Monday, August 23, 2010

Glaciers, or lack thereof...

Let the mountains begin! After a rousing night of beer and entertainment in Belt we headed up into Glacier National Park in northern Montana. The main park campgrounds were full so we camped off the beaten path in a "primitive" campsite along a creek. It was a beautiful spot so we hiked upvalley and enjoyed a starry night. The next day we hiked a relatively flat 10 miles up into a valley to a waterfall, then drove up to Roger's Pass.
After one more night in Glacier we drove up into the great white north of Alberta, Canada. Being summertime we didn't see any snow, but stopped at Waterton Lakes National Park then drove up into Calgary for dinner. It was a Sunday night so not much was happening in Calgary, but we ate well and camped in the truck outside town. Next stop -- Banff. No, that was not a sneeze, it's the name of a park. :)

Friday, August 20, 2010

Belt Montana -- Did That Seriously Just Happen?

Montana is a big state. We treated the old truck to an oil change in Billings and were heading to Glacier National Park through Great Falls. We probably could have made it in one day but we saw a sign on the side of the road in Belt that said "Belt Brewery, next right." Who needs a better reason than that to stop at a brewery? This place was authentic old west. Dark, empty, and chock full of road signs and beer mirrors as wall decorations (sorry, no pictures of the inside of the bar). Glacier NP could wait until tomorrow. We saddled up to the bar, ordered a beer and learned that an acting troupe was coming that night to perform "1959 Pink Thunderbird." They were from Great Falls (the "big city").

Since Belt, MT was the last place in the world we expected to see a play we decided to stay. And we were the only ones. Three actors, three crew members and us! Even the bartender spent most of the time outside smoking cigarettes. The play was great...about a Vietnam Vet adjusting to life back home on the farm. Que the dopey brother and nervous friend and you've got a story. We loved it -- and the actors seemed quite grateful to have an audience, even if it was just the two of us. Talk about a random experience! After a few beers and some entertainment we spent the night in our truck on a dirt road just outside of town.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Mount Rushmore – The Long Way

For some reason I wanted to take the long way to Mount Rushmore through the backcountry roads of South Dakota. I definitely gained a new appreciation for the word “rural” that day. We drove on paved roads through the Badlands for a few miles and then hit some long, straight, dusty dirt roads through Indian reservations and farmland. We were headed west and the Black Hills were visible on the horizon. The mountains grew slowly closer and thankfully the truck had enough gas. I don’t think AAA comes out that far.

The black hills were surprisingly green and filled with Ponderosa Pines just like Flagstaff. We wound our way up and down several mountain passes and stopped to photograph a buffalo herd before booking it straight to Mount Rushmore. We were eager to see this national monument but were thoroughly warned by all who had visited that it’s not very impressive. Our verdict: “it was okay.” Definitely an inspiring feat of sculpture but not necessarily something to write home about (although I just did). It was worth the trip since we were in the area, but we were on to bigger and better things…the Rocky Mountains. Hey Cara, do you love the USA?

From Wisconsin to the Badlands

Oh yeah…we drove through Minnesota. Unfortunately we did not have time to spend in Minneapolis/St. Paul so we drove straight through southern Minnesota on I-90. I didn’t know so much corn existed in the world let alone in a single state! We caught a beautiful sunset over the cornfields and spent the night in a sad little state park a few miles off the highway. It was a tiny forest in a sea of corn.

The next day we kept heading west through South Dakota toward the Badlands and made a few stops along the way. I wish it was my idea, but somebody a hundred years ago had the gumption to build a palace out of corn and call it "Corn Palace". Having seen dozens of billboards along the highway our curiosity was piqued so we stopped in for a look-see. Well right before our eyes stood a giant palace made out of corn cobs (spires and all). I can’t say it was a life changing experience, but it was pretty cool nonetheless. A few hours later we arrived at Badlands National Park and got a campsite for the night. After a long day of driving it felt great to stand in the prairie and watch the sun slowly set behind the colorful rock formations. We spent the night sleeping out under the stars and drove through the park the following day.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Cedarburg and Green Bay – Good times in the Dairy State

One of the best parts of this trip is having the opportunity to spend time with my extended family in their “natural habitat”. I usually see them in hotels or at Grandma’s house for holidays and birthdays, and there is never enough time to really catch up with each other. Our journey had already led us to Washington D.C. to see my mother’s brother, and now we were off to Cedarburg, WI to visit my mother’s younger sister. If you ever want to see an example of an idyllic Midwestern town, go to Cedarburg, WI. If you ever want to experience the best of Midwestern hospitality, go to my Aunt Patti’s house.

After arriving in Cedarburg, we were treated to an evening of flood and tornado warnings, including town sirens, crazy lighting, and record setting rain. Strangely, that was not nearly as frightening as my Uncle Rick trying heat up pizza in the oven. Fortunately, we survived and the next day we were whisked away to Door County, where my aunt and uncle have a house on Lake Michigan. We were the benefactors of a little family competition – the word had spread about what good hosts my D.C. uncle and aunt were, so it was “on” as they say. We played horseshoes, went waterskiing/tubing/swimming, drank a variety of craft brews and mixed drinks, ate fresh corn and grilled meat, and sat under the stars while Tom and Rick tried to show the neighbors how to put on a proper fireworks display. My cousin and Grandma were also there with us, so it was just heavenly! Alas, the trip was short, but very sweet and it was hard to get back on the road after such a nice time.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Milwaukee – A day among American Idol Rejects

How tragic that we ended up in Milwaukee the day that literally thousands of young hopefuls were denied their dream of making it onto American Idol. We didn’t know that try-outs were taking place down the street, but the long faces we encountered tipped us off. We briefly spoke with a mother and daughter who had come all the way from California – this was the third year of rejection for the daughter. At another place, the waiter told us that he served a family where all three kids had tried out and didn’t get in. Alas, the American Dream is a rough road, Kiddies.
But, despite other people’s palpable sorrow, we had a wonderful day! Had good beer, food, and then won a raffle to get cheap tickets to see Wicked. Second row for $25 bucks, baby! Just a day spent in this adorable city before heading north to see family, but definitely worth mentioning.

Chicago...sort of

Decided to book it from Kentucky to Chicago, IL to see a friend that was only in town for the evening. We missed the pleasures of Indiana and Illinois, but alas, we decided that we just can’t see everything. Thanks Kaitlin for the recommendations though, we’ll see it the next time through!
The geniuses that we are, we decided to drive through downtown Chicago at 5:00 pm. That’s right, a vacation is not complete until you’ve sat in rush hour traffic! Luckily, it only took about an hour and we had a lovely dinner with our friend Ben in the suburb of Libertyville. We ate at a restaurant called “Firkin” – ten points to the person who can tell me the definition of that word:)

Mammoth Caves – Hey look, a big hole in the ground!

After a beautiful drive through West Virginia (and only one impulse purchase at a roadside “antique” store) we landed in Mammoth Cave, Kentucky, site of the largest underground cave in the world. As it turns out, it’s a little weird to be at a national park that you can’t see. You know you are standing on top of it, and that it exists, but it’s not quite the same as looking up at mountains. Since you pay by the tour, we only took one. It was a nice historical walk through a big dark hole in the ground. No glimpses of cave animals (they are further in the cave away from the noise and lights of people) and no real glimpses of stalagmites/stalactites. For us science nerds, it was a little bit of a letdown. We were hoping they would just give us a helmet and flashlight and say, “have at it!”
Upside of our time there was the great camping spot and the incredible lightning and thunder storms. So humid, but so beautiful! Tom even took a shower in the rain (shampoo and all). I watched from the inside the truck to make sure he didn’t get hit by lightning – I am such a good spouse:)

Virginia/West Virginia – A Via Ferrata say what?

Most of you know that I worked for an Adventure Education company in Massachusetts. A co-worker from that company has recently relocated with his family to Virginia. The timing was right and we were able to stay with them and reap the benefits of his new adventure-based job. He manages, among other things, and attraction in West Virginia called a Via Ferrata. If you are like me, you have no idea what this is. Turns out, it’s a “pee-your-pants” rock climbing adventure that was invented in Italy. Climbing holds are permanently fixed to rock faces, and you have the pleasure of vertical climbing without the usual danger since you are clipped in and don’t have to find cracks in the rock to help you along.

Tom handled it beautifully (surprise surprise!) and I used almost every profane word I know, but we both finished with some incredible views, pictures, and memories. Our guide was very kind to tell me I had “skills” which I am pretty sure she says to everyone that needs a little mental push up the rock. Thanks so much to my co-worker Wayne for setting this up—check out the amazing pictures!