Emerald City Bound via CA, NV & OR

**the conclusion of our US road trip. Finally.**

Death Valley National Park

After canyoneering, we left Utah headed for Death Valley National Park only a 4-5 hour drive. Death Valley National Park is so large that you actually need to be really careful about the about of fuel in your car. Gas is available but at a premium, so we filled up before heading in. The closest gas station was one of the weirdest we’d ever been to. The convenience store facade was painted with an Area 51 alien design and had an attached brothel. I guess I had read about Mustang Ranch, but didn’t expect to be so obviously confronted with one. Also, the auto shut-off on the gas pump didn’t work.

Finally we made it to the national park campground at Stovepipe Wells. We had planned to head for the free primitive campground at Emigrant, which is tent only, but decided to stop early and avoid camping at higher elevation due to the winds. For $12 a night, we got a gravel square area with a picnic table. The ground wasn’t amenable to tent stakes so we had to rock it out again. The RV part of the campground was pretty bad as it’s essentially a parking lot with no tables or anything. The one nice thing was the large dishwashing area. Also, the weather was amazing – 40+ deg Fahrenheit.

The next morning we checked out some of the sites around Furnace Creek, including Badwater Basin, one of the lowest points and on land in the world, the “Devil’s Golf course” ( because only the devil would play golf here), and Mosaic Canyon, which has an interesting mix of rocks interspersed. On the way out of the park, we hit major winds and dust storms. A number of folks were biking in them and it looked miserable. We also saw a group of desert foxes.

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Badwater Basin (lowest point in North America) in Death Valley National Park

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Devil’s Golf Course in Death Valley National Park. Ironically, Death Valley National Park has a very nice green, manicured golf course in the Furnace Creek Resort Area

Manzanar National Historic Park

In one of the Death Valley brochures I picked up, there was a blurb about Manzanar National Historical Park, an old Japanese internment xamp. When we passed it, Rob and I decided to stop. We only had an hour or so before they closed to do a whirlwind tour, but we could have spent a full day visiting the well-done fascinating exhibits. If you’re anywhere near there, it’s most definitely worth a stop. They have a big exhibition hall and more information in reconstructed housing units. You can also drive or walk through the grounds where the remnants of the beautiful gardens the internees created lingers to this day. The cold winds and blowing dust were upfront introduction to the challenges and hardship of being made to live at Manzanar. In all, it was a good reminder of the some injustices the US has committed because of racism.

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Funeral Monument

 

Mammoth Lakes Area

After Death Valley, we couldn’t find an obvious next camping spot. Anywhere in the valley would have high winds, but continue higher in the road and the temperature would continue to drop. We read about the large numbers of hot springs in the Mammoth Lakes area so we went and found one. Turns out it was quite popular with a full parking lot. When we jumped in after dinner a big group of climbers was also there. After a few drinks with them, we decided to leave the car parked and camp inside for the night. The next morning, Rob and I woke up to 1 deg Fahrenheit. Brr. Rob went back to the hot spring for a morning dip while I enjoyed a few more zzzs.

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Hot Spring on BLM land

Mono Lake

I saw an ad for Mono Lake in one of the tourism fliers and knew we had to stop. The salty lake has no outlet, but a number of freshwater springs flow into it. The minerals in the spring water react with the lake salts to produce the tufas around spring outlets. Since LA has been taking some of the inlet water, the lake level has dropped a bunch. At one time, an island where birds nested became connected to the mainland and all the predators came over and ate the eggs. There has since been a judgement to force LA to let you the water levels return to a higher level. Unfortunately, the visitors center was closed, but we were able to hike around the tufas at the lake’s southern edge. There was also a neat crater (black crater) hike off the same road.

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Tufas in Mono Lake

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Tufas next to Mono Lake. They would be in the lake if LA hadn’t taken all the water.

Lava Beds National Monument

Looking for one last night of camping, we discovered Lava Beds National monument located on the largest volcano on the west coast, the medicine lake shield volcano. It was awesome $10 developed camping with no one around near a high concentration of Lava tube caves. The next morning we got a free permit from the rangers and watched the park video in a living room-esque viewing area while out shoes were disinfected (since we’d been to Mammoth caves). After that we were able to visit a number of Lava tube caves. The floors are pretty rough, so for the more challenging ones you need heavy duty knee pads. We stick to the reasonably moderate ones. The Golden done cave was especially neat with all the bacteria that looked holds in the light.

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Golden Dome cave

Crater Lake National Park

Despite having the donut on the car, Rib insisted we drive to Crater Lake to spend on hour checking it out. We got there just in time to catch the last intro movie of the day. Then, we drove up the Crater rim for a lake view. It was extremely cold and snowy. The parking lot had a good slick of black ice and we watched a couple cars skid around a bit. The lake is pretty impressive. We’ll definitely be back to bike the rim road and ski in the area.

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Crater Lake quickie

We spent the final night on the road with our Evergreen Tandem Club friends, Pat and Kiri. Luckily, we timed our visit well because they were having a number of folks staying with them for the next bit for an elk camp they’ve run out of their house for many years. It was great to see them and hopefully we’ll be back in the area for the Tandem rally this summer in Klamath falls.

After a quick tire replacement job, we made our last stop in Hood River, OR for a bit of Devil’s Kriek at Double Mountain making it make to Seattle in time for a late dinner. A couple weeks of rest cleaning/packing/catching up with friends and we would be back on the road.

 

 

Utah Rocks! – Part 3 (the end)

*Flashbacks continued. Hopefully only one more after this one.*

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Capitol Reef – Headwaters Canyon Hike

After waking to a dry morning, we hit the Headwaters Canyon Trail for a quick morning hike. Unfortunately just as the canyon narrowed, a 20 foot pool of water stopped our progressed and we turned back. This was remarkable timing because the weather started to turn and the rain began as soon as we hit the car. Then, driving west through the Waterpocket Fold, the first snow of the trip began to fall.  We experienced on and off snow throughout the day as we traveled through Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. For the most part, Rob and I stayed dry, but a pocket of precip hit us during the 6 miles round-trip hike to Lower Calf Creek Falls. Luckily, it stopped on the way back and we enjoyed some sun.

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Lower Calf Creek Falls in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

Kodachrome Basin State Park

Since it was super cheap to camp after paying the entrance free ($8 entrance or $16 primitive camp), Rob and I decided to stay the night and get some OMG hot showers! We finally took time to do some cooking and made a bunch of chili, too. Since there was only one other group at the campground (in a minivan campervan), we invited them to join our campfire. One of them came over and it turned out that he and his girlfriend were visiting from Germany. We introduced him to S’mores and Rob gave an excellent marshmallow roasting lesson. It turns out that he had tried before, but had just stuck it in the flames.

Bryce Canyon National Park

All the snow from the previous day made Bryce Canyon into a winter wonderland. Kodachrome is below 6000 ft, where Bryce climbs to almost 10,000 ft. It was cold! We shared Sunrise/Sunset points with a busload of Korean tourists. After doing a longer hike from Sunset to Sunrise along the Rim trail, continuing on the Queens Garden trail (there’s a rock resembling Queen Victoria), a bit of the Navajo Loop Trail, half of the Peekaboo Loop trail, the Bryce Point Connector trail and finally back to the Rim Trail to return to Sunset Point, we cooked a quick ramen lunch (finally we ate the Korean ramen we had been hoarding) and ate it during the geology ranger talk. Then, we finished out the day with the scenic drive and the Bristlecone Pine Trail hike.

 

Lower Antelope Canyon

After talking to the German couple , Rob really wanted to go to Antelope Canyon, so we drove past Zion to get to Paige, AZ camping one night in a primitive BLM campground (White House Trailhead) that was surprisingly popular. En route to Paige, we also made a quick stop at Lake Powell. In the morning, the sky was filled with a multitude of hot air balloons enjoying views over the lake, which was quite a sight.

Since you need a guide to enter the canyons, I looked for the cheapest, well-reviewed tour and found Ken’s Tours, which guides on Lower Antelope Canyon (rather than Upper Antelope Canyon). They had good reviews on TripAdvisor and were only $20 pp + $8 Navajo permit fee + guide tip. We arrived early and managed to get a group of only 4 with a guide who was happy to let us spend plenty of time in the canyon. The Lower Canyon gets fewer light rays because of it’s shape, but during the winter the light rays aren’t as common, so that doesn’t matter as much. This was half the price of visiting upper and probably was quieter because the visit requires a number of ladders you must climb. You can just walk into the upper canyon.

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Rocky Mountain Sunset

Zion National Park

As soon as we entered Zion, I wanted to leave. After the peace and quiet everywhere else, Zion was chock full of people on a random Saturday in November. Cars and people were all over the road.  We figured on camping in the first-come first-serve campground, but it was full because even though they had over 100 sites, half were closed because of low staffing. Instead, we found free camping off a forest road near an old ghost town (There are designated sites – might be better for a camper/mobile home). It was great until the winds picked up and the ground was about 2 inches of sand on top of rock. The tent would not stay up and sand got everywhere. I finally convinced Rob to sleep in the car.

The next morning, we woke early and cooked breakfast at the final lookout of Kolob canyon’s scenic drive. We finished the day with a hike up Angel’s Landing. We ended up camping on this private land that many folks in town mentioned (also on freecampsites.net).

 

The next day, Rob and I rented cold water gear to do the day hike up the Virgin River through the Narrows. The Neoprene socks and dry pants definitely made us forget that the water was 46 deg F. The pants actually kept us dry and the walking stick was really useful for depth and balance checks. The canyon shoes were also nice to have, but our boundary waters wet shoes probably would have been fine.

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Before getting in the Virgin River.

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Entering the Narrows. Not shown: The 5 guys with tripods all trying to capture this view.

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The Narrows

Canyoneering with Zion Adventures

For our last day in Utah, we booked a canyoneering trip with Zion Adventures.  We opted for dry canyons after a day in the river and our guide, Jon, took us to the Hunted and Huntress Canyons. Jon taught us how to set up a number of different rope configurations, including rappelling with an autoblock as a backup, meat belay, bottom belayed rappel and top belayed down climbing. He let us belay him, so I guess he thought we knew what we were doing. Friction climbing was a fun change to normal gym top roping, although I would definitely wear crappier clothes next time because you can go through pants quickly doing this type of activity. Our guide had a butt pad to protect his pants, but still mentioned going through many pairs during a season.  Rob and I both had a great time and would recommend the experience to anyone visiting Zion. Unfortunately, I don’t think Washington has the similar canyons, so we could do this closer to home.

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Our biggest rappel – 80 feet off of a tree.

Utah Rocks! – Part 2

**Flashback-I’m attempting to finish out catching up on our US road trip heading back to Seattle. **

For the next two nights, Rob and I based ourselves out of the Lazy Lizard Hostel in Moab, UT. For just under $18 we could camp and have access to a kitchen, bathroom, laundry (small extra fee) and showers. When we pulled into the hostel parking lot for the first time (it’s behind a storage unit complex), we were both pretty uncertain about the place. A corner of the parking lot had a number of tarps haphazardly stretched over an eclectic assortment of old furniture (indoor and outdoor). Rob looked around the camping and compared it to Nickelsville, a homeless encampment in Seattle. With this first impression, we drove back to another camping place in town, however, they wanted $40 a night for a site, so we were back and checking into the hostel not long after leaving. It turned out to have some really nice folks; many of whom are living there for the season as this place is the cheapest housing in town. Laundry was another couple bucks per load.

The night we arrived turned out to be Halloween. Rob helped me set up camp, scarfed dinner then prepared himself a Capital Reef (it’s another Utah National Park named because settlers with a marine background called the obstacle a reef) diver costume to go out bar hopping with the other hostel denizens. It was nice for him to let loose and for me to have a quiet evening doing laundry, hanging out watching old Halloween movies and catching up on the internet.

The next day we continued our explorations of Arches National Park. The previous day we hiked the Devils Garden and Balanced Rock before going to the hostel, so we wanted to explore some of the other areas.

On this day, we rented a off-roading jeep since one of the shops had a November discount (yay November 1st). This shop also happened to be one of the only places in town that would rent you jeeps to take on a course called Hell’s Revenge (although there’s a whole list of obstacles, including the Hot tubs, Escalator, Hell’s Gate and Potato Salad Hill, that are excluded). We began using some of the 4×4 roads in Arches National Park to go out to see the Tower Arch. Since I’ve never been off-roading, starting on something easier seemed like a good idea, especially after Rob’s story about a family vacation where the Smiths rented a jeep and Bob drove the hardest road. Our first road turned out to be more than just a beginner road. At times, we were so sideways that I had to hold myself in the seat and Rob was watching to make sure we didn’t hit the mirror on the roadside embankment. We also went down a steep decent with 2+ foot rock drops the entire way down. After surviving all of that, Sand Flat National Recreation area, home of Hell’s Revenge, was the next stop. The course is 6.5 miles of driving that’s suppose to take 2-3 hours.We called it quits part way through opting for the shortcut since it was getting dark. It still took us a couple hours for the 3 miles we did. I was so thankful we made it back to the pavement in one piece. Only then did Rob tell me how freaked out he had been and was afraid he had almost tipped us.

The next morning, we set out from Canyonlands Island in the Sky section. Unfortunately, we got a later start due to cooking some good breakfast and returning the jeep, so we missed sunrise at Mesa Arch. Just as we got into the park, we saw this really neat road (Schafer Road), so we decided to go for a drive before exploring the rest of the park. It was pretty narrow in spots and there were a few rocks in the road, but overall not too bad a drive. Luckily, we only passed one car on the way out (but of course it was during the 2 minutes I decided to change shirts in the car. Grrr.).  After our scenic detour, Rob and I did the obligatory hikes – Mesa Arch, Upheaval Dome and the Grand View Point.

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Schafer Road down to the White Rim Canyon Road. View from the park scenic drive lookout.

San Rafael Swell

Looking for a free place to camp between Canyonlands Island in the Sky and Goblin Valley State Park, I found the San Rafael Swell, a popular off-roading area and neat geological formation. We drove through a canyon like area and discovered a number of boondocking sites in a wider section. We parked to car to do better scouting on foot and after seeing no one for awhile, another car pulled in and parked right next to us. As we looked for campsites, they went to examine the large pictographs on the canyon wall that we hadn’t noticed, but just happened to park right next to.

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Rob had fun with night sky photography. It was so dark out there. Here’s a shot of our luxury car camping tent- Rob’s old REI half dome plus from the early 2000s.

Goblin Valley State Park

We started the next day at Goblin Valley State Park ($10 entrance fee), which is right next to San Rafael Swell and made a great stop between Moab and Capitol Reef. This was a fun couple hour detour, although you could get lost in the Goblin Valleys (there are 3) for much longer. With the surreal landscape, we felt like we were on another planet-mushrooms and drip castles galore. They let you climb on whatever, so it’s a fun place to scramble around.

Capitol Reef National Park

The winds were howling as we drove into Capitol Reef National Park. Once again, we ate lunch in the car to escape the ferocious gusts. Afterwards, we hiked the Grand Wash and did the scenic drive. The Grand Wash is neat as you’re following one of the water paths through the Capitol Reef. These are really the only ways through the formation (the Waterpocket fold). Initially, there’s a road, but eventually you park and start walking in the wash itself (normally dry, but you need to watch for flash floods). There’s a section about a mile in, where the walls are quite high and the passage narrows to several feet wide.

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Cottonwoods in Capitol Reef National Park

On recommendation of one of the rangers, we also hiked up to another canyon, Cohab canyon, and viewpoint. Finally, we camped at one of the free primitive campgrounds in the National Park, Cedar Mesa. Located in the southern park section, we had to drive back east through the park before heading south along a mostly dirt road. The rain began as we hit the dirt road, but luckily it was only off and on, so we had a chance to rig up a dining tarp when we got to camp (The only other folks there were staying in their Unimog. Rob and I were amazed at the number of these crazy vehicles we saw on the trip.). The last time it rained on us camping, our tent vents were open and Rob got rained on. After some futzing with the fly and vents, we managed to get it sealed up this time and stay dry.

 

 

Utah Rocks! – Part 1

As Rob and I got in late the night before, we didn’t get to check out the amazing view from Goosenecks State Park until the morning. You drive in and it looks like nothing, but once you enter the park, there’s a great view of two river bends, goosenecks, that the San Juan River makes. There are a number of unofficial campsites beyond the designated eight if you keep driving along the rim road.

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Goosenecks State Park. The photo doesn’t do it justice. Although, we also didn’t realize how many of these we would see/could see later in the trip.

Leaving the park, the next stop was Mexican Hat to check out the rock formation and the free BLM land camping we had passed up. The rock was neat but the free camping was pretty much just a parking lot off a dirt road with no privacy – not great for tent camping.

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Mexican Hat

Monument Valley was our major destination for the day followed by Natural Bridges National Monument. We drove south and crossed into Arizona onto Navajo land to go the the Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park.

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Monument Valley. The left and right mittens and a butte that I don’t remember the name.

When we drove up to pay the fee, it turned out the park was closed for two days. It seemed like everyone was going in anyway, so we followed the crowd and drove through the park. Everything was actually open except the fee collection and the restaurant- the souvenir shop, the people at the pull offs selling things and tours, all open.

Our next Utah experience was surprisingly the drive to Natural Bridges National Monument. I had seen a sign the day before the mentioned RVs and trailers not recommended on a section of the road. After looking at the map zoomed in, it became clear why.

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Google Map of the Moki Dugway

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Moki Dugway

We drove toward a steep wall and then the road became gravel, under construction, steep and narrow for 6 miles as we switch-backed up a rock face. Later, I found out this section of road is known as the Moki Dugway.

At Natural Bridges National Monument, there are three noteworthy natural bridges, which differ from arches as they are formed when a river erodes the neck of the gooseneck bypassing the bend and creating a natural bridge. Arches are formed by freeze thaw linked erosion. We hiked to all three natural bridges then headed on to the Needles district of Canyonlands National Park.

The free camping at Newspaper Rock was closed and amazingly all of the BLM designated free campsites were full on this random Thursday night. Luckily we were able to fall back to a nice boondocking site along a road to a cheap (but not free) BLM campground called Hamburger Rock.

The next morning we got up ready to do some actual hiking. We were limited on starting points by not having a 4×4 but we were still able to get to the trailhead for the Joint Trail and Druid Arch. Our goal was to combine them into one long day hike, which we did by doing the Joint trail segment out and back to save distance/time. Both the Joint Trail and Druid Arch are amazing and shouldn’t be missed on a visit.

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Needles District View

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Druid Arch. A couple ladder bits and a bunch of river bed trekking to get here was well worth it. 

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The Joint Trail. This was amazing. We did not know what to expect and suddenly the trail dropped down into the gap between rock sections. 

 

After hiking, we cooked up some curry ramen at the Ranger Station while we waited for the Night Sky Program to begin. Canyonlands is a designated dark sky park and ranger had a fancy telescope to look at some different star clusters and nebula. He also showed us how to find a teapot who’s “steam” is the milky way. Camping was again off the same road but a different site as the one we had used was already taken.

 

En route to Utah – NM+CO

Rob and I had designated Utah as our primary attraction for the way back to Seattle so after the F1 race, we hit the road headed northwest. Zigzagging our way across Texas, we reached Roswell, NM our first night back on the road. A bit of research led us to Bottomless Lakes State Park, which turned out to have a surprising number of folks camped there on a Monday night.  We were able to find a nice campsite for the night and in the morning, we explored the “bottomless” lakes, a series of limestone sinkhole lakes of various sizes. There was a small visitor center with a neat display about the salt and alkaline content of the water staffed by the most unenthusiastic rangers ever. This might have been a longer stop in the summer when you can swim in the biggest of the lakes, but at this time of year, an hour was plenty.

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One of the “bottomless” lakes. It’s a sinkhole with alkaline, salty water.

 After finishing at the state park, we drove into Roswell, NM to get gas and check out the Roswell Museum and Art Center, a free museum that was highly rated on TripAdvisor. We were pleasantly surprised to find a nice collection of modern and  southwestern art as well as an exhibit replicating Goddard’s rocket lab. I really liked the special exhibitions of guitar-like sculptures and textile wall hangings.

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Awesome guitar art. I don’t recall the artist, but it was a neat exhibit.

 After wandering around the center, we gassed up and headed to Albuquerque. Since New Mexican food is pretty different from Tex Mex, Rob and I decided that the main attraction for today would be lunch. With a bit of help from yelp, we found Perea’s New Mexican Restaurant. We both ordered combo plates with a chile relleno with green sauce and a red sauce covered tamale for me and a red sauce covered burrito for Rob. Both plates came with a sopa, an amazing savory puff of dough. I wanted more! That and the chile relleno were the clear winners. If we’re back in the area, I would definitely come by again and maybe try the huevos rancheros that they’re famous for.

Since we still hadn’t figured out exactly where in Utah we wanted to head first, we pulled up the best breweries in NM list on beer advocate and headed to the best one in town, La Cumbre, where Rob and I ordered a massive sampler tray  of all the their beers on tap. The bartender checked our IDs and asked if there was a WA convention going on. Turns out the couple next to us at the bar was also from the Seattle Metro area.  They were vacationing in Santa Fe and stopped in to catch a beer before their flight. After talking with them for a bit, we got some productive trip planning done – we booked one-way plane tickets to South Korea with miles and figured out a route to Utah that would take us by Mesa Verde National Park.

After a few hours of driving and a quick stop a Ska Brewing (thanks to Allison and Stephen for the rec), we reached our destination. A boondocking site outside Mesa Verde National Park down some dirt roads from the main highway. Luckily, the directions were really great because finding these places in the dark is often quite a challenge.

We awoke in the morning to the frigid temperature of 25 deg F. Brrr. Our site didn’t have any great spots to cook breakfast, so we headed into Mesa Verde National Park to find a scenic picnic table.

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Sculpture outside Mesa Verde National Park.

Just before the park entrance, a visitor center sold us tickets to the only cliff dwelling open to touring and gave us an opportunity to use the real bathrooms. Turns out the cliff palace, the largest of the dwellings, is under renovation and the Spruce House had been declared structurally unsound the week prior. Thus, we ended up visiting the Balcony House, which requires a bit of ladder climbing and a crawl through a small tunnel. The visitor center had replicas for these for folks to see/try before committing to the tour.

Despite being small, the Balcony House was still neat as one of the better preserved dwellings. It had 2 kivas, circular sunken rooms with hearths, and housed ~20 people. Afterwards, we checked out the scenic drive and did a few short hikes to viewpoints of other structures. We were all Kiva-ed out by the afternoon. Also, we mailed our absentee ballots from the park like the good voters we are. The postwoman who took them knew exactly what they were because she has relatives in our area.

A brief stop in a nearby town for provisions and Rob and I were on the scenic road to Utah headed for Mexican Hat and Monument Valley. Despite a quick pull off at Canyon of the Ancients National Monument to check out the neat yellow Cottonwoods along the river valley the road followed, we made it to camp at Goosenecks State Park just before sunset. Utah at last!

Deep in the Heart of Texas

Rob and I arrived in Dallas just in time for one of the biggest rivalries in college football, the Red River Shootout. Played at the Cotton Bowl in the Texas State Fair, the Red River Shootout features OU (Oklahoma) vs. Texas with fans traveling from both sides of the Red River (the boundary between Texas and Oklahoma) to pack the stadium with half burgundy and half burnt orange with the 50 yard line as the divider. Texas has been terrible this year, so we were pleasantly surprised to watch a competitive game with a UT victory.

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Enjoying a surprise UT win over OU at the 2015 Red River Shootout with Rob’s parents. Rob and I had to borrow some UT gear to blend in.

After the game, we managed to hit a few of Rob’s parents’ favorite Texas State Fair sights despite the crowds – the fancy knife demonstrations, the butter sculpture, the Texan dairy free ice cream and the midway barker that appears to be missing legs (thank you mirrors). We also tried some chicken-fried bacon, which was more crispy batter than bacon.

Rob’s extended family lives in Dallas, so we finished the day watching more college football with them over dinner. TCU, Rob’s grandmother’s alma mater, was losing to Kansas State for most of the game. You knew it was bad when she started using “fresher” language at increased volumes. I think it runs in the Smith family. We also had a great lunch with Grandmother at the Forum where she lives and got a chance to show her all the pictures from our travels thus far.

Since Rob and I have spent so much time in Texas, we tried to fit in visits with as many friends as possible. A number of friends have landed in the Metroplex, so we had a good excuse to explore new places and catch with folks.

My friend from HS in NJ, Erin, was recently transferred to Fort Worth from Montreal, but fortunately for us she found the folks in Dallas were more “her people,” so is living pretty close to Rob’s relatives. We managed to meet her for dinner at a Texas ice house/food truck rodeo place called the Truckyard. Then, we caught up with our friend, Jen, from Rice at a dive bar near Love Field.

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Hanging with Erin at the Truckyard. We finally got a chance to try the funnel cake beer from Community that we’d seen all over the fair.

Rob and I also timed our Dallas visit to coincide with a smoked chicken/board game party that our friends, Chris and Jess, were throwing in Denton. We’ve known Chris since freshman year at Rice. He lived in Seattle for a time where he met Jess. Although we were sad they no longer live so close, at least they’re in a convenient spot to visit. We had a great couple days with them drinking amazing beers, playing new board games and eating tasty foods. I totally got a kick out of trying to mow their lawn with a implement that’s like a blade on the end of a golf club.

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Sampling out some of Chris’ aging beer out of his barrel in their climate controlled house addition.

After visiting the Metroplex, Rob and I headed to Tyler for a couple days to see Grammy and Grampy, his maternal grandparents, and his uncles. We did some early Christmas tree assembly and decoration pulling out.

Next, we visited Dallas and stayed with Rob’s cousin Allison and her husband, Stephen. They love beer and wine, so we had fun opening some different beverages and cooking dinner. We also got to meet their new dog, who is super sweet.

For our last stop in Texas, we spent a week in Austin to visit Rob’s parents and the few remaining friends in the area. With Bob and Kathy, we did a day trip to Dripping Springs area to visit Jester King. En route we spotted Last Stand Brewing, so popped in there for a pint and another humiliating cornhole defeat for the “kids.” Then, we caught the last tour at Jester King then had a pint and watched the sunset. For dinner, we decided to hit the original Salt Lick since we were already out that direction. It’s BYOB, which necessitated a service station stop. The one we chose actually had a beer called Chupahopra that we had hear about and he been wanting to try. One of the best beer names ever!

The US Grand Prixe also happened to be the next weekend, so we decided to stay and see the race. Rob’s parents bought tickets because Elton John was the act for the post-race concert.

Between Bob’s work and Craigslist, we were able to get tickets for Saturday and Sunday. Saturday was a miserable washout where zero cars moved on the track. We finally gave up after hours of been cold and damp. Sunday the weather finally improved and two rounds of qualifying were run in the morning followed by all the normal racing. Lucky for us that they were honoring Saturday tickets for Sunday, so we were able to use our Saturday main grandstand tickets and get Sunday main grandstand tickets. This was especially awesome because GA was a mudpit. It  was cool to watch the race from the grandstands and be able to see all the festivities as well as the start and trophy ceremony.

 

 

Bourbon,Caves and Ozark Country

After hearing so much about the Bourbon Trail from Neil for the past four or so years, Rob and I finally had to check it out. I can pretty much tolerate a couple sips of the hard stuff; Rob likes bourbon, but prefers whiskey. So, naturally we figured that some bourbon education would be good. We left Indianapolis a bit late and despite the wonky time zone lines, we just managed to make it to Four Roses and Maker’s Mark before they closed for the day. Since we were a bit short on time, a nice lady at Four Roses gave us the abbreviated history tour, which amounted to about 3 min of founding story, 4 min about the recipes and 8 min of tasting. Their single barrel was a good value so we picked up a bottle forewarned that Mammoth Caves is a dry area. Then, we caught the last tour at Marker’s Mark, which was much smaller than we imagined. They let us sample the distillers beer directly out of the fermentation tanks and then we tasted their recipe- un-aged, aged, cask-strength, and aged extra with french oak staves. All the other visitors bought bottles that you could hand dip in the gift shop. Back in the car, we ended the night in the Mammoth Caves Campground.

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Tasting the 3 day fermented distiller’s beer. Just stick your finger in.

We kicked off the next day with the 4 hour Grand Avenue tour of Mammoth Cave. Unfortunately, this tour did not go to the underground river/lake to see all the eyeless fish (which I recalled from a childhood visit), but it did tour a bunch of distinct sections. The Mammoth Cave is made up of channels through the limestone carved by underground rivers. As the outlet river downstream cut a deeper and deeper channel, the water table consequently dropped and the underground carved riverbeds made new deeper levels. Our tour began in an old, dry river channel section. The slow flow created a wide oval shaped tunnel. Further in the cave, narrower sections were created by faster flow. The water-impermeable cap rock kept most of these sections dry preventing stalactite and stalagmite formation. The final section of the cave did not have this barrier and had beautiful formations, including cave bacon – that’s a technical term.

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A wet part of Mammoth Caves with fun formations

When the tour finally finished, we jumped in the car and headed for Bentonville, Arkansas via Illinois (very briefly) and Missouri. Stopping the car in Bowling Green for cell signal, we figured out that we could camp along Ozark National Scenic Riverway and see the Blue Spring before making it to Arkansas the next day.  We got up early to hike along the river a couple miles to this spring known for it’s beautiful blue color.

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We had Blue Spring all to ourselves. I loved the verdant grasses growing all around.

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Super blue!

As Bentonville is the home of Wal-mart aka Wallyworld, the heirs to the Walmart fortune have invested in making it nice. Crystal Bridges is an amazing new (and free!) art museum founded by Alice Walton. It has a neat collection including a spider-like sculpture, the twin of one we saw outside the Louvre, Rosie the Riveter, and a number of fun modern pieces, not the mention, the architecture of the building is also distinctive. There are walking paths all around the grounds and a mountain bike trail with fun obstacles follows alongside one of the routes. Eventually, the museum closed and we headed on to dinner with Rob’s cousins in Rogers (a suburb).

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Crystal Bridges Entrance with a familiar sculpture.

Ashley and Scott took us and their two little kiddos out for some Mexican food, which was a fabulous change from the American-on-the-road-diet of mainly sausage and sandwiches. We had a great time seeing the life they’ve made in Arkansas and hearing about all their Halloween plans. The next day was rainy so we spent the morning hanging around the house with Ashley and Calla installing their shiny new microwave. Then after an tasty Indian buffet, we visited the Walmart museum (free!+cheap ice cream) for more history of Walmart then I ever wanted. It did a good job of putting a human face on the empire.

By the time we finished there, Scott had gotten off of work early and we packed everything up for a short hike. Kyle, age 5, joined us, too. The weather had improved since the morning showers with just a bit of lingering dampness. The leaves were beginning to turn to their autumn hues.

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Rob, Scott and Kyle taking a break from hiking (and rock collecting on Kyle’s part).

Kyle couldn’t quite understand/enjoy the joy of hiking, but we managed to get him into it by challenging him to climb/descend steeper sections (sorry about cutting some switchbacks) and exploring some cave-like alcoves. Returning to the house, Kyle taught us all how to play freeze tag and we ran around until everyone was tried/frozen. Finally, Rob and I had to hit the road for Dallas to make it in time for the Red River Shootout.

 

 

 

(Mostly) Midwest Part II

Leaving NJ kicked off a segment of our trip visiting friends from Rice University. Washington D.C. was our first stop to see Meg and David. Unfortunately, Dogfish head brewery was too far out of the way, so instead we decided to stop by Victory brewing for some tasty hops. We turned out liking their cherry gose and picked up a growler (our insulated growler didn’t fit in their fancy automatic growler filling machine, so they had to fill it the old-fashioned way). They had some big beers, however, with each one, Rob said it would taste better barrel-aged. Next, we stopped in Intercourse, PA for some wonderful soft pretzels and a factory tour. We saw the warning horse-and-buggy signs, but couldn’t believe how many we saw out in the miserable, rainy weather. Then, braving D.C. rush hour, we made it to Takoma for a fun, indoor night was Meg and David.

Rob enjoying some tasty soft pretzel at Intercourse pretzel in Lancaster County, PA.

Rob enjoying some tasty soft pretzel at Intercourse pretzel in Lancaster County, PA.

Meg

Meg!

In the morning, we set out across Maryland headed for southern Ohio were somehow a cluster of our Rice friends landed Crashing with Barron and Olivia in the cookie-happy Dayton Towers, we checked out Dayton craft beer/distillery scene, composed many a rhyme helping Barron and Olivia prep for a night of “Dining in” as the Air Force calls it where you must be prepared to defend yourself in rhyme, spent a fun night with the Jerkinses playing board games/darts/watching Eurotrip, visited the ginormous National Air Force Museum and day-tripped to Cincinnati to tailgate the Bengals vs. Chiefs game with Neil and his girlfriend, Asia.

Ohio beer with Barron and Olivia.

Ohio beer with Barron and Olivia.

Smoked wings, football and 24oz cans (with free 24oz can-sized koozies) with Neil at 'Nats in Cincinnati.

Smoked wings, football and 24oz cans (with free 24oz can-sized koozies) with Neil at ‘Nats in Cincinnati.

After the crazy fun in Ohio, we dropped by Indianapolis to see Mimi and Matt, who landed there for their residencies. They have quite the wet bar in their basement and Matt was kind enough to mix us some neat cocktails.

Mimi

Mimi!

Clean, refueled and laundered, we set off for Kentucky Tuesday morning.

New York, New Jersey + a bit of Canada

Rob and I reached the commercial strip that is the Canadian side of Niagara Falls just before dusk. Driving in, Rob was astounded by his first glimpse of the falls and its associated massive spray cloud. Luckily, we were late enough to find a free place to park and enjoy the view. The timing was perfect as we got to see the falls by daylight and then an hour later, watch as multicolor spotlights illuminated the water.  We then crossed over to the USA (no $ spent in Canada) and splurged for a $26 KOA campground so we could spend the morning checking out the American side.

Niagara Falls

Niagara Falls

Bundled up for the journey into the falls on Maid of the Mist

Bundled up for the journey into the falls on Maid of the Mist

The next day, we visited the American side suited up in our Goretex rain gear for the Maid of the Mist tour. This is pretty much a boatload full of tourist clad in transparent, blue plastic ponchos that is driven by the American Falls into Horseshoe Falls and back, soaking everyone on the deck in the process.  It was pretty neat to witness the force of the spray and wind from the falls up close. I can’t imagine what the falls must have been like before they started to regulate the flows and divert water for hydropower (they turn the falls down at night and during the off-season). After quick stops at Whirlpool State Park and a dam visitor center (amazing displays about electricity that Rob loved), we headed to upstate New York to visit Bill, Cat and their 1.5 week old daughter, Emily.

Bill, one of Rob’s college roommates, and his wife, Cat, moved from Austin to upstate NY about a year ago and we’d been meaning to visit them. Even though they had just become parents, they still invited us for a visit. It was great to meet adorable little Emily and she behaved while we were there (so apparently we’re welcome back). Since we had been on the mid-west diet (lots of sausage) and they had been on the Bill’s cooking diet (pizza/pasta), we decided to mix-up it up and make them tacos for dinner (+leftovers 🙂 ). With Emily down for a nap, we managed to fit in some Bell’s beer tasting before hitting the sack.

Bill with his daughter Emily and Rob. I love the expression on Emily's face.

Bill with his daughter Emily and Rob. I love the expression on Emily’s face.

The next morning, we set off for NYC for John and Jess’ wedding that night. Leaving the Volvo in a park and ride in Seacaucus, we boarded a bus through the Lincoln tunnel then the subway to Brooklyn. Rob’s cousin, Emily, and her husband, Josh, live near Prospect Park. They are awesome and it’s always great to visit them when we’re in the NY/NJ area. Their wedding was the first big Smith family event that I attended. We caught up a bit with Emily, who was busily working on plans for a large wedding, before leaving for ours.

John and Jess had a beautiful outdoor wedding near Columbia University where they met during undergraduate. We had a great time seeing them so happy together, catching up with our friend, Ted, a Rice/Seattle friend who now lives in the Bay area, and busting some moves on the dance floor. Rob and I briefly hit after party at the “Columbia undergrad bar” before calling it a night. The only casualty of the night was Rob’s suit pants, which caught some late-night gooey pizza cheese.

Ted, Amanda and Rob with John at his wedding in NYC.

Ted, Amanda and Rob with John at his wedding in NYC.

Sunday morning, Rob’s brother, Brian, who lives in Manhattan, joined us along with Emily and Josh out in Brooklyn for a family brunch at the Prospect park Smorgusburg. A number of food trucks and restaurants set up food tents in an area of the park, so we brought picnic supplies and tried some different things. The only bad item we had was the teriyaki balls, which turned out to be tempura batter covered, deep-fried hot dog pieces drizzled with fancy mayo.

Brunch with the NYC Smiths

Brunch with the NYC Smiths

Returning to our car afterward, we managed to get out of the lot despite losing our parking ticket stub then got on the NJ turnpike south for exit 8A. My parents were happy to see us and has a number of projects for us to work on.  My mom’s birthday was a few days prior to our visit, so with my sister, Margo, Rob and I cooked a Greek feast (greek salad, pita bread, tzatziki,  spanakopita and chicken souvlaki) to celebrate.

The next night, we met up with Lili, one of my best friends from HS in NJ who’s now doing neuroscience grad school at Princeton. A few of her Princeton friends were excited about the prospect of dosas, too, so we had a good group for south Indian food in West Windsor. Our group was the only non-Indian group in the restaurant and most of Lili’s friends hadn’t had dosas before so we ordered a wide variety of dishes (dosa, idly and a pancake-like dish I can’t remember the name of). So good! After, we ventured to the Princeton grad “De-basement” bar for some foosball, Euchre and cheap beer. The night ended with some group karaoke to “Hey Jude” and a ride on the Princeton U night shuttle back to our car (pouring rain).

Hanging at the Debasement bar

Hanging at the Debasement bar

For our last day in NJ, I started an ambitious cooking project while Rob attempted to update/fix my mom’s and sister’s computers. My dad has always loved sticky rice. My great-aunt would make it all the time for family gatherings in the Chicago area when my family lived in Racine, WI. He’s made it for himself on occasion and will get in a restaurant if it’s on the menu. I’ve always meant to try making it, so I went for it as an early birthday present. (Here are two recipes that I mashed, http://www.saveur.com/article/Recipes/Sticky-Rice-Dumplings-Wrapped-in-Bamboo-Leaveshttp://forums.egullet.org/topic/88644-pictorial-joongjongzi-sticky-ricebamboo-leaves/). They took so long that we had them as a late night snack. They were pretty good that night, according to my dad’s quality control, they were even better the next morning. I might have to make more next time.

The first sticky rice packets from the steamer moment of truth. I though about putting a birthday candle on top.

The first sticky rice packets from the steamer moment of truth. I though about putting a birthday candle on top.

On to Washington D.C….

Midwest Delights: Lambeau Field, Chicago and (southern) Michigan

Rob and I departed Conover for Green Bay on a warm, sunny Sunday for the Seahawks vs. Packers game. Our plan was to hit a library to print the standing room only tickets that we acquired on Craigslist, then hit the Northwest Packer Backer and family friend’s extended family’s tailgate before the game itself. Turns of the library was closed so we had to find a Kinko’s before picking up some tailgate supplies (more kringle and squeaky cheese curds).

Lambeau field is really close to a bunch of neighborhoods and the NW Packer Baker/San Diego Packer Backer tailgate was located in one of them. Since it was 7 hours until kickoff, parking was plentiful and folks were getting ready for gameday. Tailgates were kicking up in a nearby parking lot. Since we were early, we wandered through the early tailgates drawn to the large waving 12 flag in the enormous parking lot. A number of other Seattle fans had flown in for the game and we had a couple beers with them before heading to the first tailgate.

The NW Packer Backers are the Puget Sound area Packer supporters group. A large number of them (and their assorted Seahawks fan relatives and friends) came out for the game. Our kind hosts had cooked up a bunch of brats and a crockpot full of cheese and procured 2 kegs. We had fun meeting other fans in town for the game including a couple that had picked up a car in the midwest and were about to drive back to Seattle. A local news crew showed up to film the NW Packer fans that turned up for the game.

Checkout the film crew in the background. The lady in yellow interviewed a number of fans.

Checkout the film crew in the background. The lady in yellow interviewed a number of fans.

Some nice tailgaters lent us some cheese gear.

Some nice tailgaters lent us some cheese gear.

After crashing in the driveway of the very nice tailgaters we met, Rob and I woke up early Monday morning to go tour Lambeau field. It was neat to walk through the Packers’ tunnel and see the opponents tunnel (less than half the width). The tour concluded with a loud “GO PACK GO! from the group. I also got a chance to take some daytime “Lambeau leap” statue photos. Some British tourists even had me pose for their photos because they wanted a real fan in them.

Then we drove on to Milwaukee to stop at Amanda’s family’s favorite burger/custard place growing up – Kopp’s. YUM! Just as good as I remembered. The local cops stopped by Kopp’s for their lunches while we were there.

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Next, we swung by Miller for their free factory tour. It took forever – a full 1 hour before we got beer (After a rousing chorus of “Miller Time”). Then when we did, the beer left something to be desired. As Rob put it, “Only Miller could put on a beer tasting where the best beer was Miller Lite.”

Miller T-shirt for sale. They did not sell a version with the roles reversed. 😦

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Rob tried on a new accessory at the Miller store.

Running short on time to make it to Chicago for dinner with my cousins (my cousin Connor’s 7th birthday), we decided to grab Kringle in Racine, drive by the house I grew up in then visit the Jelly Belly warehouse. The exit to my old house was under construction and super congested so we skipped that in favor of sugar. We grabbed two Kringles at O&H (birthday and Wisconsin flavors-the Wisconsin is way better) then made it to Jelly Belly for the last tour of the day. The Jelly Belly tour was an extremely uninspiring train ride around a factory with videos shown intermittently. Earlier, I had joked to Rob that this tour couldn’t possibly end with a yell, but it did. A shout of “Jelly Belly” was requested. At least we got free jelly beans out of the deal and were able to buy a bunch of more jelly bean mix bags and candy corn. The drive to Chicago took an hour longer than expected, but we finally made it to dinner.

We had a great time with my family celebrating Connor turning 7, heard all about American Ninja Warrior (with demonstrations) and Pokemon and played some competitive cards. The next day, we got a 24 hour Divvy bike pass and cycled the Lakeshore path stopping at the zoo, Navy Pier and Millennium Park. The sculptures were pretty neat and the zoo was way better than we expected for a free zoo.

Our friend, David, is finishing his doctorate at Northwestern, so we met up with him for beers after work. Then his fiancee, Daphne, joined us for a roast chicken dinner at a Peruvian restaurant . We stayed with them and their incredibly gregarious cat, Mystery, that night. We were re-introduced to Mario Party for the Wii and introduced to a game where you slice different objects. David bested us all in the slicing tournament.

The next morning, we left for Niagara falls via Michigan. Texting our Michigan friends for ideas, we decided on Steffen’s advice to stop at Bell’s Brewery in Kalamazoo for some excellent brews. By the time we finished those, we realized that we wouldn’t be into Detroit until 5 pm, thus missing the Ford factory tour. We had already missed the Harley Davidson factory tour in Milwaukee, so we decided to stay overnight in Detroit area. Our friend, Mark’s family lives in Romeo, so we were able to crash at their house for a night.

We set off bright and early for the Ford factory tour. Unfortunately, you couldn’t see how all the different parts are made, but you did see the final assembly for a good deal of the F-150 truck. After that, we drove around Detroit looking at street art including the Z parking garage in downtown, saw some famous fist sculpture, purchased chips from the factory outlet that was like getting money at the bank, and got some Coney dogs.

Art in the Z parking garage in Detroit. The nerve of folks blocking the art with their parked cars.

Art in the Z parking garage in Detroit. The nerve of folks blocking the art with their parked cars.

Getting coneys are Kerby's diner in Detroit.

Getting coneys are Kerby’s diner in Detroit.

Finally, we crossed into Canada via Port Huron heading for Niagara Falls.