“Dad, can we PLEASE stop and get some sushi?” begs my 15-year-old daughter, Maggie, who’s sharing the back seat with her 11-year-old sister Ellie. We’re rolling through Sturgis, S.D., 11 days and 2,319 miles into our trip across the U.S.
Months earlier, when my wife, Amy, and I learned my job was being moved from Seattle to New York City, we were heartbroken. We love the Pacific Northwest. But, staying true to our desire to embrace new experiences, we decided to make the move something the girls would never forget.
The plan was to drive across the country while staying off the interstate highways as much as possible. I wanted the girls to see small town America and to get a sense of just how big and diverse their own country is.
Our friends and neighbors gathered at our house to bid us a teary goodbye on the morning of July 7. We drove our 2009 Mazda 5 — packed to the gills with camping gear, books and groceries — up the street, away from our home of 17 years, and toward the ferry terminal in Seattle.
Thirty minutes later we were aboard a Washington state ferry, heading west across Puget Sound toward Rialto Beach, our favorite place to camp in Olympic National Park, right on the edge of the Pacific. We figured if we were driving coast to coast, we should start at the ocean — and we needed a few days to just decompress after the chaos of packing and getting out of the house.
Four days later we crossed from Washington into Idaho. We were nearly 800 miles into the trip, but only 250 from Seattle as the crow flies. I was ecstatic — it was exactly this somewhat random, squiggly-line path that I wanted the girls to experience, and so far, without the homogeneous interstate highway I'd so hoped to avoid.
In Idaho, we went to Silverwood Theme Park and wore ourselves out going down water slides and riding roller coasters all day long. I learned cotton candy and beer make a bad combination. Amy and the kids insisted I join them on the Tilt-a-Whirl — I hate spinny rides — and I finished the day next to Maggie in the front seat on the Aftershock, the park's premiere, 196-foot-high coaster that propelled us through six inversions while pulling 4.5 Gs — serious scary-fun!
We continued along Highway 2, passing through northern Idaho and Montana towns like Bonners Ferry, Libby and Kalispell, and we scored an open campsite in Apgar Campground in Glacier National Park. That evening, just before sunset, we drove up Going-to-the-Sun Road, a marvel of engineering that winds through some of Glacier’s most spectacular scenery on its way up to Logan Pass, elevation 6,646 feet. We arrived fairly late in the day and the bighorn sheep and mountain goats that were grazing near the top of the pass weren’t the least bit disturbed by our presence.
After leaving Glacier, we drove on the interstate for the first time since leaving Seattle. We had to cover 500 miles to get to Driggs, Idaho, where we were planning to spend the night with friends of friends we hadn’t yet met. The scenery was beautiful, but at 75 mph, it wasn't as enjoyable as the lower speed limits and rural charms of smaller roads.
Being welcomed into the home of people you've never met before and given food, showers and a place to sleep is a wonderful experience. We left the following morning with full bellies and clean laundry. Thank you Marlene and Scott!
The next day was a big one. The drive from Driggs to the Jackson Hole valley was short, but steep. Idaho State Highway 33 becomes Wyoming Highway 22, winding up and over the southern end of the Teton Range and over the Teton Pass, elevation 8,431 feet. The air was thin and the views were spectacular. We wound down the steep grade into Jackson, parked, and did a quick but strenuous hike up Snow King Mountain. We gave our legs a break by taking the chair lift back down. We went whitewater rafting and swimming on the Snake River and then we drove north on the smaller roads toward Yellowstone. That night we lucked into a campsite at Lizard Creek Campground in Grand Teton National Park. It didn't take long to doze off after zipping into our sleeping bags.
A full day in Yellowstone National Park doesn’t do it justice, but we covered enough ground to see steaming geysers, bubbling, sulphuric mud pots and bison lounging in the sun — their relaxed demeanor disguising the power and speed they can muster if approached too closely.
We saw a wide variety of wildlife on our trip. Beyond the bighorn sheep, mountain goats and bison, we saw bald eagles and other raptors, moose, prairie dogs, coyote and antelope. We didn't see any bears — unless you count the chainsaw-carved yard art we passed on a surprisingly frequent basis.
Our adventure continued for another week and a half through 11 states and Canada. We went to the rodeo in Cody, Wyo. — held nightly during the summer — and camped at the base of Devil’s Tower. We visited Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Memorial. We drove through Badlands National Park and stopped at Prairie Dog Town. We saw fossilized dinosaur tracks and a palace made of corn. We swam in the ocean, rivers, lakes and reservoirs. We stayed with more friends in Iowa and at Petite Lake in Illinois before sinking our teeth into deep dish pizza in Chicago.
We ended up spending more than 100 hours in the car. Parts of our route were pre-planned, but most of it was made up as we went along. I did my best to connect some of the best driving roads in the country with some of the most interesting destinations.
Miles passed mostly in silence — the kids were engrossed in their books in the back seat, my wife studied for some testing she’d be taking for a job waiting for her in NYC. Road and wind noise kept me company.
We stopped in Alto, Mich., to spend some time with family before continuing on through Canada to Niagara Falls. I was taken aback by the amount of development around the falls compared to how it looked last time I was there two decades before. Mount Rushmore was similar in that regard with its multi-level paid parking lot.
We didn’t see a single car accident in the 5,236-mile journey, although we would have been hit head-on in Iowa had I not pitched our car off the road and onto the gravel shoulder.
As we drove the final day to NYC, we were ready to be out of the car. We had spent the past three weeks in extremely close proximity to one another. We checked into our hotel room in lower Manhattan and I pulled out a map to see where we were.
“Hey you guys,” I said to my weary wife and kids, ”We’re only a few blocks from One World Trade Center!”
And we were off.
Jim Seida is a multimedia producer for NBCNews.com. He is based in New York City, and does not recommend eating sushi in South Dakota.