A few years ago, we took our first cross-country trip in our 2007 Leisure Travel Free Spirit (sleeps two), pulling a toad teardrop for the two kids. When we downsized by one kid (to college), we decided to upgrade our RV to a sleek Unity 2016. First, we knew personally that Leisure Travel Vans is a high quality brand, but we chose the Unity for its great fuel-efficiency, which is perfect for us roaming types. And not least is that exactly three of us (two retirees and one high school student) sleep perfectly snug inside our Island Bed model, no toad required. Throw in the beautiful interior design, and you can see why we call it our “portable hotel room.”
With our new RV sparkling through the window at us while we ate breakfast last winter, we planned our next cross-country trip for summer 2016. The planning was mostly to honor the biggest lesson we learned on the first trip: driving more than 4-6 hours per day for two months makes us crazy. So we stretched the 8,000-mile trek over as many days as we could. This worked out to an average of 150 miles per day, leaving enough time to do back-to-school shopping.
Even keeping to our driving-hours cap, we can get a little nutty from having to sit still for a few hours every day. So we balanced driving days with extra-night stays at the best spots…or when we weren’t anywhere special, we did “”no-driving”” days and took a hike, saw a movie, or played mini-golf—whatever we could find—instead. The rest of the time, we tried to make driving time fun.
By 2016, our remaining kid had blossomed into a full-blown teenager. Lucky for us, our teen traveler is not only a good kid, but she’s easily entertained by a few choice electronic devices (important note: as long as they’re charged). She’d just nestle herself into her armchair-pillow, plug in the old earbuds, and stretch out her legs on her bed-transformed-into-chaise longue. Up front, we’d luxuriate in our comfy seats, watching the view (if prompted, our daughter will look…and add an eye roll), talking (if included, she’ll unplug one earbud…and re-plug upon hearing enough), and listening to music (she won’t listen to the oldies, but she sets up the Bluetooth…and sighs impatiently).
Even still, over the course of eight weeks, our ambitious vacation schedule was a little overwhelming at times. So, our last line of defense against road-weariness was roadside attractions. Any roadside attractions.
Because, when the eyelids get droopy and you just want to breathe fresh air and move your body, any excuse will do. For example, our last trip included visiting some strange but fascinating museums—like the House on the Rock (WI)—and taking silly photos—like at the Jolly Green Giant Statue (MN).
Fast-forward to about 1/3 of the way through our 2016 trip. In the barren north country of North Dakota, we were still 1,100 miles (~18 hrs.) away from our most anticipated stop. That’s why we were all about stopping at the Buffalo Trails Museum—a sort of preserved ghost town.
The museum is in the small town of Epping (est. 1905), an old Great Northern Railway town. In 1966, one man, Pastor Duane R. Lindberg, created the Buffalo Trails Museum out of the town’s abandoned buildings and leftover artifacts. Our travel book told us, “…It’s a great place to stop.” Now, we’d been burned by this travel book before, but we needed to take a break so we decided to take a chance. Plus, the museum receives only 250 visitors per year, so it was like, if we were passing by, we had to visit, if only out of kindness.
First we drove through a compact residential town (pop. 100) surrounded by acres of prairie. Our east-coast minds couldn’t comprehend this lifestyle, even with Amazon and wi-fi. We asked each other, “”How and why do these people live here?”” The question lingered, unanswered, as we crept along a dirt road. (Later we learned North Dakota has been experiencing an oil boom.)
We arrived during operating hours, and we saw lots of clues that this was going to be one of our better roadside stops. It turned out our travel book served us well this time.
We were definitely road-weary and ready to jump out. So, despite the blazing sun and midday heat on that Thursday in July, we didn’t bother with sunscreen. We figured we’d be mostly out of the sun, popping in and out of some of the buildings to check out the life-sized dioramas anyway.
Stepping out, our feet crunched in the gravel and the A/C chill melted off our skin in the oven-like heat. We felt welcome to explore, thanks to the freshly-groomed road, carved wooden signs, happy flower boxes, shiny windows, clean building siding, strangely modern sidewalks, and even—thoughtfully—a porta-potty, clearly all for sight-seers like ourselves. It was obvious that someone lovingly maintained the place.
But when we stopped walking, it sounded like a blanket of eerie quiet was draped over that street. That’s when we realized we were alone—not another person…anywhere. We joked, maybe the ghost of Pastor Lindberg is still the caretaker today…?
At first, we felt a bit disappointed. But, as we headed back to the motorhome, we realized we had walked where real homesteaders had walked. We’d felt the coolness of the old post office’s shaded doorway, we had smelled that old-building smell, and we’d even seen the dioramas. And, with no one there, it was way more of a “ghost town” than if we’d paid a stranger $3.50 each to get inside.
Most important, we accomplished our original goal: we stretched our legs and stimulated our minds. Now it was time to travel on. As we plodded back up the Unity’s steps, our portable hotel room echoed with another new memory, reminding us how much we love to settle in behind the wheel and watch for the next delight, just down the road…knowing we always have a comfortable place to stay.
The Billings Gazette
Road Trips America, 6th Ed., by Jamie Jensen