Over forty days this summer my family and I drove 10,000 miles across the US and back, camping almost all the way. It was awesome. There weren't actually too many travails in our travels, except a few serious downpours, but it sounded good as a title. If there are any genuine travails, they relate to the pain of having to end the trip. This post is really intended as a record of the trip and recollections about the journey. As the trip was forty days long, the entry will have to be built over time.
- July 01: Mystic to Newbridge.
Drove from Mystic to Newbridge, NY during the East Coast heat wave. Did some last minute shopping at the REI in New Haven. The plan was to ease ourselves into traveling and camping by spending two days here and two in the next place.
- July 02: Shawangunks.
Hiked around Lake Minnewaska and visited Stony Kill Falls. Minnewaska is an old haunt of mine from when I lived in NYC. My buddy Brad and I used to drive up to the Gunks once a week to hike in Mohonk or Minnewaska. This time I got to introduce my kids to my memories. Two memories were brand new, however. First, a friendly hiker informed us that if we actually went to the top of Stony Kill Falls, clothing was optional. We, uh, didn't go to the top. Instead, the second new memory was that my wife got us all to stand under the falls, though the dry weather had reduced them to a mere trickle. Still, it was the spirit of the thing and seeing my kids experience something they never expected that was the real treat.
- July 03: Newbridge to Tionesta.
Drove to Tionesta in Allegheny National Forest. This was a long day, as we were working to get out West as quickly as possible. That did not stop us from stopping at the Lackawanna Coal Mine for a tour. The most interesting aspect of the tour was seeing how the miners maximized production by cleaning entire seams while maintaining safety by leaving pillars of coal behind to support the roof. In particular, the Lackawanna Valley had something like eight seams separated by granite, so it was like an eight-story mining apartment building. Plus, it was a well positioned national park. The campground we stayed at was at the base of a huge dam and was home to one of our more dramatic travails. Our trailer site was at the bottom of a small slope, and it rained ferociously for much of the night. So, on our third night camping ever as a family---and my wife and my first time in a long time---I wound up outside in my boxers for an hour (it seemed) digging trenches to try to keep the water from flowing under our tent. We survived. Friendly neighbors asked us how we survived in a tent, informing us that the dedicated tent camping sites across the river had been flooded overnight. So we were lucky, but scarred.
- July 04: Tionesta.
On the holiday, we visited Tionesta and walked around Lighthouse Island, where we met and chatted with an Amish couple fishing. Later, YK and the kids went off to a local fair while I worked on a paper I was supposed to have already finished. It wasn't supposed to rain again that night, but torrential rains came down for a couple of hours and I was out in my boxers again. (I have to admit that while I was a bit stressed, I wasn't really worried, and it was fun to "battle the elements" a bit. I was further scarred and decided that I should buy a hatchet at some point for digging trenches and pounding tent stakes.
- July 05: Tionesta to Union.
A very long drive to a KOA on the west side of Chicago. My wife had to drive through more heavy rain, and I had to drive through Chicago, which was a bit enervating, as I'd only been driving in the countryside for a year. But we did briefly stop in Vermilion, OH to look out over Lake Erie. I believe we also touched Michigan along the way, but I may be wrong. We ate Thai food in Elkhart, Indiana before continuing on toward Chicago and the KOA in Union. Meanwhile, our soundtrack of Jo Jo, Sing, Leap, and later Bruno Mars started to get assembled. I was not often able to listen to my own music selections during the trip, except on my birthday.
- July 06: Union to Pikes Peak, IA.
This was a fairly manageable day. We spent most of it on Route 20, lunching in Lena at a state park and running through Galena and Dubuque and then following the Mississippi River north to Pikes Peak State Park, where the Mississippi meets the Wisconsin River at 500' bluffs and where we camped for the night. Route 20 took us along a stagecoach route through corn country. "Corn again!" my daughter coined to describe how boring the scenery supposedly was. And though I've heard many cross-country drivers complain of the Plains, I found at least this first stretch of "corn again" to be quite attractive and engaging. Perhaps there were more hills than in other areas? At any rate, this was the first time we tried our luck as "walk-ins" without prior reservations at the campground. We were fortunate enough to get one, but the other two free sites were taken within a half hour of our arrival. The campground itself was quite nice and shady, but it was filled with tiny black flies that did not bite but seemed to flock around my face. It was quite unpleasant, and it had us wondering if camping was perhaps a mistake after all! But making our first fire of the trip helped to dispel those worries. The S'mores were tasty!
- July 07: Pikes Peak.
On this day, my job was to work on my paper. So after hiking around Pikes Peak and looking at the old Native American effigy mounds in the shape of animals, I stayed in the campsite trying to avoid the flies. Meanwhile, everyone else went down to the attractive town of McGregor to walk around and shop and to take a ferry on the river, where the girls got a chance to "steer" the boat and where Sienna seems to have lost her pocketbook with her some of her savings inside.
- July 08: Pikes Peak to Fort Thompson.
Finally west of the Mississippi. We drove out to the Army Corp of Engineers' Left Tailrace Campground in South Dakota area to camp just below the dam. Lovely but hot. We saw white pelicans, the girls' first ever pelicans. That said,, we went shopping at Lynn's Dakotamart to pick up supplies and encountered a troubling sign of Native American poverty. There was a sign that said that the store stayed open late on days that locals received their welfare checks. This of course implies that are scraping by and need to shop for food the moment they receive their welfare. Must make for a stressful life.
- July 09: Fort Thompson to Badlands.
Badlands. For me, the first major stop out West and the beginning of the real site seeings. I had long wanted to visit since one of my closest friends from college and after had told me that his father had visited the Badlands on a motorcycle and told him that it was incredible. As it is. Insanely hot, but incredible. And it was a great introduction to the geology of canyons and the Plains...and, of course, dinosaurs. At the ranger station in the Badlands, you can see researchers cleaning up fossils found in the park. And so began the trip's inevitable engagement with dinosaurs for the girls and geology for me. Volcanoes were soon to come. It was also where we learned about the Junior Ranger Program, in which kids complete a number of tasks that teach them about the park. Upon completion, they are sworn in (often with a joke included, like "I promise to always eat my vegetables.") and receive a badge. Somehow, no matter how frazzled or tired the rangers were, they always made time to sincerely engage the kids in asking about their experience and swearing them in. For the girls, the badge was the major goal, but they had fun doing the exercises, too. We often had to spend extra time somewhere just so that they could get their badge. Ultimately, they acquired quite a collection. I will say, though, that the program is excellent and the I applaud the National Park Service for the commitment to this program. It makes the park a richer experience for both kids and parents.
- July 10: Badlands to Spearfish.
Woke up in the last of the mosquito campsites, the Badlands KOA, where I went for the last jog of the trip. On our drive out of the Badlands, we saw our first mountain goats and bison. The four bison were exciting, but nothing compared to what we would soon see in Yellowstone. The rest of the day was basically spent in the Black Hills. First stop was Mount Rushmore, still one of the kids' favorite stops. Like most of the national parks, especially the hyped parks, Mount Rushmore was cooler than expected. The site is a bit too patriotic, but it still is stunning. From Mount Rushmore, we drove along the Needles Highway, admiring the impossibly tall rock spires. After lunch among lodge pole pines, we drove through Custer State Park, hoping to visit Jewel Cave. Unfortunately, we were too late to get tickets, so on our way north toward Deadwood, I gave in to my wife's earlier suggestion that we stop for a swim at Sylvan Lake, where there were rocks towering up out of the manmade lake. Perhaps one of my biggest regrets of the trip is that I was all too often thinking about saving money and getting to the destination at a reasonable time. When I forced myself to relax and follow opportunities (and my wife's typically excellent suggestions), we had more fun. In this case it was a lovely dip in refreshingly cool water at the end of a hot day. Of course, we then had to drive almost two hours to drive through Deadwood on our way to stay in Spearfish for our first night in a hotel. Thanks to the HBO series, Deadwood was a must for me. I wanted to take a minute to imagine this silver-inspired pop-up city in its heyday and visit the famous Mount Moriah Cemetery, even though we did not have time to look around for specific graves. After all, I was the only one interested. Had a tasty dinner at the Steerfish Steak and Smoke.
- July 11: Spearfish to Devil's Tower.
Laundry day in Spearfish. Also made my first experiment with dry ice in the snazzy Yeti cooler, which turned out to be an awesome investment, despite the price. My combination of a couple of pounds of dry ice and a ten pound block of icey ice kept the icey ice frozen for two days and the food plenty cold for a couple more...in 100 degree heat. In the afternoon, we drove to Devil's Tower, still my youngest daughter's favorite spot on the trip. She loved it because I explained how it is a baby volcano and because it was the first volcano she'd every seen. And of course it looks amazing with the geometric edges scraping skyward. We were fortunate to get a site in the park campground, Belle Fourche. I think this was the first time that we headed to a campground without reservations, a practice we got much more comfortable with as the trip progressed. From the campground, you could see Devil's Tower and the feeling was awesome. The girls made friends with a young teenage girl traveling with her father to visit the rest of her family (or something like that). The only drawback was that the girl was up until 2 or 3am listening to religious adventure stories about God conquering demons. I didn't hear it much, but it kept my wife awake for a long time. It was definitely bad campground behavior. Don't know how her father failed to notice.
- July 12: Devil's Tower to Cody.
This day was all about Wyoming. We first hustled back up to Devil's Tower so that the girls could get their Junior Ranger badges. And then we got back on the road. Originally I wanted to visit Thunder Basin National Park, but we decided on this day to stage ourselves for entry into Yellowstone the next day, so we made KOA reservations in Cody, WY. This is as good a point as any to mention the advantages of staying at KOAs. They are very much the hotel of campgrounds. You can make same day online reservations up to 4pm. This is awesome if you know you are going to be on the road until dinner or later and want to be sure you have a place to stay. They simply assign you a site (among the class that you designated), like a hotel assigns a room. This is necessarily as nice as letting you assess what is available and making choices that suit your individual preferences, but it is quick and worry free. And most importantly, as my buddy Brad's sister said, they have pools. And playgrounds. And the kids love this. They would always light up when they learned that we would stay in a KOA, because they knew that we would play in the pool and they could play on the swingset while my wife and I set up camp and got dinner ready. And of course, they have laundry and internet (kind of). So the KOAs had their place. As they did this day.
After making our reservations, we took our time driving out I-90 to Route 14. Though I wanted to take Route 16 through Ten Sleep, since our Big Agnes tent was named the Ten Sleep 6, Route 14 is purportedly the most attractive road through Bighorn National Forest. And it was a gorgeous route. From the Plains, you climb and climb up the steep roadway into the Bighorn Mountains, which are a sister range to the Rockies. As the Plains fade away, you traverse wide, alpine meadows and then drop into precipitous, geometric valleys before exiting back out onto the Plains. On one of the last empty stretches of Wyoming highway, with no restroom for miles and a bladder threatening to burst, my youngest daughter was forced to pee on the side of the road. She refused at first, but her bladder insisted, and then her worries were over. One step tougher. After pulling into the Cody KOA, the girls went to the playground and inflatable trampoline while we set up. After a brief swim at one of the nicest pools on the trip, I pushed us out for one of the few things I consciously planned for: the Cody Nite Rodeo. I'm not a great fan of rodeos, but they have their interesting aspects and more importantly no one else in the family had ever been to a rodeo. And what better place to see your first rodeo than in Cody, the town established by Buffalo Bill Cody, the most famous rodeo man in history? Turns out it is the 80th year of the Stampede. The quality was not the highest, but it was better than I recall having seen. We enjoyed our dinner in the stands. And my older daughter watched fascinated. I think it was the amazement of seeing so many horses. It was also cool to see young girls and women riding and roping and whatnot. (I really should have let my wife get us all out for a horse ride at some time during the trip, but money made me shy.) At any rate, my daughter made us stay until the very end of the show and was ready to go back as soon as possible. The girls even joined the kids' game of trying to grab a red cloth off the back of a calf. I don't think they ever came close, but they were out there in the middle of the stampede field, something I have never done. I'm not sure they liked it. But they got a bit tougher again. I don't want delicate daughters.
- July 13: Cody to Colter Bay.
After an aggravated effort to clear hosts of little tiny sand flea looking bugs out of our tent, we left Cody for Yellowstone. I have always stubbornly rejected the idea of going to Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon. Both are so famous and popular that I thought I needed to resist visiting. In my head I guess it was all Yogi Bear and tourists. But Yellowstone was on the way, so we figured we'd pass through on our way to Grand Teton National Park, which I was confident would be, well, grand. And with some good fortune, I was lucky enough to get us reservations for two nights in tent cabins (two solid walls and canvas for everything else) in Colter Bay. They were a bit expensive ($80/night), but I figured we could benefit from a modicum of comfort since we had stayed in our tent the whole time so far. Plus, they had bunk beds, which I knew the girls would enjoy. To go in through the east entrance of the park, the closest, we got to pass through Shoshone Valley, a reservoir and power plant that gave way to rough, rocky mountains and forests of lodgepole pine. We finally knew we were getting out of cattle country and into the wilds. But our entrance to Yellowstone was anti-climactic, if interesting in its own right. We wound our way down toward Yellowstone Lake, which sits at the heart of the park. The entire landscape consisted of grass and tall blackened sticks of burnt pine. It was disheartening, but it showed what forest fires can do. Indeed, it showed what forest fires must do to keep the forests themselves healthy. But it did not seem to bode well for our visit. At one point, we presumed that the whole park had burned down, reinforcing my belief that Yellowstone might not be all it is cracked up to be.
But then we approached the lake. On the way down, we passed a waterfall that tumbled downward for 300m or more. Then we saw an elk walking along a spit projecting into the lake (and followed by 20--30 people!). We had sandwiches for lunch under some pines overlooking the lake. Suddenly it felt like we should stop the car and get out at every corner and turnout. We visited the ranger station to get Junior Ranger activity books and saw our first up-close bison and were warned about bears. And then we headed for Old Faithful, because if you're going to be in Yellowstone for one day in your life, you obviously have to see Old Faithful. I expected a disappointment (still!), but I wanted my daughters to be able to say that they had seen it. And they did. And we all loved it. I must mention again here how amazing the National Park Service is. They have done a fantastic job of spreading the crowds out around Old Faithful and protecting both them and the geyser from damage. We were also fortunate to be seated at the spot that a roving ranger came and explained how the pressure builds up inside the chamber below the surface and leads to the eruption. It also served as their ranger activity for their Junior Ranger books, which was convenient since we were trying to finish the activities and get their badge before we left the park in a few hours. One of the activities was to use a simple formula to calculate when Old Faithful's next eruption would take place, a great bit of math practice for my older daughter amidst the fun. We marked the time when the geyser started and timed how long it lasted, and my daughter was able to make the exact prediction that the rangers made. The eruption itself was also pretty cool. Not necessarily awe-inspiring, but definitely satisfactory. I probably would have pushed to move on, but the Junior Rangers saved us. The girls had to do a hike to get their badge, so off we went on the one-mile walk among the geysers and hot springs adjacent to Old Faithful. The clear water filled rock formations were amazing. Precipitated calcium formed jagged snow-like bluffs around the edges, and the sulfur tinged other spots a fascinating orange. And just as we returned from our hike, it was time for Old Faithful to erupt again, 5:39pm according to my daughter's calculations. She was exactly right. Awesome. In a few short hours the girls had finished their Junior Ranger activities. They were quite determined. So we went in to get their badges. When the ranger asked how many elk and bison they had seen, they responded just a couple. The ranger was surprised, so I asked where we should be going. Lamar Valley and Hayden Valley was the answer. Suddenly I had a feeling we would be back.
But by now it was time to head south to our tent cabin in Grand Teton. The drive down was lovely all over again. There is just no end to the magnificence up there. The kids loved the bunk beds while my wife and I worried about mosquitoes flying in through the gaps between the canvas roof and the walls. The mosquitoes turned out to be a false alarm, since it is so cool at night there. But we did have to worry about bears for the first time. Everything that smelled vaguely edible had to go into the bear lockers, even make up and toothpaste. I expected to run into a bear at any moment, especially when I went out to pee in the middle of the night. But we didn't see any...until the next day.
- July 14: Grand Tetons.
The Grand Tetons are quite simply gorgeous, and we were fortunate enough to have clear skies that showed them off to their best advantage, even if we didn't wake up for sunrise. Still, I was excited. We were going to go on our first real hike. We stopped by the grocery store in Colter Bay to pick up and pack up lunch. Most of us wound up with mediocre pulled pork sliders. We then stopped by the ranger station to pick up the Junior Ranger activity book and get some advice on trails. After some discussion, we settled on walking along Jenny Lake up to String Lake for lunch and then I would probably return alone to get the car and pick everyone else up. But the chief advice we received was to be wary of bears and that the rangers "recommend" carrying bear spray, available at the low, low price of $50--70. To be honest, they weren't pushing the bear spray sales; they were simply trying to keep people safe. If it had been just my wife and I, I would not have thought too seriously about the bear spray. But we were with the girls, and parental instincts urge you to protect. Still, since the cost was so high, we resolved with some nervousness to simply go for it. Never having encountered a bear in the wild, I was imagining that just seeing a bear would result in three-inch claws flying everywhere and ripping us to shreds. Needless to say, I was uncomfortable. And observing other people on the trail only added to my concern. Those trail runners who passed us? Small canister of bear spray strapped to the lead runner's shorts. The couple that passed us going the other way? Holster full of bear spray. It seemed that each of the four or five groups we passed were carrying bear spray, and I started to get very worried. Then, 20 meters away up on the hill above us, I saw the black fur of a bear's back as it walked by. We immediately aborted the mission, turning around and heading back to the car. Looking back now, I know I was over-reacting and things would have been fine, but it was the first time encountering a bear in the wild and it freaked me out. My feeling quickly changed. On our drive up to Jenny Lake for lunch, we stopped with others to watch a bear foraging in the trees nearby. As we walked along the lake, someone let use their binoculars to look at a grizzly on the other side of the lake. At the picnic area, we saw someone alerting an entirely nonplussed ranger that they had seen a bear a few hundred meters up the path. It became apparent that the bears were much less of a danger than I had imagined.
In the afternoon we returned to Colter Bay. My wife insisted that we go canoeing on Jackson Lake. Ever money conscious, I was opposed to such an extravagant expense for such minimal returns. After all, we could canoe for free back in CT if we really wanted to. But my wife prevailed. We had a small heated debate when I learned that we would have to rent two canoes and our cost would double to $70 for two hours. As we debated, the counter person faded away. Eventually I realized that canoeing under the Tetons would be a unique experience and that $70 would not matter much in the long run. So off we went. One daughter and one parent in each canoe. The views were fantastic, and my wife and daughters had a brand new experience. Upon our return, we moved north to the Colter Bay beach of small, smooth stones. The water was chilly, but there was no way I wasn't going in. After all, I had jumped into the water off Elihu Island each day through the end of October. I could handle and even thrill in cold water. So in I went. What I didn't expect was that my younger daughter would so happily follow me, while my wife and older daughter entertained themselves on the shore. I was so proud of my daughter for being so bold and for enjoying the challenge of the cold water. It was a serious bonding moment.
- July 15: Yellowstone.
There is no way to "finish" one of these incredible parks. There is only moving on when the time comes. And it came. We headed out of Grand Teton after breakfast and headed for the Yellowstone South Entrance to see if we might be able to get a campsite for night. On the way up we passed a bear, some elk, and a bison by a steaming geyser. And there were indeed a few open up by the Northeast Entrance. We aimed for Tower Fall. We traveled through Hayden Valley. It was fairly uneventful, but I was focused on Tower Fall and wasn't ready to stop and look around. We were fortunate enough to get a site looking across the valley to another hill. The view was not exceptional, but it was a view and air was clean and we were going to sleep in Yellowstone. We didn't have to leave yet after all.
After lunch, we visited Tower Fall and hiked down the hill to the Yellowstone River, where we waded and cooled down for a while before heading back up. After that, we headed out Route 212 to Cooke City through the Lamar Valley, which I had seen billed as one of the best drives in America. And, indeed, one wants to stop at every corner and pull out as you wind through the steep, pine valley alongside Soda Butte Creek. And then we discovered why the ranger was so surprised that we'd only seen a couple of bison. We saw at least two huge herds. Males were fighting. Dust was flying. Calves were munching. And all were on the move. Not far away, there were countless elk. Exactly the kinds of things you seen in nature documentaries. We later learned from a ranger (at th eGrand Canyon, I think) that the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone had significantly impacted the ecosystem. I had already seen How Wolves Change Rivers. The short film shows how reintroducing wolves had cut down the populations of herd animals and that this had allowed the grasses to grow more lushly, which in turn countered the erosion caused by the river. And one simply assumes that the causal mechanism is hunting, but the ranger told us that they now think the biggest impact is due to fear. Because the herd animals fear being hunted by the wolves, they pay more attention to their surroundings, which means that their heads are up longer and more frequently, so they do not eat as much.
In some ways, I think this day may have been the climax of the trip. We felt so fortunate to stay another day in Yellowstone, and we had seen all the nature one imagines when one imagines Yellowstone. We had seen the river, bear, elk, bison, rugged valleys, water falls, broad alpine meadows. It was unbelievable. So we made a nice, big fire, and my wife and I sat around a while in the coolness of the mountains' night sky and had a beer.
- July 16: Tower Fall to Pocatello.
The day was a bit gray, but that was fine, since we were ready to get on the road. Or at least we had decided it was time to get back on the road. After all, we were already about halfway through our time and still far from the Pacific. We drove out to Mammoth Hot Springs, where rain started to drop lightly and we were able to marvel at the mineral deposits from the hot springs. Of course, there were water falls and elk and bison and breathtaking scenes. What else would you expect from Yellowstone? How could I ever have doubted how amazing the place is? Anyway, the intricate and unique patterns the hot springs created fascinated me. I couldn't stop taking close-ups of just parts of the mineral mounds. I think this is when my older daughter started to also zero in on the coolness of the small details of the landscape. By the time we hit southern Colorado, she was taking close up pictures of rocks and dirt and trees and things.
Originally we planned to simply sneak out the North Entrance of the park, but since Yellowstone continued to deliver, I decided we might as well drive down the one stretch of road we hadn't covered yet. Also, around this time, my buddy from long ago Korea bailed on us. He and his son were supposed to meet us in the northern Rockies for a drive out to Haida Gwaii. This promise may well have been the final weight that tipped the scale in favor of actually getting on the road. But after a week or two of failing to convince us to go through more empty plains to a family house on a lake, where we have "lost" a week of seeing North America's greatest hits, he told us that he had rented the place and wouldn't be able to meet us. While a big disappointment, since I haven't seen the guy since 9/11, the original promise helped get us on the road and breaking it freed up my family to do our thing. All good in my world. Cosmic determination in his. So rather than head north to Glacier National Park, Kootenai, Banff, and beyond, we decided to get to the West Coast as soon as we could. I was starting to thirst for those big waves, long beaches, salty winds, and ocean sunsets. So we headed south to Norris and then out the West Entrance to West Yellowstone, Montana. Perhaps we should have gone north. We got held up by multiple bouts of road construction. But by the end we had basically seen "everything" (at least as far as roads go), and our pizza in West Yellowstone was a total delight. From here, we jumped on Route 20 and then took I-15 south to a KOA in Pocatello, Idaho.
- July 17: Pocatello to Twin Falls.
I think our initial plan was to visit Craters of the Moon National Park and then high-tail it into Sawtooth or something. After dawdling in Yellowstone, I was starting to feel pressure to cover some ground so that we could actually get to the Pacific Ocean. My wife suggested that maybe we didn't have to go all the way across the country, but what did she know? There was no way we could come this far and not touch the Pacific. That said, we held out the possibility of staying at Craters of the Moon, since it was in the middle of lava and volcanoes are my youngest's thing. Though sites were available, it would have been to hot, so we decided we'd push on.
But not without checking out the lava fields and climbing an old cone volcano. We would also have visited lava tubes, but unfortunately we had visited Lackawanna and did not have shoes we could wear without threatening the local bat population. While visiting various spots, though, a couple from the region strongly recommended that we visit Shoshone Falls on the Snake River, which they said was called the "Niagara Falls of the West". So we made reservations at the Twin Falls KOA and headed for a visit. To my mind, though, Niagara Falls should probably be designated the "Shoshone Falls of the East". While Niagara Falls, which we visited in October 2018, exhibits sheer power, Shoshone Falls tumbles in strong staggered steps around rocky parapets and thereby expresses more character.
- July 18: Twin Falls to Deschutes.
Having burned the last of our Yellowstone wood the night before (so as not to spread parasites or disease), we hit the road in earnest, following 84 west to Route 20 and Deschutes National Forest. Route 20 is basically the historic Oregon Trail, and it is a barren, forbidding stretch. We camped amid pines at Gull Point Campground on Wickiup Reservoir. Due to the drought, the reservoir water was low, but it was a calm, quiet site where we basically alone. We were finally within striking distance of the ocean, but it was clear that we wouldn't have time to drive down the coast and visit friends. We still had to get back.
- July 19: Deschutes to the Oregon Coast.
This was a huge day. We started by visiting Crater Lake National Park, where there is a volcano inside a lake inside a volcano. This was destined to be one of my youngest's favorites, and perhaps it was. We were blessed with beautiful weather. As a result the lake's color was a brilliant azure and the pines a lush chartreuse. The endless photos we took fail to do the place justice. We wound up driving all the way around, which turned out to be a bit longer than we'd hoped.
Fortunately, we did not have to stress out. I had managed to make reservations for the night at William M. Tugman State Park. The campground was a bit crowded, but the facilities were decent and the sites were separated by dense redwoods. Most importantly, one could feel and smell the moisture of the Pacific. Perhaps it's just nostalgia my days back in SF, but there is something about the smell and feel of the Pacific that energizes and embraces me. Somehow it just feels right to me.
When we arrived, though, I was in a hurry. Sunset was approaching quickly, and we had to get out to the dunes to see the sun go down. We quickly set up camp, ate dinner, and then rushed off to dunes. The kids loved it. They had never seen so much sand, never seen a sand dune. We climbed up the closest dune just in time to watch the sun hit the horizon. My youngest daughter and I watched it closely and were rewarded. We got my favorite kind of Pacific sunset. As the sun goes down, the bottom edge widens out into a trapezoid and when the last sliver is about to drop below the horizon, it turns ever so slightly green. To have my arm over my daughter's shoulder and point out the whole transformation was a special moment to share.
For the kids, the best was yet to come. I taught them how they could do what I called moon leaps down the dune. With a heave and huge steps it feels like you're defying gravity as you run down the dune. The kids loved it. I think they climbed all the way up the 100m dune two or three more times just to run down again and finally collapse on their butt. I don't think they would have stopped if my wife hadn't made us all go back.
- July 20: The Oregon Coast to Portland.
We got a bit of a slow start and then headed up the Oregon Coast. Again, for me, it was like coming home. The big sweeping beaches stretching away under the bluffs. The stiff breeze mixing salt and pine in the air. The crash of waves occasionally obscured by a splash of fog. Just heaven. We made three major stops, benefiting from low tide. First, we visited a wide beach and walked out to the waves to officially touch the Pacific. My youngest misjudged a wave and got a shoe soaking wet. After changing her shoe, we moved on to a random area of tidal pools. The girls loved jumping from rock to rock and looking for life amidst the streaming seaweed. Our third stop was the top of a bluff to get some lunch (in the wind). After one woman kindly pointed out that we had left our engine on, we got yelled at by the landscaper for parking too close to the exit (never minding that he had occupied half of the parking area!).
I had made reservations in Portland for Saturday night. It was to be our first and most expensive hotel. So, all too soon, we left the coast to turn back east toward Portland. On the way, we stopped for a coffee at Wild Rain, where the proprietor's ocean paintings demonstrated some skill. With only one night in Portland, we got there while it was still light and headed out. For me, the main destinations were books and beer. First it was off to the Deschutes pub for dinner. After all, we had stayed in Deschutes National Park... The beer was, of course, tasty. Then we made the obligatory stop at Powell's Books, which thrilled everyone since we all got a book. For the kids, I tried to head over to Voodoo Donuts for dessert, but the line was ridonkulous and we pushed on. My wife wanted to go down to the riverside park, and so we did. She was amazed at the number of homeless people, though I don't think it affected my kids too much. The evening ended by watching the beginning of Wonder Woman in Pioneer Square.
- I'm going to get a bit briefer to try to finish. 2018-11-30
- July 21: Portland to Umatilla.
After a diner breakfast during which I was desperately trying to get my paper finished---and about to give up---we headed out of Portland and Back East. We followed the Columbia River to Umatilla. Umatilla is the former storage site for chemical weapons from World War II, mustard gas in particular, and there are fields full of marked mounds and sheds. A bit eerie. We crossed the river into Washington and set up camp, then back across the river to go shopping, and back into Washington to settle in. Our campsite felt like a park, and the area were we set up our tent with no water or electricity was probably meant to be a picnic area, since there were grills and picnic tables but no real sites. That said, we were not the only campers. Once settled, we drove to a genuine public park across the inlet to go swimming. The local Hispanic population was in full force. Camping was without incident.
- July 22: Umatilla to Ogden.
This day was massive mileage day. We followed I-84 east to Ogden, Utah, which is just above Salt Lake City. Except for the very last stretch of I-95, this was the only place we "backtracked" over a road we had already driven. On our only other option was a longer and emptier drive through northern Nevada. I think it was somewhere along this stretch of road that I secretly decided that we would have to visit the Grand Canyon. We hadn't decided where to go after Salt Lake City, but I urged us to go south. I wanted to surprise my wife by actually going to the Grand Canyon, which she had regularly talked about. I figured it would be as overrated as I thought Yellowstone would be. Having been wrong about Yellowstone, I figured we might as well give it a shot. In Ogden we stayed at a KOA and ate at a crummy diner. During dinner, I urgently made a reservation for July 26th, my birthday, at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon (I think).
- July 23: Ogden to Spruces Campground.
This day was a work day. Our car Etta, which is named after the previous owner whom we'd never met, was overdue for an oil change, had driven all the way across country, and was soon to drive in serious heat. So while the girls did the laundry and went for a swim, I got a premium oil change at Jiffy Lube. While waiting for my oil change, I fell into conversation with another customer who thought I worked for NASA because of the SSAA sticker my daughter put on my computer and just loved boilers. We started talking about the trip and in response to my question he said that his favorite place in southern Utah was Cedar Breaks, which I had never heard of. After the car and laundry were ready, we drove into downtown Salt Lake City so that the girls could visit the Children's Museum while I continued working on my paper at a coffee shop with uncomfortable modern furniture and overpriced coffee. We drove by the Tabernacle to say that we had because we felt we had to rush a bit to get to a first-come-first-served campground. And it is good that we did. The next day was Pioneer Day, a huge holiday in Utah that I had never heard of. After a long and lovely climb into the mountains above Salt Lake City, we were fortunate to get one of only a few sites left at Spruces Campground. We enjoyed a small fire amid the spruce trees.
- July 24: Spruces Campground to Cedar Breaks.
Following the boiler guy's advice, we made a long drive south on I-15 to Cedar Breaks, hoping for another walk-in site. The drive was mainly flat on a dry plain between two mountain ranges. As we began the climb up to Cedar Breaks, a nasty thunderstorm ripped through the area and continued to threaten all afternoon. We found a site at Point Supreme Campground, which is at an elevation of roughly 10,000', which is kind of cool in its own way. Everyone else was fine, but I think I had some minor altitude sickness in the form of a mild headache each morning. The campground is basically a spruce wooded island in the middle of a wide mountain meadow lake full of yellow flowers. We pitched our tent while avoiding burst of rain showers and even a brief bout of hail. We then drove across the street to Point Supreme itself, the starting point of Cedar Breaks, which is in turn the starting point of all the canyons going south to the Grand Canyon. It was awesome. Striated oranges, yellows, and whites. Hoodoos climbing upward. Monumental depth. Later that evening, we noticed that the campers across the road included a couple of girls about my daughters' ages. Much later that night I was awoken twice by the howling of wolves in the meadow.
- July 25: Cedar Breaks to Zion and back.
Since we had been driving so much and since putting up and taking down the tent and packing the car every day gets tiring and since we were camping at 10,000', we had decided to stay put for another night. The day's plan was to visit Zion National Park. As awesome as it is, it was by far my least favorite national park. We drove in to the park through the east entrance. Even though I couldn't find our National Parks Pass at the moment, the gate keeper let us through. And, oh my. The wind and water carved mesas there are phenomenal, abstract designs. Driving along the winding Mount Carmel Highway, every turn was simply astounding. Much busier than most other parks, but tolerable for the majesty. However, when we pulled into the park's core near Springdale, things got unpleasant. We found a parking spot on the road, paid for our parking ticket, and headed to the trail head. The ranger insisted on seeing our pass, which I still couldn't find. We assume that we lost it in our hurry at the crappy diner in Ogden. So we had to pay another $80 for a new pass. In the end, we still saved money, and under the current administration the Parks System needs all the resources it can get, so we chalked it up as a donation. Still hurt though. We took the crowded bus up Zion Canyon and got off early to have lunch and hike a bit further. Lunch was hot but filling and quiet. Then we got back on the bus to the final stop to follow the trail up to the Narrows. Still with the taste of an $80 loss in my mouth, the crowds on the trail greatly disappointed me and spoiled the experience quite a bit. Hiking up the trail, lovely as it was, was like climbing Baegundae, Seoul's most famous peak, on a Sunday afternoon. It was a single-file line moving up the trail. When we got to the point where you walk through the stream into the narrow canyons, I could see a thunderstorm out over the canyon. I believed that we could not continue, since the rain would make the canyon dangerous, and it seemed like people were flooding back. My wife didn't believe and thought I was playing weather fairy, which frustrated her. But I insisted, and after a bit of walking in the stream, we rejoined the line down the hill, which turned into a line for the buses. She learned from conversations around us that I had been right and that the rangers had been sending everyone back. Eventually we made it back to the car. And there was Springdale parking ticket on the windshield. Literally minutes after we had left the car, the traffic cop that I had seen pull up had given us a ticket because the license plate on the ticket did not match our license plate. All it said was "L". Then I remembered the screen that had flashed by as I pushed some buttons waiting for the parking station computer to respond. Knowing that the cop must have seen me park and leave, I got pissed off at the puny minded tourist town traffic cop mentality. They were probably just trying to meet a quota, but how petty. It was minutes too late to call to contest, so I immediately filed an online contestation. Needless to say, my ice cream did not taste so good.
After winding back out through the beauty, which helped restore some good feeling, we returned to our campsite. Pretty soon the two girls from the opposite campsite were visiting, and the four girls starting cooking up magic potions or something. If I remember correctly, all the girls went over to have toasted marshmallows: dessert before dinner! But even before we sat down to dinner, the girls' parents, who of course we had waved to and exchanged simple pleasantries with, came over and just kind of joined us. Their timing was a bit odd, but they were certainly welcome. It was fun to sit around and chat with someone else. As I had guessed when they refused my offer of a beer, they were Mormons. They had driven down for a five day vacation. She was a former art student and he was an engineer. Nice folks.
- July 26: Cedar Breaks to Grand Canyon North Rim.
My birthday. And we had reservations for the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. In the morning, the four girls were back at their games, and as we packed up, the parents joined us and kind of watched. So we made a slow departure that morning, especially since we revisited Cedar Breaks in the sunlight. The drive down was uneventful but lovely. We lunched at the Rocking V in Kanab for some tasty Southwestern cooking. And we arrived fairly early...for us. We skipped the campground and headed straight for canyon. Holy be-moley! Just like Yellowstone, it was better than I had ever imagined it could be. Words can't do justice to vast, deep expanse of the Grand Canyon, to the antiquity of the geological strata revealed in its earthy pigments. Insane. But I can mention that I climbed to the top of a promontory on the first trail for a full view. Realizing that it looked more dangerous than it was and that I needed to encourage some rock climbing in my daughters, I helped them to the top in turn. I have some picture of me with my youngest daughter that I love, despite the fact that they all came out horribly. Having gotten a taste for the Canyon, we visited the ranger station to get the Junior Ranger badge process started, learning that we needed to attend a ranger talk that evening to make it happen. So we went to the campground to set up our site and eat some dinner. Rain made the process a challenge, but I had fun setting up our tarp as a shelter for my wife to cook dinner. The storm passed as soon as dinner was over, and we headed back to the North Rim Visitor Center for a craft beer, a sunset, and a ranger talk. The ranger, a recent graduate from Wesleyan, gave a great talk about the stories behind white men imposing their naming on places that had long had other names. All in all, an awesome birthday.
- July 27: North Rim to Flagstaff.
We checked out of the site, apologizing for having made some small trenches to deal with the rain. I also asked the ranger if there were any last minute cancellations. There weren't, but she told me we could free camp just outside the park. Even though I knew we'd never do it and already had hotel reservations for the evening, I took down information on the site. Then, we spent the day driving along the North Rim. We spent quite a bit of energy identifying plants and trees. My oldest daughter spent quite a bit of energy making up names for places and convincing us that they were the real names. She had a great name for Angel's Window, but I've forgotten it. She was also pretty captivated by the Walhalla Glades Pueblo, ruins of an ancient settlement not far from the rim. I also thought it was fascinating, but my favorite was probably Wotan's Throne.
Since we could not get South Rim reservations, I had made reservations at a hotel in Flagstaff, Arizona. The place attracted me for two reasons. First, it was the name of the beer my grandfather used to drink. Second, it was home to the Lowell Observatory. Much of trip had been by chance about my younger daughter's favorite: volcanoes. My older daughter had complained that there was no space activities. When I discovered the Lowell Observatory, I knew we had to go. We had a tasty late lunch at the Cliff Dweller's Restaurant amidst Mars red rocks on the backside of the Vermilion Cliffs. After winding our way through Page and Mexican Hat, we headed south on 89, where some idiot passed cars coming toward us at well over 80mph and forced me to slam on the brakes to ensure that we wouldn't have a head on collision that killed us all. It was by far the closest we came to an accident and, indeed, death. But we survived that and another lightening storm on our way into Flagstaff.
We went straight to the observatory, since it was already 7pm or so. We saw a science show, and then toured the main telescope before returning for a talk on Mars. My oldest daughter loved it and did not want to leave after the talk, even though it was 9pm and we hadn't eaten dinner. At the hotel, we ordered Chinese food, which was delivered by a white kid and tasted poor.
- July 28: Flagstaff to South Rim.
I originally thought we would head east toward Escalante or something from Flagstaff, but the Grand Canyon was so awesome that we decided to visit the South Rim before pushing east to find a campsite. Though I generally preferred the North Rim, perhaps because it was our first taste, perhaps because it was steeper, we very much enjoyed Desert View Tower, where we learned that the most dangerous animal to humans in the park was the squirrel, which could bite through to your bone if you offered them food. That said, the visit took us all day. And while I was starting to get worried about finding a campsite or hotel, I had gained enough confidence that we would find something somewhere. And we did. Something somewhere turned out to be free camping in Kaibab National Forest just outside the South Rim near Desert View. Driving into the area ("Turn right at mile marker 161," the guy at Desert View had told me.), we found an empty area that had been frequently used in the past. As we drove around to find a site, we came across a deer skin. Everyone was a bit freaked out about being so isolated. There was just one RV out by the entrance. Discomfort was made worse by the fact that everyone had to pee outdoors. My oldest freaked out about it until she finally just did it. First time is always the hardest. Perhaps because we saw a coyote in the Desert View Campground before we left, perhaps because we saw a dead animal nearby, the girls and my wife decided that the girls wanted to sleep in the car. We set that up. I cracked the windows and gave them a key. But then it started raining, and I didn't want to leave the windows open, and the girls got a bit scared of the lightening and thunder. So we moved them to the tent and locked the doors.
- July 29: South Rim to Cortez.
In the morning I discovered that I could not open the car doors because the key was still inside. For a few moments, I was freaking out, thinking that we were miles from civilization in an empty wilderness and would have to call a locksmith that would take all day and a million dollars. However, it turned out that we had another key in the tent and were able to open the car. But not before I had had a minor heart attack. Ultimately, though, I am quite proud of our night in Kaibab. After a month of camping, we had finally done it without infrastructural support. We brought all our own supplies, including water. We had used only our charged lanterns for light. We had not picnic tables. We had lived without plumbing. We had truly roughed it and come out stronger. I had not had any real worries about being able to, but I am proud that we actually did.
We couldn't resist going back to Desert View to see the Canyon in a different light. So I made reservations at the Cortez KOA and back we went. A ranger told us about the creepy crawlies of the Canyon, including the tarantula hawk.
I insisted that we visit Monument Valley along the way to see the iconic image of the Wild West of John Wayne and John Ford. We drove through the horribly bumpy and red dusty reservation. And we admired the mesas. They still remain iconic memories for me. I'm sure this has been reinforced by watching a number of Westerns and road trips that visit Monument Valley since I returned to Korea. But still, the volcanic stubs sticking straight up out of a red wasteland are compellingly majestic. We reached the Cortez KOA at dinner time. The KOA was exceptionally clean and ordered, if tight. While we got set up, the girls played with a tween Swiss girl from the next campsite, who was traveling through with her family to attend an Up with People! reunion and visit some family. Her father seemed ignorant of the fact that we were just miles from Mesa Verde.
- July 30: Mesa Verde.
But we weren't. My oldest daughter and I, who were both excited about it, drove to the visitor center at 7am to get tickets for the pueblo tours. We were one of the first and managed to get tickets to both Cliff Palace and Balcony House. After breakfast back at the KOA, we headed up to Cliff Palace with our Junior Ranger booklets and lots of water. Cliff Palace is the most famous complex. Unfortunately, that makes it the most popular, and tours have to move through fairly quickly and there is no real opportunity to go inside. But we learned about the role of seeps in both creating the cliff recesses and providing essential water for the settlements. And we learned that the reason for moving from the top of the mesa above into the cliff houses is unknown. Though there seems to have been defensive advantages, archaeologists suggest that there was little conflict. And then the people all vanished.
After lunch, we visited Balcony House, where you have to climb a 10m ladder at one point and crawl through a tiny entrance that serves as the main entrance to the complex. Visiting what I think is the oldest preserved indigenous settlement in North America was touching. We had seen much of the country's natural grandeur. Now we were encountering its human accomplishments. For some reason, my older daughter remained equally interested. While my wife and youngest seemed ready to push on after the Balcony House tour was over, my oldest and I kept examining the evolution of the pit houses on top of the mesa that were ultimately superseded by the cliff dwellings.
We returned to the KOA for a swim and lazy night.
- July 31: Cortez to Black Canyon of Gunnison.
From Cortez, we ventured into areas famous for their Wild West past and luxury present. We followed Route 160 east to Durango (of mountain biking fame), and then headed north of Route 550 into the San Juan Mountains. There was more mountain awesomeness. We stopped in Silverton for lunch. Interestingly, Silverton has left most of its roads unpaved, which strikes me as a clever urban planning choice. On the one hand, it preserves the touristy Wild West feeling of wide, dusty streets. On the other, it must be relatively inexpensive to maintain, especially given the damage that winters must do to the roads up there.
Then I gave my wife cause to hate me...again. From Silverton we continued north through Ouray. My wife really wanted to visit Telluride, but I wanted to get the kids to Dinosaur National Monument so that they could see and touch real dinosaur bones in situ. With all the stories of evolution and dinosaurs that we had encountered, I had hatched a bigger plan of visiting the Creation Museum in Ohio to demonstrate to the girls that other people had other beliefs. I wanted to create a sort of cognitive gap that would engender critical thinking. So I got fixated on Dinosaur National Monument. Plus, Telluride was a long detour, and I was convinced that we would not find affordable lodging if we arrived at dinnertime. Moreover, we had learned around this time that we had to be back for a party on August 12th. So I insisted we push north. I had expected to get to Grand Junction or so and find a KOA or something. But the Black Canyon of Gunnison National Park was on the way, so we stopped with no knowledge of what to expect---other than a canyon.
As we pulled in, I suddenly thought that we should check out the campground. And next thing we knew, we had picked a site and set up our tent. After this, we visited the canyon. I loved it. The hard, dark rocks formed a steep, black canyon that was a monumental counterpart to the siennas and ochres of the desert canyons. With the girls, we had fun finding shapes and faces in the Painted Wall. And of course, we started working on our Junior Ranger booklets.
The girls learned of a ranger talk that evening at the campground on the soundscape of the park. Since we attended the first ranger talk at Devil's Tower, my oldest consistently strove to attend the ranger talks. And who can squash an inquisitive mind? So my wife graciously took the hit and prepared dinner while I took the girls to think about the sounds your hear in national parks. The ranger---yet again!---did a great job and opened our minds and ears to a new type of experience. He also mentioned a telescope star viewing later in the evening. Again, my oldest insisted that we ask him for more details. As the Black Canyon is an International Dark Sky Park, that very night there was going to be a telescope set up to view the planets. There was no question that we were going.
So, at 9pm approached, we made our way to the appointed destination nearby. A volunteer had set up a rather expensive telescope and focused it on Mars. The girls loved it. As the telescope moved through Saturn and Jupiter, we had to gently pull my oldest away so that others could see. She just got back in line to view again. I think she checked out Saturn three times. And it was worth it. You could literally see the colored rings around the planet. The eye of Jupiter was clearly visible. It was astonishing to think that we were "directly" looking at them with our naked eyes. I want to believe that my daughters' evident interest encouraged the volunteer to find new objects after other spectators had faded away and left about eight of us. He showed us a couple of things I still cannot believe I have seen. We viewed a globular cluster, an exploding star (I think), and something else. (I'll have to ask my daughter. I'm sure she wrote it down.) Finally, my oldest was getting her space fix.
- August 01: Black Canyon of Gunnison to Dinosaur National Park.
The kids had to go for a hike to get their badges, so my wife drove to the visitor center and I took them along a canyon-edge trail. Even as we got to the trail, we had to wait for a deer and her calf to get out of the way, since we had learned not to frighten them or get too close. We had seen them wandering around the campground a couple of times the day before. The walk itself was pleasant enough, but the most interesting thing to me was that my older daughter had taken to copying me and taking close-up pictures of rocks and other objects to capture the patterns. I had started at Craters of the Moon and I guess it appealed to her.
After looking at the sun through a different telescope owned and operated by the same amateur astronomer and receiving our badges, we started the drive north on Route 50 and then Route 139 through country Colorado to Dinosaur. It turns out that Dinosaur is one entrance to the park, but not for the fossils, so we picked up our Junior Ranger booklets and drove another 45 minutes almost to Vernal. In the car, the kids played a game we made up from the booklet of making up dinosaur names by translating the Greek words into new names. Upon arrival, we first reserved our campsite and then returned for one of the last buses up the hill to logjam cliff of dinosaur bones that is the highlight of Dinosaur National Monument. We touched some fossils and then walked down the fossil trail looking for our fossils. We did find a few that were pointed out in the guide. And we took lots of close ups of rocks. Good fun. On the way out in the middle of the open desert a rainstorm came up on us. We starting running out of fear of lightening that had been regularly instilled in us by the rangers. Fortunately, we got wet but the storm soon passed without electrocuting us. We returned to the campground and relaxed a bit. In the dark and their bedtime clothes, the girls decided that they wanted to climb the hill behind the site to see where the chipmunks had run off to. So we started up...and then took a long time coming down. The girls were scared of sliding down, so they basically slid down on their butts, filling their bedtime clothes with dust adn sand. My wife was not happy.
- August 02: Dinosaur National Park to Rocky Mountain National Park.
Before heading east on Route 40 to Rocky Mountain National Park, we visited some ancient runes and the Josie Morris homestead. The homestead very much interested me. Josie Morris started it in 1913 and, while rustic, the grounds were orderly and attractively organized. She had a small canyon fenced in for her cattle. The yard was a delightfully open space with enough large trees to provide a consistent shade. I tried to impress upon my daughters how amazing and tough she must have been.
Then it was back on the road in hopes of getting a campsite in the park. Time was ticking, and we could feel that the Rocky Mountain National Park would be the last major Western stop for us. We were again fortunate to get a site at Timber Creek Campground. Unfortunately, the site had been in a fire some years previously and completely lacked shade. After setting up camp, we settled in for a mellow dinner and fire. After watching some elk pass through the campsite, the girls insisted on another ranger talk. This time the talk was about winter visits to the park. Not the strongest talk, but it did leave us with the distinction between deer scat and elk scat: elk scat will not fit up your nose.
- August 03: Rocky Mountain National Park.
We woke up and were told by a passing ranger that the temperature had dropped to 39F and was still hovering in the mid-40s. It was the coldest morning of the trip. But that didn't stop my awesome family from deciding to go for a hike in the rain near Grand Lake. Even as the rain was threatening and began to drizzle, my toughened brood kept trekking. For a while. Then the youngest started to complain about the distance and rain, so we turned back, went grocery shopping, and headed back into the main park for a drive up Route 34 to the Alpine Visitor Center. There is, again, no way to describe the beauty of the mountains, especially as the skies cleared in the afternoon. We climbed up to the nearby Alpine Ridge and looked at the Never Summer Mountains below which we were camping, and around to mountains that were possibly in Wyoming. After hot cocoa, coffee, and souvenir shopping for my parents, we made our way back down and visited first two small lakes and second the Holzwarth Historic Site. To get to the historic site, we crossed what is nearly the beginning of the Colorado River. Here it was only 3-5m wide, and we touched water that would eventually carve the Grand Canyon. On the way back across the open grasslands surrounding the river, it again threatened rain. And again we ran. Dinner was cooked and eaten under the tent awning (one of the best features of the Tensleep Station Six).
- August 04: Rocky Mountain National Park to Limon.
After closing up camp, we drove back up to the Alpine Visitor Center. We moved on over the highest road in the US, stopping regularly. The kids wondered at the marmots more than the scenery. We wound our way down. Following the sign suggestions, I learned how to use the Etta's manual shift option since I wanted to preserve our brakes, which had worn a bit unevenly and shuttered a bit at high speed. We parked in Glacier Basin and took the bus up to the last stop, Bear Lake. My wife had been insisting that she wanted to visit a mountain lake, so I set my sights on Nymph Lake, which instinct told me would do the job. This was basically to be our last hurrah before returning to the plains and the long slog back East, so I wanted it to be good. And it was.
As we walked up, we came to a large rock that the girls insisted on climbing. This was my first reward. My girls had moved past their city-bred caution around the coarse, dirty natural world and were really embracing its rough scramble. They had become such pros. I can only hope they don't lose the enthusiasm And Nymph Lake, which sites at the bottom of a rocky basin, was as beautiful as I had hoped. It wasn't in the middle of a meadow, but that's not what you get at the altitude in the Rockies. It was clear, lined by pines, and dominated by a promontory behind it. Really, just the perfect "end" to our trip. As we left the lake, we encountered a pair of elk. By this time elk were not particularly special, but it was still a nice note. Mostly we commented on how stupid people were to try to get as close as they were. We scooted over the stream on a tree trunk bridge a bit too close to the wildlife, paused, and then headed down. As rain began to fall, we sighed and hit the road. We had reservations at the Limon KOA.
- August 05: Limon to Kansas City.
The Limon KOA was not our favorite. Though there was a decent pool and the site was well tended, it was located just off the highway after days in the forest, and the tent sites were as far from the bathrooms as possible. We had never had such a long walk. Worse---and there is nothing the KOA could do about this---winds were so strong that night that some guy line pegs got pulled out and we were kept awake by the flapping fly. Perhaps it was a user error. But we got out early and essentially spent the day driving I-70 across Kansas. And I have to say, Kansas was far more engaging than most people describe it. It's corn again, but the hills roll and there is plenty to catch the eye.
Our first stop was Q39 for some of the tastiest BBQ I've had. I had decided that from this point on, my wife wasn't going to be too happy---and she wasn't---so we'd try to entertain ourselves with some better food and a few sites. Q39 was the first effort and furnished us with another souvenir, some honey BBQ sauce for use back in CT.
- August 06: Kansas City to Hoosier National Forest.
The night was uneventful and we moved on across Missouri. The major stop I had conceived for the day was Blues City Deli for takeout that we could eat under the Gateway Arch. The deli was highly regarded, but I assumed it was like a NYC deli and would be takeout only. However, there was crowded seating and settled in for another monstrously tasty meal. Stuffed, we headed down toward the Arch...and trouble. I personally didn't have any great desire to spend time looking at it. I thought that we should just see it since we were in the neighborhood. So, when we passed the $6 parking, I just decided to drive on, pointing the Arch out to everyone so that we could push on toward our next destination. That was the dumbest thing I did the whole trip. My wife was pissed...and rightly so. For $6 and 30 minutes, we could have gone under the Arch and contacted yet another icon of Americana. But I was only focused on the end goal another four hours away. I even missed a chance to visit Lincoln's childhood home because I hadn't even known it was there until we were too far past. And Lincoln is one of my kids' favorite presidents. That said, we still didn't reach Hoosier National Park until it was starting to get dark. We still could have afforded 30 minutes and $6, though. Sorry, honey.
There was another novel thing of note about our lovely pine campground. The girls went to check out the bathrooms on their own with only simple notice to us. Through most of the trip, they always went first with one of us. But this time they went to check it out and let us know if it was any good. It was. (Note: they may have done this earlier, but this was the first time it really sunk in how much they had grown.)
- August 07: Hoosier National Forest to Cambridge.
In the morning, we drove by the Painted Ladies of Louisville and out I-64 to the Creation Museum outside Cincinnati in Bullitsburg. It was my big educational moment...or so I thought. Despite the $100 price tag and my wife's reservations, in we went. To me the place was fascinating. It's all predicated on dinosaurs, which presumably draw the kids in. The place starts by placing a bit of scientific doubt, showing two paleontologists amicably disagreeing about the dating of dinosaur bones in sedimentary rock. One thinks the bones are from millions of years ago and the other from 5,000 years ago. Then, as one goes on to learn more about dinosaurs, pseudo-scientific language is used to debate whether God added venom to snakes and other animals after Eve ate the apple, or if he simply threw a switch that he had already genetically programmed. The language seems intentionally opaque so as to convey an air of scientific rigor and sophistication beyond the average visitor's abilities. Indeed, I heard someone say that they "weren't so sure any more. It seems so complicated." Then the notion of a corrupt and confusing world starts to creep in. There are light indicators of global conflict and disorder. This is accompanied by the notion that God's way is much more straightforward than science's confusing pathways. There is even a poster that shows scientist's meandering pathway of evolution in the form of a winding arrow and compares this pathway to God's: a straight line from Adam to contemporary man. It's so much simpler! Having generated some cognitive dissonance, they then hammer you over the head. You have to walk through a hallway of people talking about their problems with drugs, infidelity, crime, homosexual tendencies, etc. The hallway is dark. The music is ominous in a horror movie sort of way. My wife, who already thought things were a bit weird and was not as interested as I, decided that it was too scary to bring the girls through. So she an my oldest just started cruising and left me and the youngest in the dust. I quickly moved through the horror tunnel but slowed down when we came out. Because the answer to the horror and disorder was the story of the bible told in large-scale diorama form, where dinosaurs frollicked with deer and Eve. Once we got to the bloody scene of Cain and Abel I decided that we should give up and hurry on. Outside, we visited the small zoo they have. They offered camel rides for $5 a pop. Though a rip off, I had not made the horse riding happen during the trip, so I made sure that the kids got on the camel. They loved it. As the weather continued to turn, we got back on the road. We stopped at our last hotel, a small clean place in Cambridge, Ohio, where we dined at a nearby Greek restaurant of no special mention.
- August 08: Cambridge to Hersey.
The reality of the trip's end was coming down fast, but we still had a few more things to do. We left Cambridge for the Hersey, PA KOA. We passed through Wheeling, West Virginia and into Pennsylvania. I had thought about visiting Pittsburgh, but I had to recreate my childhood memories for my kids. I needed to take them to Hersey's Chocolate World, of which I have fond childhood memories. We went on the revamped ride through the making of chocolate, which seemed less informative than it did as a child, but everyone loved it. I then got suckered into taking the kids to a 4D movie about robots and candy heroes. We stocked up on Reese's and other candies for my father and the upcoming picnic party. Then we headed to the Hersey KOA. I expected it to be a bit grimy and full of mosquitoes. After all, we were back on the East Coast. But the place was lovely, spacious, and bug free. The kids once again inspected the bathrooms for us, and we went for a swim in the ever present pool. Bittersweet.
- August 09: Hersey to Mystic.
In the morning, we packed up for the last time. I wanted to drive through Amish country to replicate those childhood memories some more. So we visited an uninspiring covered bridge and drove out through the countryside through Manheim, Lititz, Ephrata, and Blue Ball before getting back on the thruway. But we did see a young man driving a horse-drawn buggy and make the obligatory family stop at Julius Sturgis Pretzel Bakery in Lititz, where I had gone as a kid and where my wife, sister, and I had taken my nieces when they were my kids' ages. And then...
And then we had to head back. We didn't want to return too late, and we didn't want to drive through NYC at rush hour. But we did have to stop for Korean food in Fort Lee. I let me wife choose.