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.

Amy encounters some wildlife

Picking up where I left off yesterday, I was driving and it was late on Sunday night. Kurt fell asleep for a while soon after we left Bo at his rural Oregon gas station. The fun really began after Kurt fell asleep. I was feeling well rested, and a surprisingly delicious Monster energy drink was helping me stay alert (thanks to the salesman we met while driving along the Pacific Coast Highway). And it’s a good thing I was alert, because Oregon is not messing around when it comes to wildlife. Especially wildlife at night. And especially wildlife at night along a secondary state road designated as a “scenic byway.”

In the hour or so that Kurt was asleep, I had close encounters (from the safety of the Mini) with several rabbits, something I think was a skunk, a large animal that I suspected to be either a wolf or a coyote, and about three hundred field mice. The rabbits tended to dart off the road as I approached, at most requiring me to slow down a bit to let them get to the side. The skunk-like animal was just visible in the brush by the road. The wolf/coyote was casually loping along in my lane (going in the right direction) in front of me, and then casually veered off the road well before I reached it. I only saw it from the back. The field mice were everywhere. There were times when mice were literally darting back and forth across the road every 20 feet or so. And they didn’t move rationally – they often darted back towards the car. At one point there were 4 of them all in the road at once. The mice required repeated near-stops and swerves to try not to hit them, and I think I successfully avoided all but 1. Luckily, there were hardly any other cars going in either direction, so I had free reign over both lanes.

When Kurt woke up, I began telling him about the plethora of wildlife that had been making itself known to me on the drive, and just as I was mentioning the rabbits – as if on cue – a rabbit darted in front of us, stopped in the other lane, jumped and did a very cartoonish suspended-in-mid-air-shuffling of its feet, and then darted off safely to the other side. It was undeniably adorable, and neither of us could stop laughing for a good minute or so. After that, things only got more intense. When all was said and done in Oregon, we had seen at least 15 deer (most of them safely in fields along the road, and not in the road), 5 coyote (we eventually saw one from the side and another from the front and could identify them properly), one enormous owl (possibly devouring something right on the shoulder of the road, only taking off when the Mini was nearly right next to it), about a hundred jackrabbits (in addition to the “regular” rabbits we’d already seen), and roughly eight thousand field mice (with only one probable casualty). It was nuts. I’m sure Oregon would have been lovely during the day, but it really put on quite a show for us at night.

Kurt took over driving a little after midnight (and after most of the dodge-the-animals portion of the trip), and he stayed at it until about 5 am. Sometime in there, just before hitting Idaho, we lost an hour when we crossed into Mountain Time. Kurt took a great night shot of the Oregon welcome sign. I took a blurry night shot of the Idaho welcome sign. Oh well.

The first thing worth mentioning from the drive through Idaho is the fact that Idaho smells like mud bath. The second thing worth mentioning is that we were behind a driver who appeared to be extremely drunk for about 40 miles on the interstate, starting around Nampa. Kurt got so concerned that he woke me up from my half-sleep, and we decided to call 911. There was lots of construction in the area, and the car (a huge SUV) was swerving far into the shoulder and then far into the other lane. At one point the car pulled off onto the shoulder, and we thought they were stopping to sober up. But they pulled onto the road again after we passed, and then kept speeding up and slowing down behind us.

So I made my first 911 call. The lady who answered was very nice. I explained the situation, gave her a description of the car as well as its license plate info, and told her where we were on the highway. She asked if I wanted to make a complaint. I said no, and explained that we just thought the driver was a hazard to himself (or herself) and others, so we thought someone should check it out. She said she’d have a trooper at one of the approaching exits look for the car. We felt better. Until the car stayed near us for 30 more miles, passing more than 10 exits (including exits for Boise, which is kind of a major city, being the state capital and all) with not a police car in sight. Eventually, the car got off at an exit and drove away. A few miles later, we saw 2 state trooper cars parked in the median, with the officers just chatting it up.

The whole incident was especially trying for Kurt because he was driving, but also because it caused me to pontificate for a solid ten minutes (at least) about whether the officer would have had probable cause to pull over the SUV, whether we were anonymous tipsters, how much swerving an officer would have to observe in order to corroborate our tip and justify a blood test of the SUV’s driver, whether we’d have to come to Idaho to testify in a future trial, what my defense strategy would be if I were the driver’s lawyer, and all kinds of other legal topics harkening back to my public defender days that are especially fascinating at 2 am. Well, to me anyway.

I resumed driving at 5 am, and we arrived in Idaho Falls around 9. We decided not to visit the giant Mormon Temple that’s there (we saw billboards advertising it all along the highway). Instead, we tried to find a place to get breakfast. Yelp didn’t give us many options, and there was no clear “main drag” to speak of. On our way to a place we did see on Yelp, in a residential neighborhood full of 1-way streets, I accidentally started pulling out in front of an oncoming car (it looked like they had a stop sign too, but they didn’t). I was moving very slowly and stopped right away, leaving plenty of room for the car to continue on its merry way. Instead, this nice Idaho native started screaming and gesturing at me, and then flipped me off. Not what I expected from the locals here.

Eventally we found a coffee shop, the Villa Coffeehouse, that served really good breakfast croissant sandwiches. It was in the “old town” part of Idaho Falls, and the woman working the counter was nice enough to start making up for the middle finger incident we’d encountered on the way there. After fueling up enough to make it to a hotel, we headed straight for the number 1 hotel in town – the Sleep Inn, located right at an interstate exit. David, the guy at the desk, observed the bags under our eyes and found an empty room so that we could check in early (around 11 am). He even said he’d let the housekeeping staff know that they shouldn’t make noise on our floor. We thanked him profusely, went to the room, took showers, and went to sleep. Luckily, the beds and pillows were comfortable, and the Sleep Inn (as its name suggests) is conducive to sleep at any time of day or night.

We woke up around 6 and headed across the parking lot to a new Tex-Mex restaurant David had recommended called Ole Toro. While walking over, we marveled at the fact that the first time we drove all night (to Memphis), we mustered enough energy to go right out and sightsee, eat, and catch some live music before collapsing in exhaustion. After downing some enchiladas, fajitas, and pink lemonade, we went back to the Sleep Inn and decided to do something we haven’t really done at all so far on this trip – we decided to watch TV. If you don’t know me well, you might not know just how addicted to TV I am in my real life, and you might not understand just what a feat it’s been for me to stay off TV for this entire trip. Almost 30 days, not that I’m counting. So when Kurt suggested that our all-night drive had earned us the right to watch a movie, I jumped at the chance. And at the risk of reigniting my addiction, we channel-surfed in search of a movie. We stumbled upon a William Hurt movie marathon, and we watched the last 2/3 or so of Eyewitness, and then most of Broadcast News. Both had all-star casts, and (remarkably) Kurt hadn’t seen either one. He hadn’t even heard of Eyewitness (and, after watching it, he said he could understand why). I enjoyed our small taste of TV (even though it wasn’t in the form of one of my favorite reality competition shows). It was a lovely end to the day, and after another solid block of sleep, we should be ready to tackle Yellowstone tomorrow.

The (long) beginning of the end

This morning we began to suspect that the gang of bluejays we met while camping at Nacimiento, and then again while dining at Nepenthe in Big Sur, might be stalking us. Either that, or another (rival?) gang of bluejays has claimed the Burlington campgrounds at Humboldt Redwoods State Park as their territory. The bottom line is this: we were once again awoken by the unpleasant shrieking of a whole slew of bluebirds. But that didn’t stop the redwoods from being beautiful — probably the loveliest scenery at any of the campgrounds we’ve encountered so far. Before packing up, I decided to brave the showers. I got my towel and shampoo ready, and I selected an unoccupied shower, only to discover that the showers were quarter-operated. Frequent campers might be unphased by that, but seeing the coin slot in the wall and the sign telling me that you get 5 minutes for 50 cents took me by surprise. So after revisiting the car and dipping into our supply of laundry quarters, I embarked on the exciting adventure of seeing if I could limit my shower to 7 1/2 minutes. I basically succeeded, but Kurt didn’t view my success as reason enough to try the experience himself. He opted for a good dousing in cologne and deodorant, and we were off (after another expert tent take-down).

After 10 days in California and 30 days away from Philadelphia, today we finally began our trip back east. But first, we retraced our steps down the Avenue of the Giants to visit Leggett, a so-called “town” that basically just consists of one popular redwood-themed tourist attraction. The Chandelier Tree — supposedly the “original drive-thru tree” — is considered by many to be the best of 3 different redwoods with holes in the trunks through which you can drive a car. I checked this fact with Ranger Emily last night, and she confirmed it. So instead of checking out an inferior drive-thru tree in Myers Flat (which was closer to our campgrounds), or another one in Klamath Falls (which is north of Humboldt), we backtracked to Leggett. And it was worth it. The tree has a square cut through the trunk, which is obviously enormous, but the tree itself is still alive and growing. Crazy. Very large cars wouldn’t fit, but getting the Mini through was a cinch. Kurt drove through — I hopped out just before the tree to take pictures.

After driving through, we parked and checked out the above-average gift shop, where I naturally purchased a magnet (using the $1 coupon we got when we paid the $5 admission to the tree). When we got back to the car, Kurt suggested that I take the Mini for a spin through the tree so that we both could experience it, and I agreed. He took the camera, and I began backing out of the parking spot, but noticed a motorcycle behind me, apparently waiting for the spot (despite the abundance of space in the parking area). He refused to move, and indicated that I should drive around him. I tried, but his positioning blocked the only exit and nearly caused me to hit another car that was angled into my blind spot. Luckily, I stopped in time and made it out of the spot without any scratches (but with an abundance of frustration at the motorcyclist). I drove through the tree, which was fun, and then we hit the road.

We drove north on the Avenue of Giants again, as far as it goes, and the drive was made more interesting by the fact that we saw a lot of sights we recalled from Ranger Emily’s slideshow. We picked up lunch at a little sandwich shop called Calico’s Deli in Garberville, and we ate on the road. For most of Northern California, the drive consisted of a string of non-towns (population 200, population 458, etc.), with several more hitch-hiker sightings.

Kurt and I had decided to drive through the night to get to eastern Idaho, where we planned to spend one night before heading into Yellowstone for three nights of camping. We had considered other stopping places, but in the end we decided to avoid paying for an overpriced hotel in a town we didn’t care about, so we set our sights on Idaho Falls. We knew that the Sleep Inn there was rated the top hotel in town by TripAdvisor, and the rates were right in line with our budget. The drive from Humboldt Redwoods State Park to Idaho Falls was supposed to take between 17 and 18 hours, so we hunkered down for a long night in the car.

While there was still daylight, we got to see Eureka, CA, which is a college town (and the hometown of Ranger Emily!). It’s one of the larger towns we encountered today, but not somewhere that seemed to warrant a stop. From there, we got on route 299 east (the first highway with “east” in its name that we’ve been on since we started at the beginning of July) and drove through Six Rivers and Shasta-Trinity National Forests. I have to say that I never imagined there were so many national forests in the U.S., but we really have driven near or through a ton of them. They make for nice, scenic drives. But since I wanted to be ready to take the wheel later this evening, I slept through most of Shasta-Trinity.

I woke up in time to see the Whiskeytown National Recreation Area, which includes an enormous lake that was full of people enjoying the nice weather in boats, kayaks, rafts, and any other manner of watercraft you can imagine. I took over driving around 5 pm, and we continued on through California. We stopped for dinner in Alturas at an awesome small-town home-cooking place called the Wagon Wheel Café. Our waitress was Millie, and she was a great mix of chatty and stand-offish. I told her about our trip. She asked me what the deal is with Arnold Palmers. We bonded, but not as much as I bonded with Harold or anything.

Kurt and I both ordered the chicken fried steak. Actually, Kurt tried to order spaghetti, but they were out of it so he had what I was having. When we started eating, I noticed Kurt looking quizzically at his plate, but he was eating so I didn’t say anything. When he was about a third of the way through his steak, he leaned over and quietly asked me, “what’s this supposed to be?” I laughed and said, “it’s steak, fried like chicken.” He thoughtfully repeated, “oh . . . steak . . . fried like chicken.” I asked if his was ok, and he explained that, when he ordered, he assumed it was going to be fried chicken and, when it came, he was confused by the texture and color of the meat, as well as the white gravy poured all over it. What a great local food moment, right?

We crossed over into Oregon when it was getting dark, and we stopped at the first gas station we saw. That’s where we met Bo, who pumped our gas and cleaned the disgusting assortment of dead bugs off the Mini’s windshield with a gigantic, professional-looking cleaning device. Bo was fascinated by our car and by what would bring people from Philadelphia to that part of Oregon. He was awesome – and so into conversing with Kurt that Kurt had a hard time finding a break in the questions to excuse himself to use the restroom. I loved it.

Before getting to the gas station, a black cat ran out into the road in front of us. Then a deer. Then another cat. Just after pulling out of the gas station, another deer crossed the road. Oregon is full of wildlife! And I’ll leave you with that sentiment, which is intended to build suspense and lead into the next post for tomorrow (which will still feel like today for us, because of the whole no sleep thing, and which I am actually writing contemporaneously with this post).

A mini among giants

I’ll just go ahead and warn you right up front — today wasn’t nearly as exciting as yesterday. No mud baths, and no castles. So please adjust your expectations accordingly.

We checked out of the Lodge at Calistoga, and I packed up the car while Kurt took care of the bill. While packing up, I noticed a large blackberry bush next to the Mini, and it had a ton of ripe berries on it. I sampled a few before Kurt got back, and they were awesome. I tried to show them to Kurt when he returned, but he cut me off and asked me not to tell him about times when I eat strange berries I find on random plants. So if you talk to him, please don’t tell him I told you.

We stopped at a grocery store in Calistoga to pick up some provisions since we’ll be camping tonight, and then we headed into St. Helena (a neighboring Napa Valley wine town) to check out V. Sattui, the only picnic winery in the Napa Valley. It’s owned by the same guy who owns the castle, and we got coupons after our tour yesterday. In addition to the winery, V. Sattui sells food so that you can eat and drink in their picnic area (where only their food and wine are allowed). Inside is an area very similar to DiBruno Bros. in Philly — cheeses, spreads, oils, salads, panini, and other prepared foods. On the weekends, they have a barbecue area outside too. That’s where we got our lunch — tri tip sandwiches with potato salad.

We took our sandwiches to the picnic area and very sneakily poured ourselves glasses of wine from Sonoma –we opened the bottle last night but didn’t finish it. A lovely lunch, followed by a free tasting. On the way out, we picked up some awesome chocolate truffle fudge. They had free samples and, being a bit of a chocoholic, I couldn’t possibly resist.

We hit the road again, headed toward US-101, which would take us to Humboldt Redwoods State Park. On the way, before we lost cell service, we did some travel planning via phone. We’ve decided to nix Portland (it’s pricier than expected and neither of us had a specific desire to go there). Instead, we’re going to really test my camping skills by doing 3 nights near Yellowstone (Wyoming), followed by one night in the Black Hills (South Dakota). That’ll keep us in places that hold more interest for us, and still allow us to get to Chicago after Lollapalooza. So we booked the campground near Yellowstone while driving past bikers doing some kind of road race in northern Sonoma County. We also found a hotel for a night on our way there, and a campsite in the Black Hills, but we lost service before I could get either one booked.

Our drive north this afternoon included our first hitch-hiker sighting. And we didn’t just see one, we saw 3. Don’t worry, we didn’t pick any of them up — we wouldn’t have room even if we wanted to. The drive was pretty, taking us along the Eel River and through lots of redwood groves. We stopped for pictures once we reached Humboldt, which is home to some of the oldest and largest redwoods anywhere. The enormity of the trees is almost overwhelming — you can stand inside some of them. There are even some you can drive through in your car (that’s definitely on tomorrow’s agenda).

Our campsite is at the Burlington campground, near the park’s visitors’ center and right along the Avenue of Giants. When we pulled in, the people at the site across from ours said they saw my last name on the reservation card marking our site, and they assumed based on the name that we’d be arriving in a huge RV. I wasn’t quite sure how to take that. The campsites are surrounded by redwoods (including some massive stumps of former redwoods, one of which now has our initials on it courtesy of a pocketknife Kurt picked up in Santa Fe). It’s a really pretty area, and it smells great because it’s one of the first campsites we’ve encountered where campfires are permitted. In fact, there’s a large campfire for everyone scheduled for 8:30 by the ranger station. And since it’s approaching that time, we should head over to get good seats…

…and we’re back. The campfire was a hoot. It was a whole program led by a very earnest park ranger named Emily. Emily’s dad was there videotaping it. There was trivia (prizes were “a dollar,” which turned out to mean a sand dollar — Emily very sincerely apologized for misleading us when she revealed the joke). There was singing (a song with hand motions called Waddlee-Acha –one of us had a blast with that part, it couldn’t be over soon enough for the other, I’ll let you guess which was which). There was a game (kids had to eat 4 Saltines, then the first to swallow and whistle won a pencil and a magnet — had I known about the magnet, I would’ve competed too). And then there was a long but interesting slideshow about the history of the Avenue of the Giants. It was amazing how many tiny little “towns” used to exist but are completely gone now, often due to the building of highway 101 or damage done by two huge floods here in ’55 and ’64.

After the slideshow, we returned to the tent with the aid of the flashlight app on Kurt’s iPhone — that thing has some power to it! Then we warmed up in our sleeping bags and Kurt demolished me at UNO. And I do mean demolished.

Down and dirty in Calistoga

I hope you’re sitting down. I’m going to skip right over our mediocre free hotel breakfast and move right on to the mud baths, because I know that’s what you’re dying to hear about. Kurt & I showed up at the Golden Haven Hot Springs Spa this morning at about 8:45 for our 9 a.m. mud bath appointment. That is a sentence I never thought I’d type. When we arrived, I asked the girl who checked us in if she was as nervous as I was. She ignored me. I was too nervous to care. We killed about 10 minutes in the waiting room before Marta, our attendant, came to escort us back to our treatment room.

There was no beating around the bush with any fancy relaxation area or lounge — Marta led us right into a room with a mineral jacuzzi in the corner, two showers along the side, and two large tubs of steaming mud in the middle. It smelled a little bit like a farm, but it wasn’t nearly as pungent as we expected. On our way in, Marta asked if we had a camera for pictures. We were like “…um…no.” I mean, we did have the camera (we always have the camera), but who thinks about getting their picture taken in a big vat of mud? Only crazy people, right? Marta showed us where to hang our clothes, explained how to lower ourselves into the tubs of mud, and said she’d be back after we got settled in to check on us.

As soon as she left the room, I started giggling and I basically didn’t stop until halfway through the mud bath. Kurt did some giggling too, I think. The whole thing was pretty hilarious at that point. So we stripped down and tried to maneuver into our respective tubs. We followed Marta’s instructions to the letter — we perched on the edge, looked over at each other with trepidation, shrugged our shoulders, and tried to plunge ourselves derriere-first into the mud. Much to our surprise, we only sank in about an inch, and we were basically both just lying on top of the mud. The mud is a mixture of volcanic ash, mineral water from hot springs, and peat moss. The peat moss is the smelly part, but it’s what makes you float in the mud. And apparently it really makes you float. So we had to kind of wiggle down and use our hands to scoop the mud on top of us. As I’m typing this, I still can’t quite believe we did it. Once we got covered up, we looked at each other and resumed giggling. To say it felt weird would be a massive understatement. When we’d squirm around, we’d move a little deeper and the mud would get hotter. Marta had warned us not to try to stand up in the tubs, because pushing your feet down to the bottom will be really hot and you can burn yourself. Who knew mud baths could be so dangerous?

After we were covered, Marta came back in. She put cool cloths across our foreheads, offered a mud mask for our faces (which we both accepted), and covered up our shoulders with the mud (the only part we couldn’t get ourselves). At that point, I asked her how often she gets a mud bath. She said she only gets massages. She used to get mud baths, but then she realized that she hates them. Honesty like that is refreshing. Almost as refreshing as spending 15 minutes in a huge vat of mud.

Anyway, she left again, and we continued to marvel at the fact that we were actually doing what we were doing. A once-in-a-lifetime experience on a once-in-a-lifetime trip. At that point, we agreed that it was something that should be photographed. I guess Marta knew something we didn’t before the whole thing started. Surprisingly (or maybe it isn’t surprising, since so many people do this when they come to the Calistoga area), the mud bath turned out to feel really good, and it was very relaxing. You feel like you’re weightless and floating, and the warmth of the mud is comforting. I guess that’s why people have done this kind of thing allegedly dating back to Cleopatra.

When our time in the mud was up, Marta came back to explain the next step of the treatment. Before she did that, I asked if she could get our camera out of the bag, take off the lens cap, put the camera on automatic, and then take our picture. She was nice enough to jump through those hoops for us, and, as a result, we have some excellent shots of us immersed to our necks in mud, just living the dream.

The next step was to get out of the tubs, wipe the big chunks of mud off, and then get under the mineral water showers to get rid of the rest. No small task. And of course that process was accompanied by more giggling. After hosing each other down, we moved on to the mineral water Jacuzzi in the corner of the room. We were in there for another 15 minutes or so, enjoying some water with lemon and finding places where still had mud clinging to us (for example, I missed behind my ears, and Kurt missed his entire chin). Every few minutes one of us would comment on what a great story this whole thing was going to make for the blog.

The final step of the treatment came after we dried off, put on robes, and moved to a more traditional spa-type room with 2 beds. We laid down on our backs, covered with a towel, and Marta came back in to wrap us up in blankets. She put cool towels on our heads again, turned off the lights, and left us to “cool down” for another 15 minutes or so. There was calming music, a candle, and a nice scent in the room. Very relaxing. Near the end, I sneezed. Kurt immediately informed me that I had totally ruined the mood. More giggling. Marta let us know when our time was up, and then we got dressed and left.

It might be our imaginations, but we both think our skin feels smoother and healthier now, and we both felt great afterward. Although it was definitely outside of both of our comfort zones, we’re definitely glad we did it (and not just because it’s making this post an interesting read for you guys). The mud bath idea wasn’t ours – it was recommended to us by . . . you guessed it . . . our San Francisco gurus from the Washington Square Inn wine hour! Those guys really gave us some great ideas, and I’m glad we took their advice.

Everything after the mud baths will probably seem less interesting, but keep reading because we really did do one other awesome thing today. After learving Golden Haven, we grabbed lunch in Calistoga at a place called the Sarafornia Café, where the food was really good and we could tell that the locals eat there too. Then we headed out to taste some wine. First, we toured the Sterling Vineyards. The main building there is designed to look like a winery in Greece — all white, with cool bell towers — and it’s up on a hill overlooking the vineyards. To get to the winery, you take a tram (like a gondola). We tried some good wines there and got free souvenir tasting glasses.

Next, we went to Castello di Amorosa, which is owned by some famous guy here (Dario Sattui, I believe) who spent 15 years building a winery that looks like an Italian castle. It’s enormous, and the tour was excellent. Everything about the castle is made the way it would have been hundreds of years ago when castles were really being built. So no power tools, only handcrafted stones, bricks shipped from real Italian castles, handmade wooden doors, etc. It has a chapel, a moat, a drawbridge, guard towers, a 2 acre lake, 107 unique rooms, and 8 stories (4 of which are underground). Before entering, we saw some sheep, chickens and frogs, and we got close looks at some of the grapes, which are just starting to turn from green to red.

Our 2:30 pm tour was led by a guide named Georgette, and she was really awesome. She knew her stuff about the castle’s architecture and how it was built, as well as the wines that are made there. This winery doesn’t distribute its wine anywhere. You can buy it while you’re there, or you can join the wine club and have it shipped to you directly. They use wine barrels made of french oak, which cost $1,000 each, and they only use each barrel twice. Then they either sell them to visitors for $45, or to other wineries that are less discriminating about their barrels. The grapes are hand-picked, hand-sorted, and then they’re compressed (not crushed) to preserve as much flavor as possible. They say that the less technology involved and the less you manipulate the grapes, the better the wine will be.

There was a 2:45 tour behind us led by a guy named Joe. Joe was speedy and didn’t seem all that interested in being engaging (or even keeping track of all of the members of his tour group), so pretty soon he lapped us. That happened after a couple of awkward moments where he’d get his group right up next to ours and start talking about things Georgette just told us (except he was much less interesting). Georgette got annoyed and we finally took an unscripted stroll in the compression area so that he could get by us. I asked Georgette if she and Joe were going to rumble later. She laughed and said “no way, he could take me. He eats half a cow and a trough of potatoes for dinner each night.” Kurt and I were loving it.

The best part of the tour was when we went into the 4 underground floors, which basically seem like a maze of hallways branching off in every direction with wine bottles and wine barrels lining everything. It smelled great and was really fun to see. There were also some jail cells, a pit of despair, a torture chamber (complete with Iron Maiden!), and a room where an episode of the bachelor was filmed. In the largest underground room, we did a barrel tasting of a cabernet sauvignon that has only been aging for a year. It won’t be ready to sell for another 3 years, but it showed us how much of a difference the aging process makes. Georgette used a wine flute to get the wine out of the barrel (a big curved glass tube that she’d stick in, then cover the end with her finger, then it would come out full of wine — a technique I used to use myself with a straw and chocolate milk). It was pretty great.

The tour ended with us doing an extended tasting where we were each supposed to pick 5 wines. Kurt and I chose 10 so that we could each try more wines by sharing each glass. We ended up getting about 15 because Georgette just wanted us to try some others too. When tasting a merlot, she gave us chocolate chips and we learned how awesome the wine tastes when swallowed with chocolate. If you want to try it at home, take a sip of wine, swirl it around and swallow it. Then take a bite of chocolate and chew it up. When you’re ready to swallow the chocolate, take another sip of wine and swallow it all together. It’ll change your life. We had dark chocolate with a cabernet sauvignon (fully aged), and she let us try a reserve cabernet that was twice the price and twice the deliciousness. At the end we had sea salt chocolate (my new favorite thing) with a very sweet wine, and that turned out to be delicious too.

Of course we fell in love with the place and with Georgette, so we ordered a case of wine to be delivered to our apartment in October. It was the only reasonable thing to do. That makes us members of the wine club, and it means we’ll get invited to all kinds of cool events we’ll probably never be able to attend, like a medieval dinner with a joust, and a costume halloween party held in the torture chamber with a “death by chocolate” theme. Oh, and of course I got a magnet.

After that, we went to dinner in Calistoga at a place called the Hydro Grill (really good burgers, recommended by Georgette, who gave us a 10% off referral coupon), then came back to the hotel to enjoy some wine we bought yesterday, do some travel planning, and work on the blog. All in all, one of our best days yet. Mud baths and a castle — what more could you ask for?

Golden Gate to Wine country

On our last morning in San Francisco, we once again followed advice from our wine-drinking, San Francisco gurus. For breakfast, we walked about 5 feet away from Hotel Boheme’s door to try the pastries at Stella’s, an Italian bakery that’s apparently a long-time staple in North Beach. Once again, we were steered in the right direction thanks to the Washington Square Inn’s wine hour. We both had hot chocolate with life-changing whipped cream on top. I had a gigantic cinnamon roll, and Kurt had an apple pastry. Everything was fantastic, and we left with killer sugar highs. After checking out of Hotel Boheme, we caught a taxi and headed back to Mini of San Francisco to pick up the car.

Steve and his awesome maintenance team fixed the software problem, washed about 80% of the bugs off the car (the other 20% are going to require some serious scrubbing), and rotated the tires for free. We told Steve about the blog, but I’m not sure he’ll read it. He was a road tripping expert, having done the trip about 15 times with his dog when he lived in Boston but attended college in Arizona, so we were kind of in awe of him. Anyway, Steve, if you’re reading this, thanks again.

We decided to leave SF via Alamo Square, where there is a famous row of 7 beautiful and colorful Victorian-style homes called the Painted Ladies. Kurt had never seen them, and I was convinced they were in the opening credits from the TV show Full House, so we were both interested in stopping. The houses were lovely and the park across the street was great too. Like about 50 other people in the park, we took pictures. There was an old black car parked in front of one house — a Falcon, I think — and we got a shot of that as well. Sadly, I didn’t see D.J. or Uncle Jesse come out of any of the houses. From there, I took over driving and we headed for the Golden Gate Bridge. I’ve decided it’s not fair for me to expect Kurt to overcome his fear of WalMart if I’m not willing to confront one of my own fears, so I’m making an effort to face my fear of driving over water. The Golden Gate Bridge looks pretty sturdy, so I felt like I could probably handle it as long as I didn’t accidentally look sideways while we were crossing.

We crossed the bridge going north, I made it without freaking out, and now I can officially say that I drove down Lombard Street and across the Golden Gate Bridge this week. On the north side of the bridge, we stopped at a vista point and took some pictures of the bridge and the city from across the bay. In the parking lot there, we saw a strange-looking license plate. We’re both getting really good at spotting and identifying license plates now (Kurt is an expert on Oregan and I’ve got all of Colorado’s variations down), so the fact that neither of us recognized this one made us think we had finally found a rare, road-tripping Rhode Islander. As it turned out, the plate was from Chihuahua, which is cool (our first Mexico plate). But RI continues to elude us.

From the bridge, we headed north to Sonoma to see what all the wine country buzz is about. We couldn’t get anyone in SF to recommend any vineyards to us — everyone we asked just said “it’s all great, you can’t go wrong.” So we stopped at one of the first spots we saw with a “tasting” sign out front. It was called Roots in Sonoma, and was actually a visitor’s center and tasting room for 3 different vineyards: Larson, Meadowcroft, and Foyt. We sampled 6 wines there (with the help of a kind of stiff, unfriendly woman whose name I didn’t care to learn). We left with a bottle of Meadowcroft’s Viognier, as well as a Sonoma magnet and a Sonoma shirt for me. Also, I got to pose for pictures on an enormous blue Adirondack chair, which made a great start to the afternoon for me!

We then headed into the town square of Sonoma, which was a really cute area full of shops, tasting rooms, and restaurants. We went to a tasting room called Sonoma Enoteca, which was a co-op of 10 wineries. We had the tasting room to ourselves there, and we were helped by Trish, a local girl in her early 20s. Although she was young and clearly still learning about the wines, Trish was engaging and friendly, and we had a lot of fun talking to her. We sampled 6 more wines there, and Kurt began claiming that he likes more complex wines than I do. Trish was interested in hearing about our trip and she loved the Mini, so we told her about the blog. She succeeded in selling us a half case of wine (6 bottles), to be delivered to our apartment when the weather gets cooler. She also gave us great tips on a lunch spot and some other shops around the square.

After tasting 12 wines, we realized the pastries we had for breakfast weren’t cutting it anymore, so we headed straight to the Red Grape for lunch. Recommended by Trish, it was a great little pizza place just off the square, and we devoured a pepperoni pie like it was our job. Feeling much more steady, we left the Red Grape and stopped at one more tasting room — this one dedicated to the wines of Charles Creek vineyards. There, we were assisted by Allen, who was extremely friendly and extremely knowledgeable. He was the first to break the news to us that no distributors of wine can ship their wine into Pennsylvania because of the Pa. Liquor Control Board’s monopoly over profits from the sale of alcohol. We thought we could circumvent that problem easily by having wines we liked sent to Kurt’s mom’s house in Marblehead, but Allen further devastated us by saying that distributors can’t ship to Massachusetts either. Disaster! Apparently co-ops and other small outfits that don’t classify themselves as “distributors” can somehow get around these rules. But larger vineyards can’t ship to us, and we can’t pack cases of wine in the Mini for the 10 or so days that are remaining on this trip. So we got a bottle of the Charles Creek “Muy Bonito” (a cabernet blend), and we’ll use that to drink away our sorrows about PA and MA liquor laws later.

After leaving Charles Creek, we stopped in an old-school candy store (another Trish recommendation) on our way back to the Mini. The shop was called Tiddle E. Wink’s, and they have a website. The store was basically too cool to even describe. Lots of vintage candy, games, and all kinds of other cool stuff. The kind of place where you could find the perfect unique present for someone who has everything. We limited ourselves to just some candy — namely, some candy cigarettes (“Lucky Lights”), baseball bubblegum, and Necco wafers. We chatted with the owner about her website and she commiserated with us about how time-consuming it can be to keep current writing a blog. (These posts don’t write themselves, people.)

Candy cigarettes in hand, we got back on the road. We passed signs for (the other) Old Faithful and (the other) Petrified Forest, and we ended up in Calistoga, where we’re staying tonight and tomorrow night. It’s at the north end of the Napa Valley, and it’s home to tons of hot mineral springs and a bunch of vineyards. We checked in at the Lodge at Calistoga (a Clarion hotel), and then headed out to find a place to eat dinner. With the help of Yelp, we picked a place called All Seasons, where we both had some really excellent crispy-skinned chicken and truffled mashed potatoes. While waiting for our food to arrive, I called a local spa and made an appointment for us to get a couples mud bath tomorrow. Yes, you read that correctly — we are getting mud baths tomorrow. And “we” includes Kurt. Stay tuned tomorrow for what promises to be our most riveting post yet!