Lessons from the road

Looking back on our 41 days journeying across the U.S. and back, we realize that we’ve learned many lessons that might be of assistance to others considering a similar journey (or even some smaller version of our massive trip). Our trek through 35 states exposed us to all shapes and sizes of travel issues: nice hotels, cheap hotels, campgrounds & all-night drives; fancy restaurants, local food spots, and snacks gathered from gas station mini marts; national parks, major tourist attractions, and quirky road trip meccas. So we’ve put together a list of some tips and things we figured out along the way, and we’re sharing them in this post. Hopefully someone, somewhere will benefit from our wide array of experiences. So, here goes nothing…

Over-Budget For Gas: When we did a rough budget prior to our trip, I used Google Maps to get a rough idea of our route. That map painted a picture of a trip that would span about 7,500 miles. We figured we’d drive more than that (around cities, sight-seeing, detouring, etc.), so we budgeted for 8,000 miles. In the end, we drove over 10,000 miles. Oops! That’s 25% more than the figure we used to budget — I was a math major, so I should know. Additionally, on more than one occasion we found ourselves needing gas while driving through a national park. There are gas stations along the main roads in the parks, but the prices are ridiculous. So sometimes the per-gallon price we paid was more than the generous figure we used to budget in advance. The lesson, then, is to pad your gas budget significantly — you’ll drive more than you expect, and you’ll pay more than you expect. Sure, the padding might be less aggressive for a shorter trip that’s focused on one or two destinations. But you still never know when you might unexpectedly take the scenic route or backtrack to get a picture you missed the day before.

Cut Corners In One Place So You Can Pamper Yourself In The Next: If you’re planning a long trip or visiting a place you’re not likely to return to all that soon, consider striking a balance between roughing it and living it up a bit. We found that it was worth a few nights in primitive campgrounds and a couple of all-night drives, when the payoffs were upscale hotels in Vegas, San Francisco and Chicago. We also didn’t mind snacking on granola bars and Pringles for lunch or dinner here and there when we knew we’d make up for it by trying a fancy French dinner at Bouchon and the best gnocchi in Chicago. Instead of keeping everything middle-of-the-road the whole time, we opted for skimping sometimes so that we could splurge other times. And I think doing both things gave us more interesting and memorable experiences — we’ll always groan when we think of the smelly outhouses at the $10 campgrounds near Big Sur, and we’ll always sigh fondly when we remember breakfast in bed in San Francisco. We wouldn’t be doing either of those things if we’d stayed at a Best Western every night.

If You Visit Multiple National Parks, Get The America The Beautiful Pass: We bought our National Parks Pass for $80 at the Wright Brothers National Memorial, where we could have gotten in for $8. But after visits to the Gateway Arch($6 off), Mono Lake($3), Zion($20), Yosemite($25), the Grand Canyon($25), and Grand Teton/Yellowstone($25), the pass had more than paid for itself. Plus it’s good until next July. The yearly interagency pass will get you into any national park in the country, and it will also give you discounts (if not free admission) at other monuments and some national forest campgrounds. If you’re only going to Yellowstone for a week, you won’t need the pass — the $25 price of admission for one car there will get you into both Yellowstone and nearby Grand Teton for 7 days. But if you plan to visit at least 4 parks in a 1-year period, the pass will save you money (and it may, at some parks, get you through the entrance in a faster “express” lane).

Don’t Just Rely On Guidebooks; Talk To The Locals: We got some of our most helpful tips (restaurants, attractions, hotels) from one of my favorite vacation pastimes — befriending the locals. As you probably noticed if you’ve read this blog in its entirety, I rarely pass on a chance to chat it up with strangers I encounter while traveling (which is in direct conflict with advice given to me by both my mom and Kurt’s mom before we departed). Our encounters with hotel staff, park rangers, cab drivers, and people congregating at our SF hotel’s evening wine event added much more to our trip than my simple enjoyment of the conversations themselves. Without Ranger Lloyd, we never would have driven to the Lamar Valley and stood “a stone’s throw” away from a massive bison. Without Ranger Emily, we might have picked the wrong drive-thru tree to visit in northern California. Without our fellow wine drinkers at the Washington Square Inn, we absolutely, positively never would have ended up in huge tubs full of warm mud in Calistoga. And without various people working at various hotels’ front desks, we probably wouldn’t have found as many delicious local restaurants throughout this trip. So get out there and talk to people! But don’t pick up hitch-hikers.

Avoid Chain Restaurants and Eat Local: Before we left, Kurt and I agreed to avoid fast food and chain restaurants as much as possible. That’s why we were devastated to learn from our waiter at the Grand Lux Cafe in Vegas that the restaurant we had chosen for lunch that day was owned by the Cheesecake Factory. But aside from that meal, and the dinner from Subway we took with us on our first night camping (and the meals we ate on the road in the car), we managed to eat pretty much all of our meals in really great local places of all shapes and sizes. Don’t waste your vacation eating in places you could find in our around your hometown. Try the local fare — you’re more likely to get “home-cooked” food made with fresh local ingredients. Plus, local restaurants are great places to get a feel for the place you’re visiting. And, of course, to meet locals (see previous lesson).

Plan Ahead (We Didn’t): When planning your trip, you should check local events calendars. We didn’t. That’s why we had to scramble to find one of the handful of Durango hotel rooms that weren’t booked up by people attending the Music in the Mountains festival. And it’s also why we had to pay more than we should have for a below average hotel room in Monterey when the rest of the hotels were filled with bikers attending a motorcycle racing event in town. And it’s also why we had to delay our arrivals in San Francisco and Chicago, so that we could find available (and affordable) hotel rooms after the Marathon runners and the Lollapalooza attenders (respectively) had gone home. And it’s also why we couldn’t find a campsite in Yosemite or in Yellowstone, and ended up at private campgrounds outside the parks. And it’s also why we couldn’t camp overlooking the coast in Big Sur, but had to drive back the Nacimiento Road to a remote campground with no running water (although that was ultimately a fun little experience). Learn from our mistakes — don’t assume you can just totally wing everything. And if you do decide to just wing everything, be flexible and don’t freak out when you have to modify plans mid-stream.

Camping Requires More Than A Tent: Most people heading out to camp probably know this. We knew it too, to some extent. We brought along a flashlight and a lantern; a first aid kit (thanks to Kurt’s mom); bug spray; hand sanitizer; sleeping pads for under our sleeping bags; a tarp for under the tent; towels (thanks to my mom); and plenty of drinking water. We also remembered to save quarters during the trip so that we’d have them ready for any quarter-operated laundry machines (and, as it turns out, showers). But we did end up purchasing several other necessary supplies along the way: camping pillows (sleeping on a folded-up sweatshirt is not going to cut it for most people for more than a night or 2); bear spray (if you’re in Yosemite or Yellowstone, a good idea to have just in case); warmer clothing (even in the summertime, and even where it’s hot during the day, it gets colder than you might expect at night); and more powerful bug spray (regular Off! didn’t cut it for us, so we bought some heavy-duty camping stuff in Durango). Another helpful item would have been a dust pan and brush, to clean out the tent floor before folding it back up.

Hotels Have All Kinds Of Special Rates: Everyone knows that lots of hotels give AAA discounts. But there are all kinds of other deals you can find if you know where to look. For example, we noticed that the absolute lowest rate at a lot of places (lower than AAA), was an internet rate for rooms booked online. On more than one occasion, we walked into a hotel seeking a room, they quoted us a higher price than we’d seen online, we challenged the price, they said we had to book online to get the better rate, we pulled out our iPhones or asked them if we could use their business center, and they acquiesced. Some hotels also run multiple night deals — e.g., stay 2 nights, get the 3rd free. Some offer combination packages that get you free parking and/or internet access at a special rate. Some offer free internet only to members of their “club,” which you can usually join for free. I joined the Hilton Honors club before going, thinking we might rack up enough stays to get a free night. All it got us was free bottled water, but other chains (e.g., Kimpton) give you free WiFi. Making a bid on Priceline is worth a shot — it only worked once for us, but it got us one of the nicest hotels in Omaha for one of the lowest rates we paid on the entire trip. And finally, find out if your credit cards offer any special deals — for the month of July, Discover gave 5% cashback on all hotels and gas purchases (perfect timing for us).

National Parks Are More Interesting And Time Consuming Than You Think: Do NOT assume that one or two days will be enough time in any major national park. One of our biggest mistakes was not scheduling time in Yosemite — we thought one day driving through would be enough time to see it. I know — we’re morons sometimes. Our 3 days in Yellowstone were barely enough for us to scratch the surface there. On this trip, really for the first time in my life, I gained an understanding of just how awesome our national parks are. There is so much to see and explore, and it takes time to do that. Plus, they’re so vast, that it takes time just to drive through them. Getting through Yosemite took a whole afternoon. Driving from one part of Yellowstone to another can take several hours. And you’ll see things that make you want to stop along the way, making the trip even longer. And the summertime is not only a time when many people visit parks (creating traffic), it’s also a time when road construction happens inside parks (creating traffic delays). So be sure to schedule extra time in and around national parks, be sure to take binoculars, be sure to check the National Park Service website for information about construction delays, and be sure to ask a ranger for a park map.

An 8 Hour Drive Will Always Take More Than 8 Hours: Bathroom breaks, food stops, gas station visits, road construction, and sudden scenic detours will transform a drive that Google Maps tells you should take 8 hours into a drive that really takes you more like 10 hours. We almost never arrived at our destination for any given day at the time we predicted when we woke up that morning. Long drives need to be broken up into manageable chunks (plan to stop somewhere for lunch, or pick a minor attraction to visit along the way). Ideally, for a long road trip like ours, you should have more than one eligible driver in the car to share the load (and this may require advance planning, like adding drivers to car insurance policies, etc.). And if you’re going to spend the bulk of one day in the car, try to plan the next day to involve less driving so that you have time to recover. Although I’m glad we did our two all-night drives, we simultaneously loved and hated them while we were experiencing them, and we certainly couldn’t have mustered the energy to do 2 nights in a row. We also knew that our first one was leading to 2 nights in Memphis, and our second one was leading to 3 nights in Yellowstone, giving us time to recharge. So plan ahead by anticipating stops that will reduce long drives into shorter pieces, splitting the driving time with your travel companion(s), and building down time into your itinerary.

I’m sure that as soon as I publish this list, I’ll think of an 11th lesson that should have been on here. So one final tip: If you’re planning a road trip, find someone else who has done one and talk to them about it as you prepare. I got some helpful tips in advance from a high school friend who did a shorter cross-country adventure about 2 years ago. Anyone reading this blog as they prepare to hit the road is more than welcome to contact us and pick our brains about planning tips, as well as places to see, stay or eat. Happy trails!

The long road home

In a departure from our recent laziness, we woke up early this morning to pack up for one last day of driving. After stuffing as many of the hotel’s toiletries as I could into the side pocket on one of my bags, we headed downstairs to enjoy our free breakfast. Kurt had Eggs Benedict and I had my usual — bacon, egg & cheese on a croissant. Although I prefer a MYO waffle bar, the food was decent. After putting in a good word for our housekeeper with the front desk staff, we were off for the last time.

Our drive out of Chicago took us past Soldier Field and the White Sox ballpark. Kurt caught only brief glimpses of both, due to the fact that he was mostly concentrating on navigating through the obstacle course of potholes that graces the freeways around Chicago. The combination of those potholes, plus watching the map to chart our course out of Chicago, plus our failure to appreciate just how close Chicago is to the Indiana border, caused me to completely miss Indiana’s welcome sign. Not only did I not photograph it, I barely even saw it. Kurt alerted me to it when he saw it, causing me to fumble for the camera bag in a futile attempt to get the camera out before we passed the sign. It was disappointing, to say the least. But not quite as disappointing as the realization that the entire drive back — route 80 through Indiana and Ohio, and then route 76 in Pennsylvania— was on toll roads. Given the length of the trip, we weren’t really at liberty to find scenic, free alternatives. At least we were back in EZ-Pass territory.

Anyway, I immediately began hatching a plot to redeem myself as far as state welcome sign are concerned. The plot involved us taking an exit off route 80 that was about half a mile south of the Michigan/Indiana border. The purpose for taking that exit was twofold. First, I couldn’t see any reason why we should get so close to Michigan without entering it at least for a minute or two. Adding Michigan means that, when all is said and done today, our trip will have spanned 35 states. Second, the minor detour would provide me with another shot at the Indiana sign when we turn around and head back towards route 80 to resume our trip east. I sold Kurt on the idea, and off we went to Michigan, taking exit 107 and heading north to the border. The highlight of this trip, besides getting good shots of both welcome signs, was another close encounter with some giant cows.

With that out of the way, we got back on the highway and kept driving east. We were tracking a string of thunderstorms brewing in Indiana and Ohio, and we finally caught up with them not long before we hit the Ohio border. When we first saw the storm on the radar maps, it looked like a skinny string of storms, maybe 2 miles across at most. Piece of cake. But as we got closer, we could see lightning in the distance for a while, and the storm seemed to expand in anticipation of our arrival. A couple of miles turned into more like 20 miles, and orange spots turned into red on the radar. Kurt was driving, and in the end we spent at least half an hour caught up in some intense rain and darkness, with thunder and lightning happening all around us. At the start, Kurt commented that he’d driven in worse storms heading home to Marblehead. Less than 5 minute later, he retracted that comment and put the hazard lights on. It was slow going, and we passed dozens of cars pulled off on the shoulder of the road. We weren’t sure what those drivers were thinking — you couldn’t really wait out the storm, since it was headed east like we were. It was a long enough streak of red on weather.com to encompass areas far north and far south of the highway, so it wasn’t going away anytime soon. We focused on trying to get in front of it, even though we could only see about 20 feet in front of us.

We eventually saw light skies ahead of us and left the heavy storms behind us. We also managed to outrun a larger group of storms to our south — we had some concern that we would encounter those storms later in our journey, when the highways cut southeast to get below Pittsburgh, but luckily we avoided any further rain. Despite the weather, I managed to snap a shot of Ohio’s welcome sign (being careful to time the picture to avoid getting the rapidly-moving windshield wipers across the sign). Once we were in eastern Ohio, we checked on the storm’s progress, and the highway behind us looked like it was directly underneath a growing streak of reds and oranges for many more miles than when we passed through. We were glad to miss out on that. We were also glad that the rain had cleaned off the windshield pretty good, although the Mini was still surprisingly dirty despite the force of the downpour.

There’s not much else to report from the drive back. We ate various snack foods and protein bars from gas stations along the way for lunch, and we both took a moment to be thankful for surviving so many less-than-pristine restrooms when we made our last gas station/rest area stop of the trip. We were a little discouraged after entering Pennsylvania— seeing the sign was a relief, but then realizing we still had almost 6 hours to go to make it across the state was rough. Aside from its tunnels, the Pennsylvania turnpike is one of the more boring roads we’ve travelled on this trip — the treelined shoulders, narrow lanes, extensive road work zones, and cement barriers in the median don’t make for the loveliest of drives.

We finally pulled up in front of our apartment a little before 10 pm, and we were immediately greeted by mosquitos that were eager to bite us. They got Kurt on his heel and me on my ankle. Kurt’s doing a better job than I am of not scratching, so mine is somewhat more gigantic than his. We got most of our stuff upstairs to our apartment, looked at and then ignored our enormous mountains of mail (separated and organized in size order, thanks to Lisa!), parked the Mini around the corner, and enjoyed some Hot Pockets on the couch for our triumphant welcome-home dinner.

We have plenty to do over the next few days — laundry, cleaning, and unpacking, plus getting through the shows saved on our DVR (which is 99% full). We’ll spare you the details of all of that by not blogging it. But we do plan on getting our pictures reviewed and organized and posted somewhere that will be accessible to the public. We also hope to turn some of our really good pictures into magnets, coffee mugs, and other similar items using Cafe Press. We’ll post updates about that stuff on here, so check back every now and then to find out how we’re progressing.

The trip has been a truly incredible experience, and we’ve been extremely grateful for the chance to do something like this. We’ve also very much enjoyed writing about it, and we’re touched that so many people have followed our travels. We look forward to our next adventure (we’re hoping to visit Seattle and Vancouver, whenever we next have the time and resources to vacation). Stay tuned — we’ll continue sharing our journeys on here. They might not all involve a Mini and a map the way that this one did, but I’m pretty sure that this will not be our last road trip together.

Taking the windy city by storm(again)

After nearly 6 weeks of traveling, we’re definitely getting lazy in the mornings. We slept late again today, with the help of our stress relieving scented pillows. We left the hotel a little before noon and headed straight to Millennium Park to have lunch at the Park Grill, which operates an outdoor café in the summer on what becomes an ice skating rink in the winter. Since we couldn’t show off my expert skating skills (which made their debut in Rockefeller Plaza last December), we settled for some sandwiches and lemonade-based cocktails served by Michael, a red-headed hipster who didn’t really want to become my new best friend.

After lunch, we checked out a very weird set of fountains in Millennium Park near the Art Institute of Chicago. They’re two huge columns made of glass cubes, with water running down all side. The space between the two columns is a very shallow pool of water, and kids congregate there in bathing suits to frolick in the water. The weird thing about the columns is that there are video projections of human faces – one on each column – looking down on the water and smiling. Even weirder is that every ten minutes or so, the faces move their mouths into a spitting formation, and then water spouts out of a hole in each column that’s lined up with the video mouths. Kids love it – who wouldn’t want to run around in the spit coming out of giant scary faces?

When we’d had our fill of the scary faces and spent enough time studying how many overweight kids were playing in the water, we went to the Art Institute. Kurt got in for free by signing up for a teacher’s pass, I paid the regular admission like a sucker, and then we visited a fraction of the dozens of rooms full of all kinds of art. We passed by most of the modern art, having had our fill in San Francisco, and focused more on the older American and European displays. A highlight was the fact that the museum has Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks” in its collection – we have a print of that in our living room, and Hopper is one of Kurt’s favorite artists. They also had “American Gothic,” which was sold to the museum for $300. The plaque by that painting taught us that it’s a farmer and his daughter (not his wife). That was news to us. While looking at Seurat’s “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” Kurt explained that my lack of a complete movie education prevented me from appreciating the fact that the painting was featured in Ferris Beuller’s Day Off. We also saw Picasso’s “Old Guitarist,” a ton of stuff by Whistler, and a couple of rooms full of Monet.

When we left the museum, we walked back towards our hotel via a few gift shops (magnet, check!) and checked out more of the stolen chunks of buildings embedded in the Tribune’s façade. We decided to shower the humidity away before dinner, and we also decided to downgrade our dinner plans. We had been considering treating ourselves to a final dinner at Spiaggia, the fanciest Italian restaurant in Chicago. The head chef there is a guy we watched on Top Chef Masters, and the food is supposed to be amazing. But a shourt perusal of the prices on the menu quickly caused us to reconsider our plans.

Instead, we opted for Café Spiaggia, a more reasonably priced, less fancy sister restaurant, also boasting a menu created by the same chef. It was the right choice. First, Kurt didn’t have to borrow a loaner jacket just to be able to enter the restaurant in compliance with a dress code. Second, the food at Café Spiaggia was wonderful. Our caprese salad included mozzarella that was probably the best cheese I’ve ever had. I had gnocchi in wild boar ragu, and it rocked my world. For dessert, we had 3 kinds of gelato – the honey and stracchiatella were awesome, and the chocolate was life-changing. An amazing dinner, capping off an amazing trip.

After leaving the restaurant, we walked a block (going underneath Lake Shore Drive) to the Oak Street Beach. Walking along the boardwalk and under the expressway, we noticed that spiders are either stalking Kurt or have taken Chicago over independent of our visit. They were all over the walls, the railings, the lights, and anything else that might support a web. It was pretty gross and it almost made us reevaluate our tentative conclusion that we prefer Chicago in general to Philadelphia. Luckily, we made it onto the sand without any spider attacks. The first thing we noticed was that view of the city from the beach is great. The second thing we noticed was that the beach has been totally taken over by tiny mosquitos. I noticed this after I ran through the sand to stick my feet in Lake Michigan. Bugs swarmed, as is visible in a picture Kurt took of me swatting at them while standing at the edge of the lake. So we ran right back off the beach and decided that the army of spiders along the walkways leading from the city to the beach are serving a critical gate-keeping function.

To escape the insects (a real theme of this trip, which you’ve probably noticed if you’ve been following our whole journey), we went to the John Hancock building to have a drink at the Signature Lounge, which is on the 96th floor, above the Observatory. We waited in a line to get on an elevator, but when we got to the top we were fortunate enough to arrive just as a couple was vacating their seats by the windows looking west. As we began taking in the view, we noticed that many bugs and spiders have no qualms about hanging out about 1,000 feet above the ground. The outsides of the windows were covered with moths and spiders, and other unidentifiable bugs were flying all over the place, visible in the lights shining off the top of the building.

Refusing to let the bugs intimidate us out of enjoying the view, we took some pictures, ordered some cocktails, and marveled at the fact that the trip is ending. Somehow, it simultaneously feels like we’ve been gone forever and like we just left. Similarly, I’m eager to get back to our apartment (especially our new couch, our own bathroom, our kitchen, and our deck), but I’m also reluctant to see the trip end. Kurt may try to tell you that talking about the end of the trip made me shed a tear or two, and my response to that is “no comment.”

In any event, we finished our drinks and our little retrospective of the past 5 1/2 weeks, and we headed back to the Conrad. I went upstairs while Kurt had a conversation with a hotel manager that resulted in us getting free breakfast lined up for tomorrow morning. A good night of sleep and the complimentary breakfast will hopefully be enough to power us through the 13 hour drive back home. I’ll post once more about tomorrow. When we settle in at home, we’ll get our pictures organized and ready to share, and I might write a final entry summing up the highlights of the trip. So the blog isn’t quite over yet.

Chicago is our kind of town

After last night’s blogging marathon, we slept pretty late this morning. On our way out of the hotel, around noon, we made a feeble and unsuccessful attempt to convince the front desk staff to give us an upgrade. We’re constantly reading hotel reviews on Yelp, TripAdvisor, and other similar sites where the reviewers mention receiving an upgrade at check-in. We had no idea how that happened, and, after taking a stab at it ourselves, we still have no idea how that happens. We’ll have to research it for our next trip.

The only part of our conversation with the guy at the front desk that wasn’t a failure was the part where he recommended a nearby Italian place called Volare for lunch. We took his suggestion and enjoyed some awesome ravioli (Kurt) and rigatoni alla vodka (me), served to us by a great waitress who called me “honey” and told me I “did a really good job” when she came to clear my plate. When Kurt ordered, he asked whether she recommended the lasagna or the ravioli, and she said, “that depends, are you feeling meaty?” She seemed like a Rosie.

After lunch, we decided to try to catch a boat tour of the city offered by the Chicago Architecture Foundation. It was recommended in my road trip book, and also by Slavisa (the bellhop who brought our bags up last night). We just missed the 2 pm tour, so we got tickets for 3 pm and then killed the extra time checking out Millennium Park. The park is full of awesome stuff, including tons of sculptures, gardens, and fountains. We saw the “Cloud Gate” sculpture, better known as “the bean” — a huge, shiny, silver bean that reflects everything around it. We also saw the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, which is a large outdoor music venue with a really cool stage that is basically a huge sculpture itself.

When it was getting close to 3, we headed back to the river and boarded Chicago’s First Lady. That’s where we met Captain George, who was taking us on our cruise. He introduced himself, told us to use the handrails when moving around the boat (“otherwise you’ll trip, and that’s not the trip we have planned for you today”), and said the most important guy to know on the boat was Juan the bartender (“he can get you a hot coffee…[break for laughter from the audience sitting & sweating in Chicago’s humidity]…or a cold beer”). He also taught us that the bathroom on the ship is called “the head,” and “it’s unisex, so make sure you lock the door.” I loved him like crazy.

But then he introduced us to the docent, Alan, from the Architecture Foundation who would narrate the tour. And Alan is the one who really stole my heart on this trip. Before beginning, Alan (probably in his late 60s) put some Avon sunscreen on his legs. With that out of the way, he proceeded to preface the tour by providing us with “300 years of history in just a couple of minutes.” The best part of that was when he taught us that Chicago gets its name from a Native American word meaning “tall, smelly onion grass.”

The tour was 90 minutes long, and it was awesome. We explored the Chicago River — the main part, along with the north and south arms. And all along the way, Alan (Chicago Architecture Foundation class of ’96) told us all kinds of fascinating stuff about Chicago and its impressive number of really cool buildings. We learned about different styles of architecture, including signature features of buildings designed by various Chicago-based firms. We also learned about the use of the river in city planning — it once was gross and toxic, so buildings had no windows facing it, no residential development occurred along it, and statues near it faced away from it; now it’s clean and awesome, so newer buildings line it with tons of windows, and huge condo and apartment buildings are everywhere. When Alan explained how the river used to be toxic and disgusting, he told us about some genius engineer who decided to reverse the flow of the river, which cleaned it right up (sending the polluted water right down to St. Louis). He also said that Wisconsin and Indiana sued Illinois for taking water out of Lake Michigan, and that as a result an agreement is in place that the federal government has control over water-related issues in that area. The lawyer part of me wanted to ask a lot of questions about that, but the tourist part of me didn’t want to interrupt Alan while he was giving his awesome talk.

Alan also talked about the famous Chicago fire started in Mrs. O’Leary’s barn — he even pointed out a building a few blocks back from the river that stands where her barn once stood. We got to see the Navy Pier and the locks that separate the river from Lake Michigan, although we didn’t venture out onto the lake (which is 6 feet higher than the river). At one point during the tour, the air started to smell really chocolatey. I thought I was imagining it because I was hungry, but a moment after I detected it Alan stopped, mid-sentence, and instructed everyone to take a few whiffs, explaining that a local chocolate factory was obviously open and working today.

When Alan talked about the Sears Tower, he told us that it’s now called the Willits Tower. He then went on calling it the Sears Tower, and explained that it’s the tallest building in the U.S. (and used to be the tallest in the world until somewhere around 1995). He also showed us buildings designed to have no corner offices (with only elevators in the corners, no windows), buildings designed to have 16 corner offices per floor, and buildings designed to have no corners at all (by an architect who believes there are no right angles in nature, so there shouldn’t be any in buildings either). Near the end of the tour, we even saw a cool wavy building designed by “a lady architect.” The tour was hot, but we both really enjoyed it and would highly recommend it to anyone visiting (or even living in) Chicago. Definitely worth the price of admission ($32 per person).

After the tour, I chickened out of talking to Alan (he was too much of a celebrity and was surrounded by groupies already when we left the boat). We walked back to the hotel via the Tribune Building, which is awesome. It’s Gothic on top and bottom, but modern in between, and along the street there are pieces of major events, locations and attractions from all over the world embedded in the building, brought back by journalists working there. We saw items from the Berlin Wall, the Great Wall of China, the White House, the Great Pyramid, and rubble from the World Trade Center after 9/11, just to name a few.

Because the weather was still nice, we hopped on the El and went to Wrigley Field. The Cubs are on the road this week, but Kurt wanted to see Wrigley. We took some pictures (Kurt under the big Wrigley Field sign; me on a giant noodle — the second statue that I was unable to climb myself, requiring a boost from Kurt). Then we walked around the perimeter, peering in through the bars at a couple of places where you could actually see in to the field itself. I was fascinated by the houses around the field with bleachers on their roofs, which I was not aware of prior to visiting the field.

After taking it all in, we got back on the El and returned to the Magnificent Mile. We started looking for a place to eat, and we quickly settled on the Weber Grill (because it was close to our hotel, and because we just recently purchased a Weber Grill). When the girl at the door told us it would be a 20-30 minute wait, we decided we were too hungry to wait, so we left to look elsewhere. And thus began an hour-long search for a restaurant. We first walked to a restaurant owned by the winner of the first season of Top Chef Masters (the Frontera Grill, owned by Rick Bayless). We arrived there to discover that it’s closed on Mondays, and we noticed a homeless person using the patio area of the restaurant as his changing room. We then headed for a place where we could get 1,000 Open Table points if we made a reservation, but the prices on the menu were ridiculous. Only after wandering away from that place did we notice people eating outside at a pizza place, causing us to realize that we should obviously give deep-dish pizza a try before leaving Chicago. So after walking for what felt like forever, we settled on Giordano’s, which is supposed to have some of the best deep-dish pizza in the city (we Googled it, so it must be true). There was a huge line and a long wait there, but we were too tired to care. We ordered a famous stuffed pizza with cheese, pepperoni and green peppers to go. During the 45 minute wait, we had some beers at the bar and rested our weary feet. When our pizza was ready, we brought it back to the the hotel and ate it in the room while watching a really bad movie called Ghosts of Girlfriends Past. The pizza was so unbelievably delicious, we didn’t even mind how terrible the movie was.

All in all, we did a bunch of cool stuff today and are discovering that Chicago is really an awesome town. We’re looking forward to another day here, and we’ve already discussed the need to return someday when the Cubs are in town.

Iowa not as boring as you think

Today we took to the road for the second-to-last time, heading from Omaha to Chicago. We got a late start — the black-out curtains at the Omaha Hilton are no joke. Without Mother Nature to wake us up by 7, we accidentally slept until 10:30. I was freaking out until Kurt calmly informed me that our checkout time was noon, not 11 like it is at most places. Phew!

So we showered and packed, got some fruit and a muffin from the Starbucks in the lobby, and hit the road. I got so busy navigating our way out of Omaha that I missed the Iowa welcome sign. Thwarted again! I shook that off and, as soon as we were settled on I-80, I called my mom to wish her a happy birthday. And to schedule a time to visit soon after we return, since the Mini will need all of the assorted cleaning products and tools that my dad’s garage has to offer.

Our drive was fairly uneventful, although Iowa is a lovely state full of idyllic farmland with nice rolling hills. And wind farms. There were tons of those, and since I’m obsessed with them I took an excessive number of pictures of them. We also saw more motorcycles, so I did some research and discovered that this week is the 70th annual Motorcycle Rally held in Sturgis, SD. That explains all the bikers we’ve encountered lately. (Note that my aunt independently verified this fact in a comment she sent us today.)

Interesting fact: did you know that most of Harley Davidson’s women’s apparel is designed for women riding as passengers, not drivers? I overheard a female bike at the Yellowstone KOA lamenting this fact the other day. Apparently it’s tough to find good riding pants if you’re a woman who drives your own bike. Get with the times, Harley.

For gas and a late lunch, we stopped at a Kum & Go. Yes, that’s the name of an actual gas station/mini mart chain in the midwest. And they sell Tshirts. After Kurt ushered me away from the merchandise, we grabbed some protein bars, G2, and other snacks, and resumed our journey through scenic Iowa. During that journey, we had the pleasure of seeing the largest sculpture of a bull’s head in the world. Resisting the temptation to stop there was difficult, but I managed to keep it together.

After our double failure to get a picture of an Iowa welcome sign, we hatched a plot that couldn’t fail. I hope you’re ready for this, because it’s pure genius. To put this plan into action, I prepared to stick my head out of the Mini’s moon roof and snap both the Illinois welcome sign on our side of the highway and the Iowa welcome sign that would be facing the westbound drivers at the border. Brilliant, right? This plan would kill two birds with one stone — we’d get the shots, and I’d get to ride with my head through the roof, which has been a life dream of mine.

So as the border approached, I assumed the position and diligently scanned the shoulder of the road for the signs. Which never came. Because road construction crews are apparently intent on ruining my efforts to document our border crossings with photographs. Infuriating.

Most of Illinois was boring — flatter than Iowa, and just generally less pretty. We did, however, pass two exits that would have taken us to the birthplace of Ronald Reagan. We didn’t budget time for that, though, so I guess we’ll have to put that on the agenda for our next road trip.

As we neared Chicago, traffic got heavier, which we hadn’t really experienced since California. Eventually, the skyline of the city appeared through the haze, and we were both surprised by how substantial the skyline is. Pretty soon we arrived at the Hotel Conrad and, for the first time on this trip, we let the bellhop carry our bags for us. We’re really living it up!

Our room is awesome. We’re on the 6th floor, which is the hotel’s 2nd floor (the lobby is on the 5th floor, above a huge mall on the Magnificent Mile). Plus, there’s a 2 in the room number, so we think our streak is still alive. We even have robes and slippers. And we ordered fancy pillows from the Conrad’s pillow menu. For real.

After settling in, we headed to a restaurant I found using Yelp. It was called Bandera, and it was about a block from the hotel. They had a jazz trio, good wine, and awesome food. Especially the banana cream pie. After dinner, we stopped for a drink at our hotel before returning to our room. The Conrad has an outdoor bar called the Terrace, which is on the 5th floor and provides some cool views of the city. They show movies there on Sundays, so we caught the tail end of Eight Men Out while enjoying our overpriced drinks and taking pictures of Chicago’s skyline at night.

After drinks, we went to work getting the blog up to date. We know we’ve been leaving our readers hanging. We know this because several of our readers have not hesitated to remind us of that (namely, our moms). So we wanted to get caught up. It took until 2am, but we got it done. Kurt had the worst of it, since all of the stuff he does comes after my writing is done. Luckily, we’re here until Wednesday, so we can sleep in tomorrow.

Amy and Kurt name their price

**Note: We finally have good WiFi and can publish the posts we’ve been drafting each day for the past week. We apologize for the delay (but it’s really not our fault). If you’d like to read in order, here are links to August 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th.**

Today we accidentally woke up at 5:45 am. I set my alarm for 6:45 am, but sometime in the middle of the night my iPhone must have gotten confused about which time zone we’re in, and the alarm went off an hour early. And then for about the first 45 minutes or so, we thought it was an hour later than it really was. Very confusing. All of this was fortuitous, though, because we had over 8 hours of driving today, and that’s after visiting Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse. We packed up our stuff, including a nicely dried tent, and we were relieved to take our last campgrounds showers of the trip. When I came out of the shower area, Kurt informed me that he’d convinced today’s front desk person to honor the discount coupon that was previously rejected by my nemesis. My hero!

We ate some cereal in the car while heading to Keystone, SD, and Mount Rushmore. Keystone was a touristy little western-themed town, and we passed right through, with motorcycles behind us and in front of us. We’ve encountered a ton of motorcycles lately, ever since we were driving up the Pacific Coast Highway. Their presence there was explained by a racing event. In Yellowstone and South Dakota, there are all kinds of signs welcoming bikers, but we’re not quite sure what the cause is. But since we seem to run into major yearly events at every turn, (Durango had Music in the Mountains, Monterey had the Moto GP, San Francisco had the marathon, Yellowstone had a classic car show, and Chicago will be having Lollapalooza), I’m sure there’s some kind of Harley road tour that’s tracking our route back east.

When we got to Mount Rushmore, I was annoyed to note that there’s no fee for viewing the monument, but there is a $10 parking fee that the National Parks Pass doesn’t cover. The parking pass is good for all of 2010, so obviously Kurt and I will have to plan several more visits to South Dakota to really get our money’s worth. Seeing Mount Rushmore was definitely cool, but it didn’t really seem like a place where you could spend a whole ton of time (absent some type of special presentation or something). We got there just as it was opening at 8, took our pictures, bought a magnet, and were back on the road by 8:30. As we left the parking area and started to head east toward the Crazy Horse monument, there was a little scenic turnout where you could just see Washington’s profile. To me, that was almost better than seeing the monument head-on. It’s an angle I’ve never seen in photographs, and it was a really cool view.

We then headed 17 miles to the east and visited the Crazy Horse monument, which is a work in progress. My mom visited the same spot a few decades ago, and she says that back then you could just about make out where the head would be. I could see what she meant, because there was a display with pictures of the mountain at different points in time, starting before work began. Now, the face is done and they’ve started to block out the horse’s head. It’s going to be enormous when it’s done. But at the rate the project is going, Kurt informs me, it won’t be done in our lifetime. After sharing that depressing fact with me, Kurt redeemed himself by befriending a stranger. It was awesome, and I’m so proud of him. The stranger laid the groundwork by kind of striking up a conversation with us, but Kurt held his own and kept the conversation going. The only thing he didn’t do was find out the stranger’s name, so I’m left to call him Ralph, because that’s the name we both think would have suited him.

Anyway, Ralph approached while I was checking out a 1/34th scale model of what the Crazy Horse monument will look like when it’s finished. Ralph had an old-school non-digital camera, and he quipped, “if you have enough money, I’ll let you take my picture with that statue.” I was in love. I said “if you want me to take your picture for you, I’d be happy to.” And the dialogue continued as follows:

Ralph: Well how much money do you have?

Me: Not much – only about $5 at the moment.

Ralph: I don’t come cheap, but I can be bought.

And that’s how our friendship was born. I offered again to take Ralph’s picture, but he said his face would break my camera. That’s when I kind of bowed out of the conversation and got preoccupied with setting up a good shot of the 1/34th scale model in the foreground with the real monument in the background. Instead of letting this particular stranger encounter end, Kurt delighted me by taking the lead with Ralph, who turned out to be a retired southern trucker.

Ralph told Kurt that his digital camera had broken, so that’s why he was using “old reliable.” His camera broke while he was visiting a guy in Colorado with 72 classic cars that he rebuilt from the frame up. Ralph was snapping away, thinking he was getting great shots of the awesome cars, only to later discover that his camera had stopped working. Kurt commiserated by telling Ralph about our memory card disaster on Monument Valley/Grand Canyon day. Ralph was sympathetic, since he’s a fan of the Grand Canyon. He told Kurt he’s from Florida, and Kurt said we were road tripping from Pennsylvania. Ralph said he was familiar with some of PA because he used to be a trucker, which meant he’s “been everywhere and seen nothing.” Classic. When I finished taking pictures, Kurt and Ralph wished each other well on their travels, and we were off.

Our drive today was mostly boring. The Black Hills (other than the monuments) were a little anticlimactic after the mountains we came through yesterday, and the Badlands weren’t as impressive to us at this point as places like Monument Valley were. But to be fair, we didn’t spend a ton of time exploring either place.

Only a few other moments are worth noting. First, we passed the place where “Red Ass Rhubarb Wine” is made, just outside Hill City, SD. So naturally we are kicking ourselves for not budgeting some time for a tasting there. Second, we stopped at the famous road trip mecca Wall Drug, because even though Kurt’s cousin and her husband warned us that it wasn’t worth our time, we all know by now that I’m a sucker for anywhere that launches a full-scale billboard campaign beginning about 50 miles in advance. So I couldn’t resist. And neither could about 700 bikers. I left with a magnet and a chocolate coma after inhaling a very thick milkshake.

The rest of South Dakota was fairly uneventful and flat. Iowa was a welcome change, because there were some hills and the farms were pretty. But my problem with Iowa is that, due to road construction, there was no welcome sign. How am I supposed to know where I am, let alone feel welcome there, without a sign to greet me when I arrive? Kurt calmed me down by reminding me that we’d be driving into Nebraska today, then re-entering Iowa tomorrow, so hopefully we’ll get another shot at the picture then.

As we drove through Iowa, we decided to try naming a price on Priceline to land a hotel for tonight. So far, we’ve found Priceline to be useless in our trip planning. But that all changed today. We put in a bid of $60 for a 3-star hotel in Omaha (the highest ranking we could find in Omaha), and we ended up scoring a room at the Hilton. Doubly good, because it’s supposed to be nice, and because I’m a Hilton Honors member.

After successfully snapping a picture of Nebraska’s welcome sign, we pulled into the Hilton only to discover that a NALBOH conference is going on there (for those not in the know, like me until a couple of hours ago, NALBOH is the National Association of Local Boards of Health). And so our streak of hitting cities when events are going on continues. At check-in, we unsuccessfully tried to persuade Crystal, the woman at the front desk, to give us free WiFi. Luckily, we successfully persuaded her to give us a room starting with a 2 (there’s no second floor here, so we had to settle for room 22 on the 5th floor).

We left the hotel to find a late dinner, and we discovered that basically all of Omaha, except for a little 4-block area called Old Market, is a ghost town. Even on a Saturday night at 8:30. Which was fine with us. We had good local beers and steaks at a place called the Upstream Brewing Co., where Jennifer (our waitress) was super nice. Dinner was great, but I think it’s fair to say that we’re kind of done with Omaha now. It’s a good thing we leave tomorrow for Chicago.

The mini climbs every mountain

Well, the good news is we didn’t wake up to more rain this morning. The bad news is we didn’t wake up to sun either. So with no way to dry the tent, we just hosed off the dirt and packed it up wet. Hopefully, our Rapid City KOA cabin will have enough room to spread the tent out to dry tonight. Once everything was packed up, we headed to Ernie’s for breakfast again, and for more fast, free WiFi. While waiting for our food, we researched Chicago hotels. We were hoping to find a nice place at a rate that isn’t crazy so that we can live it up a little at our final stop before returning to Philly. Fortunately, lots of pretty swanky Chicago hotels have good weekday rates going right now, and, thankfully, we’ll be hitting Chicago on a Sunday. By the time we left Ernie’s we had our plans in order. After camping for 8 days on this trip, with 4 of them in the past week alone, we were thrilled to snag a crazy deal at a 5-star hotel in Chicago. Our adventure across this great country of ours will end in style! Also, the end date for the trip is now set – we’ll officially be arriving back in Philadelphia on August 11th.

With our final bit of trip planning out of the way, we started heading east through Yellowstone. It took a while to get into the park, since West Yellowstone was swarming with classic cars, apparently parading to some type of car show being held inside the park. During our first 3 days at Yellowstone, we’d believed that we finally had found a place where there was no special yearly event going on. Clearly, we were mistaken, and our streak of visiting places during major events continues.

The first part of the drive through the park was one we’d done several times over the past few days, and we were happy to see that some elk, an osprey, some fly fishermen, and a large white water bird (either a trumpeter swan or a crane?) had come out to bid us farewell. We stopped at Ranger Lloyd’s station to hit the restrooms on the way out (sadly, we didn’t see Ranger Lloyd), and a midwestern woman on a motorcycle told Kurt the Mini was “cute.” After passing the road that turns south toward Jackson, we were in uncharted territory. An extended section of the route 20 loop through Yellowstone tracks the shore of Yellowstone Lake, which we hadn’t seen before. The weather was perfect – blue skies with fluffy white clouds – so we stopped to take some pictures (since we hadn’t yet photographed the adorable Mini in the park).

I can say now that Yellowstone is probably my favorite of the National Parks we’ve visited. Of course Kurt reasonably points out that we spent the most time here, so we really had a chance to see more of what Yellowstone has to offer. And that’s true – when we return to Yosemite and Zion someday with more time to explore, I’m sure I’ll have to reassess my rankings. But for now, I’m fascinated by how expansive Yellowstone feels, and by the fact that it’s the oldest national park in the world. Also, as Kurt observed, it really feels like you could pull your car over anywhere there and just wander into the wilderness, in a way that didn’t seem possible in any of the other parks we’ve visited. It’s hard to describe. Everywhere you go there, you’re surrounded by nature at its most beautiful. So if you get a chance, I highly recommend a visit (with binoculars in hand).

The drive out to the East Entrance of Yellowstone took us through the Sylvan Pass, which is over 8000 feet in elevation. The road is surrounded by the Absaroka mountain range, which contains the highest peak in Yellowstone. Some really striking scenery. And we had plenty of time to appreciate it, since we got stuck behind 2 enormous RVs, both towing cars along, and both lacking basic driving etiquette. Despite the fact that these behemoths had to navigate the winding mountain roads at a snail-like pace, they both refused to pull off at any of the numerous turn-outs we passed, totally ignoring the line of cars building up behind them. So that added some time onto what was already supposed to be a 9 ½ hour drive. But at least our surroundings were gorgeous.

We finally passed the RVs after exiting Yellowstone, and then we immediately entered Shoshone National Forest (still grizzly bear country, for anyone considering a camping excursion in that area). The next town we passed through was Wapiti, which was a tiny western town that’s only remarkable for our purposes because just after Wapiti the Mini hit 10,000 miles (total, since Kurt got it in May). Don’t worry, I documented the moment in photographs.

Next, we passed through Buffalo Bill State Park, home of Buffalo Bill Lake. We didn’t stop to check it out, but we did enjoy the scenery while passing through. Next up was Cody, WY, a real western town with a weekly rodeo. We considered stopping for a late lunch at a very authentic looking western bar/steakhouse, but since we still had a lot of driving ahead of us, we settled for some “turkey” and “cheese” Lunchables from a Shell minimart. I’m using quotation marks there because, in this instance, I share Kurt’s skepticism about the true nature of the alleged food items. Outside the minimart, I tried to befriend a real live local while cleaning the windshield for the 89th time today, but he was wholly uninterested in having any sort of conversation with me. Bummer. I hate it when I’m confronted with the limits of what my charm can accomplish.

Our journey through northern Wyoming included the smallest town we’ve encountered yet – Emblem, WY, population 10. Yes, ten. Fascinating. Another thing that I find fascinating is the number of bee hives we’ve seen on farms during our travels lately. We saw some right outside of Emblem – at first I thought farmers file their important papers in white boxes and store them in remote parts of their fields. But Kurt patiently explained that the boxes were more likely used for keeping bees. So now I have all kinds of questions about bee keeping on Midwestern farms – another topic I’ll research fully on Wikipedia when we get home.

After a string of small towns, we entered Big Horn National Forest, which was one of my favorite national forests so far. It was spectacular because it spanned some pretty major mountains, which we climbed, traversed, and then descended. This leg of the trip included some of the twistiest and turniest roads to date, and some pretty spectacular scenery. There were signs periodically informing visitors of the types of rocks that were visible in the mountainsides. We saw rocks that were 300 million years old. Then 500 million years old. Then our minds were blown by granite that was 2.5 billion years old. Pretty cool stuff. The forest also contained open range cattle – something we’ve grown accustomed to on this trip. We’re most accustomed to signs warning drivers of open range cattle, and then miles of highway where no such cattle are seen. In Big Horn, we definitely saw the cattle, and we have the pictures to prove it. We had a fun stare-down with one particular black cow – he didn’t realize that we recently got up close with some buffalo, so he wasn’t so intimidating anymore.

After winding our way back down the mountains (which took forever), we headed for Gilette and Sundance and Beulah, and then the South Dakota border. The only things worth noting from that portion of the trip are that I took over driving, and we saw repeated references to Crazy Woman Creek, which is an actual place in Wyoming. I’d love to hear the story behind that name.

Despite poor lighting conditions, Kurt snapped a great shot of South Dakota’s welcome sign, and then we were treated to a fabulous light show, courtesy of Mother Nature. There were amazing clouds, a rainbow, and lightning in the distance for much of the tail end of our drive. The sky was so awesome that it looked like a painting. We would’ve gotten pictures of that too, if only the windshield hadn’t been covered in bugs (again). The lightning got pretty aggressive, and we were concerned that we would drive into it when we arrived in Rapid City. Our Weather.com apps (when they were working) refused to acknowledge any major weather events – they just claimed it was 74 and sunny (which is how my grandfather always used to describe the weather in Florida when he’d call us from Gainesville during the winter).

Luckily, the storm stayed ahead of us. When we got to the Rapid City KOA, the first thing we noticed was that the ground was very wet, but the rain was gone before we arrived. The second thing we noticed was that the KOA was squeezed in on a chunk of land between 2 car dealerships. Very outdoorsy. We checked in around 9:30 and got a menu for a pizza place that delivers to the campgrounds from the woman at the front desk. Five minutes after checking in, I ran back to the desk with a coupon we’d gotten at the Yellowstone KOA. The woman at the desk refused to honor it because I hadn’t presented it at check-in. I was too tired to argue. So we went to our cabin, which was right next to the backyard of a house – no bears here, only bunnies – and we called the pizza place, which, of course, was closed. The front desk lady was clearly my nemesis.

In the end, we found another pizza place that was open and picked up dinner to go, we spread the tent out on our cabin’s porch, and we got ready to sleep off the long day of driving.

Tomorrow: Mount Rushmore, and then off to Omaha(our second-to-last stop).

Waiting for Old Faithful

Today we woke up and debated whether to see Old Faithful or go to the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. We decided that we couldn’t really envision leaving Yellowstone without seeing Old Faithful, so we tabled the Grand Canyon for now. Before heading into the park, we found a little breakfast spot called Ernie’s in West Yellowstone. There was no chance we were giving the KOA pancake breakfast another shot. Ernie’s was awesome. They prepare boxed lunches for people going to work, and they make excellent hash browns. They also have very fast free WiFi, which allowed us to catch up on some emails (the WiFi at the KOA is snail-paced, at best).

After a great breakfast served by some friendly locals, we headed into the park. On the way to Old Faithful, we saw some elk (no big deal to us anymore). And then, while driving along the Madison River, I thought I made an awesome wildlife discovery before anyone else. Without explaining, I made Kurt pull over and then demanded that he follow me as I headed back along the road and then down towards the water. What I thought I saw, before anyone else saw it, was a bald eagle. There was a very large dark colored bird with a distinctly white head perched near the top of one of the trees along the river. The discovery turned out to be slightly disappointing for two reasons. First, as we approached the water, I noticed another family approaching ahead of us, so I couldn’t count this as my own original discovery. Second, the wife/mother in the family saw us and said, “I think it’s just an Osprey,” so it wasn’t even as cool a discovery as I thought.

We still walked back and checked it out, and took a picture (in which the bird is tiny, due to our lack of a lens with adequate zoom – something I didn’t fully realize we needed until we were on this trip experiencing moments like this one). And it was a nice walk along a river we’d been driving along for a few days. But wouldn’t this whole story be so much cooler if we’d been the first two people to see a bald eagle?

After the Osprey incident, we resumed our journey to Old Faithful. On the way there, we passed at least 4 other groups of geysers, but we decided to go straight for the big one to start. Apparently about a million other people had the same thought, because when we got to the parking area, it took us a long time to find an empty spot. Old Faithful is back away from the main highway through the park, along with a visitors’ center, a couple of lodges, and a general store. Everything was crowded, but we made our way from our parking spot to the viewing area, which wasn’t far. Kurt stopped to visit the men’s room, and I read some helpful signs with background information on Old Faithful. I learned that if you don’t stay on the paths and boardwalks that are marked, you risk falling through the sometimes-thin crust covering boiling hot springs, some of which are acidic enough to eat through even the heaviest boots. According to the sign, about a dozen people have been scalded to death by venturing onto unsteady thermal ground, and hundreds more have been badly burned. Good to know.

I also learned that Old Faithful’s eruption pattern is impacted by earthquakes, as well as foreign objects thrown into it by visitors (I’m not sure how anyone gets close enough without falling through the ground, but apparently it happens). The eruptions are fairly predictable, occurring at about 90 minute intervals, but the intervals are thought to be getting longer over time. When Kurt met me at the sign and we turned to walk toward the viewing area, a flood of people was coming at us. As it turns out, we’d just missed an eruption. And it’s all the stupid Osprey’s fault.

So we hunkered down for a 90 minute wait and decided to snag front-row seats for the next eruption. While we waited, we used our very slow AT&T Edge data service to book a cabin at a KOA in Rapid City, SD, not far from Mount Rushmore. That’s where we’ll be headed tomorrow. I also had time to hit the general store to pick up a Yellowstone magnet, a shot glass with bears and bison on it, and some drinks to keep us hydrated during the hot, sunny wait. Even though I was out of the sun for the souvenir run, I still managed to get sunburn on my back and neck while sitting by Old Faithful. Kurt, who stayed out there saving our seats the whole time, escaped with only a slightly darker tan.

While we waited, we entertained ourselves by listening to other hopeful visitors who would walk up nearby, say things like “look, you can tell it’s just about to go” (when nothing was happening but the normal, constant leaking of a small column of steam from the top of the geyser). Then we’d watch them get out cameras, only to see nothing for several minutes. This happened over and over again, and it was funny every time. As the real eruption time drew near, the benches around us began filling up with people speaking all kinds of different languages. This allowed us to observe different cultures’ philosophies on things like child discipline and saying “excuse me.” Some French people who didn’t believe in saying “excuse me” nudged Kurt’s legs aside so that they could sit on the edge of the viewing platform right in front of our bench. A very polite but rather smelly Brit, on the other hand, squeezed into some open space next to me only after asking me if he could sit down. A Chinese guy with two little boys alternated between harshly disciplining them (i.e., whacking at their legs or kicking them) for doing little boy things, and then totally ignoring them so that he could focus his camera while they jumped off the platform and frolicked in the thermal danger zone.

While we waited, we also saw another smaller geyser that’s kind of behind Old Faithful erupt. It was pretty tame, but gave us a good point of comparison for when Old Faithful finally did put on its show. About 5 minutes before the predicted eruption time, Old Faithful started to show signs that it was getting ready to go – short bursts of steam and water would bubble up a couple of feet. And every time that happened, everyone snapped their cameras up and assumed the ready position, certain that the eruption was starting. And eventually, after faking it several times, the eruption did begin, nearly right on schedule. Luckily, it was worth the wait. The water and steam shoot a couple hundred feet up in the air – higher than we expected – and the eruption lasts several minutes – longer than we expected. It was really an awesome thing to see, and hopefully we got some decent shots of it. It’s a little crazy to think that all of that force is lurking right under the ground where we were sitting. So, naturally, now I’m obsessed with geysers and I plan to read everything Wikipedia has to say about them when we get home.

After the long wait in the sun, we were both feeling kind of tired, so we headed back toward the West Entrance to Yellowstone . Along the way, we snapped some pictures of another set of geysers, and we took a scenic turnoff to check out the Firehole River, Firehole Canyon, and Firehole Falls. That turned out to be really cool – it was a less visited spot, and the falls were very photogenic. We did some trekking again to get down the side of the canyon and a little closer to the falls, which was fun. On our way back to the main road, we stumbled upon a spot along Firehole River where tons of people apparently go swimming and sunbathing – an unexpected sight.

We got back to the campgrounds late in the afternoon and noticed that the showers were freshly cleaned and (in a rare turn of events) all vacant. So we got cleaned up, had grilled cheese for dinner at the KOA grill, and then were talking about getting some ice cream. That’s when we noticed that the sky was super dark just west of camp, and we could see lightning. Clearly, the 30% chance of thunderstorms predicted on Weather.com was coming our way. So we skipped the ice cream and went back to the tent to be sure everything was pegged in like it was supposed to be. Pretty soon the rain started, and with the rain came wind. It got incredibly windy, with thunder and lightning signaling that the storm was getting closer and closer. We spent a good 45 minutes inside the tent, securing the corners with our bodies while the wind caused the sides to billow out like crazy.

In the end, the tent weathered the storm quite well. It really doesn’t leak, but when the wind was at its worst and the rain at its heaviest, a little bit of water blew up under the rain flap, and a few drops got inside. But nothing really got wet, and the heavy wind/rain combo only lasted for about 10 minutes or so. After a while, it was just a steady rain, with the water staying outside where it’s supposed to be. All in all, it was good we were there (without us inside, I’m not at all sure the tent would’ve stayed put), and it sure did make our last night of true camping an exciting one. Luckily, we have fudge left from Napa, so that’ll provide a dessert substitute for the ice cream we never got. We’ll go to sleep praying for sun tomorrow morning so that we don’t have to figure out how to pack a wet tent.

Antelope, Bison, Bears, Oh My!

We woke up to a very cold Montana morning. Temperatures overnight got down to 35 degrees, and Kurt was not psyched about seeing his breath while walking to the bathrooms in the middle of the night. Luckily, our tent site is near the main office, the general store, the laundry room, and the game room, so there’s lots of activity and little wildlife. The campgrounds here are huge, and when we checked in last night the woman at the desk told us that there has been a bear near the campgrounds a few times recently due to people leaving trash near their sites (instead of using dumpsters like you’re obviously supposed to do when you’re in bear country). No crazy incidents – just bear sightings. But we were shown where the activity was, and it was all the way on the other side of the huge KOA area so, with our bear spray in hand, we felt ok about it.

We decided to head straight to the pancake breakfast offered at the grill area each morning. The apple juice was good, but the rest of the breakfast was subpar. We resolved not to eat here in the morning anymore. After filling up on crappy pancakes and bland eggs, we headed for Yellowstone to do some exploring. First stop: Madison Junction ranger station. We wanted to seek expert advice about what should be seen (and could be seen) in our 2 days to spend in the park. As luck would have it, I formed an immediate friendship with Ranger Lloyd, who was working at the station when we arrived.

When we walked into the station, I marched right up to the ranger table and said that we needed expert advice. Ranger Lloyd said the real expert was outside giving a talk to a bunch of kids. I said that under the circumstances, we’d settle for Ranger Lloyd. Ranger Lloyd looked at Kurt and said “I like her.” And that was when I knew we were best friends. We got all kinds of great info from Ranger Lloyd – he even gave us a great map of the park with his notes/markings/highlightings on it, all added during the course of his mini-lecture to us about the basics of Yellowstone. He showed us his favorite stretch of road in the park, showed us where we might see bears and bison, and described how long different excursions would take. He even recommended two different routes out of the park toward South Dakota for us to consider when we leave here on Friday.

Most importantly, Ranger Lloyd told us that it’s bison mating season, so “there’s all kinds of pairin’ up goin’ on.” Sold! He also warned us that there’s construction on the main road connecting the western entrance to the park (where we enter/exit going to/from our campgrounds) to the parts of the park where the bison are. The construction causes half-hour delays, and also means the road is closed every night at 10 pm. He wanted to be sure we were aware, because if it turned out that we saw a wolf and were late getting back, “someone might be a little upset about having to go around the long way.” When he said “someone,” he quietly nodded in Kurt’s direction. I agreed and promised not to make us late getting back, even if it meant not stopping to photograph every single flower we saw.

So after a delightful chat, we left the ranger station, map in hand. We decided to check out Ranger Lloyd’s favorite road, which would take us to Tower Falls and Lamar Valley. Tower Falls is a kind of huge waterfall that started out as a small ledge between two sections of rock. The lower section is much softer than the upper one, though, so over time the water cut its way down through that lower level quickly, eventually creating the waterfall. Lamar Valley is called the “Serengeti of Yellowstone,” and it’s where the park’s largest herd of buffalo (numbering over 1,000) is most frequently found. Plus, the road leading to Tower Falls was supposed to present us with a chance to see bears from the safety of our car. So we were off.

Ranger Lloyd was right – the construction did cause a delay. 3 miles of road are narrowed to allow only 1 lane of traffic, so we were sitting in the Mini (in park, turned off) for about half an hour waiting our turn to drive through. But we were sitting right along a bubbling mountain stream, so it was actually pretty relaxing. Once we got through, we headed toward Ranger Lloyd’s favorite road. We could see why he liked it – it wound up and around mountains, providing constant panoramic views of the park. We stopped at one point to take pictures of a visible crater that was also the location of volcanic activity in the past. A sign informed us that subterranean activity indicates that volcanic activity will occur there again in the future. Pretty interesting.

Further along the drive, we encountered a herd of antelope grazing in a field. We got out and tried to get close enough to photograph them without scaring them further away. There was one male and a bunch of females, and at first we didn’t know what they were. We knew from their coloring that they probably weren’t deer, and then we overheard another guy watching near us refer to them as prong-horned antelope. So we’ll go with that. Anyone considering a trip to Yellowstone should not come without binoculars and some type of wildlife guide. We’re lacking those two items, and we’re realizing how much they’d enhance the experience. For now, we’ll rely on the expertise of strangers.

While winding along with a hillside on our left and a stream below on our right, we noticed a large gathering of cars and people ahead of us. We’ve already figured out that this means there’s wildlife nearby. That’s how we saw the huge elk yesterday on our way in. I’ve been wondering what it’s like to be the first person to see a major wildlife moment. We always seem to come upon it after about a dozen or so other cars. In any event, we slowed down to figure out what they were all seeing, and that’s when I caught a glimpse of my first real live bear. I hopped out to take pictures, and Kurt drove on to find someplace to stop the car. The bear was brown, but apparently it was a black bear (not a grizzly, I’m told, because it didn’t have a grizzly’s trademark hump). It looked enormous to me, but people nearby were commenting on how it was a young bear. In any event, it was eating its face off in some bushes across the stream. The pictures I got show a little brown blob, which I will point out and promise is a bear. Kurt got a better one as the bear moved on down the riverside, because when he finally caught up with me after parking, we trekked down the hill to get a little closer to the water (along with several other onlookers), while still keeping a very healthy distance between us and the bear. The whole thing was pretty cool, especially because there’s so much bear talk here that it would be kind of a letdown to leave Yellowstone without having seen at least 1.

After about 10 minutes of bear watching, we hopped back in the Mini and continued on. We drove past Tower Falls, which was swamped with people, and decided to stop on our way back through. We went on to the Lamar Valley, where we hoped to see some guy bison showing off for some girl bison. The landscape changed pretty abruptly to Serengeti-like flatlands, and pretty soon I spotted a huge bison off to the right of the road, and it looked close enough to get some pretty good pictures. Kurt looked for the next pull-off so that we could stop, and then we started to walk back toward where the bison had been standing. Unable to see that bison, I turned to Kurt to assure him that I hadn’t imagined it, when he suddenly pointed to our left. I turned and saw about a million bison hanging out everywhere. It was incredible. There was a stream separating us from them, so we started trekking down to the stream to get a closer look. We could see a few people down there with cameras already camped out watching the herd.

Then, on our way toward the stream, we noticed one gigantic bison on our side of the stream, just laying down hanging out about 100 yards away from us (and the people by the stream). We’ve both seen pictures of bison before, and we’ve seen some from a distance on this trip, but we only fully appreciated their size today. We got down to the river and talked to some of the other photographers down there. You could see some of the bison moving in pairs, as Ranger Lloyd promised, and sometimes the males would kind of lay down and roll around on their backs like dogs. A very strange and very cool sight to behold. They made all kinds of weird grunting noises (sometimes sounding like a huge, grumbly stomach), and when some of them would run, they’d kick up big billows of dust behind them. We took some pictures of the herd across the stream, and then I slowly moved to within about 50 yards of the bison on our side. I took a picture or two, and then (as if sensing that his photo shoot was in full swing) he stood up. It was truly awesome, and I’m hoping that the pictures we got will do justice to how cool the moment was.

After getting our fill of bison time, we went back to the Mini and headed back toward Tower Falls. Despite the crowd of cars there, we braved the parking lot and eventually found a spot. After walking about 150 yards down a paved path, we got a view of the falls. It was good, but not great – you couldn’t see the bottom, and there were tons of people there so it was tough to get a good picture. Then we saw signs for a 1-mile hike down to the water. There is normally a path that takes you to the foot of the falls, but that path is closed right now. We followed the part of that path that was open (which is a set of winding steps that gets pretty steep, taking you down the side of the mountain), and then we trekked down a less official path to get to the water. We were around a bend from the falls, so we couldn’t see them, but we had a great look at the rocky hillside around the river and the Yellowstone River itself. I put my new water/hiking shoes to the test at the edge of the river and in some little streams running into it, while Kurt found a large tree trunk on which to rest the camera for our signature timer shot. It was great little off-the-beaten-path adventure.

Once we caught our breath after the climb back up to the top, we headed back toward the KOA. We made it back to the construction zone well before the road closed (thankfully), and we waited about an hour there for our turn to ride through. The contractors we’ve seen doing the road work in places like Yellowstone and Zion have a hot job, but they sure do work with an amazing view all day – one that definitely tops the view from any corner office at a Center City law firm or a Wall Street brokerage.

When we got back to our tent, we decided to take care of some laundry while trying to get caught up on blogging. We’ve fallen a bit behind, in large part due to inconsistent WiFi and all-night driving. To our faithful readers, we apologize. We trust that you’ll forgive us after you see the bison pictures.

Everyone from everywhere comes to Jackson

We woke up refreshed this morning, and we thanked David again on our way out for being so awesome, for proving why the Sleep Inn is the top hotel in Idaho Falls, and for restoring my faith in the people of Idaho. We hit the road and headed toward Jackson, Wyoming. We both thought that either the eastern part of Idaho is prettier than the rest, or we just had a greater capacity for appreciating the scenery provided by Idaho’s farms after a full nights’ sleep. We went through some cute little western-ish towns (e.g., Victor, Idaho), and then crossed into Wyoming. The drive into Jackson is a pretty one, with mountain views, resort areas, ski slopes cut into the mountains, and ranches along the way.

When we arrived in Jackson, we quickly noticed that it is a tourist destination for people from all over the country. The number of different state license plates in Jackson was impressive, and I started to hope we’d finally find an elusive Rhode Island plate. Our first destination was Pearl Street Bagels. A guy at an EMS in Massachusetts recommended it to us while he was talking to us about what kind of tent to buy. So of course we stopped there for lunch, and of course I told the girl at the counter how we got referred their way. She got a kick out of it, and told us that they have a picture of Bill Clinton jogging in a Pearl Street Bagel T-shirt. So apparently they already knew they were sweeping the nation.

After a killer chicken salad sandwich on a tomato-herb bagel (Kurt had turkey on a “normal” bagel) and a frozen café mocha, we strolled around downtown Jackson for a while. Jackson is awesome, and I can see why so many people visit. It’s surrounded by mountains, with ski slopes leading right into the downtown area. It’s full of western-themed shops, bars, motels, and restaurants, and it’s just a delightful place to be. We picked up some brochures for whitewater rafting trips, and we visited a bunch of gift shops in search of a magnet. Most of the shops had a surprisingly disappointing selection, but I finally found a winner at Stone’s Mercantile. The owner said he hand picks everything he sells in the store, so that’s why his stuff is so much better than everyone else’s. I don’t know about the rest of his wares, but I can say that he has excellent taste when it comes to magnets.

We visited the town square, which has huge arches made of elk antlers at each of the four corners. There are also stagecoach rides available there. Across from the square was another place I wanted to check out – the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar. I’d heard about it on a Discovery channel road trip special – the main draw (besides the cool neon sign outside) is the fact that the barstools are actual saddles. So naturally I wanted to drink a beer while sitting on a saddle-stool, and Kurt humored me. It took us a few minutes to snag 2 seats at the bar, but it was worth it. We drank Bud Lights on saddles, while studying the 1921 silver dollars built into the top of the bar in rings around local cattle ranch brand symbols. At night there’s live music and dancing, which we didn’t get to see at 2 pm, but we did notice that the little sandwich window at the front of the bar serves cheesesteaks and is operated by a company called “Philly’s Phinest.” Who knew?

We ended our time in Jackson scouring sporting goods stores for bear spray (due to recent news reports of bear attacks near Yellowstone) and water/hiking shoes (in case we go rafting). We then began the trip up to West Yellowstone, where we’ll be camping at a KOA for the next 3 nights. The most exciting part of our day (slightly edging out the moment when I first sat on a saddle barstool) happened as we were driving out of Jackson. I hope you’re sitting down. Basically, all of our dreams came true in one fleeting moment at a busy intersection. That’s right, we saw . . . drum roll please . . . a Rhode Island license plate! Can you believe it? We couldn’t. It literally took my breath away. I think I heard a gospel choir singing and I swear there was a ray of light shining down on the car bearing the plate. Kurt didn’t exactly see any of that because he was too busy concentrating on silly things like driving. So in case you weren’t keeping score, this basically means we won the find-a-license-plate-from-every-state game. We weren’t expecting Rhode Island to be the most elusive of them all. Before finally seeing this one today, we’d already seen 3 Alaska plates, 1 Hawaii plate, plates from 6 Canadian provinces, and plates from 3 Mexican states. Little RI was so tough, we were starting to think this moment would never come. Now we just have to enjoy the accomplishment and try to remember how to ignore license plates like normal people do.

Anyway, the drive took much longer than anticipated, since it took us through Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone itself. We saw some great scenery – the Grand Tetons are gorgeous, and the geysers in Yellowstone look like something you’d see on Mars. We stopped once to take pictures of an enormous elk with huge antlers while it grazed near the road.

We hit some light rain when we were leaving the park (and entering Montana), and it continued as we drove through the town of West Yellowstone to the KOA, located in the Gallatin National Forest. So we set up the tent in the rain for the first time (great news – it doesn’t leak!), and then had cheeseburgers at the patio grill right here at the campgrounds. A long day, but it’ll be nice to leave the tent up for more than a night, and the drive through Yellowstone really got us looking forward to spending the next couple of days exploring the park. Assuming we survive what will probably be our coldest night camping yet.