Living the Good Life

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in Overland Journal’s Summer 2022 Issue.

“Boys, seriously! Knock it off!”

I really couldn’t blame them—we were on day 15 of our month-long trip, exploring Montana and filming our family for the first time for our new Solo Series on Expedition Overland. We were all piled into our AEV Prospector with the three boys in the backseat: Cyrus, 15; Ryder, 12; and Eli, 10. It’s a lot to ask three boys to keep their hands, feet, and breath off each other for any amount of time. Dad (Clay) was out of the truck putting away the drone, and I was doing my best to keep it all together. Like clockwork, as soon as these precious boys of ours heard Clay’s hand on that door handle, it was all perfect posture and angel baby children.

“How did it go?” I asked for the 50 billionth time. The answer could always go one of two ways.

“Epic.” Clay replied with a huge grin on his face. These are the moments he lives for, chasing incredible shots. To watch him in his element is one of the best things in the world for me.

Clay and I are used to our routine of filming on the road. We can look at each other at certain points and discern what our next steps are. When I see that superlative view, crazy road, or unexpected mountain goat, I instantly know that it’s a “hard stop” and time to let the director out to do his thing. We know how to keep an eye on our team members, constantly running our mental gauges of where people are at. Are they thriving, hungry, having a hard day? Our gut checks and systems are always in overdrive.

This trip, however, was different. This time, I needed to be Mom, and Clay needed to be Dad to our three young, budding men. Before we left, visions of laughter, enjoying the sights, and all of our happy faces captured on camera played in my mind. We would have deep conversations around the campfire, our boys would never want the trip to end, and I would cook amazing meals as Clay filmed the storybook scene.

I can hear you laughing.

My visions of sugar plums had been quickly intercepted with a hard dose of reality not 15 minutes out of the driveway, with the boys arguing over who had to sit in the middle. Now I was breaking up fights in the backseat and drying tears of homesickness.

Our boys were young when we started X Overland. We kept them out of filming as much as possible until they were old enough for all of the responsibilities being a part of the show would bring. In addition to being on camera, each team member has to pull their own weight, hold and operate cameras, set up camp, cook, do dishes, etc. Being young does not exclude you from these roles.

We began our adventure in the northwest region of Montana in a little friendly place called The Yaak. Yaak is an unincorporated community, home to about 250 people. Besides its name, it is also unique in that its locationlands in the northern geographical transition zone between the Pacific Northwest and the Rocky Mountains. For this reason, it is often called “Montana’s only rainforest” due to its low elevation and high precipitation. This area had been on our bucket list for years, and it seemed like the ideal beginning to our family adventure.

Gorgeous rivers, waterfalls, heavy timber, and Sasquatches to boot (yes, they’re real) were some of the highlights we experienced. Speaking of Sasquatches, the people of Yaak take the threat so seriously that they even post official Forest Service signs stating:

SASQUATCH WARNING: Due to the increasing flows in the Yaak River, Sasquatches are coming down from the high country to feed on fish and vegetation at the river’s edge.

Much like a bear sign, the visitor is encouraged to take the following steps in case of an encounter:

  • Do not run from Sasquatch
  • Do not chase Sasquatch
  • Do not yell at Sasquatch
  • Do not feed Sasquatch
  • Do go about your business
  • DO TAKE PHOTOS

Sasquatches will not enter an occupied camp, nor will they harm you. Once your encounter with a Sasquatch is complete, report to the nearest ranger station. Please keep note of the time, location, and direction the Sasquatch is traveling. The most recent encounters are between Yaak Falls and the North Fork of Yaak River.”

It didn’t take long for us to discover that the town will make even the best of us feel like outsiders, even if you’re a true-blood Montanan. Despite its remoteness, we enjoyed great pizza and burgers at the local mercantile and tavern, complete with a few friendly locals that were happy to point us in the direction of the best places to fish on the river. Or so they said—we know well enough never to give up those secrets.

We enjoyed our first family float with clear rivers full of trout, eagles, and otters and completed family rule number one: no dying. It was a fantastic day. This place is a Montana gem, and it needs to be kept just like it is. (If you go, please don’t tell them you heard about it from us; we don’t want to answer to the town Sasquatch.)

Since we weren’t too far from the very place that Clay proposed to me years ago, 17 to be exact, we added Pinkham Creek Falls to our itinerary, located just outside of good ol’ Eureka, nine miles south of the Canadian border. The only problem was we couldn’t remember exactly how to get to this magical place. Due to its wrong location on Google, Garmin, and Gaia, it quickly became apparent that the locals like to keep it a mystery.

After a very long evening hike followed by a few misleading roads and dead ends, we finally stumbled our way down memory lane, miles away from where all of our trusty mapping software assured us it would be. It was a very surreal experience to watch our growing boys play in the very waters that we stood all those years ago, dreaming up our future.

We continued our adventure exploring the area and found that Eureka boasts plenty of other outdoor opportunities along with its gorgeous, secret falls. Lake Koocanusa, a reservoir system created by the Libby Dam in 1972, stretches 42 miles into British Columbia and holds 13 percent of the water in the Columbia River System. Eureka is also home to the Wilderness Club (an elite #1 rated golf course), tons of hiking, and even some pretty good rock climbing.

It was time to push on. By this point, we had been traveling for over a week and falling into our new routine, self-sustained on the road.

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The boys’ domain was the Eezi-Awn rooftop tent atop the Patriot Campers toy hauler, carrying the Polaris General 1000. Complete with a galley system and cargo space, this was our garage on wheels, and it worked beautifully. Clay taught the boys how to unfold and put away their rooftop tent like pros. There was some incentive to get it right, for if they did not work together and reach “A” status, pushups were to be had, starting with 10 for each of them, and a re-do on the tent. Let’s just say it took them a total of one day to figure out how to work together to get that A grade.

Clay and I, the hardworking parents, took up our residence in the truck with a 4Wheel Camper (Flatbed Hawk version) on the PCOR tray bed. Complete with a king bed, plenty of storage, running water, a fridge, and stove, it was luxury compared to our usual rooftop tent setup on previous trips through the Pan-American.

We found our rhythm as each night we would roll into camp and “deploy.” The boys would hop out, I’d grab a camera, Clay would back the convoy in, level it, then the competition was on to see how fast we could set up camp. Tent covers came flying off, duffel bags pulled out (in which the contents would quickly explode to gypsy camp status), and the 4Wheel Camper would pop into place. Ryder would grab his fishing pole and run to try his luck. Cy and Eli would quickly pull on their swim shorts and dive into the water Ryder was inevitably trying to fish, while Clay and I would film, start dinner, and settle in. After a swim, Cy would start gathering wood for a fire, “kindly” encouraging his brothers to join him in his project and practice his fire-starting skills with his flint.

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Unlike previous film trips running on tight schedules, I had time to make things like pizza dough from scratch for grilled pizzas, fry up donuts on the campfire for dessert, and cook ribs in the Dutch oven (that I may or may not have burned). We said many times to each other, “We need to do this more often.” We were able to slow down, enjoy the process, and watch the boys enjoying the freedom of life outside without distractions.

We quickly realized what we had been missing with our boys. They had grown up right out from under us, and we had a front-row seat to who they were becoming in a whole new way. They were funny. They were kind. They were creative. And they really did like each other, despite the backseat boxing matches.

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Some of the best moments, forever burned into my memory, happened as we would lie down each night and listen to the uncontrollable giggles and laughter coming from the rooftop tent. It was the type of contagious laughter that you couldn’t help but smile at, even if it was 11:30 p.m. At some point, we would do our best to pretend they were in trouble and tell them to get some sleep. Whispered giggles and shushing followed, and eventually, snoring.

Like any overlanding, camping, or road trip, we had good campsites and bad ones. One site took us three hours to find after striking out multiple times due to full sites and people living by the river. One, in particular, smelled like something the cat drug in. We meandered up a high mountain road and found a suitable “hard landing” spot for the night just off to the side. Regardless of how we landed there, the sunset was awesome. One of the best things about Montana is that you usually don’t have to go too far to find something suitable for the night. I would highly recommend trying to get into camp early if you’re headed out this summer, especially if you have a backseat full of hungry children. That stash of junk food you never buy can come in handy for quick snacks but doesn’t sate the dinnertime call.

We chose to stick to the western region of the state and made our way south from the northern corner. We always knew our state was extraordinary, but unless you get out to find these special places, they are easily missed. I suppose this is true with anywhere you travel. Since we spend our travel days exploring other countries and far-off places, we haven’t spent much time finding those areas in our own backyard. After this experience, we have vowed to do so.

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We made sure to hit a few iconic spots to try our best to instill some knowledge into our children, as any good parent does. Clay never missed one of those highway signs that talk about the history and region while I was instantly transported back to my childhood, rolling my eyes every time my parents would pull off the side of the road to read these novels. The boys did a great job pretending to pay attention, and off we would venture to the next sign or small town.

One of the most historically packed towns we stopped in was Bannack. Founded in 1862 and named the first territorial capital of Montana in 1864, this gold rush ghost town is full of stories emblematic of the Wild West. If you were brave enough to move here, the for-real outlaws, shoot-outs, gallows, and temperatures below zero degrees in the winters would surely drive you away or toughen you up. Bannack is now a National Historic Landmark, and it’s a fascinating place to stop for a few hours. With over 60 buildings to walk through, your imagination will run wild with its ghost stories and tales of gold.

From Bannack, we pushed on to another of my bucket list places, Cooke City. There are two options to arrive in this famous burg: the east entrance, driving through Red Lodge and over the Beartooth Pass; or the north entrance of Yellowstone National Park, the only one open in the winter months.) Oddly enough, even though we regularly suggest this drive through the Beartooths to others, I had never completed it.

This stunning road is known as one of the most scenic drives in the United States as it rests in over one million acres of wilderness. It also runs parallel to Clay’s favorite, the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, and the road reaches heights over 10,000 feet. It’s an extraordinary thing to drive through untouched alpine mountains, forests, and high tundra in the breadth of a few miles.

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This was the perfect place to end our family adventure. We found a secluded campsite, thanks to intel from a good friend, and had front-row seats to the most divine sunset we had ever seen as it rested beyond the far-off Index and Pilot peaks.

No one was fighting, we found a great campsite on our first try, and Cy lit our campfire like a boss with his flint. I tried to soak up every second, breathing in the clean, high-mountain air.

Yes, traveling with kids as a family is a bit different. We fought; we cried. There were times when we yelled, and times we laughed till our guts hurt. But it was real. And it was perfect.

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Read more: Interview with Rachelle Croft of Expedition Overland