Archive for the ‘Western U.S.’ Category

Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.

—Helen Keller

We’ve been home now for several weeks, and a new school year is getting underway.  I am way overdue in putting up a post to wrap-up our summer odyssey and had better do so now before the teaching treadmill picks up too much speed.

Denali Highway, Alaska: a long, long way from home.

Looking back over my posts from the road, I’m struck by the way they fizzled out toward the end, partly due to technical issues but also partly due to languor, the daily demands of logging significant mileage often leaving little time and less energy for blogging at the end of the day.  Compared to the posts from my 2008 trip with the boys, a journey with no real agenda or timetable, the writing just didn’t measure up.  And besides the tyranny of the timetable, there was another significant difference with this trip: I had adult company for the duration.  After the boys went to sleep, I still had someone to talk with.  And, while my dad was with us, someone to knock back a few Alaskan Ambers with.

Anyway, unlike my blog posts, the trip most definitely didn’t fizzle out toward the end.  In fact we ended on a real high before I put Belinda and the boys on a plane in Salt Lake City and drove the rest of the way back.  But more on that later.

First, a couple of general reflections: (more…)


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After four and a half weeks of flawless, trouble-free travel, we finally hit a real speed bump in Lewiston, ID, two nights ago when Will woke up in the middle of the night with stomach pains.  I’ll spare you the details of somewhat awe-inspiring puking fit.  By 4:00 am, he and I were on our way to the local emergency room just to be safe.

Anyway the brave little guy is mostly back to normal now.  But our schedule is shot all to hell, so we’ve made arrangements now for Belinda and the boys to fly home from Salt Lake instead of Denver on Sunday.  We can now poke around for the next couple of days instead of pound out mind-numbing interstate miles.

Right now, we’re in Riggins, Idaho, the “whitewater epicenter” of the country.  My kind of town.  Today we’ll drive through the Sawtooth’s and head for Craters of the Moon National Monument. Unless someone else catches whatever Will had.

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I’ve had all sorts of trouble with my laptop in the past two weeks and haven’t been able to post any updates.  I think I may have it cleared up now.  But I’m not in the mood to spend any more time with this computer today.  I’ve got pictures and stories to share that will just have to wait.

We’re still on the move.  Belinda joined us two days ago in Vancouver and we cut my dad loose.  We’re currently in the Okanagan valley, having returned to the Lower 48 last night.  As soon as we get out of this motel room, we’ll be heading for Grand Coulee Dam, hoping to take a tour of the powerhouse.

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We’ve listened to a lot of radio in the nearly 6000 miles we’ve covered so far, typically alternating between small-town NPR on the left end of the dial and small-town country music stations on the right.  The emptier the country, the more interesting the seek-button results.  Because every station goes fluttery within half an hour at best, there are no keepers, but here are a few high points from our catch-and-release airwave trawling:

  • Driving across northern Nebraska with a signal from the Rosebud Indian Reservation across the border in South Dakota.  The young lady behind the microphone read a surprisingly long listing of all job openings in the immediate area and then, to open the daily “Birthday Show,” announced the names of everyone celebrating a birthday on that particular day. The first birthday song request, from a grandfather to his grandson, was the theme of SpongeBob SquarePants as sung by a Blackfoot Indian powwow drum group.  The boys were both fast asleep in the car at the time and missed it.
  • In Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, I heard “Electric Avenue” for the first time since perhaps 1983 on a station that played wall-to-wall reggae music seemingly without commercial interruption or commentary or station identification of any sort. Whitehorse also had a Caribbean eatery. I reckon the idea of the tropics has a powerful hold on the imaginations of those who live in this part of the world—three days later in Fairbanks we came across a twenty-piece community steel drum band (players ranged from preteen to septuagenarian) jamming away in the downtown riverside plaza.
  • Local public radio in Haines, Alaska, treated us to an involved and entertaining local crime story from Skagway about two Canadian men caught trying to smuggle marijuana over the border in the tool box behind the cab of their pick-up truck.  When the news report was finished, another voice came on to let us know we had just heard a re-broadcast story from 12 years ago in their “News from the Past” segment.  I guess little enough happens in Haines (and I mean that in the best possible way) that a recycled narrative of a decade-old drug bust can still retain some novelty.

But our best (semi)serendipitous listening experience didn’t come over the airwaves at all.  In one of the Yellowstone visitor centers I impulse-purchased an audio copy of Stephen Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage (about the Lewis and Clark Expedition), which proved to be the best-possible companion for our drive north towards Great Falls.  To a surprising degree, the boys were swept up by the narration.  Too bad I hadn’t thought about audio books before we left . . . right now we should be listening to John Muir’s Travels in Alaska as we island-hop our way southward.

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We’re in Great Falls, Montana, at the moment, having arrived yesterday after three night’s camping in Yellowstone and the Beartooth Mountains.  Opi is at the laundromat while I hang out at our hotel, letting the boys sleep in.  I don’t have the time to write a proper post, so I’ll mostly let a few pictures speak thousands of words.

Opi continues to cook up a storm, drawing on the experience of “camping” on board his sailboat for nearly two decades.  Two years ago, I mostly prepared glorified backpacking meals on my trip with the boys, but this time we’re taking full advantage of the relative comforts of car camping.  Before departure, we spent the better part of two days building a wooden “chuck box” to serve as the heart of an organized camp kitchen, and we’ve both been inordinately pleased with our creation.  And while Opi cooks, I’ve had more time to fulfill fatherly duties like flying kites or tossing a baseball with the boys.

Tonight’s menu: grilled pork chops with baked potatoes and steamed leeks.

Top of the boys’ list of “to-do’s” in Yellowstone was to try out the new fishing rods they received from their Uncle Michael for their birthdays, so we spent two hours on Saturday scaring all the fish in Nez Perce Creek and a couple more spooking them in the Gibbon River.  Come to think of it, the fish were probably more amused than terrorized by us.  The boys got a lot of casting practice but not a single nibble,  likely using the wrong tackle with the wrong technique in the wrong location.  I was absolutely no help at all, failing miserably in my fatherly duties in this realm.  Fish were rising all around us on the second afternoon, and Uncle Michael would have known what to do.  Nonetheless, I did get a lot of practice untangling hopeless snarls of line, and I no longer need to consult the diagram he gave me for how to tie something on the end.  I practiced enough patience to supply a lifetime of fishing trips.  In the meantime, Opi went and sat on a log and read.

I’ve always thought of unsuccessful fishing as a great excuse for spending more time in locations like this one.

At any rate, Yellowstone was magnificent as usual, and I could fill paragraph after paragraph with superlatives.  I have to laugh, though, that we saw three wolves about a mile from our Madison River campsite—after years of my mostly fruitless effort over a half-dozen visits with students to see Yellowstone’s wolves (hiring expert guides, getting up in the wee hours to be in position at dawn, waiting patiently for hours in freezing temperatures), these three might as well have walked up and introduced themselves.

The boys agree that thermal features, like campfires, are more watchable than television, even static ones like Grand Prismatic Spring.

After two nights at Madison River, we camped in a delightful Shoshone National Forest site up in the Beartooths, right under the two iconic peaks known as the Bear’s Ears.  Somehow I neglected to take pictures, probably because I was too busy enjoying a few Father’s Day beers with my Dad and poking at the campfire with my boys.  I won’t need pictures to remember this night.

That’s enough for now . . . it’s time to leave Great Falls and head north into Canada.  Hope everyone is doing well at home.  Mom, we miss you!

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We arrived in Niobrara State Park yesterday evening to find a landscape full of light and motion, the tall grasses on the hillsides rippling in the wind like the surface of a pond and the setting sun flooding the entire scene with warmth.  It was every bit as spectacular as the boys and I remembered from our visit two summers ago.  The boys lobbied hard for us to return to the same campsite we had used before, one tucked into a sheltering grove of trees in a little hollow.  In the end, though, we chose a site high on an open, grassy ridge.  Dad was really taken with the panorama of the braided confluences of the Niobrara and Missouri Rivers, and the boys exploded with delight to see a bald eagle wheel past at nearly eye level.  About the wind, Dad predicted “I really think it will die down once the sun sets.”

Well, I’ve been teasing him all day about this last one, his finely-tuned sailor’s intuition not serving him well in the center of the continent.  The wind was strong enough as we cooked dinner to blow a full can of beer off of the cooking table, and erecting the tents was something of an adventure (would have been flat-out impossible with cheaper gear).  On the plus side, it was nice and warm, and no mosquitoes pestered us.  I’ve got to give Dad credit, moreover, for cooking a terrific meal in that howling gale—bacon-wrapped filets and fried potatoes and steamed vegetables.  I’m basically putting him in charge of the cooking for the duration!  And in the meantime, the boys and I learned that you can succesfully fly a kite in that kind of wind  provided you attach the right kind of tail.

In fact the wind did not die down overnight but has steadily increased all day.  Cooking breakfast (scrambled eggs and fried potatoes and sausage links) and breaking camp was again a bit of an adventure, and by this afternoon we were fighting a steady 40 mph headwind as we drove west across the plains.  Tonight finds us camped in another comfortable hotel, this time in Casper, WY.  We’ll head to Yellowstone tomorrow.

The boys journaling through our lunch stop at Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge.

A quick note about the boys: the best 15 dollars I have spent on ths trip has them both set up with little journals, and they have been writing and drawing away in the back of the car and at every stop to make this English teacher’s heart proud.

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We never did make it to the Gateway Arch yesterday.  By mid-afternoon, St. Louis traffic got the better of us, and we turned aside to find a lonelier road west through the Missouri River Valley.  At any rate, we had already found our symbolic “crossing the threshold” moment when we stumbled across a shoestring car ferry operation to take us to the west bank of the Missisippi.

Note the rusty and mangled metal apron allowing you to drive on to the car barge. Clearly, no one has wasted any money on maintenance for this operation.

Following a wholly unexpected sign for the “Modoc Ferry,” we found ourselves hopping over the levee on a tertiary road, one that ended in a silt-covered and seemingly abandoned parking lot right at the river’s edge.  But sure enough, there was the ferry over on the far bank, and a few minutes’ watching assured us that it was indeed moving over to fetch us.  How this ferry has remained in operation is an open mystery, particularly since there is a good bridge over the river only a few miles downstream.  Nonetheless, to cross the Big Muddy only a few feet from the surface, to feel the powerful muscle in all that water sliding past—this is vastly more interesting than soaring over on a highway bridge (or peering down from 30,000 feet).

Will’s comment in his journal: “We weren’t sure if we trusted it, but it got us across.”

Over the past two days Will has asked “Can we camp here?” at nearly every stop, so tonight we plan to give him what he wants at Niobara State Park in Nebraska.  We’ll probably be camping the next couple of nights, so it may be a while before I can put up the next post.  And yes, so far we are following (more-or-less) the same route as we did two years ago, aiming for a few days in Yellowstone before moving on northward.  But it’s firmly decided that we’ll take a pass on Mount Rushmore.

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