Taughannock Falls State Park, NY
Sep 10, 2009
|I suppose that after one month of this crazy adventure, I should probably give you all more than just a single sentence update. First some history: on August 10, I quit my job at Benaroya Hall, pulled up stakes in Seattle (for a time), and hit the highway for a 3-month road trip with Rachel and Brooke. We’ll be hitting all 48 contiguous United States, and any of the National Parks that pique our interest. We’re tent camping the whole way (only one night in a hotel so far!), mostly in state parks, national parks, and National Forest lands. Right now we are tail lights on Niagara Falls, heading to a park outside of Ithaca, NY. Last night we went bowling in Salamanca, NY, which is something I never expected to find myself doing. In the next few days, we’ll be making our way to Maine, and Acadia National Park, and the first sunrise over the nation. After that, it’s down the Eastern coast and into Dixie, by way of the big B’s – Brooklyn, Boston, and Baltimore.
The East is strange. We are collecting stickers from all the major destinations, so we can decorate the car topper like an old-fashioned suitcase, covered in stamps from various ports of call. In the West, where every damn place is the only damn place for miles, every gas station has a collection of stickers for nearby (within 300 miles) attractions. Out East, we are hard pressed to find a single sticker at a park’s visitor center. Maybe the old blue blood families have succeeded in passing the bumper sticker blight ordinance they’ve been talking about for years. Or maybe everyone realizes that their park is not the only show in town.
Yesterday we were in Ohio, land of torrential downpours (thanks, Howard Johnson!), incredible cheap breakfasts (thanks, George’s Kitchen, Cleveland!), and a surprising National Park. Cuyahoga Valley N.P. follows a stretch of the Erie Canal between Akron and Cleveland, and cuts right through the suburbs between the cities. It’s a very new park (est. 2000), so there is some heavy industry and development skirting the park borders that you have to look past. Much of it is made up of old state and city parks that were collected into a single strangely-zoned parkland, with all the winding country roads turned into park routes. We explored a trail called The Ledges, which follows the edges of a small forested sandstone plateau. It reminded me of those classic ankle-turn hazard parks of the desert Southwest, with the quality scrambling that was available.
Before Ohio, we blew through Chicago (we’ll be back) and Indiana on our way out of the upper Great Lakes states. Milwaukee impressed us with its beer – skip the Miller tour, and plan to spend all day with the friendly brewmasters of the Lakefront Brewery. They make a pilsner to rival North Coast’s Scrimshaw, and a coffee stout to rival Lagunitas Brewing Co’s Espresso Stout. Klisch Pilsener and Fuel Café Stout – check’em out. The Wisconsin Dells were ridiculous, and a decent place to kill a weekend, as long as you don’t have kids with you. If I had more of a taste (and budget) for candyfloss, waterslides, and haunted houses, I’d choose the Dells as my Midwest destination of choice. However, being the bug-loving prairie boy that I am, I was content to get back out of city limits to listen to the tree frogs sing. We breezed Madison, a town I’d always wanted to check out, and wound up in the Wisconsin capitol building. Unfortunately, our wanderlust got the best of us and we skipped town without getting to high-five Wendy Tougas. Also – don’t miss the cheese in Wisconsin. Everything they say is true. We stopped in to see Alison in Minneapolis, which was awesome. She took us to probably the best breakfast joint we’ve ever been to – definitely the best so far on this trip. Speaking of breakfast joints, we’ve been halfheartedly following J+M Stern’s recommendations from the Road Food book. The place they suggested in Minneapolis was Al’s, in Dinkytown, which certainly fulfilled its civic duty by being way too dinky to even enter. We skipped it, not wanting to have to feel the hot breath on the back of our necks of the people waiting hungrily for our stools at the counter while we got down on some corned beef hash. We also checked out the Minnesota state fair for an afternoon, which led to much belly aching. While fried cheese curds and bacon on a stick may be incredibly delicious, they are things that should be approached warily, with consideration given to the long-term consequences of choosing to eat them. Of course, we weren’t thinking that way at the fair.
Before the land of 10,000 lakes, we visited the land of 10,000 cows – North Dakota. The plains are not as plain as you’ve been led to believe. The Badlands of both of the Dakotas are amazing. Theodore Roosevelt National Park in N.D. features beautiful austere prairie highlands, cut through with scabby erosional troughs and valleys that expose multi-colored layers of sedimentary stone. We camped on the banks of the Little Mo River, and being a dusty traveler at this point, I took the opportunity to bathe amidst the cottonwoods in the only moving water we’d seen for days. After dark, a ranger came around to inform us that there was a tornado watch in effect – the first, but surely not to be the last on this adventure. TR’s park also featured some of the best wildlife sightings this side of Yellowstone. When we first pulled up, there was a full-size bull bison just lounging in the traffic island in the middle of the visitor center’s parking lot. Having seen numerous diagrams of stick men getting gored by similar creatures, we chose not to approach. The next morning, we went hiking and startled a couple drowsy rattlesnakes that were taking the morning sun under a bridge we crossed over a muddy wash. We also saw a bunch of wild horses, standing nobly on a distant bluff, wind riffling their speckled manes. Forget bald eagles, those wild horses should have been the national bird.
The South Dakota Badlands were an entirely different scene. They are home to some of the most craggy and lunar formations I’ve seen outside of SW Utah. We stayed up late checking out the stars with some charming park rangers, and woke up before dawn to take in the sunrise over the Badlands wall. As we were watching the sky lighten, a huge thunderhead was creeping up on us from the west, shooting lightning across the dawn sky. It was something to behold, especially since the worst we got at our campsite was rainbows - three of them, once the sun rose over the wall. Before the Badlands, we drove around the Black Hills. We were there a few days after Sturgis fizzled out, so things were looking a little bedraggled. We did find some excellent bargains on fringed leather jackets and airbrushed skull pendants that said “Sturgis Rally 2007” though. Being a fan of HBO’s Deadwood, I insisted we check the place out. Unfortunately for us, Davy Jones of Monkees fame was giving a concert that night, so the streets through town were besieged by sock’n’sandal types and drivers of classic cars. Not being fans, we pulled a uee and got the hell out of Dodge. The next stop was Mt. Rushmore, and the Crazy Horse memorial, which has been in progress for ~60 years now on a nearby mountainside. Mount Rushmore is free to visit, but the only way to get there is to pay $10.00 to a concessioner to park at the National Monument. Since we chose to support the National Parks by buying a year-long access pass (which does not cover parking), we felt it was our patriotic duty to scope the monument from the highway whilst raising red, white, and blue middle fingers which we invited the concessioners to salute. The Crazy Horse monument wanted $30.00 per vehicle to enter. There’s no gold left in the Black Hills but for the gold the tourists bring in. We pulled another U-turn and looked at the monument on Wikipedia. Wind Cave was also quite cool, though look out for aspiring actor cave-tour guides. Aboveground, it’s the grasshopper capital of the western world, so bring your butterfly nets.
We entered South Dakota from Wyoming, by way of Devils Tower and the Grand Tetons. The visit to Devils Tower led to Rachel and Brooke’s first experience with prairie dogs, which was something to watch. We ate mashed potatos for lunch. Those Grand Tetons should probably be rechristened the Holy-Shit-Mountains, since that’s the common reaction they got from us as we cruised the valley at their base. Now that we’re driving through the “Allegheny Mountains,” the Tetons seem even more impressive. Deep in the Wyoming Rockies is a great place to relax, unless you’re planning to visit Yellowstone. It’s impossible to fault the park, since it is ridiculously cool, but it has unfortunately earned a reputation similar to the Mall of America. 2,000,000 people visit Yellowstone every year, and of those two million, about 80,000 choose to stop their cars in the middle of the highway, jump out, and send their children to run blindly across traffic to try to snap a picture of a distant elk or buffalo. It’s made even more comical considering that it’s impossible not to see about 75 elk and 200 buffalo in a day in Yellowstone. Consequently, driving in the park is quite nerve wracking, since there could be a traffic jam around every blind curve, with children, buffalos, and elk chasing each other around and photographers walking backwards into traffic, eye to the viewfinder. However, get up at dawn and cruise the park, and you’ll see it as it is meant to be seen. The geysers and hotpots send vast plumes of colored steam up into the sky from all corners of the park, buffalos take to the roads to get around, and sandhill cranes can be seen in the valley bottoms, flaunting a very impressive wingspan. After three days there, and some wonderful stories from a book Brooke read about grizzly bear attacks and thermal-feature related deaths, we were more than ready to get ourselves out of bear country.
The bear-related stress we were stricken by in Yellowstone can probably be traced back to Glacier National Park, Montana, our first real destination point. They have canisters of bear-mace for sale at every gift shop, with a wonderful informercial on a loop hosted by a bear-maul victim. The fact that half his face was missing says to me: “It really works! Kinda!” Needless to say, we kept an immaculate camp. The weather was poor the whole time we were in Glacier, which was disappointing. The few times the clouds broke on the peaks to let the sun in, we were treated to some pretty mind-numbingly beautiful scenery. We drove going-to-the-sun road, hoping it would take us over the cloud cover, but instead we wound up on the pass inside a storm cloud. We will have to go back.
Before Glacier we passed across the Idaho panhandle, and checked out Farragut State Park, which is a decommissioned naval base on lake Pend O’Reille. After Pearl Harbor, the navy was hot to trot on building an inland base, so it went up very fast, and came down just as fast after the war, to be a home for Boy Scout jamborees. Now all that’s left of the base is the Brig (a museum now), and plenty of old concrete foundations. The best feature of the park was their disc golf course. Farragut, you’re doing it right.
Before Idaho came Washington, which we left at about 3:00 pm, one month ago today. We still haven’t seen the Atlantic, but I have high hopes for tomorrow.
States Visited: 14
Nights spent indoors: 2
Days of travel: 31
Miles Traveled: 6,092
Tanks of Gas: ~22