Damn, That’s a Big Dam!

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On our way out of town, we made time to swing by the Hoover Dam, so we could check it out from the ground. I found the tour a bit ho-hum (we only did the standard tour, not the $30 one that features the modern art and takes you through large parts of the dam), and the one hour of stop-and-go traffic to travel the last four miles get near the dam really sucked. However, standing up on the observation deck of the dam offers an amazing view of the structure and explains why it is one of the modern architectural wonders of the world.

The standard tour takes you into one of the thru-way tunnels and one of the generator rooms, which are impressive and worth seeing. Even though the more expensive tour has more of the modernist art on display, you can still see a bit of Oskar J.W. Hansen’s and Allen Tupper True’s work, particularly the tile and statues, on the standard tour.

Upon leaving, we drove along Highway 93, over the dam, which will supposedly (and hopefully) be closed to traffic some time later this year. The number of cars looking to cross the dam really far exceeds the capacity (and occasionally the width) of the road, but I hope they leave the dam open for pedestrian traffic, as it really helps to walk beside it in order to grasp the sheer size of the thing.

After that, we headed for I-40 and the 1550 mile trip home, which we drove straight through, except for a 7 hour nap last that night. The bright lights of Memphis appeared over a shimmering Mississippi River at a little after 1 AM Saturday morning, and we reunited with our dogs, exhausted but happy.

Into the Canyon

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Thursday was a long, fun day. It started at 4 AM, waking up way, way too early to meet our transportation to the Boulder City airport, just outside of Las Vegas, to take a helicopter trip into the Grand Canyon.

We signed up with Papillon Grand Canyon Helicopters to take a ride into the Canyon, including a flight over Lake Mead, Hoover Dam, and a stop down into the canyon for a light meal and champagne. If it sounds decadent, well, that’s because it is. I think we could have skipped the quick meal and booze before 8:30 AM, but it was part of the package, so who what I to complain? (Thank you, Elaine and Larry, for the gift of one of the tickets!)

To me, a helicopter turned out to be a great introduction to the wonder and sheer size of the Grand Canyon. The flight takes about 20 minutes to get into the Canyon, and then you are flying into the western part of the Canyon (as the central region, in the national park, is off-limits to helicopters flying below the rim), looking up at the rim and getting a good view of the ancient layers of rock as they zoom by.

We landed in a prepared area on Native American land, and even though it was early in the morning, the heat and sun already felt brutal. We walked around, took some pictures, and tried to take it all in. Way too soon, it was time to leave, so we took off and looked about a bit more of the Canyon before zoom across desert, back to our hotel in Vegas, with just enough time to check out.

All in all, a stunning trip, one that rivals our helicopter trip over Kauai from a few years ago. If you want to experience the Grand Canyon from all angles, a helicopter tour is the best way to go.

105 in the Shade

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We mostly took it easy today, as we know all too well that directed, purposeful action in Las Vegas turns the city into a vacuum cleaner for your money.

Since we were last here in early-2006, malls (well, shopping in general) has exploded on the Strip, so we checked out the newer places (like M), while also taking the time to revisit some old favorites (the Venetian is a lot less impressive, once you’ve been to Italy).

This was our first trip on the Vegas Monorail, which I expected to hate but actually liked, though $5 per ride is a bit much.

We also got to feel the full effect of the afternoon heat by walking back the last mile to our hotel under the full sun. I didn’t really sweat until we stopped to cool off in casino, where they had the humidity over 5%.

Park City, or the Return to the Heat

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For almost two weeks, Kath and I have enjoyed a respite from the crushing heat affecting most of the country. By staying so far north that the sun didn’t set before 11 PM and usually above 6000 feet, we only felt the nation’s pain through dispatches on the TV news while wearing long sleeves and jeans.

Well, we are back in it now.

Park City, UT, our current base, got into the mid-90s yesterday, and even though it was what we call in Memphis a “dry heat,” our cool streak is definitely over.

In a day of rest, we left the car in a garage and took in some shopping on Main Street, rode the ski lift to the top of the mountain to hike down, and chugged back a few local pints, including the excellent Wasatch Brewery’s Polygamy Porter, which carries the tagline “Why have just one?”

Indeed. Especially in this heat.

Park City has proven to be as charming and fun in the middle of summer as it is in the middle of the ski season, possibly even more so, with lower prices and few crowds.

The Spiral Jetty and the Great Salt Lake

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Ever since first hearing about the Spiral Jetty, I wanted to visit it. To those that haven’t heard of it before, the Spiral Jetty is a large, outdoor art construction in the middle of nowhere, a spiral made of boulders that stretches into the Great Salt Lake. Sometimes it’s visible; other times, it’s not.

We stopped off to see the Spiral Jetty on our way down to Park City, Utah. The road out to the lake was even rougher than I had heard, but the end more than justified the means.

Walking around the edge of the Great Salt Lake, the dried salt layer cracks beneath your feet, looking and sounding a lot like ice, except for shallow pools of multi-colored briny water beneath.

The Spiral Jetty impressed me more than I expected. The size of the piece matches the landscape, a cosmic, natural, and human shape, the spiral, reaching out into a seemingly infinite shallow sea.

The Lovely Tetons

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We spent most of the day in the Grand Tetons National Park, hiking around picturesque Jenny Lake, taking in waterfall after waterfall, amazed at our fortune for such perfect weather.

Kath’s dad, Larry Lambert, turned us on to an amazing landslide area opposite of the Tetons Range, on the Wyoming side, called Gros Ventre. In 1925, an entire side of a canyon wall collapsed, one of the largest terrain collapses in recorded history. Rocks from one side of the canyon ended up on the other, and a new lake was created.

We enjoyed a tasty Thai dinner with local brews in Jackson, followed by a stroll through the town at sunset, plus some chuckles at the asking prices in a local real estate magazine.

Tonight, like last night, we will fall asleep in a grassy field in Idaho, listening to the gentle chirping of sprinklers in a nearby potato field.

Tomorrow, Utah!

Yellowstone to the Grand Tetons

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The northern area of Yellowstone proved to be my favorite part, particularly the region around Canyon and the twisty drive to Mammoth Springs.

We saw several bears along the way, including a few grizzlies and a black bear so close we could almost reach out of the car and pet it. All of these bears were far more interested in munching grass and digging up roots to even notice the human paparazzi around them.

We also saw a coyote, some deer, a lot of bison, and quite a few elk. The only animal we missed that we really wanted to see is the wolf, but we were staying too far away from the best place to spot them in order to make it there by dawn.

After Yellowstone, the Grand Tetons seem, well, almost quaint. We’re going to take the boat across Jenny Lake today and do some hiking before heading south into Utah tomorrow.

Yellowstoned

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Being in Yellowstone has left me feeling pretty stoned – in two senses of the word.

On one hand, the physical beauty of the place leaves one stunned at times. The light and the colors, particularly at the end of the day, causes the effect of deserted cars and trucks on the side of the road, their inhabitants seen wandering through high grass, while gently spinning in a circle, binoculars to eyes, oblivious to their appearance.

However, the meaning of being pummeled by rocks also applies, especially in respect to the sheer number of fellow humans (and their autos) that constantly surround you, almost anywhere you go. And, no, the irony that Kath and I are part of the problem does not escape me, but the number of people in the park, especially near famous sites, like Old Faithful, really detract from the majesty of the place. I think the National Park Service does the best they can with the volume, and I don’t know how you turn people away, but something has got to be done about it, at some point.

Into Yellowstone

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We had a long driving day to get from Missoula to Island Park, Idaho, our basecamp for exploring Yellowstone.

Since it was going to take a long time, whatever route we chose, we elected to make a little detour and come in the Gardiner gate into north Yellowstone and exit through the west gate, taking in Mammoth Hot Springs along the way.

We weren’t disappointed.

Funky, Cool Missoula

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We spent our 13th anniversary in Missoula on our way down to Yellowstone. Finding an affordable hotel turned out to be a challenge, but Kath rose to the occasion and located just the perfect place at the end of a long driving day, which included taking the rough inside road out of Polebridge back to the Going to the Sun road and then out of the park.

We explored Missoula most of the afternoon, which had changed a bit in the 20 years since I had last visited.

We ate dinner at an eclectic tapas-like place called The Silk Road, which features small tasting dishes from around the world (but none seemingly from the actual Silk Road – my only complaint about the place). We stayed so long, enjoying ourselves, that we closed the joint down.

Northwest Glacier

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We explored a good section of the largely-deserted northwest Glacier National Park.

Bowman Lake illustrated the serenity possible in Glacier, with mirrored waters reflecting a backdrop of snow-fringed peaks and hillsides carpeted with trees.

While in Polebridge, we stayed in a tepee two nights, which proved to be more fun than it sounds. If only we had brought a mosquito net for the 5:30 sunrise…

Across the Divide to Polebridge

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Traveling from east to west across Glacier NP met our expectations, with soaring views, cool breezes, walks across meadows still filled with snow, and traffic. Lots and lots of traffic.

But enough about the Going to the Sun Road. That has been written about and photographed extensively. I want to talk about where we are now staying: Polebridge, MT. Or do I?

I began having this debate in my head while driving to a closed Canadian border post: When we come across something beautiful, an amazing thing, but a thing that is only that way because it isn’t crushed by people and their credit cards and minivans and loud, pointless talking, should we attempt to describe its wonder (and location) to others?

After an hour, I reached my decision. And I have nothing more to say on Polebridge.

Two Medicine, or Medicine for Two?

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We spent part of the day exploring the region around Two Medicine, which is in the southeastern section of Glacier National Park. The drive down 49 to the entrance to Two Medicine was one of best of the trip thus far, with barricade-less switchback turns overlooking a 1500-foot cliff with spectacular views.

The centerpiece at Two Medicine is a lake, and we walked around a bit of it to better catch a peek at a waterfall that started at the snowpack above and ended at the water’s edge.

Later on, we stocked up in Browning, taking some time to see the Museum of the Plain Indian and witness the first day of Indian Days, a gathering of the Blackfeet Nation that takes place annually.

We’re having a great time, fortunate to have such great weather.

Into Canada, and Back

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Kath and I drove north from St. Mary’s to the Waterton Lakes area in the Canadian side of the park, which is in a gorgeous setting, with a clear, off-blue lake beside a jewel of a town surrounded by snow-capped peaks.

The quote of the day from the Canadian customs official, who said: “So, how much beer is some beer, eh?”

We also looked around the Many Glacier area, including a hike up to a waterfall.

For dinner, we stopped at the Two Sisters Cafe, recommended by Mac. They make a tasty bison burger!

Today, we will go explore the Two Medicine area and visit the Blackfeet Indian Days festival, which happens to start today.

Good Morning from Glacier

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We pulled into the KOA on the east side of Glacier National Park about 11 last night, after over 15 hours on the road from Rapid City. Along the way, we stopped off at Devil’s Tower in Wyoming (bad weather; couldn’t really see it) and at the Little Bighorn Battlefield; interesting and definitely worth it).

After dodging cattle and horses in the road for the last 20 miles to St. Mary’s (very dangerous), we put up our tent in the dark. The morning revealed the beautiful mountains of the Park, beneath a cloudless sky and 60-degree perfect day.

Rolling Through the Black Hills

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After catching up on some sleep this morning, we took the back roads up to Sturgis from Rapid City, ahead of the many thousands of bikers that will take over the place a few weeks from now. Frankly, you might think that the rally was going on now, given the sheer number of bikes in the region. Motorcycles are everywhere here, and I love it! (It’s like Memphis with SUVs.)

Deadwood was a bit of a bust, unless you like the tightest slots you’ve ever seen and a manicured Disney-esque Main Street. It is likely that Wild Bill would just keep on going through town, if he was passing through today.

Custer State Park proved to be the highlight of the day, providing the best collection of the different ecosystems of the Black Hills, as well as grazing bison and other animals plus easy ways to get away from the throngs of people stopping to look at animals.

We attended the nightly lighting event at Mount Rushmore, which was meaningful, but I’ve definitely taken my patriot pill for the month.