Our Next Road Trip Chapter: Driving East Across the U.S.

The next chapter of our U.S. road trip journey is marked by heading east from Seattle, WA, to Wheaton, IL, a suburb of Chicago where we stayed with our dear friends, Rachel and Jake Hausmann, and their almost two-year-old son, Landon, which was a trip highlight we were very much looking forward to. This leg of our road trip consisted of over 2,000 miles and 30 hours of driving within a seven-day timeframe. We had prioritized spending more time/traveling slower on the California and Oregon Coasts and Portland, so that meant picking up our pace to drive east and arrive in Wheaton by Labor Day weekend as we had planned with Rachel and Jake. Grouping this part of our trip, driving east, into a single blog post is not intended to gloss over the places we visited during this time, each which was unique and interesting to visit; it’s a sheer reality that we traveled quickly, not staying in any one place for more than a night, and often with just enough time to check into our accommodation, go to dinner, and go to sleep to rest for the next day of travel. When having so little time in the places we passed through along the way, there’s less to cover as far as what we experienced outside of what we saw through the windows of our car (which was, of course, a significant part of our road trip, as it is what comes to mind when thinking about taking a road trip). This post covers 8 U.S. states, 5 of which I visited for the first time on this road trip: Washington, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Illinois.

This kicked off with our drive to Spokane, WA, which took about 4 hours and 280 miles. We arrived downtown and walked around to consider dinner options, of which we were in the mood for salads. We are usually conscious of what we eat from a health perspective and prefer fresh fare. We were also aware that it’s hard to beat the quality of the produce in California, and that as we progressed in our travels, we’d have less opportunity to eat salad (e.g. in Mexico, because we are not used to the bacteria in the water that would be used to wash produce). We also had been eating out quite a bit in Portland and Seattle, and not always as health-consciously as we usually are due to wanting to experience the local cuisine (e.g. the food pods in Portland), so we wanted to pursue healthier options at this point. After our salads at a local bar (I know, a strange place for a salad, but the bartender/server was nice enough to make them for us after the chef had left for the evening, and they were good!), we moseyed over to their Riverfront Park area, which is a large, outdoor gathering space. We followed the Native American Indian performance beats and stumbled upon a Pow-Wow celebration of a local tribe. While we wanted to stay longer, we had already communicated to our AirBnB hosts for the night our estimated arrival time, so we left and drove there to check in and meet them. We had the pleasure of staying with a nice couple interested in chatting with us in their living room to get acquainted. We felt so at home, as it was very clean and homey in their home, we had our own private room and bathroom downstairs, and they made us feel very welcome (they even asked us what we wanted to eat for breakfast the next day so they could pick something up for us while they were at the store). Being avid bikers, they gave us a great tip about a bike ride, The Route of the Hiawatha, that they love doing on the Idaho/Montana border; we thought it sounded so cool and unique, so we decided to go for it when passing through that area the following day! This is a prime example of something we wouldn’t have known about had we not been open to staying in someone’s home through AirBnB and talking to locals, which is part of the reason why we love AirBnB accommodations so much. This is not to say we have the opportunity to meet every AirBnB host in-person, or have more in-depth conversations with everyone (sometimes we are shown the place, given the keys, asked if we have any questions, and that’s it), but when it does happen, it can certainly have the potential to enhance our travel experience!

Random scenic viewpoint stop
It was really windy up at the viewpoint!



It was noticeable that the minimum speed limit was 70 m.p.h. instead of 65 m.p.h. like most highways in California.


It’s blurry but it looks cool!
The Pow-Wow is off in the distance.

The next day was a long, fulfilling travel day. We drove through the rest of Washington, Idaho (the narrow, top strip of it), and into Montana and stopped for the Hiawatha bike ride. This warrants its own blog post, but for now, included below are some photos of this epic, 15-mile ride along a former train route turned mountain bike path.

Back on the open road!


If you look closely, you’ll see the highway sign in Idaho is in an outline of the state!


The light at the end of the tunnel (literally)!
One of many train trestles


See that fine line centered in the distance? Yes, we rode on that! (It looks very narrow from afar, but it’s actually fairly wide).


Welcome to Montana!

When arriving in Missoula at night (and entering the Mountain Daylight Time Zone, which is one hour ahead of Pacific Daylight Time, without realizing it initially), we ate at what appeared to be a local college joint for pizza (school was resuming around this time) and salad and checked into our AirBnB accommodation, which was a private room and bathroom in our host couple’s home just outside of the downtown area. A hot shower to clean up from the dirt and muskiness of our bike ride felt so good to relish in!

Before heading to Billings, which is just under a 5 hour drive and 340 miles from Missoula, we enjoyed separate workouts in the morning; Aaron went for a run into the mountains, and I scoped out an Oula Fitness class at a local gym downtown, PEAK Health & Wellness Center, which was my first fitness class experience while on our road trip. I had taken an Oula class once in Sacramento, coincidentally from an instructor who had just moved from Missoula, and the instructor whom I took this class from knew her (small world)! Here is a separate blog post about this and other fitness class experiences while on the road in the U.S. I thought Jen, the instructor, was easy-to-follow and I had fun getting a great workout before spending prolonged time in the car again. I took the local recommendation of the front desk person at the gym and got coffee and avocado toast from Black Coffee Roasting Company on my way back to our AirBnB accommodation. Missoula is a place where we would have loved to stay longer and may return someday to experience more of it.




Interesting latte art… it must be abstract! 🙂
Can you find the “M” for University of Montana in the mountains? That’s where Aaron went for his run.

The distance from Missoula to the next major city, Bozeman, is about 3 hours and 200 miles of driving, and there truly is not much there in-between. We wondered what people do outside of Missoula if they live there, as there doesn’t seem to be much surrounding it within a reasonable driving distance for a day trip. We stopped in Bozeman for lunch and after walking around the cute downtown area, settled on the economical, healthy, and cultural Brazilian restaurant, Five On Black. And I couldn’t resist the Montana Moose Moss ice cream from The Chocolate Moose afterwards! Bozeman was another place that seemed rather isolated as far as the next major cities around it being quite a drive away.



Brown rice, feijoada, sweet potatoes, farofa, lime wedge, and cilantro with a specialty cheese bread roll on the side
Moose are a thing in Montana.
Back on the road! This is real life, bug splatters on the windshield and all!

After staying at a KOA campground in Billings, which actually, was the first one in the world, and was a really nice campground, we had a morning workout on the campground, showered, and packed up, and enjoyed some local coffee, more avocado toast, and local granola with milk at Ebon Coffee Collective (our coffee was served in mason jars) before embarking upon our longest driving day yet to Pierre, the Capital City of South Dakota, which was over 7 hours and 470 miles total of driving. We drove through the rest of Montana (stopping on Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation in Lame Deer, which is I believe the first Indian Reservation I’ve been on other than a couple of casinos, to use the restroom and get a snack at a local convenience store), Wyoming (the upper right corner), and about half of South Dakota. We stopped in Belle Fourche, SD, for a picnic lunch in a park to break up the driving. We again changed timezones, to Central Daylight Time, without realizing it initially, which unfortunately for us, threw a monkey wrench into our plan to eat downtown after checking into our AirBnB accommodation for the night, as it was dead (i.e. few people walking around, only a couple of places open that were nicer and/or pricier than we wanted to pay and not the type of food we were in the mood for). We ended up at Jake’s Good Times Place with a burger (which appeared to be a heated, frozen patty, which was surprising considering the prominent ranching industry in the area), fries, steak, and sad-looking salads, but it was a classic caricature of mid-American dining in a bar. Aaron loved his steak, which was cooked to his medium-rare liking and wrapped in bacon, and the fresh french fries!




This photo captures some of the orange-ish red-ish soil we saw, which is in Wyoming, too.
Road trip reality: From time to time, we got stuck behind trucks and tanker vehicles and strategically planned for a safe and legal time to pass.


Part of our short drive through Wyoming


Yes, that’s my bent car antennae in the right part of the photo, lol
Highway signs were something I wanted to capture throughout our road trip, yet frustrating, too. I can’t tell you how many tries it took at times (though I got better at doing it quickly and clearly; Aaron, not so much)!


I had never seen hay rolled like this before and couldn’t figure out why it was, but it looked cool!
Sunflower fields! We’d never seen these before.




We spent most of the next morning in Pierre, utilizing the WIFI and relaxing in our comfy bed in our private room and bathroom in the basement of our AirBnB hosts’ home, and put in our laundry while we ate lunch at a local diner, walked to the Capitol, and enjoyed soft serve at a stand, recommended by one of our AirBnB hosts, on our way back. This was our first of many experiences with humid heat from here on out on our road trip, which I’ve dealt with minimally prior to this (and only when traveling in the South and Hawaii) since I was born, raised, and have always lived in California. We left around 3:00 p.m., after tasting local beef products and purchasing a beef stick and beef jerky (which I’m glad we bought because they were local products we had available to snack on in many days to follow, but they were very salty), to embark upon our drive as far as we could make it. It was thrilling to not know where exactly we would be staying that night and to just drive until we were done driving; it felt like a key road trip experience I wanted to have. Aaron had scoped out a campground, but we didn’t make a reservation for this reason. We ended up stopping in Downtown Sioux Falls for dinner and walking around to check it out; this is another place we could have easily enjoyed spending more time in and would like to return to someday, and yet also another place we thought was far removed from other major cities. We had a really good discussion about taking turns leading our walks or deciding on what to do when we stop in a place and what/where to eat while we were in Sioux Falls, based on what we experienced with one another there and up until this point in our travels, and it positively changed our mindfulness and pattern moving forward. We then drove through the night through Minnesota until almost 1:00 a.m., ending up at a motel in La Crosse, WI. It was kinda scary driving for me, as I don’t usually drive at night, so I was ultra alert while behind the wheel. Although we didn’t get to see the landscapes of Minnesota, driving through the night was an adventure to be had, and we still got a photo of the welcome sign! On this day, we drove over 7 hours and 515 miles.

Pierre’s State Capitol was the first state capitol I’d seen outside of Sacramento.
No security, we could just walk right in and give ourselves a self-guided tour.
This staircase reminds me of the one in the Titanic movie.


Lake adjacent to the Capitol
Local beef snacks!


Back on the road!
Aaron being Aaron – No hands on the wheel and not looking at the road ahead of him!
One of the many rest stops we encountered driving east across the U.S. – California needs some of these (or if we have them, which we haven’t noticed before, we need more of them)! The one we stopped at in Minnesota at night was the nicest.
Sioux Falls bound!
If you haven’t noticed by now, I also like taking photos of local downtown signage.
Aaron liked this.





I felt really comfortable and happy to be in Wisconsin, probably because I’d been there before several years ago for Rachel’s and Jake’s wedding and got a unique, local experience from them and their friends and family of what it’s like there. I think because our dear friends are from there, have talked so much about it, and I’d experienced it myself, I have a fondness for Wisconsin. From La Crosse to Madison to Milwaukee was over 3 hours and 200 miles, and we stopped in Madison for a picnic lunch at a park overlooking the downtown skyline and walked through Olbrich Botanical Gardens nearby before going to see the Capitol and grab a brat near University of Wisconsin – Madison, where Jake went to school. We enjoyed happy hour in Downtown Milwaukee, where Rachel’s sister’s boyfriend owns a restaurant, Movida. Our AirBnB accommodation was a private room and shared bathroom in a small apartment above the popular, nightlife-filled Brady Street on the Lower East Side of the city, which was walkable for us to explore that street and beyond. We indulged in the infamous Bloody Marys Wisconsin is known for, probably the only place in the whole country where you can get practically a meal inside your “Bloody”, as Wisconsinites call it, and it’s normal to come with a “chaser” of beer on the side (which was confusing for us when we ordered our first Bloodys and were asked what kind of beer we wanted to go with it; I tried to decline mine, and that just didn’t work with the bartender, as he was then confused and asked if we wanted two of what Aaron had said he wanted for his beer)! After three Bloodys (one each and one shared) and a full-sized beer for Aaron, our bellies were pretty full, and we still had Pho for dinner at a place close to where we were staying. After that, we pretty much went straight to bed with nightlife buzzing below us on the streets. I had an interesting encounter with our AirBnB host’s boyfriend’s dad in the middle of the night, who had spent the night at the apartment with his son (the female host was not there); we both apparently needed to use the bathroom at the same time, so as I groggily maneuvered next to our room to the bathroom in my underwear, I found him in his underwear, searching for I think more toilet paper in a storage area right next to the bathroom. Definitely a funny and random experience, LOL! He insisted I go ahead, so I did, and went right back to bed.

Wisconsin was so green!


Picnic lunch view of Downtown Madison
Waterfalls in the botanical garden
The Thai garden section is behind us.

I don’t like bees (I’m afraid of being stung by them), but Aaron captured some really good shots of them.


Sometimes you’ve just got to stop and smell the roses! 😉



View of the Madison Capitol Building out in front of us through our windshield
Our Brat from Madison – It was kinda burnt and we’ve had better. 😉


Happy hour tapas at Movida in Downtown Milwaukee – Interesting, creative accouterments on the oysters, and a great deal (3 oysters + 1 glass of cava pictured here for only $6)!



Bloody Mary and chaser from AJ Bombers (that is a beef patty wrapped in bacon and cheese in there, so pretty much, a burger without a bun!)
Bloody Mary and chaser from County Clare, an Irish pub (yes, that’s a beef stick, cheese stick, and red potato)
Super random, but our AirBnB accommodation had a world map on their shower curtain, and we thought it was fitting!


Welcome to Illinois!

After our morning workouts (Aaron running along the river and me taking a Cardio Blast class at Blast! Fitness in Haymarket Square, where I got the class for free with a 3-day pass I was given by the instructor who was also working the front desk upon my arrival, and have reviewed in a separate fitness travel blog post about my group fitness class experiences while on the road in the U.S. here), we showered, packed up, and headed to Wheaton for a fun-filled weekend with Rachel, Jake, and Landon!

Experiencing “fast travel”, we were feeling what we call “road weary” and the desire to slow down about halfway through our trek eastward across the U.S. However, we needed to keep going at our pace to make it to our friends as planned (and we’re so glad we did). What is really cool about fast travel is that we get to experience so many places within such a short period of time, and driving it, we got to see the changing landscapes and notice their contrasts and similarities having moved through them so quickly. We also immediately notice cultural differences and regional accents. On the flip side, we sometimes find places we really like and want to spend more time in to see more of them, but we aren’t able to because of the pace we need to keep; on a positive note, we get a taste for these places and can add them to our list for future travels! It is also worth mentioning that after traveling fast for a period of time, when we actually get to slow down, we appreciate it so much more, as it is a much more relaxing experience as opposed to a constantly stimulating and/or exhausting one. Travel days can be long, tiring days, but especially rewarding when we get to experience the stops along the way that often involve seeing new places for the first time and trying new things.


Until next time,
Elena 🙂