turn away from panic to euphoria. It usually does for me. At this point, what’s done is done, what’s not is not, and it’s just time to roll with it.

Anyway, I want to share our progress thus far…

  1. I hate to dwell too much on preparation, but I got my house cleaned up for our friend who is house-sitting in case our upstairs water heater decides to implode and destroy our house. That was a ton of work to get done for two people who were in a panicked daze and not sleeping because of the anxiety and excitement over leaving! It’s also an incredible accomplishment for a man who has been in a terrible depressed funk since probably about February or March, and maybe longer. Yeah. It’s been that bad. We only decided we were going to do this about three months ago, and since then, we’ve been planning and organizing, and I’ve been limping on day-to-day trying to just get something…anything…accomplished, even if it’s just editing old photos I shot and never touched, or doing the dishes. It’s really a miracle this came together at all. I’m hoping this trip will give me a little nudge in the bottom so I can get busy and carry that busy back home with me with plenty of pictures to share and lots of stories to tell. The only bummer is that I was unable to score a 70-200mm lens. This trip will probably end up being like my 2009 San Francisco trip—that was motivation to get off my keister and buy my first DSLR to nurture my interest in photography—this trip will be my motivation to go make enough money to buy that 70-200mm lens so I’m not without it next summer, and so I’m not freaking out about money before and after we leave.
  2. The plan was to pick Becky up from work at 3:45 or 4pm at latest to make it to Chicago before the REI store there closed at 9pm. It took me longer to finish my last bit of packing and cleaning and so we got a late start—Becky was ready at 4, I was not—so we got on the Turnpike at about 4:45 instead of 4:05 like I’d hoped. This meant we literally drove straight to Chicago without stopping (except when the toll plazas backed up! I’m soooo glad I remembered our EZ Pass at the last minute, or we probably wouldn’t have made it in time!). Thankfully, we rented a bigger car with a bigger gas tank for this trip! A 2015 Chevy Malibu that also happens to get slightly better fuel economy than Becky’s 2008 Scion xD. Either way, we made it to REI in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood at 8:38 after exactly 5 hours of driving from Cleveland. (For mathematicians out there, 4:38 + 5 hours does = 8:38 when you pick up an hour crossing into the Central Time Zone 🙂 ). Afterward, we grabbed some pepperoni for my pie iron at the Whole Foods two blocks away and ate a very late dinner!
  3. Our next goal was to make it to a motel outside of Madison, Wisconsin. That didn’t happen. We got way too tired to make it, but we did safely manage to get to Janesville, which is only 30 miles short…so not bad!
Next Post: Day 2 – Dwarf Mountains, the Great River, and a Little House

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