Number of miles driven: 3792
Number of states seen: 15
Most states in one day: 4, a tie between the first day (CA, NV, AZ and UT) and the last (OH, PA, NJ, NY).
Longest drive in one day: approximately 450 miles, our last day on the road.
Number of times Damian watched Ice Age on his portable DVD player: 3
Favorite in-car device: My iPod, with our entire CD collection in that small box plugged into our car stereo.
Favorite stops: Zion Canyon National Park and Custer State Park in the Black Hills. Both places envelop you.
Least favorite stop: Cheyenne. It didn't suck, but the town left us cold.
Favorite drive: I-70 through southern Utah. Eerie. Desolate. And beautiful.
Least favorite drive: the long afternoon-into-evening haul from Rapid City to Mitchell, those South Dakota winds buffeting the car the whole way.
Favorite hotels: Breckenridge Lodge & Spa and the Newton Fork Ranch cabin in Hill City (in the Black Hills).
Favorite town: Springdale, outside Zion. Not because it's so amazing in and of itself, but because it's surrounded by these spectacular red rock hills. And the town has good food and interesting versions of tourist shops. Also, tame elk. That counts for a lot.
Favorite meals: Athena Restaurant in Chicago and Café Brenda in Minneapolis. The former for its amazing braised lamb and velvety tarama, the latter for its delicious mushroom pate and smoked herring risotto and tall windows looking out on the city street.
Strangest meal: Mitchell, South Dakota. The in-room salad we concocted from leftovers from our previous night in the Black Hills cabin, plus microwave macaroni & cheese for Damian, which I had to prepare in the big room meant for guest breakfasts and which was denuded of anything remotely like a piece of silverware or a napkin. This made it tricky when the mac & cheese foamed over the Styrofoam bowl and flooded the microwave. We ate in our room at 10:30 p.m., washed up in the bathroom sink, and felt like gypsies.
Strangest thing sold in local stores: Oxygen. In Breckenridge, 10,000 feet above sea level.
Best near-misses: The rainstorm that hit Zion just as we boarded the park shuttle bus after our three hour hike. The grocery store in Hill City we got to five minutes before closing, enabling us to get dinner fixings. The bagel shop in Rapid City that was closing as we got there but allowed us to get bagels and toppings for our long drive (and they told us there was NOWHERE else in town to get sandwiches at 3pm on a Saturday). All of which taught me it really doesn’t pay to worry. Things do work out.
Most extravagant rest stops: Ohio, along I-80. Burger King PLUS Starbucks PLUS Jodi Maroni Sausage PLUS a video game room PLUS a gift shop. All under one roof. And I'm probably leaving some shops out. They feel like roadside cities.
Favorite roadside sign:
Biggest surprise: Damian loves hiking. Who knew?
Emotional highlights: Driving slowly through a herd of wild buffalo in Custer State Park. Traveling through Minnesota as the foliage finally shifted from west to east, crossing the border into Pennsylvania with its tangible sense of east coast, crossing the Delaware Water Gap into New Jersey, our new state. Meeting friends for the first (or second) time, seeing family again after such a long time.
Was the trip everything I hoped it would be? Actually, yes. It was.
Chicago was a challenge, as befits a big city. After miles of desert and forest and small cities and smaller towns, it required a shift in both sensibility and travel skills.
First, it took us nearly two hours to drive the last 20 miles on the highway, and that was at 3 pm. Turns out it wasn't normal Chicago traffic, but an accident on the road. But everyone who met us in town had similar driving woes. Big city congestion.
We finally got to the Allegro Hotel. Downstairs, a row of bellhops, so formal. The line to check in was long and multilingual. I was so tired by then, I felt caught in a tornado.
It was a pleasant lobby, though. And a pretty room, with salmon colored walls and black-and-white striped headboards on the beds. But our first night in the hotel we noticed a noise like chairs scraping across the floor above our heads. Except that it went on for hours. All night, in fact.
We changed rooms in the morning. This took over an hour to accomplish (see: hotel=big, Italian tourists=numerous). Then we sat in our new room and relaxed. For a minute. Until Dan said, "What's that strange smell?" It smelled as if someone had just dumped a bottle of nail polish on the floor. Not only did it stink, we had no idea what chemical caused it. What if it was toxic?
This time the hotel housekeeping manager got involved.
Half an hour later, we left for our day afternoon with our huge pile of belongings still in the nail polish room but an assurance we'd have yet another room when we got back.
I don't usually mention details like this. Too mundane, I always think, a bit dull to recount and probably duller to read. But after two weeks on the road, such irritants begin to loom large. It's hard, I think, to be away from home. It's fun and fascinating and intense and enveloping, yes, all that, but it's also unstable and insecure. I always settle into the rhythm of it if I know I'll be on the road for a good long while, but as I approach the end, road-weariness always sets in. I long to unpack suitcases and sprawl in a space that's my own.
And this time we travel across country to a new home that doesn't yet feel like home. It's a place we've seen twice, filled with another family's laundry and furniture. In and of itself it will feel foreign and off-kilter. So I think being in hotel rooms and guest rooms, as we get closer to the end of this journey, it wears on us. Wearies us. If we run into a problem with the hotel on top of that, the issue is magnified. We're vulnerable right now.
So. Chicago. Wednesday night. We left the hotel in search of dinner, walking through an eerily deserted downtown, skyscrapers like moonlit canyons all around us, the El rattling past and over our heads. We walked on a bridge over the Chicago River, spotted a life preserver on the side of a building, the way you often see fire extinguishers in office hallways. Walked on a bridge over the highway we'd come in on. Quieter now, no longer a sluggish sea of cars. We found Greektown on Halsted, all the huge restaurants like amphitheaters. Ate at Athena. The taramasalata was the smoothest, creamiest I've ever had. The béchamel on the mousakka was dense, differently spiced, interesting and good. But the lamb, braised in tomato sauce, oh. Sublime. Perfectly tender, rich, meaty, filling your mouth with flavor. Oh yes. I'm ready to go back right now. I've had Greek food before. This was a different beast. The waiter, a Leo Di Caprio look-alike with a wide face and hair flopping over his forehead, grinned and said, "You can't get Greek like this anywhere but Chicago." He may be right.
Thursday. After the hotel hassle, we took the Metra (light rail) to the Museum of Science and Technology, which a reader poll in the Chicago Tribune had just that morning named one of the seven wonders of the city. It's a delight. Science made fun.
We saw the new U-505 submarine exhibit. It's very well done. As you walk through the halls toward the sub, you see dioramas, short film reenactments, and walls of photos setting up the story of the American struggle against German U-boats in World War II, leading to the capture of this U-boat. And then you turn a corner and there it is, spread out below you. The actual ship. We didn't get tour tickets, so we couldn't go inside the sub, but the displays around it were interesting enough we didn't feel cheated.
We went to the Genetics exhibit, known for its baby chick hatchery, which was apparently set up some years ago as part of a temporary exhibit but was so popular it was folded into this installation, which includes some intriguing information on cloning. The baby chick table has two parts: the eggs and the chicks. The chicks are fluffing and eating and getting the hang of this being-alive thing. The eggs are on a warming table, waiting to hatch. And hatching.
I also loved the train table, with its rails heading from a wonderfully rendered Chicago through the Rockies and the tan hills further west all the way to Seattle, complete with Space Needle. I think it was more fun to see because we've seen such similar scenery on our way East. Easier to walk around the table than to sit in the car all those miles, but ultimately not quite as interesting.
The coal mine was a kick. You have to go on a guided tour of this exhibit too, and I can't see how it could be otherwise. It simulates an actual exploration of a real coal mine, complete with elevator ride down to the bowels of the earth, walking along rock-walled corridors past the mining machinery, and even a ride on a train further into the mine.
Each exhibit we saw had a real sense of drama and presentation, making history and technology immediate and accessible. I'd like to go back and explore the rest of the museum. It's utterly unlike any museum I've ever encountered.
On Thursday night we met up with a woman from one of my email lists and talked floortime and parenting while the kids descended on Damian's toys in the hotel room (and played together rather well) and then we all (three adults and four kids) ate in a deserted Thai restaurant a couple of blocks from the hotel. As with the rest of the Midwest, everyone we encountered in Chicago was extremely nice, and not in that Los Angeles "I'm being professionally friendly in case you turn out to Be Somebody" manner, but in a more down to earth, unpretentious way.
Friday morning we met Jessie, Geoff and their adorable, very smiley daughter Katie for breakfast in the hotel restaurant, where we got fed for free as recompense for our room ordeals. We only seem to see Jessie & Geoff when we're on our way out of town – first in Halifax three years ago and now in Chicago. It's an amusing tradition, but one I wouldn't mind breaking. When you're about to get on the road, you get into a moving-on mindset and it's harder to settle into a real conversational flow. Sometime we'll have a chance to change that pattern. Maybe even in Chicago.
I'd like to visit again. I feel like we didn't get to know the city properly. Maybe it's impossible in a day and a half, but I think it's also that we stayed in the Loop. If I were visiting New York as a tourist, I'd hate to stay in Times Square or down around Wall Street. What do you see? Skyscrapers, theaters, and tourist spots. You don’t get to see the city as the people who live there do. You don't get the flavor, how can you? A city is not its tall buildings. Next time I'd like to find a place in a residential area with easy El access to downtown.
Next stop: Cleveland on Friday. Not a sightseeing stop. We stayed with my aunt and uncle and had a home-cooked dinner at their house with my cousins and children of cousins. I can remember staying in that very house as a young teenager.
Then Saturday: On the road for the very last day of driving on the winding I-80 through beautiful Pennsylvania. Trees tipped with yellow and orange among the green forests, passing rivers and so many gently rolling hills. Heading for home.
Tonight we sleep at Dan's parents' house. We were supposed to move into our carriage house tomorrow but it now looks like that'll happen Monday. I'm disappointed, a bit, but it'll also be a relief to have a down day in familiar, comfortable surroundings with family.
Too tired tonight to write. Will try tomorrow, if internet access allows. End of the road is nigh. Two more days!
Yesterday: Driving through Wisconsin, rolling hills and so many grain silos.
We passed gleaming silver trucks with round long bodies, filled with milk. We passed gas stations, small markets, all advertising cheese, or, rather, Cheese! Sometimes Cheese – Gas – Fireworks. Once I spotted a sign: "CHEESE" in big letters and, in smaller letters underneath, "food."
We stopped along the way for a bite of cheese. (Well, wouldn't you?) and continued on toward Madison, passing fields of corn, fields of brilliant orange-tinted plants, swaths of reddish grass along the road, and lush green deciduous trees. When we got out of the car, the air smelled damp and the breeze ruffled the edges of our clothing. It felt like the east. It felt like home. Have I said this before? Yes, I know I have, but it bears repeating. This trip – any trip across country, I think, but particularly this one – is a revelation, the way the scenery, the people, the atmosphere itself all shift as you go. Moving away from one place and toward another, a change both gradual and radical.
Our first deviation from our original itinerary: we skipped a stop in Spring Green, thereby missing out on Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin and the kitch classic House on the Rock, both of which I'd looked forward to seeing, but it would have meant two extra hours of driving and by now we're getting tired of the numbness and the constant roar of road.
We went straight to Madison and checked into our first Bed and Breakfast of the trip, a Prairie House style semi-Craftsman house built in 1911, a beautiful place. Though the bedroom felt more drab than I'd hoped, the communal living room downstairs didn't disappoint. Dan and Damian played dominoes while I took a nap on the couch. My first nap of the trip. Many firsts here.
Dinner was a social treat: finally meeting Karen, who I first knew from her (sadly defunct) online journal and who was as thoughtful and real as I always knew she would be (you can in fact tell a lot about a person through their words, it turns out), having dinner at her house with her wonderfully open and genuine husband, watching our sons play together and riff off each other. I think Damian was as starved for kid company as we've been for good, deep grownup interaction. It was hard to leave.
This morning, we wandered Madison for a short while before we got restless for the road.
I can't say I have a profound insight into the town; we skimmed the surface, if that. I can tell you only that the college students on State Street made me feel older than I usually do, and my own time in school seemed so far behind me.
And that I loved a little feminist bookstore/café we discovered, rife with sassy bumper stickers and cute kid t-shirts ("I love my mommies two" and such) and mountains of intriguing books. And that I liked the way a group of local businesses are handling Katrina donations: instead of setting up a Red Cross donation jar, they're asking for donations that will go for supplies and a rented pick-up truck, which one of them will drive down to Louisiana. Less overhead, more direct. I like that mindset.
On to Chicago. Easy sailing until we got close to the city. Then gridlock.
Minneapolis and St. Paul. So different to be hosted, not on our own. Familial. Out on the road for a week, it felt like we were in a traveling bubble. Interacting with the people around us, yes, some, but not really, just a touch on the shoulder here and an affirming nod there. But back in the car, back on the road, it does become a bubble home for three. Just us and road dust. To break through that bubble, to sit in Missy and Charlie Baxter's living room and talk about parenting and politics and places, it felt good. Very good. Reconnecting. It is, after all, the reason we're moving.
Minneapolis and St. Paul. Victorian homes small and large, warehouses down by the river turned condo, lush vegetation, even some brownstones. We've crossed into the eastern part of the continent. Tonight, especially, rain in the still-warm air, I felt home like a blanket settling around me. East coast. Home.
Minnehaha Falls, the inspiration for Longfellow's tale of Hiawatha, only he never actually saw the falls. But we have. We walked the path alongside the stream, past stone bridges, past granite slabs, spotting a heron swooping past. In the midst of the city, a slice of nature, not recreated but never tampered with. Good city planning.
We ate lunch at Café Brenda, excellent food with a vegetarian slant in a bright room with tall windows that make you feel almost like you're sitting outside in the surprisingly peaceful historic downtown Minneapolis.
Inside the Bradley building, whimsical hangings: an airplane suspended from wires, a trapezist team captured mid-flight. Exposed beams make a huge space feel unexpectedly homey.
The skyways, clear habitrails running through the city's buildings and over the streets in between. When you live a place with such cold winters, it's logical. Skyways allow you to walk for blocks, never stepping foot outside but also not submerged under the earth. We walked the skyways and watched the rain fall outside.
Being here, in the Twin Cities, it feels in some ways like home – the architecture, the green, the humidity, the family – and in some ways like we've stepped outside the US. The cleanliness of the streets, the casual, gentle friendliness of the people, the thoughtfulness of things like wheelchair-accessible buttons you press that cause doors to swing open in front of you, it's all more Canadian than anything else.
City of lakes, city of fountains, city of the Mississippi, city of water. I hear the rain outside now. Soon to sleep, lulled by the steady familiar patter.
Tomorrow on the road again but right now, right here, this moment feels outside of time, outside of this trip. This moment feels like forever. The quiet center of a whirlwind trip.
When we got out of the car yesterday at the Badlands, the wind was hot and strong. So strong. It almost blew away my camera lens cap. All the way through South Dakota last night, the winds so strong, buffeting the car. This morning, walking out to the parking lot, the air already sun-heated, the wind gusting. Damian said he loved it. I held my arms out and felt airborne.
This morning: the Corn Palace. The corn murals are redesigned/recreated every year. We caught it in mid-creation.
Today: much driving across prairie turning into farmland, gradually greening as we went. We stopped for lunch outside Sioux Falls. I eavesdropped on a (loud) conversation at a nearby table. They were talking religion and tolerance. One man said, "I worked at an auto mechanic shop for twenty years. We got to know each other pretty well. We used to joke around and tease each other. Didn't matter what religion you were, whether you were Baptist or Episcopalian, you got teased the same."
I was floored. Baptist and Episcopalian different religions? They're not only flavors of Christianity, they're flavors of the Protestant strain of Christianity. It's like saying you like all colors from taupe to beige. I do realize that this man wasn't being prejudiced, he probably has never met a Jew, a Buddhist or a Muslim. He was talking true tolerance, simply within the narrow confines of his experience. I think, though, that this is what's wrong with much of our culture. So many of us don't experience enough outside our boxes. Cities force you to do so, but out in the middle of the prairie, not so much.
Once we crossed into Minnesota, we passed a town called Welcome, another named Blue Earth. We found a gas station in a small town for a pee stop. While Damian was in the bathroom, I chatted with the cashier, a young woman. She said she grew up in a Minneapolis suburb and moved to this town six years ago. She likes the fact that everyone knows each other, that the fabric of the community is so strong. On the other hand, she says, she misses being in a place where everyone isn't always sticking their noses into your business. An eternal dilemma, no? Everything has its price. It's all about what you're willing to pay in return for what benefit.
We arrived in Minneapolis in time for dinner. Lovely to be in a real home after a week on the road. Lovely to see relatives, people I enjoy tremendously. Minneapolis and St. Paul seem so far like manageable cities, cities with character and charm and lovely residential areas. I look forward to exploring more tomorrow, which is incidentally Dan's birthday.
We've crossed into the Central time zone. We're more than half way to our new home. This trip is an interesting split for us: the first half was about scenery, natural beauty, history. The second half is about culture, cities and towns and people. Is that the difference between the western and eastern United States or just about our experiences on each side of the country?
(I posted three days in a row -- scroll down to see the other two)
Saturday September 10, 2005
Morning. Do we have to leave? Can we stay in this cabin on the edge of a meadow in the midst of pine and peace, can we stay here for the rest of the two weeks and then drive through the night to get to New York?
Breakfast out on the front porch, then gather our things and get back into the car.
One last stop in the Black Hills:
Jewel Cave. The second longest cave in the US and the third longest in the world. Over one hundred thirty miles of underground labyrinths. We walked half a mile of that on the Scenic Tour. Damian was nervous beforehand but calmed right down and then loved it. This isn't a cave coated in stalactites, though we did see a few. Instead, it has mostly calcite bumps and knobs, a scaly interior skin.
Also what they call boxwork, ridges created by the wind. I prefer the water-formed shapes, like this:
Walking through caverns thirty stories underground feels transporting. At one point the ranger turned off all the lights in the cavern. Absolute darkness. In the bowels of the earth.
Then on the road again. We were running late, so we drove through the Badlands very nearly without stopping – well, only three or four times. It was like passing through Southern Utah, another bizarre, otherworldly landscape.
We drove past the upper crust of the geode, looking down, and then headed down into it, passing mounds colored rose and white and craggy, jagged cliffs that feel at times like what happens to wet sand when you dribble it through your fingers and let it fall onto the beach.
On the road east. South Dakota flatlands, miles of prairie, into the night. Bugs spattered the windshield like rain past Chamberlain, about halfway through the state.
Tonight, Mitchell. A town in the middle of nowhere, but the Midwest chain motel is very comfortable and the people extremely courteous and warm.
Friday, September 9
We're staying in a small two bedroom cabin set back in a meadow, against the trees. High ceilings. Pale wood floors and actual log walls. A clawfoot tub in the bathroom. Utter peace. Last night as we headed back to the cabin from dinner in a 50's diner in town, the walls covered in Elvis memorabilia with a dash of Marilyn and a dab of James Dean, as we drove up the utterly dark country road, we saw three deer crossing just ahead of us, their eyes glowing white from the headlights. Two young bucks and a doe, sauntering across our path.
Today: breakfast at a diner in town, no memorabilia, just huge pancakes and a sweet waitress who brought the local paper over when I asked about the chance of thundershowers. The local paper that said tomorrow would be "nice with a chance of rain and thunder," the next day will have "hit or miss thunderstorm activity" and then Monday will be "still unsettled enough to rain." I love that. The restaurant appetizer list enticed too: BBQ Wings and also Inferno Wings, Jalapeno Poppers, Frog Legs and, best of all, Rocky Mt. Oysters.
I understand that the Northern Black Hills are more glossy and pre-re-created Western with a capital W, but Hill City and Custer feel like (as Dan says) Northern Exposure land – northern and western both, and without much pretension. This means no wifi cafes, sadly, no health food stores, and precious little food without lard, but otherwise it's a good thing. It feels more truly rural, more genuine, more casual, not so tarted up for visitors.
First on the agenda: Custer State Park. Needles Highway: ponderosa Pine, windy switchbacks, jagged gray rocks like monuments to ancient cultures. We take a hike in the light drizzle, up a hill into the gentle forest. Such peace. When the wind blows, the aspens shiver, a susurrating song. Birch and pine and aspen, lichen coating fallen branches like Spanish moss, cotton (we think) plants in the mini-meadows, some trees turning yellow, vivid against the green pine, in turn vivid against the surprise of rock outcroppings, their jagged outlines stark in this gentle place. Peace. Quiet. Such quiet.
Back onto Needles Highway, into the heart of the park. The rocks Utah-like in their sharpness, their naked strength, but surrounded by all the green, such a different feel.
Onto the Wildlife Loop. A western safari. Red squirrels, pronghorn antelope, some kind of deer racing away from the car, burros that come right up to the car begging for food (one of them blocks the road and the others peer into your windows).
And then there are the bison.
We spotted two on the way in, then none. So we stopped at a visitor center, asked where to find the herd. He told us. We went. We were surrounded. In the center of the herd. Nearly a thousand bison. Pictures don't describe, can't describe the feel of buffalo to the left, to the right, in front of your car. You can't get out, can't feed them or pet them or even walk up to them. Too dangerous. They're big animals. Strong as hell. And they can anger in a heartbeat. So we stayed inside and drove past slowly, one of a handful of cars stopping and ambling.
I wonder if the bison think of the cars as strange beasts meandering across the prairie like they do themselves. But no. I made eye contact a few times. They know about people. Still, though, these are not cows. These are wild animals. Wild and wooly, literally. With these long old man faces. Damian said, "Holy cow," amused at himself, but he too was mesmerized.
Next: Mount Rushmore, via the Iron Mountain Road. This terrain is so rugged people thought a road through was a fool's folly. But two men said otherwise, and designed a fascinating road. Sometimes the lanes split, the northbound route going one way through the trees and the southbound heading around to the other side. And the road itself isn't flat, it's supple and curved, almost sensual. Then there are the switchbacks: pigtail bridges, they're called, made from local timber – you rumble over the bridge and then immediately duck under the path your tires have just driven.
Iron Mountain Road has three tunnels through rocks – the view appears on the other side, framed like a painting. Mount Rushmore through the trees, on the other side of the valley miles away.
Mount Rushmore close up. Well, it's there. And there. And there. We walked the Presidential Trail around the base. It's big. I don't quite understand why I'm supposed to feel patriotic viewing those huge heads. I appreciate the workmanship, the audacity of dynamiting such solid rock to create such a thing. I think the choice of leaders to sculpt was appropriate, and Borghlum, amazingly, did capture something of the feel of each man. Washington noble but perhaps not deep. Lincoln serious, with depth. Jefferson wise and somewhat remote. Interestingly, as you walk around the base of the mountain, you realize that Washington and Lincoln are more prominent than the other two. A deliberate positioning, I'm sure.
Many visitors, even late on a September weekday. Many languages. I wonder what foreign visitors make of it. Also many older couples; I've seen them at each stop we've made, and tonight I overheard a conversation between two couples. One had been on the road since December. Retired and bought an RV. Why not? Though if I had all the time in the world to travel, I wouldn't limit myself to North America.
We picked up salad fixings for a late dinner back at the cabin. It felt like a treat to be making our own meal after a week on the road.
Thursday, September 8, 2005:
We generally buy lunch in the morning so we won't have to scramble later on. This morning (Thursday), we picked up sandwiches at the coffee shop attached to the Plains Hotel; the hotel clerk said it was pretty much the only choice in downtown Cheyenne at that hour (9 am). From looking around town on the way out, I'd concur.
As we waited, a man – gaunt, hollow, and a little off-kilter – started chatting me up. What kinds of pictures did I take with that camera? Where had I been? I mentioned a few places. He kept asking questions. I answered, polite but not chatty. Two women sitting nearby – in their late 60's or early 70's, I'd guess – perked up at some of my answers. Turned out one of them had just moved from the New York area to Flagstaff. She was currently in Cheyenne visiting the other woman (her sister). It also turned out her son is an editor in LA. So we were strangers living overlapping lives. One person leaves, another arrives. A place means different things to each.
While the woman and Dan started talking film, the man (unrelated to them) asked my name, and then, inevitably, "What kind of name is that?"
Dumb of me in Cheyenne, Wyoming. He didn't recoil, but he was convinced I must therefore be from Israel, since I was a Hebrew. He started asking me a lot of odd questions. Nothing offensive, but… odd.
Sometimes it's hard being Jewish on the road. Mostly not, I'm hardly observant, I eat pork and such. But there have been times in the past like this, where I feel like a zoo animal. An exotic. A stranger in a strange land. It's uncomfortable.
So. Cheyenne. Not much of a city, but then we didn't give it much of a chance. Road fatigue. And, too, that passing strangeness. The hotel bible not tucked into a drawer but out on the desk. In the hotel book, not a list of local restaurants but, rather, a list of local churches. This town not my town. This place not my place. The first time I felt that on this trip. Maybe the last. Hope so.
I did like the cowboy boots, though:
On the road north and east, through Wyoming into South Dakota. Softly undulating plains, great big sky. In the right light, the tan grass looks like velvet.
We veered off the main road to visit Fort Laramie. Not a stop we'd planned, particularly, but in preparing Damian for this trip, I read him If You Traveled West in a Covered Wagon, which he greatly enjoyed. So we wanted to show him a slice of the Oregon Trail. Fort Laramie was a major stop along the way, travelers stopped here for supplies and rejuvenation. And there are wagon ruts nearby. Actual honest-to-god ruts in the rock. Those must have been incredibly heavy wagons.
It was a good stop, better than I expected. As Dan says, we identify with the people making that trek. Setting out on a great adventure to seek a life that satisfies more, not really knowing what they'll get. They used to call the ones who went west and then returned go-backs. I joke that we're go-backs too, but really we're not. We did go west, we did make a life for ourselves, it did work. We did succeed. We just choose to try something else. To challenge ourselves in a different way. Much like the pioneers mapping out their lives anew.
And on we go. Next stop: the Black Hills of South Dakota.
We stayed above the town of Breckenridge last night, in the Breckenridge Lodge and Spa. The view out our bedroom window (well, technically this exact view is from the deck that was just below our window):
No big plans for the day – no national parks, no major excursions. I'd considered the Rocky Mountain National Park, which is just out of our way as we traveled north along I-25 past Denver, but I figured it was a little too far off the route and we'd be a little too burned out. And we were. I think down days (or, well, down half-days in this case) are crucial for any trip.
So we lingered at the hotel, wandering along the deck after breakfast, and then we checked out and did more wandering, this time through the streets of the town with its mix of Victorian and modern buildings and its dozens of t-shirt shops and ski rental places.
After wandering into and out of stores, after eating a casual lunch at a table on the grass outside a small café, we were on our way again. Down out of the Rockies, past the Continental Divide, goodbye pine trees, goodbye clean clear oxygen-low air. I'm sorry we didn't get to hike in among the trees but reassured because the pines and rocky promontories are reminiscent of Nova Scotia and the mountains similar to the Green Mountains of Vermont (though far taller), and both places will be easily accessible in our new life.
We stopped briefly in Denver for a peek into the Tattered Cover bookstore – where I surprised myself by not buying anything – I think the full car had something to do with it, as did the knowledge that our bookcases are on a moving truck – and on we went, up into the western edge of the Great Plains. Fields and fields of tan stretching to the horizon. A taste of what's to come tomorrow.
We're now in Cheyenne, Wyoming, right across from the Union Pacific train depot in a historic hotel where presidents have slept. It's not that it's so fancy, I think it's more that there wasn't anywhere else to stay around here. But it has history and charm (and a bathtub that won't drain, oh well).
Tomorrow we head to the Black Hills. We'll be there two nights; our cabin doesn't have internet access so I'll post again from Mitchell, Saturday night.
We didn't get to see much of the town of Moab (sorry, Rachel) – just a late dinner last night in a so-so restaurant and stops in a grocery store and a café for fixings for the road and then we hit the road again. But it was interesting to compare Springdale (outside Zion) and Moab (outside Arches and Canyonlands). Even though both cater to the national park tourist trade, rife with tchotchka stores (my favorite name: Moabilia), many with the seemingly requisite teepee and/or covered wagon out front, they have very different personalities. Springdale felt like a coastal California community, while Moab had far more of a Western town feel.
Also, Springdale had a number of gem stores. When we browsed in one, I chatted with the proprietor. Apparently much of what he sells he collects himself from the surrounding wilderness. Geodes, petrified wood, local marble, and other rocks and minerals, some of which I've never seen elsewhere. Also many art galleries, mostly concentrating on photography. Not surprising. Southern Utah is a landscape photographer's wet dream. I didn't see any photo galleries in Moab, but then, we zipped through awfully quickly. Dan says he did see some. I did see a couple of bookstores and lots of wifi cafes, as well as ATV rental shops. Both towns had bike rentals. This part of Utah has paved bike roads alongside the highway. Talk about bike-friendly.
Where was I? Ah, yes. Grab food, head to Arches National Park. The park entrance is level with the road, but then you climb past these red monoliths. Like sentinels. Like Stonehenge. They sometimes look remarkably human.
Then on up to the arches. Balanced Rock is a monumental kind of road marker. To the right, the Windows and Double Arch. Straight ahead, well, everything else. We went right. Parked and walked half a mile along desert terrain, through scruffy sage, driftwood and dust, right up to the Windows.
Sat under an arch, looked out over the other side, another breathtakingly steep Utah drop. Got a bit wet in a sudden, short-lived drizzle of rain. Damian took cover in the only way he could.
Back in the car. On to the lookout for Delicate Arch, the Utah license plate. A sharp climb up half a mile, breathing hard and sweating harder. Up at the top. Yes, I can look out and see the arch. It's far away across slickrock plateaus and deep chasms. We didn't have time for the trek to the arch itself, this will do. And I have a telephoto lens. My camera sees the arch.
The climb is worthwhile, though, for the terrain. Up high, we look out over green mountains that look like oxidized copper, and maybe they are. We see outcroppings, jumbled white rocks clumped together, the rock looks like white marble and maybe it is. Piles of stones scattered across the landscape remind me of the cairns I've seen in Ireland. In the distance, mountains and land, shades of red and brown and grey and tan.
But hot. So hot. No shade. The sun slices through you, nowhere to hide. So we head down, back to the blessed artificial cool of our car.
The arches of Arches are strange and remarkable. I wish I felt more surrounded by them, though. The park has over 1700 arches, from minor to massive. We saw how many? It makes sense, though, these are not set out to collect like souvenirs. They're the product of thousands of years of wind and water pounding on solid rock, carving caves into archways. They are where they are. The stones stand at random intervals across the landscape, it's only our human overlay that determines that this area here, this is a park, these are meant to be seen together, as one.
Great big hunks of deep red stone, dwarfing human endeavor. Sentinels.
Onward. Eastward. Forward.
As we crossed the state border into Colorado, it seemed less colorful than Utah. Driving through western Colorado, it seemed like California, tan hills dotted with scrub. So many miles only to come full circle? Say it isn't so. But deeper into Colorado, it changed. Pine tree forests covered the hills around us, the Colorado River ran alongside. Sometimes, though, we could see the rocky face of a naked mountain – white or sometimes red – and I realized: Colorado mountains are Utah mountains with clothes on. As Dan said, it's a difference, not of geology but of ecological systems. Interesting how a climate shift changes so much.
We passed Vail. I'd considered staying there. I'm glad we didn't. It looks modern and pre-fab. But everything in Colorado – at least, everything we've seen thus far – is so clean and new-looking. The paint colors pristine, the lines of the buildings pure and unweathered. I don’t know how they do it, I don't know if it's a fluke and we simply saw every single newly painted structure in the state, but it was striking in its way.
As was the scenery.
Tomorrow, we explore the inviting town of Breckenridge (we're staying in a truly lovely lodge high on the mountain tonight) and then head into Denver and from there up to Cheyenne. And on it goes. This trip is exhausting and exhilarating and fascinating.
Morning: Visited a small health food store south of Springdale, picked up lunch for the road. Springdale is an interesting town. Very much geared for the tourist trade, but with its own alternative flavor. No bible in the hotel room. The only bookstore in town doubles as a healing center.
On the way to Bryce. Drove through Zion to get there. Got a second chance to explore, this time by car. So beautiful.
Shortly after the turnoff to route 12, purportedly one of the most scenic roads in the country (I can't say because we weren't on it for long enough), we passed stark red rock formations. Just there. A surprise. Part of Dixie Canyon National Forest, I gather:
Then on into Bryce Canyon. Not what I expected. The park is on the rim, so you drive through forested hills, no hoodoos (the rock formations Bryce is famous for) in sight. Then you head to a view point and walk to the edge and lo! A deep canyon, Bryce Amphitheater, filled with twisted multicolored fingers of rock. They look almost alive, certainly expressive. Sometimes I thought I saw faces.
We didn't go down among them. It's a steep climb down and we had a long drive ahead. Damian was deeply disappointed. He loved yesterday's hike and wanted to do more. I applaud that. We just didn't have time.
Bryce was much more tourist-feeling than Zion. The main lookout, Sunset Point, was tour bus central. Everything felt tamed, controlled. Necessarily so. Those cliff edges were so steep, so abrupt, and the sights within otherworldly and delicate. Somehow, maybe because we stood at the top and looked down into the amphitheater, maybe if we'd gone down those steep paths and felt the hoodoos as sentinels all around us we might have felt different about the place, but it was stunning and amazing but not as personally enthralling as Zion. Bryce is more remarkable, more thoroughly unusual, but once you see it you get it. It is what it is. Zion is something different at every step, it invites you in, it carries a certain kind of peace, it envelopes you in its spectacle.
After touring Sunrise Point, Sunset Point (along with German tourists with Harley Davidson t-shirts), and both lower and upper Inspiration Point, we called it a visit and got into the car for what we thought would be a straight-shot drive to Moab, on the eastern edge of Utah.
Utah, though, is amazing. Sometime late in the afternoon, Dan said, "After Utah, I'm going to get tired of saying 'Wow."" Because wow.
We were driving along I-70, the scenery changing from pine forest to soft wrinkled hills reminiscent of California to red rock mesas – on and on, changing and changing again. We pulled over at a scenic view stop on the 110 mile stretch of highway with no towns, no amenities, no civilization at all – and found a wide multi-level table of white rock, twisted junipers and small bushes, and then this steep, intense drop into a basin of red and white and green. The San Rafael Swell. I hadn't come across it in any guidebook, but wow. Stunning.
Saw two cowboys, too. Right near the road. On horseback, rounding up a few stray cows. Saw a herd of bison, next to a shack selling buffalo burgers and steaks. Saw a flock of ostriches (tame). This is the west, oh yes.
It was a long drive. Damian watched Ice Age on his portable DVD player, the first time he welcomed something other than watching the scenery and exclaiming how beautiful it was. Funny to me, because today's drive was far more beautiful than Saturday's. But he's discovered the joy of being out among it all. And so we will be. Tomorrow, Arches and then into Colorado.
Tonight we stay in a Holiday Inn in Moab. Generic, of course, but clean and pleasant, and the woman at the reception desk upgraded us to a mini-suite after we told her our non-smoking room reeked of smoke.
In the morning, we strolled through the town of Springdale, laid out in a straight line along the road.
Damian fed a captive elk:
Then we went to Zion. My pictures can't capture the grandeur of it, the feeling of being surrounded by these majestic red-and-white striated cliffs. Nevertheless, here are some pictures:
On the way to the Emerald Pools.
To put these images into perspective. Dan and Damian, very small against the cliff. And there's more cliff below the path.
The middle of the three emerald pools. We stopped here because the climb to the highest was too steep for small feet.
On the way from the pools to the Grotto, a more level (but high altitude) path along a cliff's edge.
We hiked for three hours without much stopping at all. We were all transfixed, I think, looking forward to each new discovery along the way.
So beautiful there. I can understand why the Paiute considered it sacred land.
We got on the road at 8 am, much to our surprise. Damian did indeed say, "Goodbye Los Angeles," and we listened to "To Live and Die in LA" and then segued to Damian's choice of Suzanne Vega.
Leaving Los Angeles. I started to feel something, or rather, a lot of somethings. It's home -- was home. This is a road trip but it's one way, with so much unknown about our life at the other end. Happy but strange. Very very strange.
Easier to focus on the road trip aspect, since that is our immediate reality, visceral, startling, and delightful.
Los Angeles to Las Vegas. Clear sailing. So very many truck tires strewn across the road. The temperature outside the car climbed to 104 farenheit and then down again to the high 90's. We passed odd piles of white rocks, huge piles, sometimes built into the hillside and sometimes just sitting by the side of the road. Glacier debris? We passed a forest of Joshua trees, these twisted short alien bushes scattered across the barren landscape.
We passed through the high desert, tan and brown creases of hills. We crossed the border into Nevada, the demarcation punctuated by a tiny town, just a few gas stations and a couple of huge casinos in the middle of this desolate, empty landscape. Spooky.
Lunch in Las Vegas. The opulent Bellagio hotel-casino. The glass flower ceiling sculpture in the hotel lobby, jewelery festooning this classy, trashy dame of a hotel. A light-filled interior atrium filled with flowers and fountains, a copy of the Liberty Bell and a huge sculpted bald eagle, an odd kind of tribute to Americana in the center of a European-themed resort. Odder still: the enormous animatronic eagle nestlings bobbing nearby. We considered the well-known buffet, but it was expensive, the wait was long, and the food too rich for our mood. We grabbed a quick lunch in a no-atmosphere corner counter and went out to watch the fountains dance (a treat for Damian).
Then off to the Paris hotel casino for a tiny slice of research for my novel and back on the road again.
Nevada. Desolate. A slice of northwestern Arizona for an hour. Dramatic. And on into Utah. More dramatic still.
And tonight we sleep in Springdale, a tiny but surprisingly pleasant town surrounded by red rock hills. More tomorrow as we explore Zion National Park.
Monday evening. Three and a half days to Moving Day, ack.
We hit the road Saturday morning. Our route, for the curious:
Saturday September 3rd: Drive from Los Angeles to Springdale, at the western edge of Utah. Probably with a lunch stop in Las Vegas.
Sunday Sept 4th: Mosey down the road to Zion National Park. Spend the day there.
Monday Sept 5th: Visit Bryce Canyon National Park. Drive to Moab (still in southern Utah, but way the hell east).
Tuesday Sept 6th: Visit Arches National Park. Drive into Colorado. Spend night in Breckenridge, a ski town west of Denver.
Wednesday Sept 7th: Drive through Denver, stopping for lunch and a visit to the renowned Tattered Cover bookstore. Head north. Spend the night in Cheyenne, Wyoming.
Thursday Sept 8th: Cheyenne to Hill City, South Dakota a/k/a a relatively central town in the Black Hills.
Friday Sept 9th: Explore the Black Hills.
Saturday Sept 10th: Spend the morning in the Badlands, then drive to Mitchell, chosen primarily for its convenience as a halfway point but what the hey, it's also got a kitchy Corn Palace.
Sunday Sept 11th: Mitchell to Minneapolis. Stay with relatives in the Twin Cities.
Monday Sept 12th: Explore the Twin Cities. Celebrate Dan's birthday.
Tuesday Sept 13th: Head to Madison, Wisconsin with stops along the way at Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin and the surreal-sounding House on the Rock, both near Spring Green, about an hour west of Madison.
Wednesday Sept 14th: Madison to Chicago. Explore Chicago.
Thursday Sept 15th: Explore Chicago some more.
Friday Sept 16th: Chicago to Cleveland, Ohio. Stay with relatives in Cleveland.
Saturday Sept 17th: Cleveland to New York. A long day's drive. Spend the night with Dan's parents.
Sunday Sept 18th: Meet the movers, get our stuff. Move in. Wow.
Can you tell I'm looking forward to this drive?
written Monday April 18th:
I'm sitting on a bench in a small gated playground on Carmine Street in the West Village. Enclosed, safe, so pleasant. Damian plays nearby, seems relaxed. I love New York.
Dan said on the the commuter train this morning that what's strange is how normal it feels to be here. And it does. Our new to-be life? Or just playing out a fantasy alternate reality? The only way to know is to dive in.
Damian is fascinated with all the below-ground basement storage docks here that so often open onto the street. As we walked, we saw a man standing on the steps of one; his torso was sidewalk-level, he looked like half a man. He held a heavy box of wine bottles. As Damian gazed into the cavern, the man smiled at him. "Want to help?"
Further on down the street, we approached a woman walking her tiny dog. "Want to say hi to Jake? He's very nice." Damian tentatively said, "Hi." From a distance. Cautious. The woman laughed. I encouraged him to pat the dog, and as he did, the woman chatted about how soft Jake's fur was. Damian concurred.
Half a block on. A big dog lay panting on a blanket, an older Italian man sat on a folding chair next to him. Another man, his hair black and sleek, encouraged Damian to approach and pat the dog. Damian did so readily, and as Damian smiled at the big animal, the man contemplated the dog. "He's a Doberman/Rottweiler mix," he said, "but sweet as can be." Both breeds, of course, have a nasty reputation. Undeserved, the man said. It's all about the owner. Much like this city, I think. It has the potential for aggression but at its core is a great sweetness. Especially to children, it seems.
I'm glad to be here right now.
Irvine is like a dream. Someone else’s dream, and not an altogether pleasant one. The kind of dream where you’re driving for an eon down a wide road lined with palm trees and on every side you see big boxes of buildings and you think, “It can’t be another industrial park” and it feels, yes, it feels like you’ve driven for hours and you haven’t gone anywhere at all, your tires skid on the slick asphalt and spin in place for eternity.
When I checked into the hotel, the woman pulled out their pathetic version of a map of the area. She drew a star to indicate the hotel, then she highlighted the major streets and circled four other places. “This is where you’ll go. To shop.” She smiled. She’d circled four huge malls in four surrounding towns.
Yup. Irvine, far as I can tell, has no walking streets. No city life. No heart. Lots of big wide boulevards. Lots of enormous building complexes and inside of each, acres of cubicles each with a few pictures, a calendar maybe, some attempt to personalize the space. But inside that sea of eternal slippage, how can you?
I’m more homesick than I’ve been since, oh, age twelve when I went off to camp and bawled into the phone the first night away. I don’t adore Los Angeles, but at least it’s a real place, for better and for worse. And that’s where my men are. And my cats. And my life.
Can I go home now? This sucks.
How is it that the mere act -- or rather, non-act -- of sitting in a car for several hours at a stretch can make you so exhausted you want to collapse on your bed and never move again? How is that?
Yep. We're home.
We stayed with Diane, Darin, Sophia & Simon in the surprisingly lush Silicon Valley town where they now reside, we watched the kids play, we visited San Francisco, also Monterey and Carmel, we saw far fewer friends than I would have liked but were very happy to have the time we did with the ones we saw (and I now have pictures of Selila's bumblebee tattoo), we spent a few hours wandering through one of the most beautiful spots on earth (Point Lobos), we drove down a fog-enshrouded Big Sur coastline -- truly the edge of the world -- we said hello to Cambria again after a mere seven months, and we spent a whole hell of a lot of time in the car, especially the past few days. My buttocks still feel the curve of the seat, my ears the rush of wind and driving music, I see a blur of dark, twisted cypress trees, blue-green/blue-gray ocean, and golden hillocks when I close my eyes.
I may have more profound or at least interesting things to say tomorrow. Or I might just post a few pictures. But I will certainly be back to my daily posting schedule. Until I leave town for a short term job. (Stay tuned.)
Yes indeed, we're on vacation. I've vacated the premises. Also normal thought. My brain is pretty much vacant.
It's a lovely feeling.
Travelogue tomorrow. Maybe. I think. Unless I don't feel like it. Because, y'know, I'm on vacation.
We try to do some wine tasting every time we head to the Central Coast. I’m not a wine aficionado, but Dan is and it’s fun to see the beautiful wineries, the elegant tasting rooms set among rows and rows of grapevines, usually against a bucolic mountain background. I also like the ritual of it: swirling the dark red liquid against the edges of your glass, watching it slide back down, taking a sip and letting the flavor sit on your tongue, swallowing and noting the feeling in the back of your throat and the woody aftertaste that lingers in your mouth. Eating some nuts or crackers or chocolate and taking another sip. I may not love wine, but I like rituals that involve and envelop the senses.
Some years ago at the tail end of a wine tasting day, we happened upon a little out of the way place. The tasting room was around the side of what looked like a big barn. It was dark, small. Extremely unprepossessing. Just a room, slightly chilly and did I mention small? Yeah. One guy stood behind the counter, an old man with a serious mien. I remember him as small, hunched, but that’s probably an exaggeration. We talked, we tasted. That stuff was good. Even I thought so. We walked off with a few bottles, including one deep, rich port.
That place was Pesente, a real artisan vineyard. That man was one of the proprietors. They ran a small, careful operation, mostly selling locally but garnering plenty of prizes for their wines. We savored and then remembered that port for years. Dan read a while later that Pesente had shut down, the owners had sold their acreage and retired. No more dank, musty tasting room. No more secret treasure.
On our last day in Cambria last week, we decided to take a drive up highway 46, a road that goes through and to the Central Coast wine country: Paso Robles, the tiny Western town of Templeton, and dozens of wineries. We had no intention of stopping at vineyards: we were, after all, with a five year old. But I love the vastness of the empty mountains, I love the quiet up there. I wanted to take that drive.
Plus, Cider Creek Apple Farm is on that road, with a delicious tasting room of its very own (apple crisps and pumpkin butter, yum). We stopped there, bought decadent treats, moved on up the road. But right there, just before you turn back onto 46, was a vineyard sign. It was five p.m. The sun was going down. We decided to poke our heads in. Test one tasting room, why not? This was our tapas-style tour of the Central Coast, after all – don’t do anything deeply, but taste of everything we love there.
The winery was called Zin Alley. We slipped into the tasting room and were confronted with huge oak barrels. Filled with young wine, of course. Also a little terrier named Freddy, the official greeter. Also the owner, who offered us tastes of their only two products, a red Zinfandel and a port. Lovely, complex stuff. Not your usual Zin. We chatted. Turns out wine was in his blood. His family had been on this land for three generations, but had sold it off. He’d bought back a portion of it and had been working up to starting anew. Can you guess what family? Right. Pesente.
We bought a bottle of port. Steep at $40 a bottle, out of our current price range (we bought a car last month, remember?), but we will delight in that dark liquid, it’s like taking a bit of the Central Coast back to Los Angeles.
As he talked about his emerging business, how he doesn’t work too many acres because he wants to keep everything under his control, how he only sells to one local restaurant and doesn’t ship to shops anywhere else (though he’s happy to ship to individuals), I couldn’t help wondering. So I asked. “Do you – can you – make a living at this? Can you pay the bills?” I asked because – as I then told him – we’ve been chewing over this question ourselves. How can you do what you love and live a full life, how can you put quality of life before making oodles of money, climbing the corporate (or film biz) ladder and make it work? Does it work to retreat from the rat race or is it a mirage?
It sounds like he’s making it work. He’s chosen to do something he’s learned at his grandparents’ knees, something he clearly loves, while knowing he’s never going to hit the jackpot doing it. But he lives in one of the most lovely parts of the country, life is slower but not mind-deadening, and he’s his own boss, making something he can be proud of. That’s a lot right there.
(For a glimpse of the Zin Alley tasting room, check my photoblog entry.)
Back from a four day weekend up the coast, where we encountered seals and ostriches and hawks riding the thermals in a cloud-laden sky and pebbly, beautiful Moonstone beach with driftwood and overwhelming sunsets and the clarity of thought and not-thought that only clean, sharp sea-and-salt-and-earth air with a hint of firewood can bring. Not to mention a restaurant with a half hour minimum wait for turkey dinner and that’s with a reservation (but the food wasn’t bad and the waiter was courteous) and another, so-tiny restaurant with true gourmet food and no wait (but not on Thanksgiving), where the atmosphere was less peaceful than you might think due to the enormous family celebration taking up fully half the space (though it was a guilty pleasure to can’t-help-but-hear all their toasts and speeches) but the food and the place more than made up for that oddity.
And oh yes, there was also the boat with huge underwater windows, the hordes of silvery Jack smelt shooting by in search of fish flakes and an occasional glimpse of underwater duck butt. And the winery found almost by accident yesterday and the apple farm with homemade apple crisps for sale in their small shop and the Danish smorgasbord in the faux-but-yet-real Danish town of Solvang on the way back to LA. And the cottage, a vacation rental in the wooded part of Cambria, with high wood beams lending the living room majesty, with garden paths and lavender and the smallest lemon tree, with a history of its own to tell, of a gift from Hearst to a craftsman who worked on his castle a few miles to the north.
But mostly this weekend was about the clean, clear air and the swirls of clouds and the ocean water washing and polishing the pebbles so they shimmer as the waves recede and we all played can’t-catch-me with the next oncoming breaker and Damian laughed as we ran until he was exhausted and the sky was dark, gently lit by a crescent moon. Mostly about the dry tan sensuous curves of hill dotted with trees like blankets thrown carelessly on a couch and that hawk guarding the skies above, playing tag with the wind. Mostly about the pines and the windblown cypress and the cliffs and the stars poured onto the sky in such extravagant profusion and as you stand outside to look in amazement, your cheeks feel the bite of cool air and all you can hear is the crackle of your child’s feet on brush and dry pine needles. Mostly that.