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Our family recently returned from a 10 day road trip out West. Our last trip to Idaho was in 2014, the kids were a lot smaller back then!
Since that last trip, we’ve been to Glacier National Park in Montana, with our scout troop, but we were long overdue for family vacation and a visit to my Grandparents. We are so grateful to have them in our lives. When we’re all together, they fire up our imaginations with stories and keep our bellies full with home cooked meals. They live at the base of the Bitterroot Mountains and Salmon Challis National Forest where you can catch trout and salmon right out of the river. Grandpa is 91 years old and spends his days on the ranch, keeping the roads plowed/graded, growing a garden and can still fix just about anything. Grandma stays busy running the house and with her own activities, keeping Grandpa out of trouble. This post is a memoir of our visit. Stay tuned for part 2 and 3 which will highlight our trip home through 4 National Parks and more daily watercolor paintings from the car.
Day 1: On the road!
Our adventure started in Minneapolis, with three grown kids jammed into the backseat and a car full of snacks. Its a long haul to Rapid City, but we squeezed in a stop to Wall Drug to stretch our legs and do a little tourist sightseeing. Wall drug claims to be the window to the West and is one of those places you only need to go to once…but you’ve got to see it and get your free cup of cold water. It’s the most densely crowded place I’ve been since the pandemic, and I kind of just wanted to stay outside. We were focused on traveling fast and comfy to spend more time with the Grandparents, so we stayed in hotels instead of camping. We switched time zones, stayed in Rapid City and slept fast to be ready for another long day on the road.
I brought along the homemade field watercolor kit that I’ve been using this summer and found an inexpensive small lap pad/desk for the long ride, hoping to try to paint in the car. It went better than I expected and I didn’t have any car sickness like I do with reading. Weird. Being able to paint memories in journal form was one of the trip highlights for me. I painted every day, and my paintbox is coming on every trip from now on!
Day 2: Mountains and Wildfires!
Green and red hills flecked with golden grass greeted us through Wyoming. We saw our first wildfire burning on a mountain and the Bighorns are covered in smoke. The fires are making the Montana landscape pale, distant and monochromatic. We need to take allergy medicine and eye drops to get through it. We passed through the Yellowstone and Gallatin Rivers, Custer State Park, and found more wildfire smoke as we got into Idaho, closer to Salmon. Driving the Bannock pass through the Salmon National forest was a white knuckle ride I’d forgotten about, with steep gravel roads and cliffs without guardrails. We survived the long car ride and made it to my grandparents in time for supper.
Day 3: Ranch Life and Rest
Woke up to a crisp, cool morning and the familiar smell of my Grandpa’s aftershave. He’s a clean cut cowboy and already had the coffee pot full of Folgers ready to go. We talk over coffee and wait for everyone else to wake up. He whips up a BIG breakfast of eggs, sausage, toast and home made apricot jam for 7 people… like its nothing.
Grandpa drove us out exploring on a forest service road full of sagebrush and showed us a valley where the deer like to graze. He tells stories of driving the old International truck up the back of the mountain to help out a buddy and how the salmon and deer populations have decreased over the years. The rest of the day was spent resting, painting, catching up and listening to more stories. Dinner was HIS Grandma’s fried chicken recipe and pineapple baked beans – its funny how food can bring you right back to a childhood memory… and I think a can of crushed pineapple should go into baked beans forevermore.
Day 4: The Adventure Road
Another crisp morning in the valley and Grandpa made us a breakfast of home made biscuits and gravy. The days are hot and dry and the smoke keeps us from hiking or other vigorous activity. I paint outiside until it gets too hot. Grandpa says that I paint the way other people take pictures, I take it as a compliment. We head to the river to do some fishing and I take a quick dip to cool off. One trout and 3 salmon were caught, and they all went back – too small, but fun to catch!
After a big dinner of enormous cheeseburgers and home made potato salad, we drove up the mountain further to the Sharkey Hot Springs. The Salmon-Challis National forest is dry and remote, offering opportunities for hunting, fishing, hiking, and other outdoor recreation along Lewis & Clark’s historic trail. The Hot Springs are part of a much longer scenic route managed by The US Forest Service, called The Lewis and Clark Backcountry Byway and Adventure Road. This remote, 36 mile, single lane gravel loop has a 4,000 foot elevation gain/loss, steep exposed slopes, no guard rails and comes with a bunch of safety warnings. The adventure road brings you through the Shoshone homeland, historical sites, part of Lewis & Clark’s trail to the Pacific, up to the Continental Divide and back. I’d love to tell you more, but after days in the car…my family was barely interested in driving the 5 miles into the hot springs – NOT the 3+ hours that are required to drive the entire route. I don’t really blame them, maybe next time. We enjoyed a perfectly gradient sunset over the smoky foothills (see cover painting) and went back home where grandma fed us ice cream and cookies!
Day 5: Town Day and History
Scrambled eggs, sausage and homegrown apricot jam…Grandpa nails breakfast again! We drove to the town of Salmon today to do a little sightseeing and visit the History Museum and Sacajawea Center. Salmon has a population of approximately 3,000 people and is near the birthplace of Sacajawea and land of the Shoshone Agaidika or Salmon eaters. After visiting the historical society, our next stop was to the Sacajawea Interpretive and Cultural Center. I went in wanting to learn more about this strong, resilient woman and more about the local Indigenous history. We heard more about her critical role in the Lewis and Clark Expedition and the history of the forced removal of the Shoshone Agaidika people through the Virginia City Treaty of 1868. The Center has a interpretive nature hike that winds around the property and a statue to honor her. Sacajawea was born just a few miles down river from Grandpa and Grandma’s house, and when I got home, I found myself thinking of her and wondering what her life must have been like. I sat with those thoughts and reflected for some time as I picked a bouquet of sagebrush and painted her portrait out of the Lemhi River. Im grateful to be able to learn more about this strong young woman…and to be able to paint and remember her with the river water she came from.
Day 6: Pancakes and Water Rescues!
Pancakes! Grandpa’s kiling the breakfast game! Each day, right after breakfast, or just after dinner, Grandma asks to see my paintings, looks at them with glasses on…glasses off… listens and says kind and supportive things about them. This just fills my heart and makes me feel so loved. Bob and I drove back to town to stop by the grocery store and visit a few more local shops. We stopped by The Purple Easel, the local art gallery, and discovered a small art supply section in the back. I had a lovely chat with the owner, who is also a long time watercolor artist. She helped me with a few problems I was having with color saturation by showing me a couple of new techniques and sold me a small spray bottle and a larger travel palette that I was eyeing. Happy to support a local business and her advice was worth every penny. Her tips have helped me when I paint, everyday since – thanks Celeste!
Tonight, Grandpa and Grandma outdid themselves with Beef/Elk Meatloaf, 3 bean salad, zucchini casserole and an apple pie made with homegrown apples! Seriously. The best!
Grandpa brought three little spruce seedlings from Minnesota to Idaho over 25 years ago. They have grown quite tall, and I love that this little piece of home still grows on the ranch today. Grandma likes this painting of the Minnesota trees the best, so I framed it as a gift before we head back home.
As I was packing, after dinner, I heard these dreadful words:
“Grandpa, we need a bright flashlight, Dad’s drone is in the river”
Each day while we are here, Bob has been enjoying scoping out the terrain of the ranch via drone – then >ploop< he hit the bridge and it went in the river on our last night! I threw on my sneakers and ran down the road, prepared to go for a swim. The rescue involved the whole family including grandpa…and we eventually found it! Lucky for us (not so much the fish), the river is running low or, it would have been long gone. We got a good laugh out of the adventure as I drip dried on the walk back home.
Day 7: On the Road Again…
Thanks for reading my journal for the first part of our trip. If you’ve enjoyed the adventure so far…stay tuned for Parts 2 and 3! These posts will highlight our visits to 4 National Parks following more of my typical trip report format and feature more daily watercolor journals. Want to know more about the painting I’ve been doing on the trail? I’ll be working on a post and video shortly and your questions and feedback are always helpful as I create new work here.
Have you been out to Idaho or driven the The Lewis and Clark Backcountry Byway and Adventure Road? Have any good book or podcast recommendations on Indigenous history? Just want to say hey? Drop me a note and I hope you are having a wonderful summer! Thanks for reading!