The Grand Road Trip, Part I: Kentucky to South Dakota

The Gnome and I have never been big travelers. It’s not that we don’t enjoy seeing more of the world—it’s just that we’re always so busy with can’t-wait projects around here. (Not to mention the many years when money for travel was an extravagance we couldn’t consider.)

The past year has been a rare exception. Not only have we traveled more, but circumstances conspired in such a way that we took two major trips in just six months’ time. As I wrote here and here, we recently returned from visiting long-time friends in California. It was quite the trip. But last fall, we headed out on an even bigger journey, a 24-day road trip of more than 6,000 miles (and 4,000 photos—really!)—another long-promised trip both to ourselves and to close-in-heart but far flung cousins and other family.

That trip, too, took us through previously unexplored territory. On our travels, we wound through fifteen states, seven of them new to us. We got to spend time (oh, so little) in Glacier, Grand Teton, Yellowstone, and Badlands National Parks and too many national forests to count.

Of course, the best parts of the trip were the good times we spent with our relatives—not to mention the gourmet meals they prepared for us! They treated us like royalty. But that was family time, private time, so it won’t get any further mention here. But the incredible scenery and the history we encountered along the way was pretty phenomenal too. That I do want to share with the world. And there was so much of it, I realize this story has to be serialized.

First things first. Our driving on Day One ended in Louisville, Kentucky. Louisville will always hold a special place in our hearts. It’s where we moved following our wedding and honeymoon, and we stayed for twelve years. Both of our children were born there. Except for the humid summer heat, we loved everything about Louisville and nothing—except wanting a mountain home nearer our families could have driven us away.

It’s been years since we’d been back, and while much is the same, lots of changes have come to River City since we left, too. Sometimes it was hard to get our bearings, but we had to check out a few of our favorite old haunts. Our first home-of-our-own is still there (minus a couple of special dogwoods), but barely. A church parking lot expansion has taken all but a few houses on that block.We sat on the banks of the Ohio munching on Kingfish Restaurant’s onion rings while the Belle of Louisville graced us with her presence.And then there’s Plehn’s Bakery—A Louisville staple for almost a hundred years and one of our favorite weekend destinations back in the day. We couldn’t say goodbye to Louisville without dropping in for our favorite butter kuchen. I wish they shipped!

We didn’t have time to take in any of Louisville’s many tourist and cultural venues, but it’s chock full of them, from Churchill Downs to the Muhammed Ali Center to Actor’s Theatre. I highly recommend Louisville as a vacation destination. You’d never get bored.

Louisville already had a phenomenal park system (eighteen parks and six parkways designed by the father of American landscape design, Frederick Law Olmstead). Now, the city has added 85 acres of waterfront green space and walking paths. A great place for family frolicking. The mighty Ohio itself has become a haven for paddlers. We were delighted to discover that the old Big Four railroad bridge has been transformed into a walking bridge that will take you across the state line into Indiana. It’s clearly a popular walking and cycling spot. Lit up at night, it’s all about romance. We had a terrific view of the bridge from our riverside restaurant terrace. I could have stayed for hours.

Time has been good to Louisville.From Louisville we traveled across Indiana and up to northwestern Illinois. We know this route, but the dramatic change from flat plains to rolling hills always catches us off guard. When we visited the museum in charming Galena, we learned a little more about the landscape and its history. The Driftless, an area encompassing parts of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, and Illinois, escaped the flattening effect of glacial ice fields way back when. As a result, the region is graced with millions of bluffs and valleys with elevation changes of up to 1100 feet. Right in America’s heartland. Driving through the pastoral Driftless is not only beautiful, it’s calming. Good for what ails you.Something we hadn’t seen before in our travels through this area was the silver glint of massive wind farms. Wind turbines filled nearby fields and faded into the distance. Far too many to count. Farther than the eye could see. Watching the blades turn while listening to a classical piece on the car radio nearly put me into a hypnotic trance.DSCF1271Of course, we drove past miles and miles of corn. It was higher than the proverbial elephant’s eye. I wondered if any of it was being grown for human consumption.

Not a cloud in the sky

After a couple of days in southeastern Minnesota, we traveled across that state on our way to South Dakota and then Montana, passing even more massive wind farms and even more corn. I know people make jokes about how boring the flat landscape of the plains states is, but we found it to be soothing. Three (big) states’ worth of soothing. The thing is that with all that flatness—and fewer and fewer trees along the way—the sky seems to grow ever larger. So much space. So blue. So cloudless. Honestly, we hardly ever saw even the smallest trace of a cloud all the way across those three states.  And the landscape is ever-changing.  I was afraid to blink for fear of missing something. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Back to South Dakota—-we had only given ourselves a few hours to spend in the Badlands, but every minute was magnificent, and it took no time for us to know for certain that we’ll be coming back here for an extended stay. We could barely stand upright against the strong wind gusts, and the glaringly bright sun made it impossible to catch the nuanced but striking shades of color in the rock.

Looking out across the canyons and the vast expanse of land with buttes rising from the plains, we were transported to the movie and TV westerns of our youth, imagining the black-hatted bad guys firing off shots from behind some unknown rock deep in a canyon. It was hard to believe we were looking at something real.This sign kept us on our toes—especially me with my sandal-exposed tootsies.

Again, no clouds. Not anywhere.

And our trip was just beginning.

(Stay tuned for Part II of The Grand Road Trip, full of unexpected discoveries. Coming soon.)

9 thoughts on “The Grand Road Trip, Part I: Kentucky to South Dakota

  1. Pingback: Our Grand Road Trip, Part VI: The Touristy Things – Living on the Diagonal

  2. Pingback: Our Grand Road Trip: National Parks (and more) – Living on the Diagonal

  3. Pingback: Our Grand Road Trip, Part 4: Colorado to Arkansas – Living on the Diagonal

  4. Pingback: Our Grand Road Trip, Part Three: Wyoming – Living on the Diagonal

  5. Pingback: Our Grand Road Trip, Part Two: South Dakota, Montana, Idaho – Living on the Diagonal

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