I set out with three of my friends in a 1970 VW bus named Wendy on a summer road trip that spanned the United States through some of the country’s coolest national parks. We were in it to see if German engineering was everything it’s chalked up to be—we also feel the need to test our friendship annually with a crazy summer trip and thought, “Why not sit in a bus together for hours on end?” Turns out that with a little TLC, four fed-up dudes and one fed-up bus can make it across the country in a few pieces.
Made up of sharply eroding buttes and beautiful undisturbed prairies, Badlands National Park in Southwestern South Dakota is a diverse place. We immediately looked for a spot with a view. The drive up to this point had been made up of small Midwestern towns filled with shitty drivers and corn… a lot of corn. We found an area clear of the madness that overlooked what seemed to be the entire park, and skated. It wasn’t long until we became an attraction for an older couple driving across the country with a camper and a big blue truck. Keith and Mary Lou were quick to introduce themselves and inquire about the bus, as well as our skateboards—they were the first of many people who approached us who didn’t think we were crazy for driving a 45-year-old death machine with spotty timing across the country. Something seemed familiar and honest about Keith and Mary Lou, and my interaction with them was the most comforting thing I’d had since the chocolate chip cookies back in Pennsylvania just prior to heading out on this trip.
South of Yellowstone, along Wyoming’s Wind River, is Jackson Lake, a large, high-altitude body of water located in the Grand Teton National Park. Peaks of some 12,000 feet rise from the lake. We were hungry, too hungry to notice a severe thunderstorm rolling in, so we silenced our groaning stomachs with chicken sandwiches and mint chocolate chip ice-cream at a restaurant. With a route mapped out and bellies finally full (both rare occurrences on the road), we found camp and decided a swim would complete the evening. Less than a mile from our hammock site was a small, mosquito-infested trail that led to the lake’s edge. On it, we were greeted by a female elk seeking shelter from the approaching storm, which we still hadn’t noticed. The timing could not have been more exact—the moment our toes touched the water, the rain came pouring in. In defiance of the wisdom our mothers had tried to instill in us since we were boys, we dove in, basking in our decision. I’ve seen a lot of the beautiful country we live in, and I’ve experienced moments I thought were miracles, but I’ve never had a moment as truly epic as this one: heavy raindrops falling from parting clouds, leaving holes in the lake’s surface while the golden sun says “good evening” before dipping behind massive peaks. These beautiful sights in unison created the closest thing to heaven any of us had experienced in our twenty-some years of life. Swimming out to a buoy several hundred feet from shore, I was certain Nessie was going to snatch me by my toes, but I still wanted to go farther out into the lake. The following morning, we decided to take a boat out for a few hours. To all of our surprise, the boating center trusted a rented pontoon to us four hooligans, so we dove, swam, horsed around, drank soda, and told ourselves, “We’ll definitely be back to do this again.”
About 500 miles west of Badlands is Yellowstone National Park, a region known primarily for its dense wildlife and its famous geyser, Old Faithful. After setting up camp we beelined it to a spot we had read about, a hot spring located at the intersection of the Boiling River and Gardiner River. The hydrothermal Boiling River flows into the icy Gardiner, creating a pool of water perfect to kick back in while checking out the Walmart folks that gather there during hot summer afternoons. A better time to enjoy the hot springs, however, is early in the morning, just as the sun is peeking over the mountain range. Waking up at 5 am proves completely worthwhile when a bald eagle flies several feet overhead to welcome you into a new day.
CRATERS OF THE MOON
Of all the places I’ve been to, I’ve never seen anything like this. We pulled into the campground well after sunset and stumbled out of the steamy Volkswagen, dried sweat from an impromptu skate session in Idaho Falls covering 100 percent of our sunburned skin. Craters of the Moon was dry, hot, and eerily quiet. Volcanic ash covered the ground; it was too dark for the moon to reflect enough ambient light for us to see the nearby family-sized tent castles. We felt as if we were alone on another planet. Armed with a small flashlight held by my four front teeth, we set up our tents and fell asleep to deafening silence and the smell of sagebrush and BO. A few hours later we awoke to a heavier heat and stuffy noses, but after a cup of coffee and a few cracks of the spine, we were in strangely high spirits. We realized how uniquely beautiful the area was, despite its unwelcoming climate. The loop circling the three lava fields that made up the majority of the park was only a few miles long, so we decided to see what it was about before continuing west toward California. As we chugged along in our 1970 shag wagon, we hopped out every so often to get a better glimpse of the landscape: sagebrush, lava fields, sagebrush, weird-plant-I’ve-never-seen, lava fields. It was boring yet exhilarating. It was dusty and miserable, but also comforting. There are a lot of adjectives I could use to describe it, but I think you should experience it for yourself. It’s been almost a year and I’m still blowing ash out of my nose.
During the tail end of our trip, we found ourselves in California’s Redwood National Park. A skate through the tall Redwood trees outside of Trinidad was necessary. Hill bombs followed by a tow back up courtesy of Wendy lasted an hour. We found a place to camp along the coast. To the east of the road, an unimpressive, poison oak-infested campground, specifically marked with tent sites. To the west, an enormous, jagged cliff leading down to a secluded (and off-limits) pebble beach. It was a no-brainer. We quickly packed up only the necessities: tents, water, one can of soup each, root beer, and way too much film, and hit the small game trail at the top of the cliff. A 30-minute journey through the narrow passage, down the steep embankment, and through more poison oak and jagger bushes opened up to a spot the four of us have decided to keep secret. Being on the beach was definitely not allowed, and the small fire we built on the rocks was highly illegal, but I’ll never regret our decision to make camp there. It was one of the most peaceful spots I’ve ever experienced, and I’ll never forget the mental, emotional, and spiritual clarity I felt watching the waves roll in at 6 am the next morning.