03 June, 2009

Diner's, Drive-Ins and Dives - Taylor's Automatic Refresher

Taylor's Automatic Refresher felt like it was straight out of the 50's except for the modern day twist on classic burger, sandwich and salad choices. The seating was all picnic style with a small bar area and everything was open air. Right in the heart of Napa Valley, Taylor's is one of a kind among all the ritzy winery's and upscale cafes. Despite being seemingly out of place, the crowded tables and long line said otherwise.

You order up at the window and wait until you hear your name called over the loudspeaker. Andy ordered a Western burger which had guacamole, pepper jack cheese, and pickled jalapenos with sweet potato fries. Sean got a Wisconsin Sourdough burger with cheddar, mushrooms, bacon, and regular fries. I had to settle for a Veggie burger, which was probably the most delicious veggie burger I've ever had, with lettuce, pickles, and signature sauce. We hadn't eaten much of a breakfast that morning so the savory burgers at Taylor's were thoroughly enjoyed. Sean also got a chocolate milkshake that was mind blowing in it's delectable simplicity. After all, a 50's style burger joint wouldn't be complete without a selection of shakes. In short, Taylor's Automatic Refresher gets a sincere nod of approval from JAS.

02 June, 2009

From Cabernet to Zinfandel

After sleeping just shy of eleven hours, we prepared to be on the road again. We weren't really in a hurry today, our only goal was to make it to Brannan State Recreation Area just outside of Napa before nightfall. We did have a few via points we wanted to hit along the way, most notably Moaning Caverns in Vallecito, California. I had been to Moaning Caverns with my Mom, brother and Grandma when I was about nine and I vaguely remember my Mom repelling down one hundred and some odd feet into the cavern while we watched. Since then they've added another attraction - a 1500 foot zip line. I wanted to do both the zip line and the repel but for the sake of expediency we opted for the zip line alone.

The coolest part was that it was actually set up as a dual zip line with two of them running parallel to each other. There was info posted about weight limits but I guess they weren't too concerned about it because they let Sean and Andy race each other. The line operator and I thought it looked like Andy won but there's some speculation over who was first to finish. There was another party of three right after us so I went alongside a decently large guy who needless to say made it to the bottom long before me. The ride was really fun and you went really fast; the wind was so intense it made my eyes tear. My only complaint is that it was entirely too short and it seemed like it was over just as quickly as it began.

Upon arriving at Brannan park we once again found ourselves a little concerned about the wind. We placed the tent among some bushes and secured it as well as we could. The guys built an awesome fire and we made grilled cheese and tomato soup before getting ready for bed. Aside from the fact that the bathrooms were infested with ticks the campground was really nice. The wind in combination with my busted thermarest made sleeping difficult, not to mention I had a p-style malfunction during the night the details of which I won't go into.

The next day was spent perusing the winery's of Napa. We went to Berringer where the grounds were immaculate, the flowers were in full bloom, and the historic mansion was impressive. For ten dollars you could taste three wines and we weren't particularly attracted to any we tried. The atmosphere was unwelcoming and stiff; I don't think they appreciated our age or our casual appearance. It did have a certain traditional charm to it that I very much appreciated. Following that we ended up at Sterling Winery where the experience was much more pleasurable. Situated on top of a hill, you had to take a gondola up to the top in order to reach the winery. From there you began your self-guided tour. At the very beginning we sampled our first wine, a pinot gris, before continuing on our leisurely stroll. The second wine, a pleasantly dry riesling, was served on a terrace overlooking the valley. After that we worked our way back around to the tasting room where we had a spicy sangiovese, a rich cabernet sauvignon, and finally a very sweet malvasia bianca. Despite being somewhat impersonal, it was nice to experience the grounds at your own pace and the wines were all very good. We were there for a little under two hours and the whole thing cost twenty dollars.

We had initially planned on camping in Napa that night but we went on a wild goose chase that eventually ended in Lake Sonoma Recreation Area. Unfortunately, the dry weather had led to a dry well and there was no water available which meant no sinks, no toilets, and definitely no showers. At this point I was unconcerned about the lack of water, I was looking forward to sleeping on my new army style cot which I had purchased earlier that day to replace the popped thermarest. I can't even begin to tell you how glorious that cot is.

Our second day in the wine country began bright and earlier at 10:30 in the morning at which time we had our greatest overall tasting experience. The grounds were impressive yet modest, not overly ostentatious, and the folks we met really made it unforgettable. John, our bartender, was absolutely hilarious and filled us in on all sorts of things about wine making, distribution, history, and snobbery. It turns out that Florida is actually the third most wine importing state in the country. We also also met the wine maker, whose name I can't recall, but he was equally as friendly, laid back, and welcoming as John. It was supposed to be five dollars to taste five wines
and another ten to taste two of their reserve wines. Not only did we taste them all, but he offered us refills and revisits, and we didn't pay a cent for the tasting at John's insistence. Sean ended up buying a bottle of Syrah and Andy and I split a bottle of the reserve Zinfandel.

John suggested we stop in the little town of Healdsburg where there were several small winery's and some cute cafes and shops. Here we visited the Williamson Winery which was very attentive to developing wines to compliment specific foods. We tasted about seven or eight wines each of which we enjoyed with little tidbits of cheese, brownie, and other morsels. The ability of each wine to bring out the flavors in the accompanying foods was truly amazing. At this point we opted for lunch at what turned out to be a crowded and overpriced cafe with poor service before making our way to Samuel P. Taylor State Park to camp for the night.

I look forward to returning to the wine country one day when I have more time and more money. I found myself missing my Mom and my brother, continually thinking how much they would enjoy and appreciate the experience. I also think not knowing exactly what to expect or how to approach it made the whole thing a little intimidating; the trick is to just act like you know what you're doing. Aside from the experience itself I take away a better understanding of wine in general as well as a more educated opinion about the type of wine I enjoy the most, and I look forward to the further experimentation I plan to indulge in upon returning home.

01 June, 2009

Yosemite Sam

We left Lake Tahoe in search of Big Bend Campground in the Inyo National Forest. This was our first experience with bear lockers; in addition to the typical fire pit and picnic table, this camp side had a large metal locker designed to keep food and scented products in and bears out. This would also be our first time using the new tent. Throughout the evening threatening clouds were moving in and the wind was picking up; we were all praying that the new tent would be able to handle it. As it turned out, it did rain that night and we remained snug and dry inside the safety of our paper thin home. Although the new tent was a success, I can't say the same for my thermarest; during the night it somehow deflated leaving me to sleep without much padding and I awoke the next morning with aching hips and a grumpy attitude.
Big Bend was located just 10 minutest outside of Yosemite, so the following morning we simply wove our way around Tioga Pass and started exploring. We paused at Tenaya Lake and marveled at how the crystal clear water perfectly reflected the stunning scenery above. From the lookout from Olmsted Point you could see the top of Half Dome in the distance. We carefully edged our way off of the trail and out onto the edge of the smooth, sloping rock face where we encountered a Yellow-Bellied Marmot and took in the the scenery. We briefly stopped at Yosemite Creek before heading to the Tuolumne Grove trail head. We hiked down about a mile to see remnants of a giant sequoia forest. Some impressive trees were still standing tall, but the largest and most incredible were fallen. One was actually completely hollow on the inside and Sean crawled about half way through it before encountering some spiders and turning back. The return hike was a race against time as we rushed to beat the coming thunderstorm that was bellowing overhead. It seemed that we had been outrunning the storm the entire day. It finally caught up with us as we walked to Yosemite Lodge in the pouring rain to eat lunch. Before heading to the condo that would be our home for the next two nights we hiked to the base of Bridalveil Falls and stopped briefly to enjoy a breathtaking scenic overlook of the valley.
The condo suited us perfectly. We were so excited to have a kitchen with a sink, a stove, pots, pans, counters, etc. I prepared black bean burgers, potato wedges, and broccoli that we ended up eating for lunch the following day. I had my first experience with a Murphy bed, which was actually really comfortable, and Sean and Andy each took half of a trundle bed. Right when we got there we noticed there was something wrong with the doorknob; once you closed the door you were essentially locked inside. We had to have a maintenance guy come up and replace the knob otherwise we wouldn't have been able to close our door! There was also a gas fireplace, a balcony, and a resident coyote who seemed to be constantly lurking in the back yard searching for scraps.
Our second day was dedicated to hiking the Mist Trail. Labeled as the best day hike in Yosemite by Backpacker magazine, the Mist Trail was truly incredible. We hiked up from the base of Vernal Falls and got soaked by the dissipating mist amazed at the beauty of the cascading water. The sunshine illuminated the floating mist creating a beautiful rainbow that was so close you could almost reach out and touch it. We rested for awhile at the top of Vernal Falls before continuing up to the top of Nevada Falls. We were all having flashbacks of the Grand Canyon at this point as we passed switch back after switch back on our way up wondering if we would ever make it. We finally completed the four mile ascent and sprawled out across the smooth rocks to regain our energy for the hike back down. It took us about three and a half hours to make it to the top and only an hour and a half to descend the four miles back down to the base of Vernal Falls via a much flatter, tamer trail. In total, we hiked eight miles that day and ascended 2000 feet in elevation.
Initially we had anticipated going back out for a second round of sightseeing after returning to the condo for lunch, but it became obvious after about an hour that we weren't going anywhere. For about three days now it had been nearly impossible to get either cell phone or internet service and Andy and I were getting a little peeved. We drove about 20 minutes to a little town within Yosemite called Wasona hoping to find wireless service but were crushed when we weren't able to connect anywhere. We returned to the condo for dinner which consisted of rice, beans, fish, and a delicious mango salsa that Sean had prepared while we were out on our uneventful search.
I was surprised at how little wildlife we encountered in Yosemite, seeing only the yellow-bellied marmut, a few deer, the occassional bird, and of course of neighborhood coyote. Words can't even describe how dissappointed I am that we didn't get to see a bear; I am truly crushed. My hopes remain high however, that someday, somewhere I am destined to meet a bear, hopefully in a friendly context. Despite the lack of critters, Yosemite was a truly unique and inspirational place. The Mist Trail is by far my favorite hike we have endured to date, and I would dare to say that Sean and Andy agree with me. Although our time in Yosemite was incredible it was also exhausting, but we had to collect ourselves and prepare for the coming attractions; we still had all of California to look forward to.

30 May, 2009

Tale of Two States

We left the comfort of our cabin and beauty of Wyoming in search of a suitable place to camp for the night on our way to Lake Tahoe. Driving through Idaho was perhaps the most uneventful drive to date as we passed crop field after crop field after crop field. I wish we had time to stop in Pocatello or Boise so I could have developed a well rounded concept of Idaho. We ended up in American Falls at Massacre Rocks State Park. Aside from the ticks lurking in the bathroom, it was a totally decent campsite. The coolest part about that evening was listening to the high pitched howling of a pack of coyotes in the distance as we settled in for a fitful nights rest in the surprisingly cold Idaho night air.

After our activity packed stay in the Jackson area we were all feeling a little run down and I was pushing hard for finding a cheap motel in Tahoe. Although Andy and Sean were ready to camp, they didn’t seem to mind the idea too much. We ended up at the Best Tahoe West Inn situated on the South side of the lake within walking distance of the casinos, shops, restaurants, and the lake. Best of all, they had free guest laundry facilities which we took full advantage of totaling five loads. Interestingly, the Nevada/California border goes right through the middle of South Lake Tahoe with the casinos on one side of the street and little motels on the other. Over the course of the two days we were there we were in Nevada one minute and California the next.

These two days in Tahoe were truly dedicated to revitalizing and restructuring; it felt like we were starting fresh by the time we left for Yosemite. Andy got a new tent that was much more compact and easier to break down and store. I bought a Rubbermaid container allowing for better food storage and the prevention of squished bread. We replaced the ripped up garbage bag we were using to hold our pans, dishes and utensils with our old food bag. Andy freed up the top portion of his duffel bag for the storage of miscellaneous items around the car like our shoes, a lantern, Citronella Candles, and toilet paper. Words can’t even describe the relief and satisfaction we felt after condensing and reorganizing.

Andy and Sean dabbled in the gambling culture of Tahoe experiencing both the joys of winning and the disappointment of losing playing slots and blackjack. During our one full day it actually rained but we still managed to make a time of it visiting what seemed like every used goods store in Tahoe. We went to two thrift stores and I felt like I was in heaven. I got a skirt, two sweaters, a corduroy button down, and a long sleeve shirt for 20 bucks. Sean and Andy each got a few choice items as well. Then we went to a used book store where we each got two or three books for an average of 5 bucks total. We ate lunch at Sprouts Café, a totally organic veggie friendly place that was insanely delicious. That night we ate dinner at the Lakeside Grill, watched the sun set behind the mountains as we indulged in a delicious meal and locally brewed beer, and enjoyed the outgoing and friendly nature of the locals.

The morning we left Tahoe we drove up to the Emerald Bay lookout and then hiked our way down to the Vikingstrolm house built in 1929. At one of the vista points I talked briefly with a guy who was fervently knitting and he explained to me that he had biked there all the way from L.A. and he sold the hats he knitted to make money. He asked if I wanted one and I said I was sorry but I had spent enough money over the past two days; then he proceeded to ask me if I had any pot which I attributed to my particularly hippie-ish looking appearance that day. I told him no and apologized once again, wished him luck, and then left wondering what chain of events ultimately landed him in that particular place, in that particular state, at that particular moment.

27 May, 2009

Reflection Point - Two Weeks

Exactly two weeks ago today, Andy and I boarded a plane to Atlanta in a state of excited uncertainty. Although I didn't know exactly what to expect, I tried to prepare myself for the possibilities. Now, we have completed a significant portion of our journey and I find myself at an interesting crossroads. In many ways I have adapted to the demands of this excursion, in other ways not so much. We have also collectively adapted, slowly but surely discovering better and more efficient ways to do things. In a way time seems to fly, yet it is also simultaneously dragging.

I get exhausted just thinking about all we've done and how far we've come; fourteen states in fourteen days. We marveled at the beauty of the Painted Desert, hiked our way through 6 miles of treacherous terrain in the Grand Canyon, saw a plethora of wildlife and natural wonders in Zion, and spent three days taking in the scenery of Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons. I think the sheer incredibility of it all is one of things helping me hold it together.

It wasn't until a few days ago when the first wave of frustration and helplessness came over me. We have discussed several times now the fact that this isn't a vacation, it's a trip. This isn't about relaxing or leisurely taking in the sights and sounds of America - it's about experiencing America. In spirit and in action I am one hundred percent on board with this, but the daily processes required to maintain and progress are taking a toll. For instance, performing normal daily activities like cooking, eating, cleaning, showering, and dressing among others are so decentralized each becomes a monumental task in and of itself. When you're never in any one place for more than a day or two you lack a sense of establishment. Time is a factor so the minute you wake you are rolling up your sleeping bag, collecting your things, packing your bag, organizing the car, figuring out what to do and where to go. It's difficult to find a moment to collect yourself, gather your thoughts,and simply take a step back to appreciate.

The amusing part is that things that would have struck me as intolerable in the beginning are not only trivial but easily endurable and expected. For instance, not showering for a day or two can be dealt with, sharing the bathroom with a few species of insect is commonplace, eating off of dishes still crusted with remnants of the previous meal is inconsequential, and wearing clothes that are technically dirty is both necessary and economical. Although I have struggled to repress a few episodes of disillusionment, at this point it only takes me a few minutes or a good nights rest to rationalize. The magnitude and awesomeness of this experience outweighs any drawbacks, and when it does come to an end, I don't want to look back and regret instances where the potential for enjoyment was suppressed by less desirable emotions.

Gas Price Log - WY, MT, and ID

May 22-26, 2009
Jackson, WY
Gas Price Range: $2.05 - 2.24

West Yellowstone, MT
Gas Price Range: $2.49 - 2.59

Ashton, ID
Gas Price: $2.29

26 May, 2009

The Wonders of Wyoming

We arrived in Jackson, WY in the early afternoon excited at the prospect of spending more than a single night in one place. The cabin we reserved was at the back of a KOA Kampground overlooking the Snake River. This little one room cabin struck me as absolutely perfect. It had a roof, four walls, a set of bunk beds, a double bed, a heater, a little table, a front porch, a swinging bench, a picnic table, and a grill. At the time it seemed that we would have an immeasurable amount of time to relax in between the various activities we had planned for this leg of the journey, but as it turned out, it wasn't nearly as relaxing as we had anticipated.

That first night we went into the town of Jackson to grab dinner and quickly learned that not much was open at ten o'clock. We ended up getting an enormous slice of pizza and a tall boy for five bucks before heading back to our little log cabin by the river. All through the night and into the next morning we were all greatly anticipating the coming white water rafting trip.

By 9:30 we were ready to go equipped with wet suits and booties awaiting the arrival of the bus that would take us to the launching point. When we got there we met our guide, Bryce, and our safety kayaker, Arnie, who set us up with life jackets, paddles, and gave us a brief safety pitch. Originally we were supposed to take an 8 man raft trip but it got switched to a larger raft for safety purposes; because the snow is all rapidly melting at this time the water level of the river is significantly higher than usual. In addition to us and our guide there were two families who accompanied us on the rafting trip totaling eleven people. Sean and Andy sat in the very front on either side making them the pace setters and lead paddlers. I made the mistake of sitting two people behind them towards the back causing me to miss out on all the big waves and exciting turbulence.

The ride was entirely too short and I found myself wishing we could go again. Bryce told us some awesome rafting and kayaking stories along the way and Arnie actually had to bail out of his kayak during the Lunch Counter rapid and we had to pull him and his kayak into our raft and then launch him out again. We also saw some pretty amazing scenery along the way gazing up at the surrounding mountains and one lady even said she caught a glimpse of a black bear.

Back at the cabin we decided to take it easy. We had grilled cheese, soup, and beer for lunch, rested for a few hours, and then set out to explore the town of Jackson Hole. We walked around all the little shops, through the town square, and then ate dinner at a charming organic restaurant called Cafe Luna. We left early the next morning for Grand Teton National Park hoping to see some wildlife before they retreated into the forest for the afternoon. Unfortunately the day was incredibly dismal and dreary; it was overcast, cold, and drizzly. We were all feeling a little in sync with the weather lacking motivation, low on energy and simply burnt out. Despite the imperfect weather, we did see some amazing views of the Teton mountains shrouded in low lying clouds, an incredibly indifferent deer, and remarkably, a mother moose and her calf hidden among a cluster of trees.

The next day we headed out to Yellowstone, which was surprisingly covered in snow. On our way in we passed a giant lake that was actually still frozen. I've never seen a frozen body of water before in my life. Damage from the fire of '88 was still evident with barren trees speckling the landscape; however, new life is finally emerging in the form of lush green pines about a quarter of the size of the remaining scorched trunks. Our first stop was naturally Old Faithful, which we watched erupt along with hundreds of other eager spectators. Then we followed the wooden boardwalk and looped around all of the other hot springs and geysers surrounding Old Faithful. We ate lunch in the Yellowstone Lodge before driving to see a few other hot springs and mud pits. During our drive we saw several herds of grazing bison, a few herds of female elk, and a lone coyote circling a deserted hillside.

On our way out the following day we briefly went back to Yellowstone to visit the Yellowstone Grand Canyon and see Yellowstone Falls. The view was incredible and the upper waterfall was sensational. We saw many more buffalo roaming the fields and were lucky enough to see another coyote, this time he actually crossed the street in front of us and then ambled alongside our car for a few minutes. As we made our way towards the exit heading for Lake Tahoe, I was disappointed that we hadn't seen a bear. My hopes remain high since there is still a chance we might see one in Yosemite.

Jackson Hole and the surrounding area is truly an enchanting place. In addition to the amazing scenery and classic Midwestern ambiance we were mesmerized by the brilliant night sky and the glistening snow. The shimmering stars crowded the sky so densely the blackness barely shone through. Apparently the snow had melted rapidly in the week before we got there and it continued to stealthily disintegrate throughout our stay. The river level behind our cabin rose dramatically just in the three days we were there. Slowly but surely, some semblance of Spring was attempting to break out in Jackson Hole.

During our time in Jackson I couldn't help but think about the unique lives of its residents and for that matter the lives of the people in many of the places we have been so far. Imagine being a hiking guide in the Grand Canyon, a white water rafting guide along the Snake River, or a rodeo cowboy. You might not make too much money and you might not inhabit the most impressive of homes, but I would imagine that life would be more about living instead of doing. Bending over backwards to make a buck doing something you don't enjoy has never seemed sillier, living in the midst of commercialized urban sprawl has never been less appealing, and forgoing happiness for the sake of superficial societal norms has never seemed more misguided than at this moment.