The cars behind us were honking their horns, and someone yelled, “Hey, white Range Rover, move along!” But we didn’t budge. In front of us—and on both sides of our rental car—was a herd of at least 40 bison. Most of them ambled over to the grass as we approached, but a dozen or so, some as tall as our vehicle and nearly 2,000 pounds, stopped in the middle of the road. A handful of baby bison, their soft red fur not yet dark and coarse, lay down on the hot asphalt near their mothers.
We’d come upon the herd during a breathtaking drive through South Dakota’s Custer State Park. The road had us maneuvering through tunnels barely wider than our car, passing towering rock formations that looked like Dr. Seuss drawings, and cruising past cars that had pulled over to feed carrots to wild burros. When we got to the park’s Wildlife Loop Road, we saw the bison up ahead and stopped to wait them out. Meanwhile, through our front windshield, we snapped all the photos we could. After about 10 minutes, a Jeep rumbled past us on the left and muscled through the herd. The frightened bison scurried off the road and onto the grass nearby.
That driver had likely seen his share of bison traffic jams, but my husband and I felt like real adventurers. Early in the summer, when European travel bans, the United Kingdom’s quarantine order, and fears of flying during the pandemic conspired to quash our plans to visit family in England, we’d changed course and embarked on a road trip through the dozen states in the U.S. that we’d flown over but never visited. Now, here we were in western South Dakota in late June, midway through our monthlong expedition.
The idea for the trip came to me just after Memorial Day. To see how it might come together, I grabbed an old Rand McNally Road Atlas off a bookshelf in our Potomac home and mapped out a route through Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas, South Dakota, North Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, Wisconsin, Indiana and Kentucky—all the states in the country I had yet to explore. I knew we’d need at least a month to see them all at a comfortable pace, and in normal times we’d never go away for that long. But these were not normal times. My corporate-lawyer husband, who for 30 years had driven to work in downtown D.C. five days a week, had turned my den—and our dining room table—into his home office. Since he was working remotely, he could just as easily bring his office on the road, I reasoned. He liked the idea, so long as I did most of the driving and he could work in the car. That was fine by me; I like to drive, and as a writer and consultant I’m used to working from anywhere.
We tweaked the itinerary over the next couple of days and added stops in western Pennsylvania; Asheville, North Carolina; Colorado Springs, Colorado; and Brush Creek Ranch in southeastern Wyoming. Once we finalized our route, we invited our three kids—ages 17, 19 and 24—to join us, but they said they’d rather stay home and work, and have the house to themselves for the first time in months.
When we set off in early June, much of the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic were mired in COVID-19 spikes and lockdowns. A road trip far from the East Coast felt like an escape from the danger zone—the states we were visiting had all begun lifting restrictions the month before, and none had implemented travel bans or quarantines. As we journeyed west, the numbers in some states began to rise, but we took precautions everywhere. We brought loads of hand sanitizer, face masks, disposable gloves, disinfectant spray and paper towels. We ate all our meals outdoors, and we avoided crowds, elevators and indoor venues like museums.
During the first week on the road, we saw a peaceful protest on the steps of the state capitol in Montgomery, Alabama; picked a contender for favorite coffeehouse of the trip (The Coffee Loft in Fairhope, Alabama); and learned that Walmarts make great rest stops during COVID. The stores are conveniently perched near highway exits, with clean, well-stocked restrooms, automatic paper towel dispensers, touchless faucets, and restroom entrances that wind around a wall—similar to what you see in many airports and sports arenas.
Most travel days, my husband sat in the passenger seat with a laptop (sometimes two), a phone and a Bluetooth earpiece. I drove and watched the changing landscape. Sometimes we listened to the news or to podcasts about the destinations we were visiting, or to jazz and country music playlists my husband had curated for the trip. We’d brought along a mobile printer, three laptops, and a couple of heavy-duty batteries that could charge all our devices at once. The batteries and printer came in handy in the car, and also while we “glamped” in South Dakota. Our tent at Under Canvas Mount Rushmore had a king bed, a bathroom, and a skylight perfect for watching shooting stars, but it was sans electricity.
Whenever we checked into a hotel, we brought in disinfectant spray and paper towels. I usually did a quick surface wipe, but most places had left paper cards in the guest rooms listing their enhanced cleaning protocols, and every room appeared well scrubbed. To keep encounters with staff to a minimum, many properties had stopped offering valet parking, room service and daily housekeeping. Most had installed plexiglass between the receptionists and guests checking in, and nearly all were limiting guest occupancy to 50% or less. Everywhere we stayed the staff wore masks and disposable gloves.
At four of our hotels (we stayed at 17), we had our temperatures taken before check-in. The temperature checks occurred more often toward the end of our trip, after COVID cases in the Midwest had begun to mount. The West Baden Springs Hotel in Indiana required daily temperature checks and gave us a different colored wristband each day to ensure compliance. In Lexington, Kentucky, at the 21c Museum Hotel, the staff took our temperature every time we walked back into the lobby from the street—even when we’d only ventured out to grab coffee.
As we traveled, we saw electronic road signs along several of the interstates reminding people to socially distance and wash their hands. Many of the people we met, especially the younger ones, were grateful to be back at work following weeks or months of furloughs; others seemed more apprehensive. Tiffany, our server at McElroy’s, a seafood shanty in Biloxi, Mississippi, said she was happy to be getting a paycheck again after nearly two months. The single mother of two young daughters had lost her home to flooding 15 years ago when Hurricane Katrina hit. She was a child then, but she remembered the destruction vividly. “The casinos along the coast were completely underwater,” Tiffany told us. We asked her if she’d ever want to leave the Mississippi coast. No, she said, because there was no better place to celebrate Mardi Gras. (Sorry, New Orleans.) Two months after our visit, Biloxi was narrowly spared the wrath of Hurricane Laura.
In Little Rock, Arkansas, we were the only guests staying at the Victorian bed-and-breakfast we’d booked for the night, so the owner, Antonio, donned his mask (we wore ours, too) and took us on a tour of the inn, a stately property built in the 1800s. A former makeup artist, Antonio and his longtime partner, Keith, bought the 8,000-square-foot mansion in 2019 and redecorated it to be more historically accurate. At the end of the tour, Antonio brought us to a small tower room, where he pointed to a pea-size hole in the stained glass window—a bullet hole from a card game gone awry during Prohibition.
In Oklahoma City, we spent an hour walking through the powerful and poignant Oklahoma City National Memorial, site of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, and we spent just as long studying the chain-link fence where victims’ relatives—even 25 years later—come to affix trinkets and mementos.
In Wichita, Kansas, we watched a wedding procession file down the brick-lined streets of trendy Old Town—the same streets that had given Wichita the moniker “Cowtown” in the 19th century, when the city played host to numerous cattle drives.
At Brush Creek Ranch in Saratoga, Wyoming, we enjoyed spectacular prairie views by day and sipped old-fashioneds at the ranch saloon by night. When we left, we passed through Casper, Wyoming, and met a self-proclaimed cowboy singer-songwriter who also worked at Lou Taubert Ranch Outfitters, a department store known for its selection of 10,000 pairs of cowboy boots.
In Custer, South Dakota, Alex, the owner of an all-terrain vehicle rental shop, told us antifa had considered coming to town a couple of months earlier. He said if antifa had come, he wouldn’t have stopped the group from harming one of his ATVs as part of their protest, but if they damaged a second ATV from his lot, he’d have gone for his gun. “South Dakota is a stand-your-ground state, and we all have shotguns and intend to defend our property,” he declared. “But we’re all nice, reasonable people.” (Antifa never came.)
A theater marquee in Fargo, North Dakota, advised passersby to “wash your hands and be excellent to each other.” We saw the sign after ordering takeout brunch from BernBaum’s, a Jewish-Scandinavian deli, and were on our way to pick it up. I meticulously disinfected a picnic table nearby so we could sit and eat, but the wind was so fierce that our smoked trout bagels and salad blew off the table halfway through our meal. We fared better the next evening in Omaha, Nebraska, where we caught the post-lockdown reopening of V. Mertz, one of the city’s top restaurants. We had a great meal on the patio. Our server was from Vichy, France, but had lived in Omaha for 21 years. “People in Omaha are as friendly as people in Vichy,” he told us. “But Omaha is, how you say, less snooty.”
From there, we traveled to Davenport, Iowa, where we met a standup comic named Donny Townsend. As a side gig, Donny was working as a waiter at a burger place near the Mississippi riverfront. He poured shot glasses of his favorite house-brewed beers to help us decide which to order. The next day, at a cheese shop in Monroe, Wisconsin, we met a yodeling cheesemonger named Tony Zgraggen, who had emigrated with his wife from Switzerland in the 1980s. Tony gave us a short lesson in cheese-making, then walked to the far corner of the store, took off his mask—revealing his impressive handlebar mustache—and performed a 30-second yodel for us. (Turns out, a real yodel doesn’t sound anything like the old Swiss Miss Instant Cocoa commercial.)
For the Wisconsin leg of our trip, we’d splurged on a July Fourth weekend reservation at The American Club in Kohler, a town founded by the Kohler family of kitchen and bath fame. A week before our arrival, the hotel decided to delay its reopening until later in the month. We got the news in a call from the membership director of Riverbend, a private club in Kohler owned by the same hotel group. He offered to transfer our reservation to that location instead. “You don’t have to do anything,” he said. “Just say yes.” We did.
COVID cases had risen by the time we got to Wisconsin, so we were greeted at the door by a masked, white-gloved man in an elegant suit holding a touchless thermometer. “Just a precaution,” he said. All three evenings we sat on Riverbend’s stone patio and talked—socially distanced—with an older gentleman who had just sold his latest tech company. With cigar and scotch in hand, he showed us photos of his 107-foot custom sailboat. He divided his time among his yacht and his homes in Milwaukee and St. Croix. Everyone should take a trip like yours to understand the fabric of our country, he said, but “no one bothers because they think they know everything already.”
We felt safe with the COVID precautions we put in place throughout our trip, though we did walk out of a souvenir shop near the Badlands in South Dakota because every aisle was packed with shoppers. And we fled Mount Rushmore’s outdoor lighting ceremony just as it got underway. The ceremony takes place every evening during the summer, and we’d arrived at the memorial early to get a good view. But just before it started about 100 people crowded in and my husband said, “Let’s get out of here.”
En route to Fargo, we were turned away at the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation near Eagle Butte, South Dakota. The young Sioux sentry in a construction vest, jeans, T-shirt and face mask who blocked our way politely apologized and explained that the tribal council had instructed him to turn away all cars with out-of-state license plates to help keep COVID cases down. He gave us directions to a detour about 30 minutes out of our way. No problem, we replied, and turned the car around. The day before, we had walked through the iconic Western town of Deadwood, South Dakota, and learned that it had been built on land the U.S. had granted to the Lakota people in an 1868 treaty but then took back after prospectors discovered gold nearby.
In Madison, Wisconsin, we got stuck in another roadblock, this one caused by a dozen protesters with a banner the length of six cars. They were demanding that Madison “Defund the Police.” We idled in that logjam for about 15 minutes until a burly man with a shaved head got out of his car to yell at the protesters. (The protesters left their posts to yell back, and a lane opened wide enough for cars nearby to pass.)
When we got to Louisville, Kentucky, we found that much of the city was boarded up and locked down. In addition to the pandemic, Louisville was reeling from protests surrounding the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the death of Breonna Taylor, the Louisville woman fatally shot by police in her apartment in March. “This is what a city in mourning looks like, ” I said to my husband.
We spent the last night of our trip in Lexington, Kentucky, and the next morning we walked to the Yelp-recommended Third Street Stuff & Coffee, a few blocks from our hotel. We’d been sampling local coffee shops at all our destinations, and sadly this would be our final one. In the middle of a city filled with sleek glass towers and imposing marble buildings, the low-slung, one-story coffeehouse stood out. It was painted inside and out with clever maxims in bright swaths of color.
Inside, chalkboards offered elaborate coffee drinks listed by theme: Celebrate Native Americans, Black Lives Matter, even a chalkboard full of drink offerings named after Kentucky Derby winners (we were in horse country, after all). We placed our orders (I got the “Frederick Douglass,” a caramel-hazelnut latte) and headed outside. While we waited for our drinks, we read the witty truisms painted on the walls. One sounded familiar: “The colors of the rainbow so pretty in the sky are also on the faces of people going by.” It took us a moment to place it—a verse from Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World.”
It sure is, I thought to myself, even during these daunting times. We grabbed our coffees, loaded up the car and began our long drive home.
Amy Halpern is a journalist who has worked in print and television news, and as the associate producer of an Emmy award-winning documentary. She lives in Potomac.