US Roadtrip Revisited

For the last three months, Nick and I have been roadtripping around the US, visiting friends, family and generally exploring the country. For those of you who were keeping up with the roadtrip on my blog, you’ll know that I did a terrible job posting regularly.  I jotted down detailed notes and reflections on each of our stops, but I was just so tired most evenings that I didn’t quite get around to writing them up!

The map above shows the route we took – heading West from MN in early June and circling around (with a few detours), ending up back in MN in August. The question we were asked most often was where our favorite places were.  I generally loved the Pacific Northwest, especially the drive on Highway 101 down the coast from Washington to Northern California.  Seattle is always one of my favorite cities to explore, and we spent a few days doing just that.  But my favorite place we visited was Lafayette, Louisiana.  I had always wanted to visit cajun country, and Lafayette is its heart.  We stayed in a great B&B, which also happens to double as one of the best live music venues in town, so we stayed up late listening to zydeco and watching people of all ages dance. There was even a guest appearance by Marc Broussard!

Nick didn’t have a favorite place necessarily, but he did think that Portland was probably the most his kind of place. He also really liked New York, mainly for its novelty – really, is there anywhere else like it in the world?! Though I think he was probably also swayed by the fact that he was introduced to beer pong here for the first time 🙂 His favorite part of the trip was the camping in general – we stayed in national parks, private campsites, and of course Kampgrounds of America. He was amazed at how  each one is so different – some having organized movie and ice cream nights, some with central campfire areas, some with pools and even hot tubs – seriously posh.

Looking back at the trip, it was pretty darn amazing.  What a diverse set of experiences.  We seriously could have spent a few more months driving around – I still only felt like we were doing a sampler tour, since there were a million places we didn’t get to go or things we didn’t see.  But still, it was pretty great. I guess that means we’ll just have to plan more US trips in the future.

So now we’re back in MN, and starting to think about getting back to the ‘real world’ – sprucing up CVs, starting the job search, getting ready for the move to SA.  We head out August 24th – let the next adventure begin!

Oshkosh II

Since the crew arrived rather late yesterday (and it was raining), we didn’t head to the airshow until this morning. All the guys were up super early, having just come over from SA and still jet lagged. Nick and I got a bit slower start, but managed to make it to the show in time for him to see Richard Branson, the Virgin Galactic plane the White Knight ‘Eve’, and one of his idols, Burt Rutan. (Until I finally saw that spelled I thought his name was Bertrude Tan – I thought it was a bit odd!)

Since we’re going to be here for a few days, we paced ourselves. We mainly sat near the flight line and watched the show – the Airbus A380, tons of awesome aerobatics, the old Warbirds (planes from the various wars). The aerobatics was pretty insane – the pilots go screaming into the air, stall, do some ‘spins’ (Pete explained to me that they’re really not in control when the fall out of the sky so it’s a little misleading to call them spins). My neck got a little sore from looking at the sky, but it was pretty cool. I think my fav was the Beechcraft 18 – it’s an old 1940’s plane that did a really pretty aerobatics routine to some very monumental music. A few other of the hot-shot guys had whole musical routines and so many product placements it was a bit ridiculous! There was also some really neat formation flying and aerobatics. Everyone is afraid I’ll get bored – and maybe I will after a few days! But I have my book and my chair, and can entertain myself anywhere!

Oshkosh

The drive out of Chicago is a bit of a blur. We got going early (or early-ish, we’re not exactly morning people), and since our visit to Chicago had been so rushed decided to drive through some of the neighborhoods to the North of the city instead of getting directly on the freeway. It still amazes me how far some of our cities sprawl. You still felt like you were in the middle of the city 30-40 minutes outside the city center! There were some awesome apartments – I am obsessed with little balconies with window boxes, and there were so many to look at. Even amongst a row of cookie-cutter construction you’d see a gorgeous building with amazing detail. Eventually the cute shops and restaurants and buildings with rooftop decks perched atop them gave way to small, squat buildings that must be in a predominantly Romanian community. How I know that? Well, aside from the Romanian churches and Little Bucharest restaurants, there was also an office for the Romanian Liberal Democratic Party on one street. Interesting.

We got a call from Nick’s dad as we were getting out of Chicago area. He and a few of his friends came over from SA for the Oshkosh airshow, which is where we were headed to meet up with them. They were renting cars and driving from Chicago, but didn’t have directions to the house they’d rented…we luckily had Ted, so we sent them a few directions via SMS, and headed our on way. We knew immediately that we were in the right place when we took the exit to Oshkosh and saw tents, RVs and airplanes stretched out on every grassy area available. It is incredible how many people are here! We arrived about about hour ahead of Nick’s dad (thanks to Ted), and spent a little time catching up with our ‘homework’ (trying to keep track of expenses, doing a bit of writing, etc). We were glad when they finally arrived – we had worried that perhaps we didn’t have the right address, and someone would come home from work and ask us what the hell we were doing sitting on their porch drinking a few beers. That would be a bit awkward to explain!

Chicago briefly…

Originally we intended to bypass Chicago on our way to Oshkosh, and head back ofter the show. However, we all of the sudden found ourselves in Michigan a day early, and decided we’d might as well take advantage of the time. Plus, I think we might be getting a little bit traveled out…

We found a great deal on a hotel right near Michigan Ave downtown – quite a change from our little tent! After making ourselves a bit pretty, we hit the town and wandered down the ‘Magnificent Mile’ – not quite our speed with all the fancy shops, but the buildings are gorgeous! In Millennium Park we had to take a few pictures at the big mirror ball-thing (technical, no?). We were just walking by, and all of the sudden we started feeling a tremendous sense of peer pressure – everyone had their cameras out. We felt compelled to whip ours out and take a few pics! It actually was kinda cool – it’s rounded so you can get a reflection of yourself with the city in the picture.

Despite a few wrong turns, we finally figured out how to get down to the lake front. It was a fabulous day – sunny, a bit breezy so not too hot. Walking by the marina we were really jealous of all the people with boats. We did a little shopping, looking for which boat we want to buy (the dream: the next long trip will be on our boat, but in reality we have to decide between a boat and a house…unless we win the lottery!). We decided on a modest catamaran we saw moored there – it’s not home, but it’s much. There were quite a few people ‘green-boating’, as my uncle calls it – saving fuel by sitting on their boats and drinking rather than going.

We had arranged to see the Blue Man Group in the evening – Nick has the CD, and hadn’t ever seen a show, and we’d tried unsuccessfully to see it in Boston as well. (For those who don’t know, they’re a 3 man percussion group that combines random instruments with showmanship and comedy). The show was fun – though the skits could use a bit of updating. The humor was at least 10 years dated in some skits! But the music was awesome – I loved the tunes played on the PVC piping. Our highlights tour ended with a giant stuffed Chicago pizza at Giordano’s, and a ride back on the El. There is SO much more we could have done in Chicago – I can’t wait to come back again – but in our limited visit we had a lot of fun.

One of the most interesting things was on the ride up to the theater we saw a group of apartments that had what looked like tennis courts on the roof. Groups of college kids seemed to be playing some sort of crazy drinking games – beer tennis, maybe? Looked like a fun Sunday afternoon! There was also a full on street party going on near Fulton street, and a ton of happy Cubs fans.

Viva Las Vegas!

What could possibly compete with the natural beauty of the Grand Canyon? The man-made garishness of Las Vegas, of course.

On our way we made a few detours. Nick had asked me about Route 66 – I knew that it passed through this part of the country, but despite the signs we’d seen in Flagstaff I didn’t put two and two together and realize that the current Interstate 40 is the old Route 66 in many parts until we were leaving the Grand Canyon. When started seeing signs for the ‘Historic Route 66’ – I had a little ‘aha’ moment. We hit the road early, so we got off in Ash Park, Arizona to find somewhere to eat our breakfast. The town used to be a main hub for the Santa Fe Railroad, and also had a large hotel in town. When the railroad moved its line, the hotel closed, and I-40 bypassed the town, Ash Fork was pretty much deserted. It still has some folks living there, but it’s pretty quiet. Sound familiar? It felt like the movie Cars could have been based on this little town, though I am sure there are a million more like it out there.

Next stop: Hoover Dam. It’s nice to go to a major attraction that they don’t make you pay to look at! It’s big. And it was windy. I have to say I wasn’t too excited about looking over the edge, but Nick was. I was more tempted to use the fancy art deco bathrooms in one of the columns – just to be able to say I went at Hoover Dam. Actually, the most interesting part for me was the bridge that they are building just a bit up the road from the dam. It is meant to be a bypass, and will be HUGE. They’re building it from both sides, and it looks like it is about to meet in the middle. I can’t imagine a much worse job – being suspended above the water like that doing construction. Gives me the willies just thinking how far down it would be…(can you sense a theme? I’m not much of a heights fan).

We arrived at my Uncle Pat’s place in the ‘burbs of Vegas on Fathers’ Day, just in time for Kathy’s awesome pulled pork sandwiches and mac & cheese. The golf was on and everyone was already happy. It was a well-needed early Sunday night, and it meant we were ready to get an early start on the strip the next day! We happily got stuck into the mid-morning traffic, which gave us a good chance to look around and ogle the sites. I’d been here once before, but wasn’t 21 at the time so it wasn’t much fun. To be honest, Vegas isn’t really Nick or my scene, but we wanted to check it out. We tried to stay out of the Vegas heat as much as possible – it was hotter than a (insert some random, funny phrase here – I’m no good at those). We parked on the one end and made our way through a bunch of the casinos. I felt like we weren’t really taking Vegas seriously – it was almost 5 before we even had a drink! But luckily we caught up with a few margaritas and beers, then decided to try our hand at gambling. We are both major losers (not it the general sense, just when it comes to gambling…). Knowing this we only put aside a little cash to play with. Nick probably lost his in 5 minutes at the blackjack tables. Mine lasted longer, but only because I was playing the 1 and 5 cent slots. Not exactly a high stakes gambler! I was just mesmerized by the pictures, hoping they’d all line up – kept me entertained. We should have listened to our yes/no coin, which kept answering ‘NO’ whenever we asked if we should play this particular table or machine.

We ended the evening with an amazing dinner at Mon Ami Gabi in the Paris Casino – we sat out on the patio, which overlooks the dancing fountains at the Bellagio (one of Nick’s favorite parts of Vegas). It was great to sip sangria, eat blue cheese smothered steak frites while listening to ‘I’m Proud to be an American’…Yes. Odd. Nick thought it was the funniest song out there, and I can’t say I disagree. We headed home with lighter pockets but our heads full of lights. It really is a kind of fairy land at night with all the colors and flashing pinpricks. I can see how it would be addictive!

Grand Canyon

I’d been to the Grand Canyon on a family vacation about 10 years ago. I remember clearly thinking yeah, it will be cool, but really – what’s all the fuss about a big hole in the ground?

Yep, I was wrong. I was surprised at how astounding it really is. And it was just as breathtaking this time. I’d managed to book a place at one of the campsites right in the park – amazing, given it’s now Summer and most of the places seem to be booked months in advance! Unfortunately the weather didn’t really cooperate. When we arrived it was windy and of course started to rain as soon as we got out to pitch the tent. Luckily (and unsurprisingly), not long after the rain passed over and the sun even poked its head out. It made for some amazing light over the canyon. Like Sedona, the colors are amazing, but a bit more colorful. There are a lot more blues and purples and yellows in the GC. We had a really clear day and the visibility was great – we could see for miles. Because of the route we were taking, we came at the Canyon from the South, which is the much more developed side. It’s both good and bad – there are a lot of organized walks and activities you can take advantage of, but there are also huge crowds of people. We did one Ranger guided walk along the rim that talked about the wildlife. Ranger Emily (in her oh-so-stylish Ranger hat) told us some interesting stories about the early attempts at park management that went wrong – makes me wonder what we’re doing today that people one hundred years from now will be shaking their heads at. There were also a neat exhibit that showed photos of the early life on the rim – I’m always into the historical perspective.

Nick made a good friend as we were having a snack on the canyon rim – Sammy the Squirrel. He wasn’t tame – he was wild for people! I was afraid he might bite if we didn’t give him what he wanted…a sort of wildlife terrorism. I’ll add our little video we took here.

Camping here was really the highlight of the GC. Our campsite was great – it was surrounded by other sites, but you didn’t really feel like there was anyone there. We managed to fit in a little happy hour with cheese and crackers, a good bottle of wine and some tunes before we drove back out to a scenic overlook to view the sunset. BEAUTIFUL! We made ourselves jiffy pop, toasted sandwiches, and Nick got to try s’mores. He’s pretty handy to have around – he managed to fashion a marshmallow toasting stick out of a long piece of wood, rope and the short metal handle from the popcorn…though why we couldn’t just use a stick I don’t know.

The Border…

Surreal. that would be the word I would use to describe the landscape on the drive from Southern California into Arizona. The landscape is barren, empty, with small rocky hills lining the sides of the road. It’s clear that you are in the desert. The rocky ochre hills are dotted with cacti, including my favorite kind that look fat and fuzzy (you know the ones I mean). As we went further East, huge swaths of green arose in the midst of the arid land. Some entrepreneurial farmers have created farmlands in the middle of the desert! The lush greenness seems out of place – I wonder where they get all the water for irrigation. There is also evidence of using the vast, flat terrain for something a bit more environmentally friendly. In one area, there were hundreds of wind turbines lining the ridges around the road. They were pretty amazing up close – huge, white blades contrasting with the cloudless blue sky.

The road parallels the US-Mexico border most of the way. All those stories about the difficulties immigrants face trying to cross the border come to life when you see just how brutal the landscape is. Everywhere there is little beyond the asphalt, rocky hills, brutal sun and heat and Border Patrol vans patrolling the area.

We took a small detour and passed over what looked to be a dry creek bed. Looking over the edge we saw a bridge off to our right. I was surprised to see 3-4 life sized scarecrows set up under the bridge. Their arms were made of branches outstretched into a V, and they were dressed in over-sized tattered clothes. I am not exactly what they are set up to scare away, but I would be afraid if I ran into them unexpectedly!

I’ve only ever approached Mexico from the air or sea, never by land. Crossing over into Mexico on this trip is out of the question – Nick doesn’t have a visa, and I actually left my passport at home (it was an odd feeling – I NEVER travel without it). However, I was really interested to see what the US/Mexico border crossings looked like. We drove South from the main freeway and approached the border in Calexico, California. Calexico might as well be Mexico – all of the signs are in Spanish, the attendant at the gas station didn’t seem at all comfortable in English, and there isn’t much that distinguishes the area geographically from Mexicali across the border. The border crossing looms up out of nowhere to bisect the straight road between the two cities. It is ‘monument grey’ – a big, ugly concrete building, with the US border fence erected nearby. We drove up as far as we could to check it out, but to be honest it was a bit scary and intimidating, so we took our out and exited when we saw a sign that read ‘Last U Turn in the United States’. I so wanted to take a picture, but with my bad experiences taking pictures in foreign countries I wasn’t about to take a photo near a US government installment, no matter how benign. Who knows if I would have made it home! It was fascinating to see this 60,000 person/day crossing. I of course had Calexico playing during the drive – always nice to have a little theme music!

Arizona – ‘We’re Deep’

The scenery on the drive from California to Arizona got a bit repetitive, and unfortunately I fell asleep for awhile (sorry, Nick!). I only woke up as we got stuck in traffic skirting around Phoenix. Oops. I’m sure it was a fascinating city.

The desert landscape slowly changed as we drove further north. Then we arrived in Sedona – wow. Arrive is really the right verb for this part of the country. It isn’t a slow build up of pretty sights, but rather an almost sudden ‘arrival’ at the foot of the red rock formations that seem to leap up out of the ground in sheer faces. And the colors are amazing – every shade of red you can imagine stacked together with oranges, purples, browns. The town itself followed the same color scheme – the beautifully built adobe houses tucked into the greenery between the mountains might inspire a paint selection at the local hardware store – burnt oranges, chocolate browns, eggplant purples. The sun was getting lower on the horizon and the colors were starting to soften even more as we drove through.

Sadly, everyone seemed to have the same idea as us – to camp in one of the state parks nearby. Every campsite we passed was full, so we weren’t able to explore the town as much as we would have liked. I was getting tired and hungry so we made a few calls and decided to stay at a KOA in Flagstaff, closer to tomorrow’s destination (the Grand Canyon). Luckily they still had a few sites available when we got there, as two buses of schoolkids had just pulled up and had nearly all the tent sites reserved. Amidst the rowdy crowd, we got our tent pitched just as sun was setting and a mean wind picked up. Exhausted by this point, we barely dragged ourselves over the road to the Ruby Tuesdays at the local mall. It certainly wasn’t the gourmet cuisine of a posh restaurant in Sedona, or even one of the cute diners on the Route 66 portion of Flagstaff, but it was (huge) food and a beer. And Nick hasn’t really had the US chain restaurant experience…

For Rex, Arizona was a homecoming of sorts. Though we got him in Oregon, he has an AZ license plate. The picture on the plate is of the Grand Canyon – ok, it’s pretty impressive. But really, is that all the state has to offer? Maybe their slogan should be ‘Arizona…we’re deep’. Not sure how well that would go over.

San Diego and Southern Cali

Our trip to San Diego was far too short – so this entry will also be short. Actually, the best part of the day was the drive (as many of the days are – we see so much!). We drove from LA down the coast, taking the road along the ocean as much as possible. It was neat to see all these beaches I’ve heard of – Huntington, Newport, Laguna beaches – the whole Orange County area. I was actually surprised (shouldn’t have been) to see oil rigs in this part of the state. On one side of the road beautiful beaches, people sunning themselves everywhere; across the road fenced in areas with the little hammer-head drills working overtime. And right next door – an ecological reserve. Very interesting.

We stayed at a great hostel right in the Gaslamp Quarter (thanks, Gretch!), which is a fun part of town. We didn’t venture too far out beyond – we found a bar with some happy hour specials (Nick tried some Fat Tire and Sam Adams), made our way to an Italian place for some calzones and pasta, and fell into bed. We SO wanted to stay longer, but had to make tracks today day – we had places to go, people to see! We decided that this is a bit the sampler platter tour of the US – we’re checking out places, seeing what we like and making notes of where to go back to. San Diego is definitely high on the list!

LA

We’d been told not to get into LA during morning or afternoon rush…in reality it doesn’t make any difference. I am certain that no matter when you drive in LA it is inevitable that you’ll get stuck in traffic. Nick was not at all looking forward to driving here. There were a few things on our ‘to do’ list in LA. We took a walk along Venice beach, watching the body builders do their thing and then drove up into the hills of Malibu to look at the fancy houses. We also went to the Mann Chinese Theater area to check out the hand prints of the stars – there are some really old ones there!

I’ve made a little mix of US songs, and another one of road trip songs. It’s amazing how many songs have been written about LA! We rocked out to Weezer’s
‘Beverly Hills’ and the ‘Fresh Prince of Bel Air’ as we cruised through Beverly Hills and ogled the enormous houses (or more accurately their fences – they’re totally hidden for the most part). I am always astounded by the money in this part of the world – it’s just all such ostentatious wealth! Even the city hall – wow. what a building.

We also drove into the Pasadena area – so much calmer, but a really pretty city. I loved the cross-walks – you can cross the streets on the diagonal! I made Nick cross even when we only need to cross to the other side of the street, just for the novelty. We had been wanting to watch a movie, and sitting out the traffic seemed like a good excuse. We went to see the movie ‘Up’ – as usual, a great Pixar flick! I loved the dog and his squirrels. Too true.

We stayed with Kaitlin’s sister and brother-and-law and their adorable daughter who made a cameo appearance to ‘introduce’ herself to us – a see through ploy to avoid having to go to bed. They were awesome hosts, and it was fab to stay with them in their super cute house, rather than have to spend way more than our daily allotment on a room in a dodgy neighborhood. We took advantage of their internet access this morning to do a little planning and try and make some decisions on where to go next – I hadn’t really thought that far ahead. We did have to see the Hollywood sign before we left, since for some reason we hadn’t been able to see it yesterday (probably didn’t know where to look), so we took a little drive up to the observatory. What a great view, despite the smog!

On our way out of town today we made an obligatory stop at In-And-Out burger. I’d heard about them from all my West coast friends, but haven’t make a stop when I’ve been in the area. Since Nick is on his ‘eat every burger in the US’ mission, I knew we had to include it in the tour. As anyone who has been there knows, there are many more things to order than just the four things on the menu. We tried our hand at the ‘secret’ menu with success – super tasty! ‘Fries animal style’ rock.

Los Olivos and Sta Barbara

My sister had worked for a few weeks out at a vet practice in Los Olivos (lucky girl), and raved about the area so we decided to make a stop. It is an intensely cute place – almost too cute! It’s about 4 blocks total, with some shops, restaurants, and wine shops clustered around one main intersection. It’s in the center of the Santa Ynez winelands, which was made famous by the movie Sideways a few years back (hint: don’t mention the movie to the locals, I think they’re not big fans). We strolled around, had a bite to eat, visited one of the wine shops that does tastings for a number of the vineyards in the area. Unfortunately, the guy doing the tastings in his shop was a serious wine snob, and obviously had no time for tourists (a bad characteristic to have when the vast majority of your income probably comes from tourist dollars). The surly shopkeeper didn’t make for the most pleasant of tastings, but at least we got to hear a few local stories as he chatted with his wine reps who came in to sell while we were there. And the wines were excellent, making up for his lack of charm. Pinot Noir is the wine the region is most well known for, and we enjoyed a few – but in reality we’re both pretty out of habit of drinking reds. Tropical climates and red wines don’t go together too well, white tends to be the wine of choice as it’s a bit more refreshing on a hot night.

After pitching our tent in a random campsite (really an RV park with a few tents, and apparently the only site in the area – I can see that would be true given how expensive the area is, there probably isn’t much land to cater to passers through!) we drove into Santa Barbara. Again, I’d been here before, but loved the posh-ness of the area. There was a huge farmer’s market lining the main street, so we browsed that for some amazing samples of peaches, avocados, strawberries and other yummy items. We settled ourselves at a little wine bar with great happy hour glasses and flatbreads and sat people watching for quite awhile. The guy next to us was a real character – he wore a unbuttoned hawaiian shirt that showed off his leathery tan, obviously knew the owner or something and proceeded to make himself completely at home, taking cushions from other chairs, putting his feet up, and talking loudly to the woman he was with. Nick thought he had a strong accent, a bit of a Donald Sutherland sound. I guess I never thought he had much of an accent! We walked down to the beach, which is actually not all that impressive. We took advantage of the happy hour specials at another bar, had a few margaritas and fish tacos – my first! I can’t believe it took me so long to discover the fish-taco goodness. What was I thinking?? YUM.

Is it strange that so much of my blogs revolve around food? I guess that’s one of my highlights of the trip so far – all the great food. We’re trying to balance fun restaurants with cost-saving make your own sandwiches and breakfast, along with Nick’s desire to taste every fast food chain in the US while we’re here. Not doing to badly so far, though it’s easy to make your own sandwiches when you’re not surrounded by a million tasty restaurants like we have been in SF and now this area!

Big Sur

We grudgingly left Santa Clara – it was a relaxing, chill couple of days, and so good to catch up with friends after quite a bit of time driving on our own. The only thing that made driving off on Monday morning exciting was that we were headed to Big Sur! I’d driven the LA-San Francisco route a few years ago with my friend Jessica, but we were headed to Monterrey and didn’t take too much time to explore the area. I was also eager to share it with Nick – it’s one of my favorite areas, and I couldn’t wait for him to see it.

On our way we decided to stop by Santa Cruz to check out the kitsch boardwalk – a little slice of Americana for Nick. We didn’t brave the deep fried twinkies as it was only 10am and we thought it might be a little too early to clog the arteries, but we did wander around and check out the scores of kids just out of school for the summer giving their chaperones a good workout. Summer vacation has got to be one of the best things in the US – three whole months of no school, summer camp, warm weather, no parents (someone has to do some work). I loved that feeling! I was always ready for school to start again in the fall, but there was so much to look forward to in June. We also checked out the surf scene – there were quite a few guys braving the cool day and choppy waves. Of course, the water is so cold they’re wearing full wetsuits – Nick would feel right at home (brr, Cape Town waters…)

Unfortunately, the weather didn’t cooperate with us. When we stopped off in Monterrey, Carmel and Pacific Grove it started to drizzle and the sky was cloudy and grey. I imagined what it would have been like if I’d gone to Monterrey Institute of International Studies, which I had been accepted to back before I took the job in Sudan. I’m sure it would have been a great place to live, but I might be in a totally different place right now! We did the 17 mile drive, which was pretty even in the greyness. The cyprus trees looked somewhat haunted in the fog and mist.

We started on the road towards Big Sur – not a specific town, but a general area along Route 1, the Pacific Coast Highway. It’s a wildly beautiful area, with a bout 6 or 7 state parks (my favorite is Garrapata state park – who thought it was a good idea to name a park after a wood tick?). Being the start of summer most of the state parks were booked up, even on a Monday night, but we found a great private campground right near a little stream and set up camp. I was excited to be able to go to Napenthe, one of the most beautiful restaurants ever for dinner and the sunset. My mom had raved about it years ago, and Jess and I checked it out on our drive through the area a few years back but just had a drink there. Nick and I spend a few gorgeous hours drinking amazing wine, eating awesome food, and best of all watching the sun set over the Pacific. The sky had cleared from its earlier rain, and the clouds that still remained provided the perfect canvas for the amazing pinks and golds. The hills lining the coast all took on a rosy glow – we couldn’t keep our eyes off of them! Truly one of the most beautiful places.

We had planned to do some hiking the next day, but unfortunately the weather still didn’t cooperate. Instead, we kept on South and enjoyed the scenery along PCH. The weather started to clear as we got nearer to our destination. We passed San Simeon this trip – I’d been there before, and we started to realize if we were ever going to get anywhere that we’d have to make some choices (otherwise we could spend months in California alone!).

Bay Area party!

I’ve been to SF a number of times before, so after showing Nick the sights and sounds of the city (Fisherman’s Warf walking tour, clam chowder at Boudin’s, cable cars and trolleys – which we somehow managed to get for free, wandering around the city and checking out the architecture, good Thai food, brunch in Haight-Ashbury, steep streets, plus meeting up with my Mom and Tom who randomly happened to be in SF at the same time), we headed out to Santa Clara to hang out with Ellie, 1/3 of the brainshare (i.e. best friend from college) from whom I’d been separated for far too long.

We happened to arrive on an auspicious (I guess) weekend. Ellie and her friends had just finished their last day of school – they are teachers at a San Jose school and after school program. Plus, Ellie is leaving the Bay area in August, so this was her last last day of real work before she heads back to grad school. We are lucky enough to have taken part in the annual ‘Ding-Dong’ party (don’t ask), which involved a lot of margaritas, tequila shots (ouch, haven’t done those in a long time) and and egg timer. Needless to say we had a raucous Saturday, a greasy hangover brunch the next morning, and a day of recuperating in the prone position in front of the TV. But it was so much fun to be able to just hang out, meet Ellie’s friends in CA and catch up a little – it was far too short as always!

Another friend from several lives (DAI, Liberia, etc), Kaitlin, met up with us on Sunday. She is a PhD student at Stanford, and brought us to a party at the Stanford community farms/grand opening of the farm’s pizza oven. Pretty cool – I didn’t know people were doing that in Palo Alto.

We really wish we could have stayed another few days – we didn’t have a chance to play Guitar Hero! I guess that means there will have to be a next time 🙂

Oh, and Nick also got a taste of the joys (and annoyances) of the bottomless cup of coffee phenomenon. He loves that he can get as much coffee as he wants at brunch, but when the waiters are too attentive it drives him a bit crazy. ‘They’re messing with the ratio!’. Hmm, how to cope? I think it was my Dad who tried to tell the waitress no more by putting his hand over his cup…and it only landed him with a scalded hand. Guess Nick will just have to deal! Yes, there are times when I’m happy I’m not a coffee drinker, with one more thing to worry about…

Claifornia’s ‘Lost Coast’ and the Redwoods Forest

Crossing over into California from Oregon, things were a bit different from the start. The vibe seemed different, a bit more relaxed, but most importantly, gas was WAY more expensive!

We continued down the 101, which in California is called Redwood Highway. We passed a number of old, rundown looking coastal towns and several different redwood groves. Branching off on the 211, we followed what is known as the ‘lost coast’. It’s California’s longest stretch of completely undeveloped stretch of shoreline – so incredibly different than the California I know with the huge houses, beaches and people everywhere near the beaches.

The scenery was a crazy beautiful mix of landscapes. In some areas there were dark forest floors with a covering of ferns, dense groves of furry Redwoods that looked like a bad drawing kids do of trees – stick straight trunks with a million straight branches jutting out. Then we’d come through the forests and see rolling farmland with fields of wildflowers, including a flower I swear looks like cauliflower. Other times we’d come around one of the steep curves and see huge stretches of deserted beach and sea.

Driving through the green hills with the sea in the distance very much reminded me of parts of the UK. I remember going on ‘walks’ (I quickly learned that Brits call even the most strenuous hike a ‘walk’) that wound across the hills and cut through private pastures and farmlands throughout Brighton. However, in the US everything was fenced in and divided up – in the areas we walked in the UK even private farmlands are made accessible to the public through strategically placed fence gates and even steps over the paddock fences. We passed through one little town on the coast called Capetown – a little smaller than the original!

The 211 turned out to be a really, really long, twisty turn-y roads – posted speed limit was at least 20 mph faster than we felt comfortable taking the curves, especially with the huge trucks and even fire engines racing the other direction on the road! We learned that Ted estimates the time based on the stated speed limit – it took us at least an hour (or more!) longer to do the drive than expected.

The Redwood Forests were just as amazing as I had expected them to be – huge, imposing monoliths, making me feel small. Dark, twisty roads are shaded by the giants. There are forests as far as they eye could see – we took a small little walk into one of the groves and it was so quiet with the needles absorbing the sounds of our feet, and the shafts of light piercing the treetops created so many picture-perfect images I just couldn’t capture. I can only imagine what it would be like to hike far into the groves away from the road. Looking up through Rex’s sunroof gave a really cool view of the tall trees! We even fell into a giant tourist trap and paid to drive through a giant redwood – silly, but pretty fun!

Highway 1 led us all the way down the coast towards San Francisco the next day. After our twisty-turny detour the day before, we were a bit sick of scenic drives! We’ll have to go back and experience the area again when we’re a little less wound in circles. I didn’t take too many pictures on this route because I had a few issues on the Sonoma County part of Rte 1 – I had a bout of panic as we crested one curve and I realized that the cliff face on my right (I was driving) was a sheer drop into the ocean. I started freaking out a bit at how far down it was, and even after I made Nick drive I was a bit jittery. I knew I was afraid of heights a bit, but usually am not quite such a chicken. Only other time was at the Cliffs of Mohr with my sister when we crawled out to the edge to look over and I was so frozen with fear I couldn’t go back…Or the time we stopped to watch people bungee jumping over Storms River in South Africa when I couln’t actually watch them without clutching my stomach…. maybe it was the combo of the heights and the wind. Who knows. But the rest of the drive was beautiful, with a ton of picturesque towns and even a good number of ‘houseboats’ – I say that in quotes because I’m not sure if they were actually boats or just houses built on docks.

The first glimpse of the Golden Gate Bridge was breathtaking. I’ve been to SF quite a few times before, but I realized I’ve never approached it from the North. When we crossed over it was dusk, and you could see the lights of the city coming on. Gorgeous. We tried in vain to camp at one of the sites listed in our book, but ended up in a great hotel downtown instead. We were both exhausted by the time we finally got our car parked and bags dropped off. We scarfed down some amazing (or maybe just amazing because we were starving) Thai food, and fell into bed. Of course, after watching some mindless television for awhile – it’s my guilty pleasure to watch silly sitcoms and un-newsworthy CNN when we splurge on a hotel since I’ve gone so many years without tv at home.

Teriyaki?

I just don’t get it. These Pacific Northwesterners LOVE their teriyaki. I swear, there is a teriyaki restaurant on every corner – ‘Teriyaki Sushi’, ‘Teriyaki Burgers’, just ‘Teriyaki’. It is a little absurd – even little podunk towns have at least one (some two or three, right across from each other!). I just don’t get the fascination – I love teriyaki as much as the next guy, but this is obsession!

Oregon

After Seattle, when we took a detour into Olympia for an all-too-common bathroom break I was surprised at how small town the state capitol felt! That small-town feeling continued as we headed south into Oregon – it wasn’t too much of a change from Washington, except everything had a slightly smaller feel to it. We stayed in the NW area of Portland at a really cute hostel. It was within a few blocks of lots of funky restaurants, bars and shops. I dragged Nick into a Trader Joe’s to buy my fav cheap sparkling wine – he’d never been to one, and found it a bit of a strange place. It had been a long day, so I was pretty low on energy. We found a little place and tried some random beers, had some nachos, then Nick practically had to drag me back to our room with our take-out pizza

Trying to ward off my crankiness and stiffness from riding in the car for so long, I found a yoga studio (Corepower, the same one I go to in Mpls!) and did a hot yoga class. Man, am I out of shape! I felt a bit refreshed afterward, and we walked in to check out downtown. We spent a ton of time at Powell’s, a giant book shop with possibly every new and used book you could imagine (amazing! we need to bring one of these to SA), and I did my favorite thing – wandering around looking at old buildings. It had a much more small-town vibe than Seattle, but was a lot of fun.

The people at the hostel had made it seem like Portland’s famous rose gardens were just a few blocks away…turns out it looked a lot closer (and flatter) on the map! We slogged up the hills, which were luckily shaded from the heat, and finally reached the gardens. As soon as we arrived, I had a serious sense of deja vu – and then realized I had been there before! VERY bizarre – I had totally forgotten that we had made a stop here on our family vacation a number of years ago, but it all came flooding back to me. Portland is a really pretty, flowery city. In addition to the formal gardens, there were even beautiful wildflowers growing along the busiest freeway! Made for a nice drive down to Eugene.

After pitching our tent in a nearby national park, we drove into Eugene, OR to have dinner with my stepbrother, TJ. He took us to one of his favorite restaurants in town called Cornucopia. Great food! There were SO many beers that we were a bit overwhelmed, but we managed to find a few we liked (never actually that hard). We didn’t see too much of Eugene, but what we saw was entertaining – apparently, the saying goes that the 60s never died, they just moved to Eugene.

Next day we went West from Eugene to Florence, then took the Pacific Coast Highway Scenic Route down the coast into California. The scenery was stunning – at times it looked like we were traveling through a green tunnel with the tree branches interlocking over the road. Many of the trees hung heavy with moss, which gave them a kind of eerie look. There were also these amazing beaches, nearly deserted and littered with driftwood. There is supposed to be good surfing, but TJ told us there were some places where the locals are so protective of the beaches that they will do anything to keep tourists away…good thing we weren’t looking to surf. One of the more disturbing things was that we started seeing these signs that told us that we were driving along a Tsunami danger zone, or that we were on a Tsunami evacuation route – as if we could outrun one! Even so, it was one of the most stunning drives – I would have loved to drive along the coast all the way from Seattle.

I didn’t do too much Oregon Trail related tourism, but a small Pioneer cemetery we passed in one small town reminded me of my favorite game back in elementary school – Oregon Trail. I didn’t get to stop in, but I am pretty sure none of the epitaphs could even closely rival those that were thought up by Jefferson Elementary students…meaning I don’t think anyone used profanity of any kind on the headstones. But I could be wrong!

Farewell Nelly, Hello Rex!

Farewell Nelly, Hello Rex!

We noticed a bit of tire damage on the car that we’d rented in MN as we were heading out of Seattle. Better safe than sorry, we thought, so we called Hertz – they told us we could exchange our little Kia at the Portland Airport for another, no prob.

Nelly earned her name by her utter lack of spunk – basically, she had 0 ‘go’ power, then all of the sudden she’d kick it into gear, tearing past the car we were just trying to pass slowly. ‘Whoa Nelly!’ Nick did finally figure out that even automatics can be driven in manual mode to some extent (I’d always wondered what D2 etc were all about…). She also got pretty good gas mileage, and was darn comfy to ride in for long distances. We’d gotten quite comfortable with Nelly – all our stuff (and there is lots of it – camping gear, wood, groceries, all my various warm tops, water bottles, salt packets, ipod, Ted, etc) had their place. It was going to take us forever to swap everything over to another car, and it was getting late in the day. Plus, she had MN plates – I didn’t want to give her up and become just another generic West-coaster! But at the end we decided to be smart, expecting we would just get a Nelly II, just in a different color.

When we got to the front of the line, though, they only had one car available in the same price range – a Pontiac G6. I took an instant dislike to the new car. It is incredibly showy and ostentatious – super shiny hubcaps, big silver grill, everything in the interior is also silver and shiny, sunken leather seats. Nick assured me it was better from a driver’s perspective, but seeing as I have been a passenger for a large part of the trip (Nick prefers to drive and I prefer to navigate/DJ/look around aimlessly at cows and scenery) it was kind of annoying that seemingly no thought had gone into the passenger’s comfort or usability. Case in point – awful cup holders and a glove compartment that can barely hold a pair of sunglasses! Sigh. The name Rex just somehow fit. It sounded like someone who thinks he’s cool but really isn’t. He’s as bling as Nelly was humble, but I guess it is nice to have all the gadgets to tell us what station we’re listening to and how many more miles we have on our tank of gas. So I guess we’ll keep him. However, we now have Arizona license plates – I guess it could be worse, there aren’t any stereotypes I know of about AZ drivers, are there? (If so, I should really know so I know what people are swearing at me).

Seattle

Our first week on the road had been pretty hectic, hitting major sites every day, covering long distances sometimes devoid of people. It was great to be back in a big city, for me anyways! We slept in late (as one should on Sunday), enjoyed a lazy Sunday morning walking around the city, having coffee and bagels and reading the local paper. With no real plan in mind, we wandered down to Pike Place market to see the fish, the crowds and the flowers (they have more amazing floral bouquets than they do fish it seems. Clever me deduced there was a Mariners game going on by the number of people wearing jerseys and funneling through Union Square towards the stadium, but I only realized later that the reason so many people were wearing Twins shirts and people were calling out ‘Yay Twins!’when we were driving around in Nelly (our car with MN plates)wasn’t just random, but that they were the opponent…Well, it was Sunday, I was a little slow!

I did have one thing I wanted to do Sunday – visit Beecher’s Cheese Shop and try out their supposedly ‘World’s Best Mac and Cheese’. Watching the cheese being made was pretty cool – something similar to Nick’s excitement watching airplanes being built, but a lot unhealthier 🙂 The Mac and Cheese was indeed pretty good – basic with a nutty cheesy flavor – though I’m not sure about the world’s best claim…but I’m a pretty tough customer. It’s a stop I highly recommended to any cheese lover!

Since we’ve been on the road, we haven’t really had much time for happy hours, my favorite time of the day. We’ve been getting in pretty late, so have spent the 6-7pm time driving somewhere, which makes drinking a major problem. That second night in Seattle we planned to camps outside the city, but after a few local brews decided that enjoying the sunshine and checking out the Sunday night happy hour scene was a better plan, so we got a room again at the hotel we’d stayed at the night before and set off! Armed with the Seattle weekly paper which conveniently had listings of a ton of good bars and restaurants, we managed to visit quite a few super cute places.

We started out at the Cellars, recommended to us by some Starbuck enployees for their good happy hour margaritas (so-so). Once the sun on that street started to fade, we wandered to Txicho, an incredibly cute Basque tapas place. I had the red wine mixed with orange soda – pretty much like sangria with out all the annoying fruit, actually yum! Nick had what he referred to as Gummy Bear-y juice, or a calimoxo (red wine mixed with Coke). This was a favorite of students when I lived in Spain, but I never did aquire the taste. I haven’t had really good Spanish food in a LONG time – we had pinchos of tortilla, jamon serrano, croquetas, manchego…mmm. Just after we walked in and were deciding whether to stay, a big group of Spaniards walked in and started ordering – they looked like they were there visiting, and I find it funny that they came all the way to the States just to have food from home, but I guess Americans do it all the time! Lastly, we walked up to the Capitol Room in Capitol hill, which I thought was much closer than it was…but we made it eventually. I’m not sure if the Indian comedian was really as funny as I seemed to think he was, or whether the sangria made me giggle, but we had a ton of fun. On the way back to our hotel, we happened across a park where there was a big softball game going on, so we stopped to watch. Nick noticed that there was a killer game of dodgeball going on on the tennis courts next door – a bunch of 20 and 30 somethings chucking a big red ball at each other, what could be more fun, right? Nick joined in at the new game and lasted quite awhile, but they seemed to take it all pretty seriously…

I REALLY enjoyed visiting Seattle. I’d been here before with my family, but this was a totally different experience, just hanging out and enjoying the city. One thing I would highly recommend to anyone who loves music is the Experience Music Project – we didn’t go this trip, but it’s prob one of my fav places.

San Juan Islands

Chalk it up to too much Grey’s Anatomy, but riding the ferry was definitely on the agenda for the greater Seattle area. Luckily, we for once got up early and actually headed out as planned – we made it to Port Angeles over an hour in advance as advised, and as we drove through the gates the toll-takers yelled to each other that they only had 13 spaces left for Friday harbor – phew!

Not surprisingly for Washington, the weather was gray and pretty chilly, which made sitting outside on the ferry a bit challenging for someone like me who hates being cold. We managed to find some semi-sheltered areas where we could still see the beautiful scenery. We headed for the largest of the San Juan islands, San Juan (go figure). Nick was all excited because apparently our port of arrival, Friday Harbor, is a common destination on flight simulator, so he felt like he’d already visited the tiny island! The islands claim to fame are that they were disputed territory between the British and Americans long after they’d settled most of the US/Canada border, and there was very nearly a war after a British solider killed an American pig who got into his garden…I kid you not. They are very fond of this whole story and sadly we missed the re-enactment of the incident. Instead, we happened upon a sign for ‘Barrel tasting with the wine maker’ at the San Juan Vineyards – much more our style! For $10 we got 8 wine tastes each, including two not yet released wines from the barrels, plus a full glass of wine and a bbq with all sorts of gourmet sides – and a whole afternoon of entertainment! It was such a chilled, laid back atmosphere – no one breathing down your necks while you sip and are forced to try to come up with something intelligent to say about the wine, other than ‘yum’. And best part was we only had to drive a tiny distance back to the ferry on a 25 mph road that only went one way…The wines were so very tasty – VERY surprisingly, my favorite was actually the rose – I never like pink wine!

Friday Harbor is a very cute little town – lots of antique shops, jewellery, nice little cafes. After we parked the car in the line for the return ferry, we had some time to roam around and shop. The weather turned gorgeous on the way back, and we were able to see all the little islands and gorgeous boats out sailing around.

We’d only planned to stay a few hours on the island, but had so much fun that we ended up getting into Seattle much later than expected. We had another fun time trying to find a place to stay in Seattle – I think we’ve learned our lesson about getting in too late. We finally managed to find a little hotel in the center of the city for pretty cheap, and went out to enjoy the Saturday night atmosphere…unfortunately, the drive took a lot out of us, so we didn’t make it very far past dinner. But what does it matter – every night is a Saturday as far as we are concerned!

One of my favorite sights from the day – there was an alapaca on San Juan island that must have just recently been sheared. I’m not sure if this is usual or not, but it looked like they had shaved it to look like a giant poodle, with puffs of fur in odd places! Also, randomly, the owner of the vineyards had a camel on his farm. I thought I’d drank too much and was imagining things, but luckily it was confirmed by the vineyard staff…

Washington

The drive from northern Idaho into eastern Washington is pretty uneventful. In fact, I didn’t even see the sign welcoming us into Washington, so I couldn’t do my standard little ‘new state’ dance. All I really remember of most of the drive towards Seattle is that the land is FLAT. Very very flat. And the fab Spanish radio stations – the announcer rattling off the weather report at warp speed and the Nortena music (basically Mexican polka – you know you want to dance!).

One of my fav things about this drive was the large section of road where Washington has mandated crop nameplates. It was great! My extreme lack of any farming knowledge has always made for annoying drives – other than corn, and maybe wheat, I have no clue what is growing along those long stretches of farmland on so many roads in the US. The signs showed us what ‘ALFALFA’ looks like, or how to spot ‘POTATOES’ from a distance. ‘PEPPERMINT” seemed to be another Washington standard. It was also fun to see all the orchards, with the names of some of my favorite apples on them – yum. And tons of cherries.I still have no clue what ‘TIMOTHY’ is – I’m obviously not totally educated, but it livened up an otherwise boring section of road travel.

About midway through the state, mountains spring up seemingly out of nowhere. The sign for the town of Leavenworth should have tipped us off, but it took a few minutes to realized that the entire town was done up like little Germany, or some remote Alpime village. Even the McDonalds, Wells Fargo and gas station signs were crafted in a flowery script with little flowers curling around the letters, the buildings had peaked roofs and were painted colorfully. Very cute.

The next stop on our trip was Everett, WA – a very important place for one reason: the Boeing factory. High on Nick’s list of things to see, this was actually a really cool tour even for non-aviators. I’ll let Nick tell you more about it, but basically we got to see the enormously large hangars where the do the assembly for their ‘widebody’ (2 aisle) jets, including their new 787, which hasn’t yet been released. My favorite part was seeing the ‘DreamLifters’ – 747s that they have cut the top off and enlarged and created a hinged tail section so they can transport parts from their factories all over the world to the hangars here to assemple them together. I call them Frankenstein planes, but they probably look a little more Quaismodo-ish, with their big humps.

Coeur d’Alene, Idaho

After our adventures in Glacier, we got into Coeur d’Alene, ID later than expected. The sun was getting low over the ‘cuddly’ trees (Nick thinks that the big, full pine trees look cuddly from a distance, but I can only imagine trying to hug one! Ouch, prickly). I had thought it would be fairly easy to find some sort of campsite around the huge Lake Coeur d’Alene, but apparently most of the waterfront areas have luxury homes on them with no space to spare for camping. The sun was about to set, so when we spotted a place that listed camping on its sign, we turned in and pitched our tent.

We found a great restaurant out on the lake and enjoyed the colors of the sunset on the clouds that seemed to be growing by the minute…not great when you’re planning on sleeping under a thin sheet of nylon (or whatever it’s made of). We watched the storm rage off in the distance, with awesome lightening lighting up the sky. It looked like it might just miss us – we crossed our fingers and tightened up the rain fly when we got back to camp.

Unfortunately the place we ended up staying was pretty much a dump. Our site was revmoved from the motel/RV sites a bit, but right next to a main road. The bathroom – disgusting, falling apart, just dirty. I can handle dirt where it is supposed to be – out in the woods, for example. But when you are in a place that you’re paying money for is just trashed and gross, no fun. We did a quick teeth brush in the morning and hightailed it out of there. The town is really cute, though, and there are some really nice neighborhoods for sure. Have to give it it’s credit!

Glacier National Park, MT

Went up towards the Canadian border today (making sure not to accidentally cross over – I can’t risk Nick getting deported for illegally entering Canada without a visa…it would be a long drive home by myself!). On route to Glacier National Park, we went around a curve and caught our first sight of Flathead Lake. It’s a giant lake but has insanely clear, blue-green water that looks COLD (and probably is, considering it’s literally glacial).

At the west park entrance they told us that the ‘Going-to-the-sun-road’ was closed halfway up because there was still snow on the pass. We couldn’t do the whole drive, but we could hike/bike if we wanted – um, really? If it’s too snowy to drive you really want me to hike? I didn’t quite prepare for winter weather hikes when I packed for a June/July trip. We drove to a spot for a short day hike through a cedar forest ending up at a gorgeous lake fed by the waterfalls coming over the mountains, melt water from one of the parks’ remaining 27 glaciers that sits up above. What surprised me most was that it was hot down below where we were – I had assumed that it would be a bit colder, but I guess we weren’t at a super high elevation.

While we were there, Nick discovered chipmunks, and was highly entertained by their spastic antics. He says they’re a cross between a field mouse and a squirrel, and more fun than watching squirrels (one of his fav things to do in MN – apparently they are not so common in SA). I am puzzled by the signs up all over the place about bear safety – they say that you can’t leave any water, toiletries, etc. anywhere in your tent, cooler, etc. b/c of the grizzlies…what are you supposed to do if you want to go camping in the park? just not eat/bathe at all? Bathing I could do, but eating seems essential. Another mystery – anyone have any idea what the big, slanted wooden structures are that are scattered around the state on farmlands? I thought they were fences at first, but then realized they didn’t connect to anything so they wouldn’t be very effective keeping anything in. Maybe something to do with the wind?

Sign of the day – ‘Burgerland: Home of the Flathead Mullet’. If you didn’t know mullet was a fish…

Missoula, MT

Wow – I could not have been more surprised if someone told me that eggs benedict was good for my health. We rocked up into Missoula around 8pm, heading for the KOA since the weather had finally cleared and was downright warm. First off, the KOA was so far from my idea of a campsite I was taken aback – it’s more of an RV park in the burbs. It’s located across the street from Costco, behind the TJ Max, and down the road from Target, Walgreens, and a million fast food chains.

I am SUPER glad we ventured into downtown Missoula for dinner, though. It is such a surprisingly cute town! We drove around for a bit and finally settled on sitting outside at a really cute Italian place not far from the river. After enjoying our pasta and wine, we took a walk across the bridge and wandered around town. It was so chilled – must be the college town vibe. There were great concert and movie venues showing something other than the latest Terminator movie, cute boutique shops, little independent coffee places. SO nice! And the area around ‘downtown’ is beautiful – residential with some gorgeous little houses, many with wraparound porches and nice little yards. Everyone seemed to be out running or riding their bikes. And I can’t quite figure this out – the sun was still pretty high when we arrived at 8pm, and the sky was still a bit light even at 10pm…I love that it stayed light so long! All in all a fun evening, and Missoula is on my radar as an exceptionally cool place.

Oh, and pictures. I promise that we will post some soon – we have taken a ton, but haven’t yet gotten around to downloading them, despite our best intentions….

Beartooth Pass

It seems like everyone we ran into advised us (sometimes unsolicted advice) to go on the Beartooth Pass in Northern Wyoming/Southern Montana if it was open. As it is the start of summer, it has just recently been opened, so we thought we’d better heed the advice, even if it was out of our way somewhat.

Leaving our little motel in West Yellowstone the weather was still gross – overcast, drizzly, just generally grey. We still enjoyed the scenery driving out of the camp, despite what turned into heavier rain. I wasn’t sure the Beartooth would be worth it in this weather, but we decided to check it out. And it was well worth it! Though we were travelling in extremely foggy weather (at times there was such a white out you could barely see 5 feet in front of you) the scenery was still breathtaking. We climbed up through steep mountain passes covered in snow, along roads that had only recently been plowed and whose drifts were well above the height of the car, and up to well over 10,000 feet. There were still people snowboarding up in the mountains. I can only imagine what it would have been like on a clearer day – there must be some amazing views! Apparently in July there are massive amounts of wildflowers along certain trails – I seriously can’t begin to picture that, as what we saw today was quite the frozen tundra which seems more suited to snowmobiles than hikers. But the winding switchbacks kept producing more and more stunning scenses from the car windows. I’d definitely do it again!

Snowy Wyoming?

I’m not sure when we first noticed that we were climbing as we left Dubois. Heading West towards Yellowstone, we started to see a few patches of unmelted snow. As we kept on, Nick tried to convince me that the drizzle was turning into big wet snowflakes – really, snow? In June? Soon there wasn’t a doubt – the flakes were coming down, and actually sticking to the ground. Increasingly, the woods were covered with tightly packed snowdrifts. Turns out we were crossing the continental divide, and were up at about 9,560 feet in the Shoshone National Forest. The scenery changed just as quickly as we descended from the mountains.

On my list of things I wanted to see was Jenny Lake in the Grand Teton National Park (for obvious reasons). Turns out there is also a Leigh Lake adjoining it! It was not the best day to be outside, so we headed for the Jenny Lake Lodge for a warm drink by the fire, then did some driving around the park. I was hoping to see Moose, but no luck – I don’t blame them, it was pretty gross outside so I assume they were hiding in the forest somewhere. I wouldn’t go out if I didn’t have to!

Yellowstone is just North of the Grand Teton park, so we headed that direction. Nick and I had both imagined that we would see Yellowstone on a hot, sunny day, but our plans of hiking and camping here were altered by the weather. The tourist traffic picked up as we approached the park – tour buses, RVs, tons of people despite the weather. Apparently Tuesday is the busiest day in the park, who knew? The geysers create a pretty surreal environment, ringing the crater lake and steaming on the side of the road. Old Faithful was pretty impressive, as well as the smaller smelly sulfurous pools around the geyser. The clear, steaming water in a few of them looked pretty inviting, and was tempted to jump in like a hot tub. I was amazed at how many people completely ignored all the signs to stay off the ‘thermal area’ or not to throw things into the pools…why do peoeple think the rules don’t apply to them? Grrr.

We called it an early evening, got some Chinese takeaway and watched a movie…best thing to do on a rainy night.

Rainy day in Wyoming

We headed out early this morning, thanks in part to my watch which I had forgotten to set back and the joys of camping. It’s hard to sleep in when the sun and birds are out, and you’re freezing cold! We drove through more of the Badlands. What a crazy area. Can you imagine bumping along in your wagon and suddenly coming across that

We also stopped at our first major tourist trap (Reptile World and Prairie Dog Town don’t count since we never left the road). In testament to the power of advertising, we were lured into the town of Wall to see the (self proclaimed) famous Wall Drug. It was basically a gaudy street full of shops selling cowboy hats, enticing you to turn your penny into a souvenir penny, and loads of other things you’ll look back on in a few years (or days) and wonder what in the world you could have been thinking. Entertaining nonetheless.

Next stop: Mt. Rushmore. The first glimpse comes out of nowhere – there is all this hype, then they are just there, 4 heads looking down on you. My first thought was that they were a lot smaller than I’d imagined, then I realized how far I was still from them! We spent a bit of time there, wandering through the museum. Nick got a bit of a crash course in American history while we were there! I was amazed at how they could carve the heads with dynamite – I never thought of TNT as much of a precision tool. Can you imagine if someone used a bit too much by accident? ‘Oops, dory about George’s nose…we can re-attach it, can’t we?’ We also made a stop at Crazy Horse. While I admire the reasons for not taking government funds for the ambitious project (Crazy Horse was killed by a US Government soldier, after all), it’s a pity that it won’t be completed in my lifetime – after 50 years only the head is carved!

After a few fights with Ted (the GPS) who kept trying to route us through people’s private farmlands, we were off to Wyoming. In one of the first towns we crossed into across the border, Lusk, we saw our first tumbleweed. Like a total cliché, it rolled across the intersection of the nearly deserted country road, welcoming us West.

Unfortunately, we soon saw an ominous black cloud on the horizon, and Ted confirmed that we were planning to head right into it. It was a crazy storm – hail, lightening strikes all around us – and I was glad I was in a car, unlike a few of the bikers we saw.

Not so many signs today – we would have struggled if we’d been playing the alphabet game for sure. But I did see some animals I thought were cows. Until I got close, and realized the white animals with black splotches weren’t Holsteins but cow-looking horses. The prairie dogs were also a big hit – we stopped to watch their antics in the Badlands for a long time. The best part was when they would jump up and down on their hind legs with their little arms in the air yelling. Very funny.

frisbee golf?

Not much of a golfer, I’ve never taken an interest in Frisbee golf. But we saw a full on Frisbee golf course yesterday – I had always assumed that the game was played with made up ‘holes’ that you had to get near, but this was actually an 18-hole course! People were walking around with their bags, looking like real golfers, and tossing the disc into metal goals. Who knew? Or maybe this is normal and I am just out of it.

South Dakota…

Our first day on the road! We headed south from Minneapolis into the southern part of South Dakota. Not the most exciting place for sure, but we had fun.

I always love driving in MN. It is incredibly lush and green, even the major arteries are flanked by forests, rivers and parks. I was sad to leave The Current’s airspace – seriously the BEST radio station in the country, by far! From Mankato on it was top 40, country and golden oldies – some good sing-alongs, but I’m afraid we’ve exhausted even those meager stations and will be on our own tomorrow with tunes. From the time we turned westward, the land flattened out. Crossing into South Dakota was nearly imperceptible – if it hadn’t been for the giant sign on the side of the road I wouldn’t have noticed any difference in the grassy landscape. It was a bit like a giant golf course in most parts, or a green Karoo – slightly undulating brightly green grasslands. The most beautiful part was crossing the Missouri river – all of the sudden we came upon this bridge and were over the water, with two picturesque railway bridges spanning it on either side. We were headed into a storm so the light was fabulous (we got pelted for awhile, but luckily missed the severe storm with hail and instead just cleaned our windshield of all the kamikaze bugs!). For most of our drive through SD it was like a scene out of some post-apocalypse movie – we seemed to be the only ones on the road for miles. Kind of eerie!

We had gotten a late start out of MN (ALL my fault!) and so were a bit late getting to our campsite in the Badlands. At least we got an extra hour out of the deal – we didn’t realize that halfway through SD is the change to Mountain time! Our GPS (Ted) was perplexing me – I simply couldn’t figure out how we still had 120 miles to go and we were going to arrive in 5 minutes! Ted knows everything (and HATES it when we pull off the road at a rest stop). As we were arriving, the light was just glancing off the top of the rocks, turning everything rosy and warm. We luckily pulled into the site just as the light was failing – we had enough time to set up our tent (luckily for the dry run!) and make some sandwiches for dinner. I’m sitting here now by the fire, typing away, listening to the sound of the wind in the trees, sipping on a beer. Who could ask for more!

Signs of the day –
’24-hour toe service’ (on several billboards…). Where are we?!!?
‘Aw shucks, just stop’ – billboard for the Corn Palace (needless to say my dilly-dallying this morning prevented us from exploring such a cultural landmark!)

Roughing it

We did a trial run of our tent today in my mom’s living room – went off without a hitch. Well, unless you count the fact that we couldn’t figure out for quite some time how to position the rain flap, and that folding it up was even harder…But we managed. I considered camping out for the last few nights we were home, but didn’t think that would go down well. I don’t think my mom and Tom would have objected to us taking our happy hour drinks into the tent, but I can only imagine them trying to watch the evening news with the half-dome blocking their vie.! Not to mention I don’t think the condo folks would appreciate our campfire lit on the living room rug. Oh well, we’ll have to wait to try out our cute little tent in the wild. Key word: little. It’ll be cozy, for sure!

The Ride

Nick made it in safe and sound last night, tired from his long flight from J’oburg (poor baby – he only got bumped up to first class for half of the flight!). No, to be fair he did have a long layover in DC and a delay in Atlanta. But, still! (can you tell I am jealous?)

First thing we did today was head off to the car rental place to pick up our new car. They had a few options for us – we got to sit in them all, checking the relative leg room or number of cupholders and outlets, trunk space, etc. The choice was between a Ford Focus and Kia Spectra – in the end it came down to cruise control, and the Kia won.

We still don’t have a name for it yet – we will get back to you on that one. It’s not the punchiest car – kinda bland looking and a little slow on the uptake, but it’s comfy and will fit all our crap (I hope!)

Best sign of the day – in the trunk of the Focus there is a release handle that you supposedly would use in case the mob or someone locks you in…apparently this is a common occurrence, as all the cars we looked at have them! But the Focus had a particularly good sign – it showed a car, trunk open, with dotted lines arcing out of the back and a stick person running away.