Leaving the land of “Rocky Racoon!”

The “black mountain hills of Dakota” where a young boy named Rocky Racoon once lived are beautiful, but the Pacific Ocean is calling!

The main motivation for this summertime cross-country #vanlife journey was to get back to the Pacific Northwest and visit the Washington coast where we used to live.

Time to hit the road and try to keep cool

We could tell by the South Dakota morning sunshine it was going to be a hot one. We needed to hit the road and make some miles west. It was going to be at least 7 hours of driving to our next overnight boondocking spot.

The front cab of our 2019 Ford Transit T-250 high roof camper van has in dash air conditioning. The camper portion of our van does not have air conditioning.

Driving while blasting the AC was the only way to keep both of us and our fur babies, Willow, and Tia, comfortable during the hot July travel days. Any stops would have to be very quick or include lots of shade trees to park under.

Hot time in Sheridan, Wyoming

We have traveled this stretch of Interstate-90 several times, so zooming past Wyoming coal towns such as Sundance, Gillette, and Buffalo were acceptable.

We pulled off the highway in Sheridan, WY hoping to find the Red Bison Pottery Studio in the downtown area. As soon as we got close, we knew this was the wrong weekend to visit. A huge Forth of July weekend street fair was in full swing and much of the downtown was blocked off to traffic.

A huge Forth of July weekend street fair was in full swing and much of the downtown was blocked off to traffic.

Ordinarily, this would have been a happy bonus. But with temperatures nearing the sunny mid-90s, and no way to keep the dogs from baking inside the van, we abandoned that idea.

As official navigator, Kim was able to guide us to a small city park with a little bit of shade and lawn so the dogs could stretch their legs and we could make a quick lunch. The shade helped but the heat kept us from overstaying our welcome. We’ll attempt another visit on the way back?

Overnight in Montana – Not what we had hoped for

Back on I-90, we made a beeline towards (hopefully cooler) Montana. Next stop Bozeman, about 4 hours away. We finally stopped for dinner in Livingston, Montana.

Livingston is a gateway south off I-90 to the west entrance to Yellowstone National Park. We talked over the pros and cons of taking the diverging route – “since we were so close” – but “keeping on keeping on” won the debate and we drove another half an hour west to Bozeman, arriving at sunset.

Montana sunsets are amazing, especially with storm clouds moving in. We pulled into the Montana State Department of Highways Bozeman Rest Area. The small rest stop is not like most rest areas with easy off, easy on ramps. This one is tucked a bit off I-90 on East Valley Center Drive. Plus, the small rest area serves both westbound and eastbound traffic.

The rest area vehicle parking lot was filling up fast when we arrived, but we backed into a spot in front of another van. There’s a separate area for big rigs, longer RVs and travel trailers a little further away from the restroom building.

Sadly, the restrooms were trashed, with standing water and toilet paper over the floors. We chalked it up to high usage due to increased crowds on the road for the long Independence Day holiday weekend.

Closer inspection showed the facility and grounds were neglected as a whole. And the longer we sat looking out the van’s windows, contemplating whether we should stay or continue on, we noticed several parked vehicles with people living out of them.

We were not comfortable with it, and it was quickly getting dark, with a storm moving into the area.

Always go with your “gut”

Gut check. Tired as we were, we decided to start up the van and get back on the interstate.

Part of #vanlife, we are learning, is following your gut. Neither of us felt 100-percent comfortable staying around in that situation. The rest area is in a secluded area, which attracts homeless people to stay.

Welcome to Wally World

On this latest trip, we recalled passing a large Walmart in Bozeman right along the interstate. A check of our travel apps said it was okay to park overnight at this location, so we backtracked to the Wally World and took the exit.

We weren’t the “first ones here.” Far from it, at that time of night. The parking lot was filled with RVs and vans of every size, shape and make. It made us feel there was safety in numbers with all the other boondocking travelers around.

After we picked a spot to park the van, JK went inside Walmart to pick up a few needed items. We got settled in for the night as rain began to fall, and the sprinklers turned on to water the parking landscaping.

Morning came early has we both needed to use the bathroom. (Thanks to all the overnight water noise!) Walmart and a nearby gas station hadn’t opened yet, so back on the interstate we went to, yep, the same rest stop we drove away from the evening before. Bladders emptied, but still creeped out, we continued west on I-90.

Did you know that our van can smell a Panera Bread from miles away?

It’s true.

Somehow during our drive across Montana, we ended up outside a Panera Bread in a shopping area of Missoula.

JK braved the hipster crowd inside and came back out to the van with three large bags of goodies, including sandwiches for our lunch, artisan bread for our trip, and breakfast pastries to accompany the next morning’s coffee.

Navigator Kim and Google Maps lead us to a small neighborhood park with lots of grass for the girls to run and some shade to park the van under. We’re certain the residents were wondering what a van with Minnesota plates was doing parked in their neighborhood.

Considering we had been on the road three and a half days since we left home in southern Minnesota, it was time to lay the hammer down and get some serious driving mileage on the speedometer. It began to rain again as we headed across the Idaho state line. We made our way across the forested pan handle of Idaho and dropped down into the town of Coeur d’Alene.

We’ll be back, Idaho

Spending more time in Idaho is definitely on our “must do” list. Coeur d’Alene is a bustling big city, but the 25-mile-long Coeur d’Alene Lake is huge and breathtaking!

The surrounding forests are lush and green. We found it surprisingly fun that we passed a sign for the 4th of July Pass Recreation Area (east of Coeur d’Alene) along I-90 on the day before the Fourth of July!

No sooner than we entered Idaho, we were leaving the state already and crossing into Washington. There is a real contrast here. In only 33 miles, the mountains and forests of northern Idaho quickly turn into flat agricultural land around Spokane, Washington.

Instead of the vast corn and soybean fields of the Midwest, there was acres and acres of potatoes growing with their striking white flowers. Even the harvesting equipment was much different than what is common in the corn belt.

Can’t beat the price of rest stop camping

About 40-minutes west of Spokane is the small farming community of Sprague, WA. Sprague served as railroad construction headquarters for the Northern Pacific Railroad back in the late 1800s. The modern off-shoot, Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, still operates freight trains through the town.

Sprague is also famous for housing a U.S. Air Force Atlas Intercontinental ballistic missile site during the Cold War-Era 1950s and early 1960s. The launch site is long gone now.

Less controversial, Sprague hosts two Washington Department of Transportation rest areas, one for each direction of I-90 traffic. The westbound pull off is where we decided to stop the van and sleep the night before the July 4th holiday.

Compared to the rest area in Montana, we found this Washington rest stop to be clean, and well-lit at night. A central area offers lots of open grass, tables for picnics, and a designated area for pets. The rest stop also affords a great overlook of Sprague and surrounding ag lands.

Before heading to bed, we were treated to more thunder and lightning off in the distance.

Once the sun dropped behind nearby hills, the temperature cooled down and we could enjoy a quick dinner from the van. Before heading to bed, we were treated to more thunder and lightning off in the distance.

The rest stop is well used, but traffic noise died down after dark. There were several other vans staying overnight, including a Canadian family camping out of two home-made mini van camper conversions. A vintage four-wheel drive Volkswagen Westfalia camper van was parked nearby us.

Have we mentioned how we love seeing all the fun travel rigs at rest stops and on the road. Yeah, that was us waving enthusiastically as you drove past in your van!

Back on the road, again

It was July 4th and to celebrate we enjoyed our Panera Bread pastries, homemade banana bread, hard boiled eggs and pour-over coffee for breakfast. Once packed up, we left the rest area continuing west on I-90 and encountered more heavy rains.

Our weather app showed eventual clearing ahead of us, so we pulled off the highway and cooled our jets at a Flying J Travel Center until the storms passed.

Eastern Washington attractions

Sprague is close to the Highway 395 exit off I-90 if you wish to continue south into Central Oregon or head to the Washington Tri-City area of Richland, Pasco, and Kennewick.

The famous Snake River joins the mighty Columbia River in the Tri-City area, too. An hour west of Sprague is Moses Lake, the Moses Lake Mud Flats, Sand Dunes, and Potholes State Park. Despite the names, the area is very scenic, and camping is available around Moses Lake.

Next Time: The unbelievable Columbia River Gorge (below), Snoqualmie Pass, snowcapped Mount Rainier, big city driving, and the long, long road to the Pacific Ocean!

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