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.

24 May, 2009

Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives-Red Iguana & Ruth's Diner

Apparently Salt Lake City is a home style cooking hot spot because it is home to five restaurants that have been featured on Diners, Drive-ins and Dives. We weighed our options and given my dietary restrictions decided to skip the barbecue joints and instead went to the Red Iguana for dinner. As we drove up it was difficult to overlook the crowd of people standing outside. We ended up waiting for about 35 minutes before a table became available and others were waiting even longer. I got the feeling that this wasn't unusual.

The vibrant colors and bold artwork contributed to the fun and lively atmosphere. The inside was quite small with one square dining area and another rectangular shaped dining area that led to the kitchen. There were actually stuffed roosters mounted on the wall which I recall as being a little eerie. Unlike most Americanized Mexican restaurants, the Red Iguana is a truly authentic Mexican restaurant with the largest menu of traditional Mexican dishes I have ever seen. We had vegetarian nachos as an appetizer whith refried beans, guacamole, sour cream, olives, and cheddar and jack cheeses. They are the only nachos I have ever had at a restaurant that were worthy of being called delicious. For our meals I had a veggie chimichanga, Andy had mole verde with chicken, and Sean had mole with apple stuffed pork. Unfortunately, I forgot to bring my camera so I don't have any images of the Red Iguana, only memories.

For breakfast we decided to go to Ruth's Diner. The shell of the diner was an original rail car from 1938. The inside was beautifully redone with hardwood floors, elegant wooden booths, and pictures of Ruth herself and the original diner hung from the walls. There was a great sense of history and tradition. What now serves as the kitchen was originally Ruth's apartment that she built onto the back of the rail car. The diner stands alone surrounded by a series of rolling hills. We sat out on the patio among sprawling oaks and maples and beautifully landscaped flowers and bushes. It was incredibly peaceful and welcoming, the type of place I would love to go every Sunday.

We each had one of Ruth's Mile High Biscuits in addition to our meals. I had two fried eggs, wheat toast, half a grapefruit, and a cafe latte. Sean had pecan cinnamon roll french toast and Andy had a western omelette. At the time I recall that we were all incredibly satisfied and impressed not only by the food, but the time and care that went into creating the entire dining experience. Ruth's Diner will definitely be difficult if not impossible to top.

23 May, 2009

Like a Lion in Zion

We arrived at Zion National Park around noon, just in time to secure a campsite before exploring the park. Although Zion is also a canyon park, there was more vegetation and wildlife than anywhere else we had been in the desert. Unlike the Grand Canyon, in Zion you experience the park from within the Canyon. There is a propane powered bus service that takes you to 8 stops each of which offers different trails, vistas and activities. This cuts down on traffic, noise and pollution making the park more enjoyable for visitors and less intrusive for the animals.

The Colorado River is to the Grand Canyon as the Virgin River is to Zion. We hiked up the Riverside Walk trail which as the name suggests paralleled the river all the way. This is the last stop on the bus line because after this point the canyon becomes to narrow to continue. At the end of the Riverside Walk trail it is possible to continue on, in the river, to a point where the canyon is narrow enough to touch both sides simultaneously. Sean got wet up to his chest and then decided to turn back. We saw butterflies, caterpillars, a bat, squirrels, and all kinds of lizards along this trail.

We also ventured up to Weeping Rock. This was a short hike up to a point where the sandstone cliffs were seeping water over the edge and down to the valley below. The view coupled with the falling water made this a particularly beautiful look out point. We also visited the Emerald Pools. This trail looped around to the lower, middle and upper pool before eventually returning you back down to the starting point. The lower and middle pools were nice, but not particularly fascinating. The upper pool was worth the extra mile. The water actually accumulated into a small pool before weaving its way through rock and cliff and down to the middle and lower pools. The backdrop of the upper pool was an intense cliff rising high above at a drastic 90 degree angle.

Camping in Zion that night was delightfully uneventful aside from the tent be set up on uneven ground. We had grilled cheese, tomato soup and hot dogs cooked over an open fire. It got a little chilly during the night, but nothing a blanket couldn't neutralize. We did the Emerald Pools hike that morning and then ate lunch at a small restaurant just outside the park before making our way to Salt Lake City. I will briefly and shamefully mention that I managed to get us pulled over on the way doing 85 in a 75. Fortunately, the Utah State Trooper took pity on us saving us all a headache and me $150.

We decided to stay at a motel in Salt Lake City which enabled us to visit two restaurants featured on Diners, Drive-ins and Dives. We also got a little bit of a feel for the Salt Lake area, enough to know that Mormons are not the only inhabitants. Next stop - Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

Attack of the Gnarly Desert Ants

After spending two glorious nights at the Red Feather Lodge we were back to camping. We stayed at Lee's Ferry Campground in the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. We set up a few hundred yards away from the rushing current of the Colorado River surrounded on all sides by magnificent canyon walls. Despite the impressive scenery, the desert landscape was eliciting flashbacks of our unpleasant experience in Santa Rosa, NM. For awhile it seemed as if history was destined to repeat itself. We arrived, hiked down to the water's edge, returned to camp, the wind picked up, our tent was compromised, and we found ourselves in a state of uncertainty. Fortunately, the wind died down and we were able to secure our tent to a metal awning meant to shelter the picnic table.

As the sun began to set we had a nice family dinner consisting of mac and cheese, baked beans and beer followed by a relaxing pow wow. As we marveled at the beauty and magnificence of the fire it seemed that the night would progress without incident until Sean reported the stinging sensation of a particularly painful ant bite. A few minutes passed before we realized that this ant wasn't without company. About 5 feet away from our tent was an entrance to a massive nest surrounded by thousands of bustling black ants. Andy made the hilarious comment that they were probably some breed of gnarly desert ant. After Sean and Andy thoroughly pissed them off by spraying them with Raid, swiping them with burning logs and disrupting the accessibility of their home it became clear that we needed to retreat to the safety of the tent. We hurriedly threw all of our supplies into the car and zipped ourselves securely into the tent after a thorough once over with the lantern to make sure it hadn't been infiltrated.

As I laid there I was certain it was only a matter of time before the ants surrounded us, chewed their way through the tent and got their revenge. Thankfully, we were able to coexist peacefully through the night. Despite the cool breeze outside it was sweltering in the tent all night long. Andy actually took his Thermarest and sleeping bag outside and slept on top of the picnic table for about two hours until it became too cold and he had to return to the stagnant atmosphere of the tent.

At 7 AM the brutal heat of the blistering desert sun forced us to vacate our sanctuary and prepare for the next phase of our journey. We would finally be leaving Arizona looking forward to better cell phone service and a change of scenery. I was particularly intrigued to be spending the next two days in Utah. Julie had told us Utah National Parks were underrated relative to the National Parks of its neighbors. And of course, we hoped to determine the accuracy of the widespread assumption that Utah is the land of the Mormons.