Midwest Adventure Day 10: Casper, WY to Missoula, MT

160131-sunset_somewhere_in_south_dakota-750x148-IMG_0107v2Well, it seems like I should really close the loop on this thing and bring us home, right? At one point I thought I might be able to condense our last two days of roadtripping into one post…but SURPRISE – it hasn’t worked out that way. Still, dear reader, I promise we’re almost done.

He looked at me, then at the sky and said, “Shit! Welcome to Alaska!” Then he walked on, shaking his head.

But I just realized that we still have to reach back to Day 9 and wrap it up – sorry. As I said at the end of the previous entry, we left Minot a little after noon to head for Casper, Wyoming. Alex has a photog buddy who recently started working at the paper in Provo, Utah, and given how graciously Alex had tagged along with me on those two family-focused jaunts to Fort Snelling and Minot, there was no question that we should take advantage of his friend’s offer to show us a good time in Provo, and even take us on a scenic hike. Minot to Provo is more than a day’s drive, so we’d mapped it out that Casper was a workable stopping place that took us more than halfway there so our next day’s drive would be shorter and get us into Provo with enough daylight left for the hike.

But all those best-laid plans were made before Winter Storm Kayla came on the scene.

The trip southward from Minot was beautiful and problem-free for the most part. The photo at the top of this post is a sunset view out my car window somewhere in South Dakota. Later on, well after night had fallen, there was one spot in northeastern Wyoming where the sky was so crystal-clear that the stars above us were just breathtaking. I was able to look out my window and up through the moonroof, but Alex eventually just had to stop the car so he could get out and really take it all in – I was glad he did. We were stopped on a country road and the temperature was about 16 I think, but the view was so worth it. We actually did that again a bit later when we switched driving duties. But it was as we started to approach Casper that we noticed 1) our elevation was increasing; and 2) it was starting to snow. As we entered Casper the snow was blowing across the roadway, and once in town we saw that there was already a good bit of snow on the ground from maybe the day before. But at that point it was late, we were tired, the people at our hotel were weird (guests and staff both), and we just wanted to call it a night. We zipped out for a quick fast food dinner, came back to the room and sacked out. I do remember checking the weather and noting that there was a winter weather advisory for the next day.

We would've been pretty happy if this switch in our Casper, WY hotel room had actually been functional.
We would’ve been pretty happy if this switch in our Casper, WY hotel room had actually been functional.
When we got up on Monday morning, there was a fair amount of fresh snow and the winter weather advisory was still in effect, lasting until 9 AM the next day. We knew we needed to waste no time before conditions got any worse, as we knew our route would take us to higher elevations; furthermore, we had no interest in hanging out in that bizarre hotel any longer (fortunately my luck with Travelocity was mostly good, but this place was one exception – see the Day 5 entry for another low point), so with a quick drive-thru at the Starbucks next door (thanks for your bait-and-switch non-complimentary breakfast, Parkway Plaza!) we hit the road.

Only to hit a “ROAD CLOSED” sign after about 15 minutes.

Yep, that Winter Weather Advisory had suddenly been upgraded to a Winter Storm Watch and conditions were already degrading pretty much everywhere even vaguely south of Casper. So when we hit that electronic road closure sign, we had to turn around – carefully – and skulk back into town. Alex took us into the downtown core and found a coffee shop where we could regroup and figure out our next move. After we’d parked I was getting out of the car, in pretty heavy-falling snow at that point, and a guy walked past me on the sidewalk with his hands dug deep in his pockets and a frown on his face. He looked at me, then at the sky and said, “Shit! Welcome to Alaska!” Then he walked on, shaking his head. Seeing a local so surprised and upset by the weather kind of brought it home to me just how hard Wyoming was getting hit.

We got some pretty good coffee and looked over our options. At first it was looking like we were just going to be finding a place to stay in Casper for the night and twiddle our thumbs until morning…but it turned out that Alex’s friend in Provo was going to be too busy with work on Tuesday to hang out with us, which suddenly made the Provo trip kind of moot. On top of that, while we’d been assuming we’d be able to leave Casper Tuesday morning, the gathering storm was making it look more likely we’d have to wait until the afternoon for the roads to clear. It felt like we were watching hour after hour getting added to our travels, and our return to Portland get more and more delayed. When we heard from a customer at the coffee shop that the roads north out of Casper were still open and driveable, we realized that was our best choice if Provo wasn’t in the cards. I could tell that Alex was going to go stir-crazy if we just had to cool our heels in Casper for another 24 hours, so it was time to get going while we still could.

So we drained our coffee cups and piled back into the Honda, pointing it north toward Missoula, Montana.

The thing is…while this route was not closed, it was certainly not free of weather complications. I mean, this was now Winter Storm Kayla we were dealing with, and it was messing up roads and closing schools and canceling flights throughout the Midwest and beyond. So it was no great surprise that we were still dealing with it. Anyway, Monday’s drive was just a slog through lots of blowing snow and higher elevations (about 6,300 feet was the highest I saw using the altimeter app on my iPhone); when we reached Montana the weather did seem to calm down and we saw some welcome stretches of snow-free countryside, but then as dusk fell we climbed again and did some more snaking through mountainous terrain. As we descended toward Missoula we were listening to the results of the Iowa caucuses on the radio and hearing the various candidates’ speeches. That felt particularly odd somehow as we hurtled through the Montana night.

Missoula was a welcome sight, but it was snowing there too and I couldn’t help wondering what the next morning might hold. At least I’d picked out a good hotel – it happened to be one of those extended-stay joints (our room had a dishwasher!), so instead of having to turn around and leave in search of dinner around 10:30 PM, I was able to go to the lobby and get us frozen Asian dinners that were actually not too bad in light of what they were and what we needed. And then it was time to turn in.

Hey! Photos from our two last days of the road trip are available right here – enjoy!

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