Thursday, August 16, 2007

Terwilliger Curves

I write this after my first full day back at TimeHaven, as a reflection on the last few turbulent days of our trip.

I had a preconceived notion that it was still totally possible to make it fifteen hundred miles in three days. It ended up taking four days, but still seemed ridiculously pressed.

We woke up on the morning of our twenty-sixth day in the Silver Saddle Motel in Boulder, Colorado. We both had slept well, and felt energetic enough for a quick hike up the canyon on a well-maintained trail. Our caffeine was found at a local shop - notable mainly because it was by far the best we have had in nearly the last month; so good, in fact, that mom bought a small amount of grounds so we might make more in her handy "AeroPress."

Before making an attempt at serious evening and night driving, we spent most of the day going through the absolutely gorgeous Rocky Mountain National Park. A little over half way through we finally emerged from the swath of overweight American RV tourists, and basically had the road to ourselves. We stopped for lunch at around eight thousand feet near a rather oddly shaped alpine lake.

Just outside the Western bounds of the park, we had another latté break before driving into the fading light on Highway 40. We wanted to make time, but couldn't resist the pull of 24 soaking pools at Hot Sulphur Springs. We tried most of them, my favorite being "Lupe," a piping-hot stone-lined pool that turned us bright red. The waterfall pool with natural rock sides was another high point, but many of the pools had mineral scum in them that kind of turned me off. Our grand finale was going into the recreational pool, where Mom impulsively went down the vertical slide, banging her head and sustaining whiplash. Not a relaxing end to our twilight soak.

Back on the road, the iPhone yielded very few decent hotels, so we thought in the dropping temperatures and tolerable humidity level that camping would be a suitable alternative and cost effective way of getting rest. We asked our host and waitress at the upscale restaurant "L'Apogee" (in Steamboat Springs) about the surrounding camping options, and ended up at Yampa River State Park, another forty miles or so down the road. I'd wanted to try sleeping the car at least once on our trip, so we decided this was our night. Pulling into a campsite, we got out our sleeping bags, lowered the seats, and slept -- for just over 5 hours. It was not dissimilar from the fiery depths of hell in terms of comfort.

We woke up at dawn the next day, decided to not pay for our unused campsite, and moved on into Craig, where we had a simply acceptable breakfast and then on to Maybell, where we found showers at the cityl park. Feeling bad about not paying the campground, we gave them double what they were asking for the showers - again, though, no one was present to accept our money.

For the rest of the day, we drove, with the exception of making a side trip to the Dinosaur National Monument to view some of its unique rock formations caused by massive pressure and uplifting of plates in the rock... It gave us both a sense of insignificance. We didn't see any Dinosaurs though. Bummer. Since Salt Lake City is basically the end of Highway 40, we had to go through it. Since I'm writing this with the intent of having people from the unknown read it, I'll go easy on my lack of excitement about Salt Lake City and its influence by a certain church. We had a heck of a time trying to get to the lake itself... we went north on I-80 a bit to an exit that appeared to connect to a street that went right out to the shoreline, but no! Of course not! Upon getting there, much of the once underwater land (mainly sand and salt deposits) was built up with thousands of cookie-cutter houses in neat but unoccupied cul-de-sacs, all bound to sink into the unstable ground in just a few short years. So basically, it was a maze, and we couldn't get back to the freeway. Eventually, we just gave up on getting to the East bank of Great Salt Lake, and resumed a Northerly trajectory.

We made it all the way into Burley, a humble (but oddly busy town) in Southern Idaho. There was one non-smoking room available at a Best Western, so we took it, and attempted a trick I thought might work - show the receptionist at the check-in desk a stack of bills, and say "I have $55, and I want a non-smoking room," but it failed horribly, and the lady had no idea what we were doing. At least we got a comfy room to enjoy for all of nine hours before hitting the road again, Portland-bound.

One would expect a lot to happen on the last day of a trip, but the most notable experiences were crossing the crooked time zone line into Pacific time, and getting absolutely craptastic milkshakes in the Gorge somewhere. Nonetheless, we went through a section of Oregon I was not familiar with. Like the Gorge, it's full of rolling hills and small shrubs among expanses of gold grass, but unlike the Gorge, it doesn't have the steady supply of water, and therefore completely arid. I got to thinking as we descended into one valley after another that a trek into that land would actually be amazing. No one would be watching it, nor would they ever have to find out that someone had been there. MIles away from the freeway there would only be the noise of wind and rustling grass - no animals, no vehicles, nothing. But that's just a fantasy. I was too anxious to do the last few hundred miles to give it any more thought.

Once we got into the Gorge, night was arriving, and driving became a chore rather than a pleasure. I did the last couple hours of driving - mom was getting tired. A few times we stopped to look at the stars, which were surprisingly bright for being so close to Portland. On our last stop for stargazing, we were lucky enough to catch oodles of meteors, leaving huge trails across the Milky Way.

Getting our first glimpse of the brilliantly bright Portland night skyline, I felt an immediate sense of intimacy with the region, and knew we were home.

I pulled the car into the driveway, the familiar crackle of the gravel a delight. Dad was asleep when we came to the door, but his abruptly awoken state was still the best thing we had seen in almost eight thousand miles.

It's good to be back.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Break a Leg

So this is going to be another I'm-lazy-and-don't-want-to-write-five-entries post. It will basically cover five active days with a couple photos and basically a list of the things we did.

The last time I had any affiliation with our country's sixteenth president was in fifth grade when I played him in a play directed by a charismatic individual who was far more excited about the material than any of the students were. On day twenty-two of our trip, we passed through Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and paid a visit to the memorial site of the well-known battle and the even better-known deliverance of the Gettysburg Address. Despite my preconceived notion that the area would be terribly bland, I was pleasantly surprised by even our choice of breakfast location, "Lincoln's Diner." Who could have guessed?

In the same day, we dipped into the panhandle of Maryland and squeezed through the narrowest portion of the state before heading into West Virginia, which, despite its apparent size, takes a ridiculous amount of time to get through. We still can't figure out what happened. We found a place in Morgantown (supposedly a college town) and had our first meal at "Texas Roadhouse" - a very exaggerated portrayal of Southern life. Their rolls and butter were delicious.

The next day we drove with only one goal - to reach the famed Mound City and Serpent Mound created by a culture anthropologists call the "Hopewell." Mound city was rather spectacular, even though we were told it was reconstructed exactly after a US military base was established there during World War I and mutilated the bumps. Unfortunately, the Serpent Mound closed at five o'clock and wasn't open on Tuesdays, which, traditionally, is the Miller/Stowell way of being inconvenienced on sightseeing trips.

The morning of day twenty-four was hot and clingy. We saw another mound, this one more impressive than even Mound City, but didn't have time to gawk endlessly. We made it lickety-split across a tiny piece of Kentucky and the southern tip of Indiana's "boot," where we found a restaurant boasting Amish food, which was really just a traditional starchy and protein buffet, and a small, sad town called "Cynthiana." That night we stupidly chose to camp at New Harmonie State Park in Indiana, where humidity, heat, and a million cicadas kept us awake.

Our next night's rest would be in Hannibal, Missouri, after a hot day of touring St. Louis and making our CR-V happy with new oil. I was pretty impressed with the size and elegant simplicity of the Gateway Arch, but not incredibly enthused by Mark Twain's boyhood hometown. However, after moving our belongings into the second story "room" we had at "Robard's Mansion" we were very happy. We had almost half of the floor to ourselves, amounting to what seemed like more square footage than our entire house. In the morning, Leon, our host, gave us a tour of the four story (plus cupola) gargantuan house. Apparently we had spent the night with a psychotic paranoid Christian evangelist. Whatever.

Onward! Day twenty six was full of unexpected things. In only a couple hours, we had been in three different states: Missouri, Iowa and Nebraska. We lost a little time when we overshot a freeway exit driving blind in the most intense electric storm I had ever been in. Lightning was striking almost every second, and rain pelted our windshield by the gallon. It was amazing. We made it most of the way across the main body of Nebraska, but before descending into Northeastern Colorado, we stayed in Kearney, where we were serenaded by the flatulence of a thousand cows.

So, I've hacked together this text for the last four days. It's sort of the Humdinger situation... "Order what you want... eat what you get." There are 1,476 miles between us and Portland, but we feel its pull.

Sunday, August 5, 2007


I got lazy for a few days, and now that I've updated the blog with current entries, anything tagged prior will be pushed off the front page and into the "archives" as Blogger so morbidly calls them. There's a new entry tonight, and there may be a couple more tomorrow, so check back a few days, and make sure you haven't missed anything - in the end, this will be one contiguous saga.

Friday, August 3, 2007


Today's events could easily be categorized into two distinct groups: the successes and the duds.

In chronological order, it gives a better sense of the wishy-washy way in which things passed.

The morning was dull. Plain and Simple.

We drove for a long while, with the aim of arriving in Scranton, Pennsylvania for an early afternoon espresso and a quick tour of the lovely town in which The Office is supposedly set in. Our barista directed us to the building that the dysfunctional paper company's Scranton branch fictionally resides, but it didn't resemble whatsoever the building that appears in most of the exterior shots in the TV show. In fact, most of the town was unrecognizable or completely lacking in correlation with the size and appearance that the show projects. The only trace of the NBC production was a city banner sponsored by "Dunder Mifflen Paper Company Inc." My overall impression of Scranton was that it had a lot to offer to the locals, but was tightly-knit, and not accepting of outsiders.

For the remainder of the day, we drove. How many miles exactly, I do not know.

Throughout the whole of Pennsylvania, and for that matter, all across the country, there has been a low smog-like haze, that has reduced the visibility severely. Here, specifically, directly above us on the highways, an icky grayness has shrouded what should be a bright blue sky. We've been afraid that it's pollution, but are fairly certain it's merely a temporary collection of fires, dust, the summer haziness and general pollution, so not entirely from the same sources as our lovely global warming.

It's hot. Everywhere. Not so humid, but hot, the kind that is absolutely inescapable.

We got to our hostel, the "Ironmaster's Mansion" in Pinegrove Furnace State Park, and checked in - our hostess was nearly inaudible and invisible due to her size and volume of speech.

The only other guests at the hostel, Don and Marsha, were hikers who had just completed the last thirty-eight or so miles of the Southern half of the Appalachian Trail. Together, we enjoyed a wonderful display of lightning and thunder, while snacking on some small sandwiches and yogurt on the covered porch of the hostel. This evening was fantastic.

Today's photo was taken during a typical (but amazing nonetheless) Northeastern electric storm.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Caribbean Pizza

I haven't the faintest idea what happened this morning, so in the confusion and un-up-to-date-ed-ness of the blog, I've decided to omit large portions that are of little importance to the overall experience. Breakfast and styles of waking up, descriptions of which usually go in the first paragraph, have obviously been pushed off the map. Sorry!

Now that I think about it, though, I did sleep well, and mom and I were seen off by the ever effervescent personality of Karen, one of mom's high school friends.

So, my first recollection about today was arriving in Hartford, Connecticut at a Pizza shop, famished. Our host and chef, whose arms were a canvas for the creative needle, informed us of his "Jamaican Stud" pizza, which, I am confident in saying was the first chicken pizza I had ever indulged in - and at the same time, probably the last jerk chicken pizza I ever will. Sweet Jesus, it was spicy! I think it gave me an ulcer. I don't care to find out. Regardless, it had kick, and after two slices I was done. Mom had a caprese salad thing. Lame!

We went on to the Mark Twain house, which was rather impressive, and not white. It was red. Are mom and I sane? We both thought it would be a large white clapboard house, but a tasteful one at that. Anyway, we thoroughly enjoyed the grounds and exterior of the house - we decided to not take the hour-long tour of the interior, as it seemed not-so special from the images on the postcards in the gift shop. My only question about the house is: Why such a serious place for such a wacky guy?

Today, we made it to the West bank of the Hudson river, in New Windsor, south of Newburgh, Pennsylvania. Our neighborhood was on the same plane as many "barrios" in terms of economics and demographics. We found the New Windsor Motel, a decent alternative to the $565 per night hotel on the opposite side of the river. That saved us just about half a grand.

We found dinner at a rather unusual location - on a boat! The top deck of a converted (and now immobile) ferryboat was dedicated to the adult masses, while the lower deck was basically a restaurant in a meat cooler. Their air conditioning unit was working overtime, and the temperature was refreshing at first, but overwhelmingly cold after a short while. I went the healthy route and had a plate of vegetables, mom, the not-so-healthy deep-fried vegetable plate. Both were crispy and delicious.

We've got comfy beds and a cool room, so it's time to conclude. Au revoir!

We are here.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Young

I'm lazy. I can't justify writing one entry for each of the last four days, when times have been relaxed, and sights have been infrequent.

However, one of the main goals of this trip was accomplished reaching Hillsborough County, New Hampshire by July 28, two days prior to my grandfather's ninetieth birthday. I was told prior to the gathering that he was not likely to remember how old he was going to be, nor who many of the people would be.

Mom and I drove with Gran to Henniker, a hop and a skip northwest of Manchester.

For the first time on the blog, I'm turning over the reins to mom, who's writing ability and emotional connection with the happenings of the past few days are both much better than my own. I shall return.

Hi, folks. This is a little intimidating, since I've never written a blog entry before, and because I have to sum up several days. Here goes. The 90th birthday party for my dad was fun and gratifying and moving. Dad stationed himself at a table and never left his spot, holding court as people greeted him and sang for him, his secretary from 45 years ago at U.S. Gypsum keeping him steady company. Gus took pictures and I tried to get around to visit with as many people as possible, especially the family and friends of Dad's wife Judy (who planned the party so well, including invitations that featured a dapper Sinatra alter-ego for my dad).

The Stowell-Brakel contingent of our family continued the party long after Dad and Judy had gone home. With a couple of hard-of-hearing members and some naturally booming voices, we got a bit rowdy. I'm not sure Gus has ever seen so many beers and Jack-and-Cokes consumed at one sitting—at least I hope not. The party was further extended by dinner at the nearby Colby Hill Inn in Henneker, a sedate place made more exciting by our presence (and the meltdown of my napless two-year-old grand-nephew Gunnar). Meanwhile, back in the Pacific Northwest, John was kicking up his heels at his 40th high school reunion in Spokane! A wild weekend all-round.

We all stayed at the Courtyard by Marriott in Concord, NH, and got up the next morning in fine fettle for a stroll through downtown Concord (and a fruitless search for palatable espresso in the New Hampshire caffeine desert). Gus and I got lost going back to the hotel to check out—what Oregon bumpkins!—then managed to find the Christa McAuliffe Planetarium where we saw a cool show about the search for water in our solar system.

That evening we resumed our visit with Dad and Judy at their house in Hillsboro, having dinner with them, seeing home improvements inside and out, but mostly just sitting and visiting and enjoying Dad's enduring sense of humor and love of music. We can tell he feels close to us because he gets emotional, but we can't say for sure that he knows how we're all related.

Back to Exeter in time to see Gran off for yet another test to figure out why she's been losing weight. I blame our visit for her forgetting to pick up and ingest her barium for the next morning's CAT scan, which was rescheduled for later in the week. And, alas, we couldn't stick around for her cataract surgery the following Monday, but sister Linda will be with her.

We had two trips to the Atlantic Ocean in one day: Gus and I did some clothes shopping in Portsmouth, then drove up to York, Maine, to add one more state to our list and to dip our toes into the Atlantic. "The Yorks" turned out to be a pretty destination, classic New England seacoast, charming and tidy. That evening we drove east from Exeter to Rye Beach for dinner at one of Gran's favorite places on the water.

A reluctant good-bye to Mom/Gran, and we were off to the much-maligned Lowell, Massachusetts, which we found to be interesting in itself—but we were there to visit Jack Kerouac's grave and to see a traveling exhibit of his "On the Road" manuscript. He typed it on long pieces of telegraph paper, which he taped together into one long, continuous scroll. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of "On the Road," which we're listening to on tape in the car in fits and starts. Kerouac's gravestone reminded me that he was born two days after my mother (same year)—what different lives they led simultaneously, though Kerouac burned out at the age of 47.

I also dragged poor Gus through my "other" hometown, Acton, Mass., where I lived from 5th grade till college. The house at 33 Alcott looked great, and we talked to the current owner about his improvements, as well as past and present neighbors. Paid my respects to the neighborhood pool, and to Judy Walsh's and Bill Morrissey's houses. Drove around town, past my schools and haunts, then it was time to hit the road for Northbridge, where my school friend Karen (St. Martin) Butler was waiting to feed and house us. She and Bill are really the only ones from the Class of '69 whom I keep in touch with—even so, I hadn't seen Karen for 20 years! She's a grandma now, and her three oldest kids are out of the house, but the youngest, Adam, is home for the summer while doing an internship with the Army Corps of Engineers. I had a lively visit with Karen and her husband Dave, catching up on Acton gossip and family news/travails and, of course, middle-aged aches and pains. Gus talked to Adam about college and work and other aspects of reality that are still rather abstract to Gus.

For me, the high points of the trip have been these reunions with family and friends. Gus has been very gracious and patient throughout, even enjoying the emotions, if not the content, of these visits. Still, we looked forward to getting back "on the road" and finish seeing the country together, this time east to west.

Today's photo is from Daniel's, a restaurant in Henniker, New Hampshire, where Kenneth Charles Stowell's 90th birthday was celebrated by the Stowell and Forest families - the model is Gunnar Brakel.

We have been here, here and here.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Northeastern Bounds

The Amsterdam afterhours are better enjoyed when asleep. I was content waking up this morning knowing that the the last requirement that involved Amtrrdam was finding breakfast. We had a few huge servings of carbs across a mangled intersection from our simply average hotel was situated on.

Full and completely ready to be on the road, we did a quick tidy-up of the car and found our way back to the New York Throughway.

Our progress was unhindered, with the exception of the inevitable caffiene infusion. My first today came in the form of an iced latté and a slice of carrot cake, in Bennington, Vermont. Wow. It was fabulous.

We stopped again for lunch in Brattleboro, overlooking the Connecticut River. Prior to eating, I snagged a new CD by Manmademan, "Cell Division." It's acceptable within its genre, but not by any means innovative in style. Oh well. Our meal was rather disappointing, and the service time was wretched. I had a BLT, mom a soup and salad. They were all meager portions.

Our second espresso stop was in Keene, New Hampshire. Parking was a mess due to construction, but we eventually found a vacant spot, snagged it, and got some delicious drinks at "Prime Roast." I indulged in the long lost pleasure of an iced soy latté.

The last stop for the day before Exeter was supposed to be a quick bathroom break, but after driving into Miller State Park and up a steep incline for a few minutes in search of a pit toilet, we found ourselves at the top of Mt. Pack Manadnock. It was shocking - the view was completely obscured by what we believe was an eternal human-created haze. Visibility was reduced to mere miles, instead of the promised a hundred or more. We are such hypocrites, but concerned ones at that.

Back down the mountain, bladders empty, it was a clear shot to Exeter.

About fifteen minutes out, we found a pizza place, "Front Row" on the iPhone, and called in an order for a half pesto, spinach and feta, and half pepperoni combo. We had enough time for another bathroom break and a brief sit-down before our pizza was ready to go.

Another hop to Brookside drive, and we were welcomed into the familiar condominium of Edith Stowell, "Gran." We were happy. We feasted.

And now, we will sleep.

Today's photo is absent, mostly because my inclination as a shutter-bug has subsided for the time being, but with no indication that my love for the art has ebbed.

We are here.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

"Amsterdam Interlude"

This entry's title comes from a song on Gabriel and Dresden's self title album released in 2006.

Today's main attraction was the active little town of Cazenovia, mom's childhood home. We visited a few of her most memorable places; the elementary school, swimming hole, and most importantly, her old house.

Since I only know the house from photos, I was unsure how to feel. The house had obviously been altered since mom lived there. Porches were missing, the yard had undergone huge transformations, and the forest was cleared and replaced with a lawn, albeit a very well groomed one. Beyond those changes, I am shortchanged on knowledge of the land. Those are mom's treasured memories.

Before leaving, we made a stop at a gentrified (but very rustic-looking) coffee house, "Common Grounds" for some espresso and ice cream. Although it was soft-serve, it was still greatly enjoyed. The last distraction was a vintage car club show, where I was extremely disappointed to find a PT Cruiser, of all cars. The nerve! The idea; how absolutely abhorrent!

We were out of the town in a jiffy, but making slow progress through the wealthy suburbs North of the main street. Our last stop before making (somewhat) serious progress was Chittenango Falls. After seeing the Upper- and Lower-Yellowstone falls (or what I believe was named such) and Niagara falls, I was impressed. It was beautiful, and completely alone in the woods, undeveloped and not commercialized, like so many of this country's wonders.

For lunch, we stopped in Skaneateles, on one of the Finger Lakes. I wasn't hungry, so I spent a good chunk of time lying in a waterfront park with my eyes closed, pondering the meaning of the universe, or something as deep (and pointless) as that.

We projected a final destination for today at Amsterdam, New York. We found a hotel which claimed in its title to be the "Best Value," but so far, we've concluded it's the "best value" only because it's the only business in the entire city.

Never in my life have I seen a city composed of so much nothingness. Wow. Searching for "Food" on Google Maps in Amsterdam yields about ten pizza places and not a decent restaurant that would have any promise of being open. We ended up finding a "Stewart's" shop (which manufactured and carried "Stewart's" soda with a similar logo to the other nationwide company - they're not the same though...), whose employees suggested we go to a part of town that was completely disconnected from the only part that was visible or evident from the Thruway.

Going up highway 30 a mile or so, a strip of mainstream franchises dominated both sides, and signs polluted the dark sky with glows of corporate greed. We surveyed the possibilities, and finally decided that salads at Wendy's were our best bet.

Back at the room, we ate, accompanied by a strange odor produced by the air conditioner, and avoided the horrific reality which we will likely be subjected to in the morning; Amsterdam.

Today's photo was taken at a landing on the way to the base of Chittenango Falls, north of Cazenovia, New York.

We are here.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Canadian Powerhouse

I awoke once again to some weather channel I mistook for "The Price is Right" in our Comfort Inn room. Later in the morning, I did actually hear a bunch of news about Bob Barker, who apparently is surrendering his spot on the show to Drew Carry. TV has done wonders for the mind.

We had a positively terrible (but complimentary) breakfast in the restaurant at the hotel. There isn't much at all to say about this morning, other than that we successfully got on the road and headed toward Buffalo, despite losing an hour the night before. Mom didn't spill her water on the MacBook, either. That was a bonus.

Our plans were unconfirmed, as to where we were to meet our old family friend, George, so that he could give us an insider tour of Niagara Falls. It was quite clear from the beginning that he had a plan and a considerable amount of experience under his belt when it came to timing and sight seeing around the gorge.

The three of us started at the Wind Caves walk, where we received ponchos and sandals for our trek out onto a series of platforms and walkways beneath the portion of the falls which lie South of the U.S.-Canada border. It was fantastic. The spray from the falls drenched the legs of my shorts, but for the most part, we stayed nice and dry under our plastic shields. The camera and phone came out alive, and with a photographic story to tell. One portion of the walkway brought us to within a few feet of the bottom of Bridalveil falls.

After the walk, George paid the $17.50 parking fee, and we rushed across the border to see the falls from the Canadian side. At the Table Rock Restaurant, we got a table with one of the best views I've ever had while eating. We conversed of the great falls and its perpetual rainbow, and we each separately (but with some sharing) enjoyed our meals. Delicious.

The overlook below the restaurant was spectacular. When standing in the right place, one is literally a few feet from the brink of Niagara falls. The water is smooth and turquoise as it begins its descent. Black and white photos still made it look cooler.

After we had absorbed the powerful atmosphere (and about a gallon of water), we drove downriver to the "whirlpool," a huge basin into which the water from the falls flows, hits an impasse, and heads in another direction. We ended up at an overlook where a set of gondola cables ended after going across the diameter of the circular geological gouge.

We drove a little farther, and George showed us another long, wind,y and treacherous rock and dirt path down from a small park. At the bottom, we could touch the raging waters of the lower Niagara River. We kept our footing well. A cliff rose on the U.S. side of the river, but somehow, to my amazement, a photographer had made his way down, and was stationed on a slab of rock jutting into the river a few feet upstream from a river wake created by another determined rock situated on the Canadian side. Nowhere else but Niagara had I felt so small and insignificant in the natural world.

The trip back to our car (we left it in a parking lot near Buffalo, and commuted in George's car) was quick, and, for me, exciting. George's driving style is not too dissimilar to my own, which horrifies mom.

I followed George, he in his Accord, mom and I in the CR-V, to his beautiful home in Rochester, New York, where I am this very moment. I have Vanilla ice cream and cherry pie in my tummy. I'm sleepy.

Today's photo comes from the "Horseshoe" portion of the Canadian Niagara Falls.

We are here.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Decent Discoveries

I don't know how many times I woke up today. Regardless, the one time I brought myself to get out of the hide-a-bed I slept in over night (which was surprisingly comfortable), it was brought to my attention that there were steak and eggs waiting in the dining room.

[Insert from Mom: Where Gus woke up was the Evanston, Illinois, condo of our former neighbors the Leones. They moved away when Sarah was in about sixth grade, and this summer she was married! We've missed them the whole time, Sarah having been an attentive "older sister" to baby/toddler Gus. Dolores, who practices law out of her condo, made us a wonderful feast of homemade soup (I forget the Spanish name!) and steak and chicken tacos, which we ate in their backyard. After Sarah and sister Christine and their spouses left, Dolores and I stayed up late talking and looking at two sets of wedding photos and some of our travel pictures. TJ, who is returning to primary education after years in the world of computers, had an early appointment to get to, so he gave up on us. It was SO good to see them again, even if Sarah didn't remember Gus's name for her: Sassa. :-) (Hi in Spain, Sarah and Paul!) Back to Gus...]

TJ had gone off to work (he came back moments after I began eating because he left some sort of important paper behind), but Dolores was chatting with my mom. I listened, but didn't contribute much. Although it was a more female to female discussion, I felt that it still had significance - life troubles, college, marriage, all that. I still have a few years before I have to start practicing the age-old adult art of worrying. Whew.

The morning went quickly, and most of it was already elapsed by the time I rose, but after inquiring about the possibility of Evanston having a Bubble Tea shop, we said our goodbyes, and headed toward the lake, to the more established main drag of the Chicago suburb. Joy Yee's Noodle was located on Davis Street, only about five minutes from the Leone's house. Lucky them. I snagged an Iced Coffee Milk Tea (with bubbles, of course), while mom went across the street for a Cappuccino. We had both found what we considered pretty good drinks. Coincidence or not, that made Evanston fine in our books.

So, we were caffeinated, and ready to take on Chicago. Maybe.

Our goal was to wind through the downtown area by car (which mom did with a great deal of dexterity), and end up at Millennium Park.

We accomplished both. Downtown was spectacular, a marvel of a city. The high-rise apartments, designer stores, everything in powerful synergy. It's a fun city. A little intense, but fun. The expansive park area of Chicago is impressive. Perfectly groomed (the people and the park), and well placed for inclusion in the busy lifestyles that many of the yuppies seemed to run.

Millennium Park was fantastic. Created on top of a massive car garage, common areas for the city's open minded folks host vegetable gardens, sculptures, and even a massive amphitheater for outdoor concerts. A football field-sized area is covered in a lattice of huge metal pipes bent into a structurally sound network of speaker holders and as a whole, an art piece. All together, it was designed by Frank Gehry, who also contributed to the world of architecture the Experience Music Project in Seattle, Washington.

Leaving Chicago was a mess, and the urban sprawl (ghetto) of Southern Chicago slowed our progress greatly. I'm surprised the city could handle such a high volume of cars and not get backed up more than it did.

We returned to the I-80/90 turnpike and proceeded to what I was told to be a worthwhile side trip which ultimately got us lost and angry, in the heart of mangled Hammond, Indiana. After a few calls to a number we finally found with the new iPhone, mom discovered that it was closed on this specific Monday.

We moved on.

Eventually, we arrived in the greater Toledo area, at the southwestern tip of Lake Erie, sifted through results that Google Maps on the iPhone provided, and chose to roost at Comfort Inn. The receptionist gave us conflicting pricing, but said that we could reserve the room online right there, in front of her. And we did. But somehow, I managed to reserve the wrong room. I had no idea King beds were wider than they were long.

The only thing we can complain about within the bounds of our room is the microwave - it doesn't have an empinadas button. Thanks Lia and Emi!

Today's photo is from downtown Chicago.

We are here.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Corporate Anthem

I woke up on July 21 to mom asking "Gus, how do I get this to turn on?" with a great deal of innocence in her voice. I rolled over, and told her to hit the spacebar, and if that didn't work, I'd look at it. This was on the assumption she was inquiring about the MacBook.

At that point, I found a nasty little truth - a few minutes after I had turned in for the night, mom knocked over a cup of water, causing it to slosh off the bedside table and directly on top of the MacBook. If you know about the properties and behaviors of electronics submerged in water while connected to a 110V wall socket, then it goes without saying that whatever device that suffers from such conditions will likely never function again. I was certain that it was toast. Soggy toast.

But I managed to not psychologically explode. I was, and still am, very attached to the computer - Enough stuff had already been broken this trip - I didn't need to ruin my bond with mom and put the success of our voyage on the line.

After having water in its various orifices all night, I removed as many of the computer's vital organs as possible; memory, hard drive, and battery. I put them all out on the porch, and went back inside to let them dry while I took a shower to calm down. It wouldn't turn on when I took a moment to reassemble it. Yikes. Panic mode.

We couldn't waste a ton of time frantically looking for solutions, and it didn't seem like it would matter, because a call to Apple confirmed my suspicion that the spendy AppleCare contract wouldn't cover negligence and stupidity. With all due respect, mom.

Breakfast and coffee were procured at "Common Grounds" coffeehouse, a rustic and comfy local taste-bud-tingling hangout. On the quick walk there, we noticed something. It seemed that in the small town of Spearfish, there was either a ridiculously high per capita income, or there was a huge car exhibition, because nearly four out of five cars were Corvettes. Red 'Vettes, blue 'Vettes; Old 'Vettes, new 'Vettes. Everywhere. Sometimes in packs of three or more.

Our mystery was solved when we asked a couple from Washington what was on the rise, and apparently there is an annual Corvette road trip and rally event all across the Central Plains region. There must have been thousands of Corvettes passing through the town in just that one morning. In fact, three of the seven or eight people at the Spearfish Creek Motel had Corvettes. Stunning. A U.S.-produced automobile that isn't a complete clinker.

We went across the street to a RadioShack in search of an electrostatic bag to keep a few parts of the dismembered MacBook safe from shock. Luckily they had a few in the back from unpacking some of their display computers and whatnot.

Packed up, the two of us and our late counterpart left Spearfish and headed out Spearfish Canyon on our way to Mt. Rushmore.

The scenery was mostly unchanging until we hit Keystone, South Dakota. Oh boy. Mt. Rushmore's nearest town has been commercialized to within an inch of its existence. I would be challenged to find a town with more tourist crap crammed into a smaller space. But that's enough on Keystone - I think my point is made.

Mt. Rushmore, like Keystone, is overdeveloped, with a relatively new viewing platform and swarm of government-contracted shops and tourist traps. Yet, beyond that veil, the rock creation is still very impressive. Seeing it is vert humbling and inspiring.

Humans are capable of creating things on a very large scale. Some concrete examples of this include war, pain, suffering, and Mt. Rushmore.

The hype, the psychological atmosphere, and the sweltering heat culminated into a desire to move on - to Crazy Horse Monument. Like Mt. Rushmore, Crazy Horse was an ambitious undertaking; some loony thought it'd be great to carve another cliff into the shape of India chief Crazy Horse, out of respect for the losses that the land's native people suffered at the battle (or battles, depending on what knowledgeable individual one addresses) of Little Bighorn. The project was abandoned and bought by a money-hungry corporate entity who has yet to resume construction of the monument. They might as well build a casino.

On the highway between Crazy Horse and the beginning of the Badlands, signs advertising "Wall Drug" become ridiculously frequent. Historically, Wall Drug was a legitimate convenience store. Now it's more of a tourist trap gone horribly, horribly wrong. It has animatronic T-Rex's, fountains, fake trains, gold mining adventures, and, hypothetically, free ice water and five cent hot coffee. We had to stop, mostly for the right to say that yes, we had been to Wall Drug. I left with a sense of emptiness, as if the place had sucked every drop of youth and joy out of me, and refined it into pathetic plastic souvenirs.

From there, our last panoramic wonder was to be the Badlands, but sunset was approaching, so we had to make quick work of the National-Park maintained area's highway. We ended up stopping at just about every turnout and shoulder to snap photos, but each and every one was justified, in that it captured what I would go so far as to say was the most spectacular natural rock and soil formation in the world. There are likely other regions with similarly eroded peaks and troughs, but none that I care to see - this was plenty to make a hugely positive impression on me. Grasslands approach the brink of the hellish expanse, but very little dares to grow among the slopes.

By the time we had reached the end of the side-road that wound through the Badlands, the light was largely gone, and we were ready to make the "final push" as mom so lovingly calls just about everything that involves effort. It was our longest and most active day so far, and we deserve the amazing beds we found at 1:00AM local time in Oacoma, located a stone's throw from the West bank of the MIssouri River. This is the end of day seven.

This is also the beginning of day eight.

Fast forward for a moment - today, July 21, we made it through three states; A good portion of South Dakota, all of Minnesota, and all the way across Wisconsin, to Pewaukee, a small town west of Milwaukee. Lia, Emi, and Eva welcomed us into their beautiful home and offered us their delicious food and wonderful accommodations. Their power outlets even coaxed the MacBook back into consciousness - all of my precious photos and irreplaceable memories were intact, despite it being unable to charge the battery. So there's a lesson to little kids: It's mostly, kind of okay to pour water on electronics! Actually, a lesson to moms.

I am the youngest of my generation, on both sides of my family - all of my cousins have families of their own now, married or not, but all have provided for me a glimpse of what is to come, and of equal importance, what I can look forward to.

Time to turn in now. Traveling 600 miles in a day has me beat.

Today's photo comes from the Badlands - we've all seen what Mt. Rushmore looks like, but very few are aware of the majestic qualities of this desolate region of central South Dakota.

We are here, and here.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Parkway Takeoff

I am going to deviate from the usual haphazard construction of the previous entries, and basically provide a detailed list of all the things we accomplished, fun or not. Makes sense, right? We'll see.

Unsure of what had happened in the past hour or so of my mom's awoken state, I rose to the sound of what I could have sworn was Bob Barker's "The Price is Right." I was surprised to discover that it was a local news broadcast. Not that there's a difference any more - I just didn't think that there was anyone as well-groomed and deep-voiced as Mr. Barker on any news team... I found myself in the same underdressed bed that I so hesitantly accepted as the only alternative to sleeping in the car.

After a quick shower and a complete evacuation of all our belongings (take it how you like), we headed down I-90 to Hardin. On the way, we stopped at the Pictograph Caves State park. Great caves, but no pictographs. I'm positive it wasn't just the early morning sunlight.

We found a small café in Harding. I had a delicious Belgian Waffle with eggs and bacon, and mom had French Toast. Luckily we aren't South enough for people to call it Freedom toast. It sure feels like they would though. We talked with the waitress about the best route to Devil's Tower - Highway 212 or continuing on I-90. We learned two things: A family of three rolled their car four times, killed both parents, and severed a child's leg, and there's a pretty gas station somewhere along one of the highways. Somehow I pitied her, and her simple lifestyle.

It's hard to figure out exactly what went wrong with South-Central Montana and North-Central Wyoming, but there is basically a void between Yellowstone and Spearfish, South Dakota. [Insert from Mom: One thing Gus forgot, perhaps because he was dazed from all the sun, was Little Bighorn Battlefield in Montana. It was a sobering place, not as sobering as Wounded Knee would have been, since the Indians won at Bighorn and it was a battle instead of a massacre of innocents. We sat in on a very informative ranger talk so we got all the military maneuvers and logistics set in our heads, but still it was hard to look out over the peaceful, windblown prairie and imagine the bloodshed. We duly noted the spot Custer supposedly fell, but were more interested in the more recently installed tribal memorial which listed the tribes and warriors who fought there. I found myself feeling the most empathy for the hapless horses who were buried on the spot. Back to Gus...]

On our way to Devil's Tower, we encountered exactly one hallmark town. Buffalo, Wyoming. We stopped for lunch, as the local hangout soda fountain seemed very attractive. The espresso shop caddy-corner from the parlor was a magnet for mom's affliction. No – addiction. No – passion. Sorry. I'll admit it was pretty cool, vaulted ceilings and all.

It was clear sailing all the way to the basalt rock protrusion. This, unlike Old Faithful, was enticing and magnificent. Although not nearly as lively as the geyser, Devil's Tower has a supreme serenity, an overbearing sense of power. Even at the edge of the National Monument, where it is merely a bump among the trees, the rock is foreboding and holy.

By the time we finished with a series of panoramas looking back on on the sunset, Devil's Tower silhouetted, we got back on the road. We made it across the Wyoming-South Dakota border, and ended up in Spearfish, a couple dozen miles Northwest of Rapid City. The Days in there was all booked up, but the dude behind the desk was kind enough to make some recommendations, including the Spearfish Creek Motel. Just across the road, we found a great deal on what proved to be one of our better accommodations this whole trip. Clean, nicely decorated, odorless, and with a pool. Perfect.

Today's photo comes from the pictograph caves, just prior to entering "Ghost Cave."

We are here.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The False Prospect of Billings

Our goal today was to put on some serious miles after visiting a few scenic points along Yellowstone's "Grand Canyon." I have nothing to compare it to, but in absolute terms, it was spectacular. The viewpoints were well worth the extra hour or two (at least) that we spent in the park as a result of frequent pullovers.

A few miles outside of the Northeastern exit, we stopped in Cook City, a lowly town of mild-mannered rednecks, and bubbly tourists. We didn't fit into either category. Espresso over ice cream and a huckleberry soda granted us passage into the expanse of Highway 212 that lay ahead.

From our maps, we had no idea the Beartooth Highway would take us halfway to the frickin' moon.

Merely a grey blip in the road on our handy Michelin map, somewhere between fifteen and twenty switch-backs took us to the Beartooth Pass, at 10,947 feet. That's just a couple hundred feet below the summit of Mt. Hood.

The air was thin, we frequently spotted snow by the side of the road, and the trees' growth was stunted by the high altitudes. The journey up yielded beautiful rock formations, grassy slopes, and water features, but the long and winding road back down was comparable in environmental pulchritude.

In an area of less than a square mile, 14 or so odd miles of road wind down to the glacier-rounded bottom of an enormous valley just above the Montana-Wyoming border. The view is stunning, but knee-knocking, all the way down.

Now, at 11:47PM, Billings, Montana local time, I'm sitting in a ramshackle cottage off of "Underpass Road" just steps from the main drag, which, I might add, is a complete engineering failure. I won't even begin to explain.

The two-room and one-bath split bungalow is falsely comfortable. According to our lovely male receptionist, whose name and history is a mystery, "Everyone here smokes," meaning that there were no smoke-free rooms. Ours reeked of disinfectant and other odor-slashing chemicals. The bathroom was largely uncleaned, and a bedside lamp ceased to function. Our cottage, was, in effect, a roof and four walls.

We've decided that's what you get for $60.

Today's photo comes from an alpine lake, a conglomeration of Southwestern rock outcroppings, Northwestern forest, snowcap-fed waters, and the prairie grass of the Central Plains.

We are here.

Luck of the Draw

[Posted a day late due to the extreme lack of WiFi.]

We saw Old Faithful today. It was very possibly one of the lamest water features in the park. Compared to the neighboring Beehive Geyser and other vibrant pools of bubbling liquids, the grand old geyser was a letdown. In no way did it justify a rapid series of photos that I somehow brought myself to take.

Later on in the day, we passed a duet of awesome geothermal displays - Dragon's Mouth and Mud Volcano.

Dragon's Mouth was an impressive network of caves that produced a low rumbling noise and on occasion, expelled steaming water from its gaping mouth. A sign by the opening informed us that the name was symbolic of "the way a dragon's tongue flicks out of its mouth." I'd say is more symbolic of a nice hot cup of bull. Whatever - it makes the English teachers happy.

All in all, we made it just over a hundred miles within Yellowstone National Park today. Not a whole lot of progress by any standards, but the tradeoff was a few unforgettable experiences.

Tonight, we are camping.

We managed to walk into the registration building at Canyon Village Campground at exactly the right time. Moments before, someone had called in a cancellation that opened up one last site, "F-130." For $18.50, we had a place to sleep.

The evening was devoid of nuisances, with the exception of mom sitting on her keys and causing the car to honk. Our site was nothing special - in close quarters with our dysfunctional camping neighbors (who, much to our surprise, seemed to be a family), underneath power lines, and bathed in the soft glow of fluorescent light from the restrooms. With a little rearranging and some scooting of debris, we made room for our hexagonal tent. It's darn cute. It does have a lame pole though; cracked at one of its rickety old joints.

Sleeping bags and pads deployed, it is time to sleep. The mosquitos are biting.

Today's photo comes from the Paint Pots, an area of mud that gurgled incessantly, yet home to an array of other colorful rock and water bodies.

We are here.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Pandemonium in Yellowstone

We had a pretty rough day. Getting to Yellowstone was cake. I had the wheel taken away from me due to alleged reckless driving, but managed to do at least three-quarters of today's driving.

Tonight, we are staying at the Madison Hotel - a prestigious sounding name for a bathroom-down-the-hall facility. For about $55 after taxes, we got a cozy room with a sink and one of the most horrifyingly bad views I have ever experienced. In essence, a rooftop, and no more. Nice covered porch out front, though.

Two things scared us, and two things greatly enthused us. Bad news first - mom and I got separated at Norris Geysers, a rather expansive area of active and rather impressive water features. Mom went looking for me after paying a visit to the pit toilets, and I stayed put in what I believed to be the most attractive region of the site - "Porcelain Basin," where several columns of water were in constant activity, others dormant for a long while, but still periodically erupting. Anyway, due to being caught up in the beauty of the place, and lacking anything but yelling as a means of communication, we traipsed around looking for one another for about an hour, until finally we reconnected at the opening of the trail system. Whew.

The second piece of bad news (that was also resolved in a timely manner) was the loss of mom's car keys and unlocker dongle. She found them in her purse. We're all special. (She says she doesn't have Alzheimer's.)

But on to the amazing things - Mammoth Hot Springs, and a couple of wildlife sightings.

Mammoth Hot Springs is home to clusters of "travertine terraces" as they are scientifically called. A special pattern in water flow or structure of mineral buildup causes hundreds of tiny pools to form and host an odd array of colors and temperatures. Water boiling from within the Earth surfaces and cascades down the terraces and cools. The wind was relatively strong, and it made sure that we got our share of piping hot mist and delightful sulfur odor along the paths.

Our animal sighting was a rather unexpected one. Mom has told me many a time that it's super-important to be alert within Yellowstone National Park, as animals may be inclined to mosey about on the road. This proved to be very true today, as we approached a group of stopped cars, whose drivers we presumed to be looking at a large elk grazing beside the road. The two cars in front of us crept forward, but without a care in the world, the elk sauntered into the road, directly in our car's lane. I guess he knew he had complete control over us, physically and emotionally. He might as well have taken a short nap or something equally cute.

Now it's time to load the second batch of photos today - from the hot springs and miscellaneous roadside shenanigans.

Yellowstone is beautiful.

Today's photo [will be] of Mammoth Hot Springs' travertine terraces.

We are here.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Beat in Bozeman.

Our projected destination of Butte was easily reached today, our second day on the road. There, though, we only expected to stop at "Matt's," which allegedly made a decent Milkshake. It was just about as disapppointing as Kelis'. (Wake up and experience the stench of pop-culture, people.)

We traveled mostly on I-90, with the exception of a detour to a promising town or two. Idaho and Montana generously and graciously support interstates navigable at speeds another 25% faster than Oregon's. We passed some rather incredible natural rock formations, but also stopped to examine one very peculiar and disturbing unnatural one. The site was the Berkeley mineral mining pit, in Butte, Montana. I don't know the specifics, but it had to be a five hundred foot plunge to the bottom, a height to which you are exposed after exiting a long and confining shaft extending from the parking lot to a small wood viewing platform. The hole grealy resembles the crash site of a large alien space craft that felt it was necessary to spin violently and scar the surrounding surfaces of Mother Earth with concentric circles. Looking upon it granted me one word: horrifying.

The weather was less than ideal, but it made for some interesting and new experiences - some thunder and lightning storms, some intense rays and some simply gorgeous blue sky. It remained unclear if we would continue to be burdened by torrential rain or the menacing black clouds closing in on all sides. Luckily, we were able to enjoy a decent amount of temperate (but muggy) air, and Bozeman, in all its apparent wealth.

We're in Bozeman now, at the Imperial Inn. The town exceeds my expectations. I thought it would be dumpy, full of redneck lowlife, and built around the mining industry. Our only inkling that Montana is an oddball state was something called the "Testicle Festival." Seriously, what the heck? Rocky Mountain Oysters are for loonies or meth addicts. Or something. Point being, you don't often see a sign on the freeway advertising a celebration of the disembodied cojones of what we hoped were only animals. We failed to spot Borat.

For $69 we managed to slip into this hotel; cozy, but bare. Free ice to replenish the cooler, and decent beds - at least they beat a collapsed davenport. A sweet and coveted bonus was free Wi-Fi, from which this entry was posted.

Today's photo comes from a logging road West of Bozeman, just after our beloved testy-fest.

We are here.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Eats of Evening One.

Day one is done. We safely arrived at Stout Street around 5:30, to the usual barrage of
food; chicken, potatoes, carrots and peas, salad, and what is rumored to be banana cream pie.

[After posting a hopeful remark about updating this entry soon, my iPhone ceased to function as promised by Apple, and began the notorious yellow triangle of death. Until we reach Wisconsin, there will be no chance to exchange the iPhone for another new one. Most entries will be posted from the MacBook now.]

Grandma told us of her trip West, which, if you have any affiliation with Virginia, you have most likely heard. Oh boy.

As expected, the hospitality was like an egg... Soft, warm and delicious but very filling. No offense, grandma. We love you.

We are here.

Friday, July 13, 2007


We are all packed, the car is loaded, and in less than twelve hours, we will begin our six-thousand mile journey to the Atlantic and back.

For now, we sleep. Perhaps the deepest and most valuable sleep in the next twenty-six days.

We are here.