Diane Lachtrupp Martinez is a professional dancer with a specialty in Argentine Tango. The former owner of Stepping Out Dance Studio, one of the largest in NYC, she now lives in Saratoga Springs with her husband Johnny Martinez and her two sons. A full time dancer and teacher, she balances her chaotic life of teaching, choreographing and performing while caring for her family and navigating her complicated gluten, dairy and soy free diet.
In the past ten years, our family has vacationed in Anguilla, Prince Edward Island, Sanibel, Florida, Isla Mujeres: Mexico, Costa Rica, Culebra, Puerto Rico, Disneyland, England, France, Jamaica, Tuluum: Mexico and many wonderful places in the northeast. However, other than the England/France trip and the long drive to stunning Prince Edward Island, all our trips had been warm weather and Caribbean oriented. A trip to a different locale was long overdue.
Also coincidentally for the past ten years, we have had family reunions on my father’s side and they have all been in the northeast including several in Vermont, one in Rhode Island and a number in the Adirondack's. So when my Aunt Meme and Uncle Len suggested that we do a family reunion this year at their home in Stevensville, Montana we thought, “Here’s an opportunity for a great summer trip.” Meme and Len had always traveled east for the reunions and now it was our turn to return the favor. Besides, a trip to the big sky country of Montana was no cross to bear and Montana played host to two spectacular National Parks - Yellowstone in the southwest and Glacier National Park in the northwest. At some point, we were hoping to hit the Badlands, South Dakota on either the way out or on the return trip.
There was much debate as to what would be our mode of transportation on our western adventure. Should we fly part way out and rent a motor home while out there and fly back. My brother’s family of five was also a consideration and my mom and uncle Freddie( who both owned motor homes) were also part of the picture. At one point, we had considered my brother driving out with my mom and driving back with uncle Freddie and we would do the reverse. Uncle Freddie later decided not to attend( perhaps our plans scared him off) and we moved onto other complicated plans. In April, we thought of my immediate family of four( familia Martinez) driving out with my mom and flying back and my brother flying out and driving back with my mom. By May, we realized that these possibilities cannot be.
Finally, simplicity won out and we decided to drive out and back with my mom and my brother David would make his own plans. In May we put a deposit down on a 26 foot trailer that my mom’s motor home would tow. The five of us would ride in the motor home and at night, we would reside in the trailer and my mom in her RV. Thankfully, my mom’s motor home is not too long because between the RV(19’), trailer(26’) and hitch(5”) between the two entities, we were looking at total 50 feet moving down the highway, taking corners, passing on the highway, going in reverse and pulling into gas pumps. If I didn’t think about it too much, I was not concerned.
Our preparations were the minimum as our time was also the minimum. My mother ( an experienced cross/country traveler REALLY wanted her map in triptik form from AAA. I knew that we wanted to hit Yellowstone, Glacier and the Badlands and I knew our timeline so in late July with little thought, I took out a magic marker and drew a westward path on her US map and drew a return eastward trip. There. Done!! In mid-July, I got lucky and snagged three nights in Yellowstone and in late July, I happily reserved two nights of a campsite on the edge of Glacier National Park. Good enough.
We had transportation, shelter, a map, and reservations in two of the highlighted parks. At this date, there is no reservation in the Badlands. We are winging it on our road trip.
FRIDAY AUGUST 2nd -
Traveling - We can hardly count this as a traveling day, as we did not leave White’s camper business with our rented trailer and my mom’s motor home until 7:30pm that evening. We drove for an hour, ate and then drove another 30 minutes. The reason for our delay - we rented our home for the Saratoga Track season and had to ready our home for our renters and pack for our trip.
HIGH POINT - Leaving our home in perfect condition.
LOW POINT - Not even reaching Utica on our first day.
Saturday AUGUST 3rd -
Traveling - We leave from our rest stop overnight spot and continue westward. When we reach Buffalo, we continue on route 90 as it heads south along Lake Ontario. We decide that we want to be closer to the water and exit the thruway onto route 20 which gives us a close-up view of the lake and vineyards that grow beside the Great Lakes. We come upon a marina in the town of Dunkirk and drive out on the pier to park for lunch. Our first lunch of tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches takes forever and we decide that lunches must be simpler and quicker. We head back to the big highway and drive through the northwest corner of Pennsylvania and then head into the wide state of Ohio.
We stop to see nothing else. We only stop for gas, which occurs about three times a day and can either go very smoothly as we maneuver our 50 foot vehicles into the station or it can go so badly that we draw a crowd. Saturday afternoon, we drew a crowd. If you have never driven one large vehicle towing another one, it is hard to imagine what a mind of its own, the second vehicle tends to have. This was my husband’s experience as he drove into a gas station that had tight corners and little angling room. Our first approach to the pump isn’t right and we soon run out of room as the continual arrival and departure of other costumer’s cars serve to block our every move. I am sent out of the car to keep cars away as we try unsuccessfully for 15 minutes to reposition ourselves. During that time, I convince at least three cars to park elsewhere and to make them feel good about it. I become the ambassador of parking.
At long last, a tall, bearded employee wearing a lime green plastic vest comes towards the driver’s side and shows my husband his credentials and coaches Johnny through the necessary maneuvers to get to the pump. Five minutes later, we depart the gas station vowing to be more aware of the space available at future gas ventures.
We continue westward and stop for dinner near Toledo, Ohio at an Olive Garden. Normally a good experience, they are badly run and poorly trained. Oh well. We drive 45 minutes longer and stay overnight in a really contemporary rest stop.
HIGH POINT OF THE DAY - Hard to say, there was so much driving. Probably lunch on the pier on Lake Ontario.
LOW POINT - No doubt the parking debacle in the afternoon at the gas station.
Author trying to catch up to the camper as it departs.
SUNDAY AUGUST 4th -
Traveling - We wake up in Ohio 45 minutes past Toledo in a rest stop. Our goal is to get on the road again by 7am. We manage to pull out of the parking lot by 7:13am. I announce a goal of making it through Indiana, Illinois and Iowa by nightfall and after stopping for a breakfast of cold cereal, we cross into Indiana by 10am. Our breaks are never as short as we hope. Route 80 is still our route as we cross the northern part of Indiana just south of Michigan and passing by South Bend, Indiana. It’s fun to see signs for such notorious universities as Notre Dame and Perdue. At one point, we catch a glimpse of a horse and buggy traveling across an overpass. My mother remembers having visiting Amish communities in the past. We would love to visit them but -NO TIME - 1500 more miles by Tuesday afternoon.
About noon, we cross the border into Illinois and under Chicago. Northern Illinois is fairly quiet on a Sunday afternoon and look forward to crossing the Mississippi as we cross into Iowa and the city of Davenport. In the afternoon we stop for fuel and ice cream at the largest truck stop in the world called “Iowa 80.” Our dinner stop is at a beautiful rest stop along 80 west in Iowa. We get back on the road by 9:30 and drive into Nebraska and stay overnight in a truck stop just past Omaha. We want to miss the Monday morning rush hour traffic and we made our goal and then some- we are in Nebraska.
HIGH POINT - Two great rest stops. The largest one is fascinating with it’s facilities for truckers that include a barbershop and church. Our dinner stop rest area contains stunning art work including a 70’ windmill blade.
LOW POINT - We drove about 12 hours today - Johnny probably 7 hours and Diane 5 hours and no one has had a shower or much exercise.
MONDAY AUGUST 5th -
TRAVELING - We head out across the plains towards Wyoming. We spend the morning crossing Nebraska and into the early afternoon. My mother reads about some of the interesting Nebraskan points and are disappointed that we cannot see them as we must make Cheyenne, Wyoming by night fall. The western edge of Nebraska starts to change and we feel like we are transitioning from a plains state to a truly western state. The topography is thrilling to us easterners accustomed to proper grass covered land and older, tamer mountains. There are sudden mountains, rough escarpments and a new view of wonder around every bend. When we enter Wyoming in the early evening, we are immediately greeted by tumbleweed being chased by the wind across our path. My younger son has a hankering for swimming and so we are on the lookout for a campsite with a pool or lake. There are none. Park employees on the phone, tell us that there are no pools and the lake water is icy at this elevation. The best we can do is find a KOA campsite with a hot tub in Rawlins. Rawlins is a little further than we want to go but is at the intersection of route 80 and 287 which leads to Yellowstone. Although we were hoping to bed down earlier for the night, we reason that it would be emotionally satisfying to end our relationship with the somewhat monotonous, big business route 80 tonight and tomorrow start fresh with route 287 on our final leg to Yellowstone.
When we arrive at the campsite at 8:10, we are told that the hot tub is closing at 9pm. Our parking and set up is quick and we hurry over to the hot tub. Ahh!!
HIGH POINT - I’m torn between the tumbleweed and the hot tub.
LOW POINT - When we pull over halfway through Nebraska to view a historic windmill to break up the driving, only to find out that it had been taken down.
TUESDAY AUGUST 6TH -
Traveling - We are very excited to be on our final path to Yellowstone Park. Route 287 clearly departs from western bound 80 and heads decidedly north by northwest into higher elevations. Along the way, we stop at a deserted restaurant truck stop to fix breakfast and enjoy the view. An hour later, we come around the bend to witness another breathtaking vista near the Red Canyon area. Without much thought, we pull off to take in the salmon pink and green hills placed at seemingly impossible angles to each other. With our binocs, we discover an animal carcass nearby and hike towards it to explore. It seems that we have come upon a coyote carcass. The break is over and we head to the town of Lander, on the edge of the Wind River Indian Reservation for lunch. Sated with our bison burgers, we head out for what we hope are the last couple of hours.
However, it is slow going doing the last miles with road conditions, construction, traffic and naturally everyone taking in the views. Grand Teton National Park guards the entrance to Yellowstone and are in awe of their grandeur. At long last, we enter Yellowstone about 4:45 and our excitement is diminished when we read the sign that informs us that our campsite is another 21 miles into the park. Could be worse - other campsites are listed as 49 miles away. We check in, find our campsite and our happy to enjoy our campsite for the evening
HIGH POINT - The Grand Tetons foretold wonders yet to come in Yellowstone.
LOW POINT - No doubt when I was pulling into a gas station with sharp angles and blocked the McDonald’s drive through exit line for about 10 minutes. On a high note, I stayed calm and with Johnny and Joey’s coaching, rectified the situation. And yes, I did draw a crowd.
Yellowstone bison at sunset.
WEDNESDAY AUGUST 7TH -
Traveling - I cherish the fact that I am usually not a typical tourist but knew that we had to see Old Faithful at Yellowstone. There we were, with 300 other tourists waiting and watching for the moment. She did not disappoint and goes off impressively every 90 minutes or so and reaches heights of 70 feet or more for several minutes. After the geyser show, we walked around to view the other 200 or so unique types of mud pots, hot springs and geysers. Steamboat geyser had not gone off since 2005 and went off a week ago. On the way to Yellowstone we stopped off at Kepler Falls to hike around and view the falls from various vantage points.
We have to change campsites today, which actually works out, and after Old Faithful we move to our new campsite at Fish Creek. After a trying 30 minutes of backing our 50 foot rig into our very narrow campsite, we unhook and drive out to see animals in Hyman Valley. The first thing we see is a bald eagle sitting contentedly on his high perch viewing the possibilities for dinner. He obliges us for at least 20 minutes and allows us and the other viewers a clear shot.
This is how it works in Yellowstone. If you are driving along and see a group of cars pulled off to the side for no apparent reason, then you can assume that wildlife has been identified. You pull over, roll down your window and either see the animal immediately, or inquire and decide what action to take based on the intel. Sometimes, the animals may be way off and require binocs and other times, they are nonchalantly crossing the road.
This evening I spotted a bison in the valley which we watched with our binocs. I felt lucky. One mile and 10 minutes later, I was ecstatic as a herd was nearby and three bison were crossing the road and were within 40 feet. Although, they appear to be unaware of your presence, park visitors are constantly warned that they can turn at any moment and head towards you. Bison gorings have definitely occurred. Post bison, we acted on a wolf rumor but could not find them but instead saw some elk drinking from a stream. The animals are so engaging that we do not return to our campsite until almost 9pm.
HIGH POINT - Definitely the bison. Their profile is so dynamic with their furry mantle, proud head and pointed beard.
LOW POINT - Our campsite feels like suburbia. We are packed in like sardines, one motor home after another. AND - no picnic table or fireplace
THURSDAY - AUGUST 8TH
TRAVELING - Our goal is to hike the Yellowstone Grand Canyon today. En route to the canyon we run across three more herds of bison along the road and in the Hayman Valley. The hike is only two miles from the upper falls to Artist’s Point but vigorous. Artist Point includes an amazing view of both the winding canyon and the falls. Spectacular, unreal, humbling. On the way back from Artist’s Point, we take a short but truly rigorous detour and hike down and up 323 stairs to an up front and personal view of the falls. Johnny and I are frequently asked directions by other hikers. We attribute this to our adventure ready attire - hiking boots, zip off pants, backpacks, hats, knives and Paracord survival rope bracelets. One never what might come up.
After returning to our campsite, we are treated to hot showers before heading out to dinner at the Lake Lodge. Although they have lost our reservation, they manage to still seat us and we have a fun evening and meet some other travelers as a result.
HIGH POINT OF THE DAY - Hiking successfully along the south rim of the canyon and enjoying an excellent syrah in appropriate stemware while listening to live music in the lounge of the Lake Hotel. It is reminiscent of how I imagine travelling may have been in the 1890’s.
LOW POINT - A park ranger states that the black bears are the most intelligent animals in the park including humans.
FRIDAY AUGUST 9TH
TRAVELING - We are departing Yellowstone today and heading north towards the north exit into Montana and towards Stevensville, the location of the family reunion. On our way north, we pass our friends the bison in Hayman Valley crossing the road, grazing or lounging about in the dirt. Although we have seen about 500 by this point, their presence and profiles still amaze. Our exit from Yellowstone is slow and dramatic and takes us three hours to arrive at Mammoth Springs around 2pm for lunch and our last official sight seeing stop. The drive through the park has been rainy and somewhat dangerous as the roads are narrow with steep drop offs and few guard rails. However, as always in Yellowstone, there is a surprise around every bend and the varied landscape of canyons, mountains, rivers and rock formations is ever changing.
Mammoth Springs is stunning and the hot mineraled water has created multi-terraced mineral formations of yellow, peach and various shades of white and grey. We leave the park at 4pm hoping to arrive at 7pm at our relatives in Stevensville. Apparently, between some casual map reading on my part and unexpected construction in the park, we discover that we probably will not reach my relatives Meme and Len’s until 9pm.
Around 8pm, I drive through a vicious storm of wind, blinding rain, hail, possible snow slush and flooding. Johnny coaches me through some of the tough points and we make it safely through the storm. Our arrival time has been moved to 9:45 with the delays. We finally arrive about 10pm, park our rig and are treated to a late dinner of bratwurst, potato salad, beans and a post storm driving glass of wine.
HIGH POINT - The Montana sky. At the end of the storm, we were driving towards a fixed line in the sky between a dark cloud and blue sky. The cloud line ran for miles.
LOW POINT - Driving through the large hail and driving next to this one car in the flooded area and fearing that the two cars would be pulled together in the water. More travel details coming up. Diane Lachtrupp Martinez