Tuesday, July 31, 2007


You don’t have to be the author of much more than a term paper or book report to understand the difficulty transitions pose for the writer. Sliding seemingly seamlessly from one scene, concept, or thought to another can be jarring. Choppy. Sloppy.

I’m sure my sister would be happy if I were to report some sort of breakthrough or insight into the mastery of the craft, as she has encountered some tricky transitional elements in a novel she has undertaken; however, the only wisdom I can impart comes from the hard-knocks school of first-hand experience, and I can’t say I’m impressed with the curriculum.

Transitions can’t be simple on paper, because there’s nothing simple about them.

In Stranger than Fiction, Dustin Hoffman’s character, Professor Hilbert, explains to the Harold Crick, the protagonist who hears a voice narrating his life, that plots are driven forward by action. For instance, he explained, exiting his office continues his story--the story of him through the door. On the other hand, staying in the room would halt the plot altogether.

When I woke up this morning, I was tempted not to advance my plot. At the time, it seemed preferable to let my story just kind of drift off—you know, go back to sleep and avoid the next scene.

I decided I liked the vacation passages of my story, and I really wasn’t all that interested in opening the scene with the laundry and dirty camping equipment set in the house with no food. I wasn’t too jazzed about the heavy rain and rolling thunder backdrop, either.

I realized that in upcoming chapters, I’d no longer be driving a new car, but rather a slightly scarred model with a vanishing warranty. Furthermore, with a full time course load and a lot of field work on the horizion, the plot is taking a decisive turn in a direction that seems to involve a lot of work.

Having served their purpose, foreshadowing devices--the map on the kitchen door, covered in stickers marking our route; the now-depleted collection jar on the counter where we used to dump our change to fund our journey— would have no longer hold meaning.

In short, the pultzer-prize quality plotline I’d been following for the past month ran cold, and I just couldn't find a good lead with the material with which I was left.

Fortunately, I have hoarded dozens of writers’ magazines addressing sticky transitions, and I knew the articles all offered the same advice.

If you don’t know exactly how to get your characters from point A to point B, you just have to go to the next thing you do know. Press forward. Get the characters moving--or at least out of bed. Just keep typing--or cleaning out coolers as the case may be--and sooner or later, you’ll hit on something.

In the meantime, I discovered that coffee has the ability to smooth over even the rockiest of transitions. After the first pot, I had the sense to throw a little bit of foreshadowing into the otherwise dreary scene by dumping all the change I found into the collection jar. The glass is nearly half full.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Putting on my Game Face

"You're not the manager," I said to my husband as we wove through heavy traffic en route to PA to retrieve our dogs from my parents' house.

Men seem to categorize highway driving as a sport, drafting themselves in key roles such as coach, manager, or quarterback. Instead of just acknowledging that there's a traffic jam, they seem to have the need to analyze the situation to determine where the players need to move, or who needs to take a bench in a rest area.

"It's the red SUV," my husband announced with satisfaction. "He needs to move to the right." Later, he charged an error to the driver of a silver sedan for botching a play through improper use of the deceleration lane.

Fortunately, we travelled nearly 10,000 miles without experiencing any real traffic, save small pockets near the Golden Gate Bridge and a sector near Boise, so my husband's highway managerial prowess was not a component of our vacation.

However, since returning to home field, I've found myself in the midst of more mental traffic than I encountered in 10,000 miles.

Right now I've got thoughts of my upcoming school semester wrestling with practical concerns like an empty fridge, a filthy van, and Dr. M's tests.

Perhaps I need a coaching staff to to come in and manage the chaos. You know, issue some yellow cards for hypochondriatic ideation, or perhaps put a playbook together to dictate the position of all the other players.

But alas, this assemblage of miscreant thoughts and rogue ideas is mine alone to manage. It is with a heavy sigh that I grab my whistle and clip board and take the field.

Friday, July 27, 2007



The number of diamonds we unearthed at the mine. You know the old phrase, finding a needle in a haystack? Well, finding a diamond in a mine is now a more meaningful metaphor to me.

Here's the mine:

Here's the diamond Brad found. Note its pre-cut state and plastic appearance.

I have new respect for the prospectors--those stalwart souls that embarked on the route I've just taken, but for months or years instead of weeks, without Best Westerns or restaurants or even travel fridges.

Back in Yosemite, we made two failed attemps to ride a stagecoach--after an hour of travel from our campsite the first afternoon, we arrived to find the Wells Fargo office completely shut down. Upon our return the next morning, we purchased tickets and sat on a bench to wait. We waited for almost an hour before we were finally told that the stage coach just wasn't going to show that day, which lended an authentic feel of historical realism to the entire experience. While waiting, however, we had the opportunity to look over some old coaches on display. I gave the children one of those reflective, just-think-children type missives similar to the one above. When I got to the part about the prospectors possibly never seeing their families again, I said: "Imagine your cousins and aunt waving goodbye from the driveway as we left, and knowing you might never see them again.
To which my daughter replied, "We still don't know that we'll see them again."


The number of flavors we sampled at the World of Coca-Cola in Atlanta yesterday. Allison and I like Simba, from Latin America. It has a bubble-gummy type edge--pretty tasty in a sample, but I'm guessing in full-sized form, it would get too sweet really fast. Over at the European station, I encountered Fanta Magic--probably the worst beverage I've ever encountered in my life. It was situated right next to Beverly, a beverage that the Coke people say is uniformly rejected by visitors. I didn't think it was that bad, but it's an Italian beverage, so I suppose I'm genetically predisposed to at least tolerate it. My daughter likened the experience to a wine tasting and we systematically went around taking little sips of all seventy selections. After becoming woosy and sluggish, I now understand why wine tasters have adopted the swish-and-spit format.

And my son? I just turned him loose with a cup. It was the last day of vacation. after all.

Allison's Trip Mix CD #2, Track 5

Daughtry's Home--I'm going to crank it when we hit I-64 late this afternoon.

After an incredible 25 days, we'll be sleeping in our own beds tonight. But just for tonight. Saturday morning, we have to head full circle back to PA to get out dogs.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Along an Arkansas Highway

So…what do OnStar, Verizon, and something called “Gemini” have in common?

Although one may be tempted to reply that these are essential must-haves for the safety-conscious highway traveler, please heed the following and resist the urge to fall into this popular line of thought.

The collective power of these pricy, peace-of-mind style “”guarantees” could offer none of either when put to the test this evening on a busy Arkansas highway.

The van took another step toward the possibility of filling in as a stunt-double for the SUV Ice-T or Cube drove in Are We There Yet when one of the beefy, high-end tires we splurged on for their peace of mind and warrantee properties imploded into smithereens just after the close of normal business hours.
At first, this seemed to represent little more than a minor setback. Brad got to work on the spare while I pulled out information from Gemini, the organization backing our guaranteed tires.

Gemini entertained me with a little game—a sort of scavenger hunt—that followed a little trail of interconnected phone numbers that ran in a little loop.

In desperation, we called the outfit that sold us the Gemini deal, and reached a live person who actually suggested that I turn to the internet for help. I’m in a smoking van on the side of a busy highway and the best he can offer is the internet?

I finally reached a live Gemini worker and explained our plight, to which she replied, “I’m not OnStar, you know,” and repeatedly stressed the untimelyness of a 5;30 PM blowout, as opposed to say, a four o'clock. She then proceeded to explain to me that if we didn’t have a type of special stickers, we really didn’t have a warranty with them, after all.

Do I actually need to waste the keystrokes to explain that I didn’t have the stickers?

So, I figure it’s time to get OnStar involved. Would you believe that OnStar was down? All they could manage was a little recording pleading technical difficulties, unless I was near death. Then I could use the red button. They seemed sure that was operational.

My husband suggested that I use my phone to call OnStar. For clarity, I’ll reiterate that the phone in question was the one that had just sustained connection throughout the entire sticker argument with the Gemini rep. Although mere moments had passed, the call to OnStar couldn’t be placed due to a sudden influx of heavy circuit activity.

So we drove on. Without the aid of Gemini, OnStar, or Verizon, just as any family would have twenty, thirty, or even fifty years ago. We’ll drive on with our spare until we find a Goodyear dealer where we’ll purchase a new tire out of pocket.

I’ve determined that the only value in these we’ve-got-you-covered programs is the feeling of confidence during times of smooth sailing. It’s a little illusion you get to carry around to help you feel secure and on top of things.

I’m sure friends will jump in to remind me of times OnStar has bailed me out in the past, but really, it’s all been pretty namby-pamby stuff. It’s nice that they’re able to unlock a car that’s sitting in front of my house, but they’d really dazzle me if they could save their best stuff for when I’m in a thick haze of smoldering rubber astride a foreign highway.

At several of the more remote points on the trip, I was tempted to press the OnStar button just to, you know, see if they were there. But I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I didn’t want to shatter my image of the army of information at assistance at my fingertip. After all, that’s what I’m paying for.

After all this, will I continue paying for these services? You betcha’. I love that feeling of carefree confidence I get to walk around with, on average, 360-plus days a year. Once you understand what you’re really buying, you’re better able to appreciate the value of your purchase.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Hope, AR

"I feel like I'm an archaeologist," my son said, meticulously sweeping debris from the pavement with random plant matter.

My husband and I had just about given up searching for our initials under the park bench at LeTourneau University, where we'd etched them in wet pavement as newlyweds.

At first brush, it appeared that our historical monument had fallen victim either to university revitalization efforts or memory error on our part.

Then our son spotted a scuff in the concrete and began to carefully brush away the dirt that had accumulated in the crevices.

"There's the "C"," he said. I took a twig, tracing my initial. He was right! But I still couldn't make out the other letters.

"I can," he said, pointing each one out in turn as he unearthed them.

I hadn't expected the day to take on an Indiana Jones theme. Although a snake encounter or the need to dodge a large boulder probably wouldn't have surprised me, I wasn't expecting any actual archeology.

But following a morning visit to the Caldwell Zoo (which now rivals the sculpture park for the top rating on my daughter's vacation favorites list) the trek into Longview to search for evidence of our former lives had taken on the feel of a archaeological dig--metaphorically and literally.

After a time tootling the streets, I was beginning to wonder if our lives there had just been a dream. Nothing looked familiar. Not the streets, the stores, or even the B-B-Q restaurant I could have sworn we used to frequent.

I began to feel disturbed. Nervous. Antsy. After all, I had a full time job, not to mention various part time and temporary posts. I attended university. I acted in community theater. I had friends. Where was the evidence that any of it had happened?

I am happy to report that archaeological evidence confirms that I did live in Longview. It wasn't a dream. My son identified the initials, although I can't claim to be impressed by our engraving font or technique.

He then went with me to the preschool where I used to work, to provide "visual stimuli" of how my life turned out.

It wasn't a dream, after all. I was recognized on sight at the school where I had a nice visit with a teacher with who I used to work, the very one who first told me I was well suited for the profession and encouraged me to pursue it.

We resume digging this morning, only this time for diamonds.

Monday, July 23, 2007


So far, my daughter isn't impressed with Texas. Something to do with the large insect population and the propensity of Texans to mold everything into the shape of the state.

I, too, was distressed by these very facts during my year-long tenure in the Lonestar State in the early '90s.

Pre-Texas, I'd never seen a roach--at least not one of hearty Texas stock. Real Texan roaches are large enough to sport ten gallon hats and handlebar moustaches. Disturbing as it was to see them congregating in parking lots and institutional facilities, I took a small measure of comfort in the fact that my apartment was too clean to be of interest to such vermin.

The look of disgust on my daughter's face as we weave our way around carcasses strewn across parking lots and foyers evoked fond memories of the first time I was forced to engage one of thir number in a combat. During a routine washing of the dinner dishes, I lifted a hefty iron skillet and discovered a specimen of Guinness Book proportions. I threw the skillet violently in the beast's general direction and bolted for the couch where I screamed until I was drenched in sweat.

I missed. Newly married, my husband wasn't able to quickly assess his duties in the situation--comfort me or stalk the intruder? He choked, and the roach walked.

I wouldn’t stay alone in the apartment—for a week. This meant I had to go to my day job as well as Brad’s night job with the eleven o’clock news team. It was a tough schedule to keep, and I eventually gave it up out of sheer exhaustion.

Although Allison hasn't screamed or broken a sweat, she treads warily and walks about with her forehead creased in worry.

Her disillusionment with Texas-shaped objects stems from a nasty breakfast incident.

We've stayed in our fair share of Best Westerns of late, and we pretty much know the Continental breakfast drill. Little pre-measured cups of waffle batter are lined up by a self-service waffle iron, and in other states, folks tend to do a pretty good job taking turns. Everyone gets a waffle. Everyone is happy.

In Amarillo this morning, I approached the waffle station only to have a hotel worker position herself ominously between me and the waffle iron.

Figuring we were dealing with a new format, I grabbed a plate and stood in front of her as though in line. She proceeded to ignore me, while calling out warm greetings to each new patron that came though the door.

I eventually sat down at a table a foot or two from her station, waiting until she stopped doling out little Texas shaped waffles and greetings to everyone else in the room.

Figuring it had all been a misunderstanding, I grabbed my plate and stood before the woman now known as the Waffle Nazi. Once more she completely ignored me as she handed a steaming plate to another new arrival.

Finally, she told me that I could be 6th on a waffle-waiting list.

For Seinfeld fans, let me summerize the story by simply saying the plot here changed from the Soup Nazi episode to the Chinese Restaurant script--in other words, I never moved up in status. Although theoritically, with each golden, Texas-molded waffle the Nazi dispensed, I should have been closer to breakfast--but alas, there was always another more deserving than I.

My daugher watched this unfold in disbelief--half because of the absurdity of the situation, and half because she couldn't get over the fact that anyone would serve waffles in the shape of their state.

This being a driving day, we all had plenty of opportunity to see the shape of Texas depicted on buildings, banners and billboards--some promoting lawn mower racing events or adversiting establishments such as the "It'll Do" Motel.

Fortunately, a freak Texas storm suddenly brewed on the horizon, immediatly improving my daughter's opinion of the state, and battering several layers of bugs and dirt from our filthy van.

The day concluded with a multi-hour hotel search, as we're told the Baptists have decended on the region for their national convention. Just as I began to fear we'd have to double back several hours to the "It'll Do", we found a room at a little Super 8. Although the accomodations are modest, so far we've seen nothing either state shaped or on 6 legs.

Things are looking up.

Four Corners to Amarillo

“I’m sure he’ll get tired soon,” I said, attempting to console my daughter.

We arrived at the Four Corners only to discover a young Native American in full regalia dancing on the four states marker medallion.

My daughter wasn’t happy. “This is so awkward,” she said, “How am I going to stand in all the states with him dancing there?”

In an effort to circumvent further deterioration in Euro-Native American relations, we encouraged Allison to shop at the surrounding booths while we waited for the little tyke to tire.

“You can stay here in New Mexico, I’m heading over to Colorado,” my easy-going son said, moving from my right side to my left. “Enough of that. I’m off to Utah,” he called with a wave.

If you’ve never been to Four Corners, I can assure you that it in no way resembles my daughter’s childhood images, which she says I have reported inaccurately. She pictured four major interstate highways converging at a massively dangerous intersection, not the four pastoral streets intersecting at a pole-mounted traffic light I insinuated. This is probably no surprise to regular readers who may have noted her propensity toward morbid fascination.

In any case, when I mentioned that by-passing Four Corners might help preserve whatever distorted images she may wish to retain, she looked at me in horror and said “Why would I ever want to do that?”

Although it was “exactly” as my son imagined--he did independent research-- the conglomeration of arts and crafts booths surrounding a medallion with an overlook wasn’t what my daughter was expecting. She claims that she’s not disappointed, but it was “a little weird.”

Meanwhile, we’re making up for lost time by setting a new record for hours logged in the car. I’m composing this post as we travel through Texas en route to the Best Western du jour.

In food news, I’ve been meaning to report that there’s a box of Spaghetti Western pasta at large somewhere between a gift shop adjoining the restaurant and the south rim of the Grand Canyon. In an unrelated event, an entire box of dry pasta was discovered scattered across the back of the van mere seconds after the loss of the boxed dinner was announced.

In further irony, my sister reports via blog that there was a near simultaneous pasta spill in her home. The simple quirk of fate brings to mind the Dom Delouse dream sequence of the early 90’s, when I told my sister one morning that the previous night had been filled with dreams starring the heavy set cook. She gasped in shock. Her dreams had revolved around an event that had to be cancelled because Dom Delouse failed to show up.

At this late hour, I don’t really care if any celebrities show up for my dreams. My sister can have them all. I just hope no one is dancing on the bed when we arrive at the hotel. I’m pretty tired.

Today's stats:

Total miles to date: 6933
Creature list: mouse
Total states to date: 22

Note to regular readers: The Grand Canyon post is now up, with pics from the professional photoshoot

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Four Corners or No Corners?

We had to by-pass one of our stopping points last night. We'd been travelling though desolate desert for hours on end, and it was dark by the time we reached the Four Corners region--where Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico merge.

We had to travel an hour beyond the Four Corners to secure accommodations--and we had a firm list of "non-negotiables", the most urgent being laundry facilities as yesterday morning our son was found distraught in the van wearing the last of his pants--a pair he couldn't zip, as he'd outgrown them. His sister classifies their inclusion in his luggage as a packing error on her part. She took it upon herself to pack his luggage, as trips to Pennsylvania invariably end up with my son showing up with a suitcase full of comics and Gameboy paraphernalia. Usually by day three, my sister stops marvelling at the similarities between our sons' wardrobes and catches on to the fact that my boy is raiding his cousin's closet every morning. As my nephew isn't along to keep my son from cobbling together outfits from comic book pages and software, my daughter did his packing. She only packed items found in his drawers, and as he claimed to have organized and purged his wardrobe mere weeks ago, I'm not sure why the pants were available for her to pack. However, I digress into the murky terrain of family mysteries that aren't worth the effort of solving.

So, the question this morning is, do we double back the hour to the Four Corners, thus losing two hours of travel time, in addition to any time we might spend there--adding to our ever-widening gap between where our schedule says we should be and where we actually are--or do we simply press forward?

Besides, my daughter has long-standing image of the Four Corners that she's not sure she wants reality to alter. She pictures roads from the four states converging at an intersection with a traffic light smack in the middle. She likes that image.

Alas, I suspect that in the spirit of adventure, we'll risk deficits and possible disappointment and rewind to the Four Corners.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Grand Canyon

Having mere hours to spend at the Grand Canyon--a location many families choose as their sole vacation destination—is fairly daunting. Upon entering the park we were presented with enough literature to induce a deer in the headlights reaction: do we ride burros into the canyon? Do an aerial surveillance by helicopter? Catch a current via raft?

Our late afternoon arrival made our first move a no-brainer. After securing accommodations and a quick dinner at Spaghetti Western, we arrived at the canyon in time to watch a sunset.

Thanks to a combination of good luck, excellent timing and decisiveness not typically characteristic of our family, we found a morning activity that has made all of our highlight lists.

We went on a photo shoot with internationally renowned photographers using high end lenses and equipment supplied by Canon. And unlike the burros and ‘copters, this was completely free.

Our family’s combined photo count numbers well into the thousands. One could effectively argue that the amount of hours we are behind in our schedule is directly proportional to the time we’ve invested in lingering at various locals for “just one more shot” or pulling over to “capture” this or that along the roadside.

There’s no less than three photography contests I’ve been shooting with an eye toward—including a National Parks contest sponsored by Canon.

So the opportunity to shoot in the Grand Canyon under the tutelage of pros with way-beyond-reach equipment—another no-brainer. To sweeten the deal, I discovered that the instructor of the advanced group, Adam Jones, is actually a judge of the National Parks contest.

What luck! I thought. No more excuses about lack of equipment! No more guess work about settings! All I have to do is click the shutter! Hello winnings!

Not long into the shoot, Adam actually handed me his whole operation—one of those lenses that could substitute for a telescope at the planetarium attached to a camera body the size of a Yankee lunch box.

A squirrel posed at the rim of the canyon. Here it is, I thought, gingerly adjusting Adam’s lens and composing my shot.

Here’s what $30,000 of equipment is capable of in my hands:

Following the shoot, our family reassembled, eager to put our new knowledge to use on some family photos. Here’s what studying under combined instruction of three seasoned pros can accomplish:

The good news is that the pros say they often shoot upwards of a thousand bad images for every winner, so statistically speaking, the winning entry is in my computer somewhere. I’ll keep looking

Things That Happen in the Car, Part II

“When’s the game on today?”

“Who’s pitching?”

“What?! The Yankees aren’t playing today??”

“I think we’re missing the game.”

My daughter isn’t a New York Yankees fan. No way. She just likes Melky Caberra, A-Rod, Jorgie, Matsui, Wang, Jeter, Robbie Cano, the rest of the infield, the rest of the outfield, the bullpen, Joe Torre, and even the radio commentators, John and Susan…and oh, did I mention Melky Caberra? She’s enamored with the young Spanish-speaking outfielder to the extent that she croons, “Melky” in a contented sort of way whenever he comes to the plate, makes a catch, or—heaven forbid—botches a play.

Thanks to the power of XM Radio, the New York Yankees have been traveling along with us on a daily basis. And although my daughter may ask incessant questions about both the history of the team and each individual player, the rules of play and the daily game schedule, don’t mistake her for a fan. She’s not really interested.

On yesterday’s broadcast, John and Susan announced that next week is “Yankee Lunch Box Day” at the stadium.

“I want a Yankee lunch box!” came an excited squeal from the back seat. Brandon and I turned raised eyebrows in her direction, as Brad cast a quizzical look in the rearview mirror.

Eyes wide and expression sheepish, she clamped a hand across her mouth. Bottom blown out of a cover flimsier than a paper lunch sack, she’s now bordering on open fanaticism.

Which is good, since there’s a double header today, and we’re scheduled to do a fair amount of driving. We’re also due to leave the Pacific Time zone, which created a moment of confusion when we were calculating when the games would be available locally. We keep the car clock set to Eastern Time, as a loose anchor to our real lives, which is kind of nice, but it also adds an extra calculation to time related discussions.

Tossing in the element of a third time zone created temporary mental overload.

“What happens if the game begins while we’re in the Pacific time zone, and we cross over into Central time while the game is in progress?” I asked.

“They’ll just stop play and start all over again an hour later,” my husband said. His sharp wit seldom disappoints.

And neither will the Yankees. They’ll be on the field for most of the day, so no matter when we drive, my daughter will have plenty of opportunity to clap and cheer. Not that she’d really want to, of course.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Las Vegas, Day and Night

The trailer accomodations at the Little A'Le"Inn shook and rattled as the desert reverberated time and time again with booms and roars.

Were we under attack? Was there a fire? A violent storm? Or were all those creepy rumors about aliens and space ships really true?

As we were without any means of keeping time, I can not report the timeline of these events with any accuracy, although I can say it happened well into the wee hours more than once or twice.

My husband finally identified the cacophony as sonic booms from Air Force space craft in nearby Groom Lake.

Although the incident shook me emotionally as well as physically, it certainly added an additional element of atmosphere to our stay in the storied Area 51 region.

After a fractured sleep and an overpriced breakfast, we drove 2 hours into Las Vegas—the route Rachel residents must travel whenever they need to purchase anything more than the basic staples available in Alamo—a tiny outpost between Rachel and Las Vegas.

Las Vegas is the antithesis of the rest of the state of Nevada. Barren wasteland surrounds Rachel for hours in all directions and the bam—suddenly you’re in a Mecca of cutting edge urban living, complete with shops from New York designers and celebrity sightings. We didn’t see anyone famous, although a billboard of Jerry Seinfeld created quite a stir.

After an afternoon that included a drive into Arizona to see the Hoover Dam and a good deal of indecision that began to resemble a bad date night, we decided to tarry in Las Vegas in order to see the fabled lights.

Whereas the rest of Nevada takes pride in the darkness that affords a view of the Milky Way, Las Vegas takes pride in the neon that obscures every last twinkle in the night sky.

We spent the evening walking the streets in suffocating heat that brought back memories of why I was glad to move away from Longview, Texas.

Our foray through the fashion district left me wishing I had larger feet. Allison and I went into Kate Spade to gawk at the $300 flip flops and $800 pumps, when we came across a “last pair” sale—featuring the cutest little flats in my favorite style—for $24.00, a price my son noted was a dollar less than the bobo brand sneakers I bought him at Target prior to our departure.

Wouldn’t you know, they had nothing to offer within a half size of my foot. But Allison scored big time. Now she’s walking around in her Kate Spades, but she generously offered to let me carry the bag.

We’re making one last trek onto the strip this morning before our departure.

Brandon grabbed the hotel pen and pad of paper from the night stand. “I’m ready for celebrity sightings,” he said.

“You can’t get celebrity autographs on hotel paper,” my daughter insisted. “Unless it’s from the Bellagio.”

“Well,” my son replied with an air of authority, “This paper is from the world’s largest Super 8.”

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Rachel, Nevada

“I’m the nice guy in town,” answered the little boy at the one-room bar/restaurant/front desk/casino/gift shop of the Little A’LE Inn. My son couldn’t figure out what to do with the three quarters the little guy kept forcing upon him, so my husband asked why he wanted to give away his quarters.

My husband gently slid the coins into the denim pocket of the kid’s shorts.

“Why do you want to give it back?” he asked.

“Because I’m a nice guy, too,” my husband answered. “You’ll need this to play video games.”

I’ll always be thankful that I didn’t follow the first instinct I had upon arrival in Rachel and curl up in the fetal position, screw my eyes tight and wait for it all to be over.

If I had, I never would have met the nicest guy in town. I wouldn’t have met the bartender, Tracy, who happens to be from my neighborhood in Hampton, VA. And I wouldn’t have had the chance to talk to the mother of the resident nice guy who informed me that her 5-year-old son—she referred to him as “the town’s ambassador”—is also its youngest citizen. The boy’s 82-year-old grandmother, co-founder of the town, is the oldest of Rachel’s 76 “full time” citizens.

I nearly missed all this when I momentarily went into shock upon our arrival. While unloading my luggage from the van, I witnessed the flight of a drunkard sailing over a saw horse while I listened to my husband explain that I’d need to select videos from the “Evidence Room” if I expected to see anything on TV.

You know those motels you see from time to time with the sign that says COLOR TV in multi-hued letters, and you think. “how quaint, of course they have TV. It’s the twenty-first century, after all.”

Well, Rachel is at least twenty years from erecting such a sign. In compensation, they offer guests a VCR and “The Evidence Room”, a lending library of homemade videos. Unfortunately, they haven’t extended that type of forward thinking by offering complementary sundials to keep guests abreast of the time, as in-room time keeping devices are not standard.

I entered the half-trailer where we were to spend the night separated from our neighbors by a shared bathroom that also housed the microwave and mini fridge. My son was shell shocked and rendered incapable of commentary.

By the time my husband entered the room, I was encasing the bed in my personal set of blue striped sheets that my sister gave me to replace the one I lost. I packed them to use on the air mattress during the camping segments of the trip, but quickly deployed them upon sight of tired-looking linens.

Fortunately, my husband coaxed me from the room, and my trip was made richer for it.
Even though I’ve been having great fun seeing the country, I’d been feeling for a few days like something was missing. Earlier, I mentioned Steinbeck’s Travels With Charlie, an account of the cross country trip the author made with his aging poodle.

Thinking about the book, I realized that Steinbeck talked a lot with folks as he traveled, and I realized that we haven’t been doing enough of that. Sure, we conversed with the proprietors of the cheese shop, and there were the nice park rangers we chatted with at Yellowstone. And, of course, there was the artist at the sculpture park.

But you don’t really get to learn about the country until you meet the people that inhabit it, and I realized as I chatted with the colorful citizens of Rachel, NV that I need to make a point to talk to as many people as I can.

On the way back to the room, we stood in the wide open expanse of desert. Wind whipped across our faces and lightening streaked across the sky. To our amazement, we realized that we could see the Milky Way.

This is the kind of stuff you miss at the Best Western.


Total states: 16
Highest gas we've seen (AND paid for): $3.89
Creatures: fox (living), wild horses

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Tonopah, NV

“It’s not creepy, it’s just Rachel,” the desk clerk at the Little A’le’Inn assured me via phone moments ago.

She’d just described the accommodations—something about conjoined trailers and a shared bathroom, and I'd have to call this a new low.

The quality of our accommodations have been steadily slipping. Although last night we camped in Yosemite, the night before we stayed in a rustic cabin about 26 miles from Yosemite National Park. The establishment was technically classified as a “motel”. In actuality, it was a loose conglomeration of conjoined cabins, mobile homes, dome tents and tepees with a plywood office/outdoor self-service coffee and tea station at the hub.

In a fluid sort of way, we were shooting for Yosemite, but as darkness began to descend, we found ourselves in a quaint, old-fashioned town with a gorgeous old hotel set in the center like a gem.

But alas, gems tend to be pricey and, as no one wants to end up destitute in the Deep South next week, so we passed on quaint and settled for rustic.

We are currently en route to Rachel Nevada, where we are heading at the insistence of my husband who is fascinated by all those weird documentaries about abductions one tends to flip past on late night TV.

Lucky me, I secured the last room when I called ahead to see if they have WiFi.

“No, no no. No, no.” the desk clerk said. So we pulled over at the town with the largest-print name on the map and found some free-floating Wi-Fi by which I compose this hasty post before heading off to spend the night with the aliens.

But as my husband gamely endures art shows, writer’s readings and book signings for my benefit, I can bite the bullet on this one.

All I can say is at least we’re not staying here:

Winnie the Pooh and the Blustry Day

“There’s a bear.” My son announced this fact in the same tone as you might expect him to say, “There’s a coffee shop” or “Look, a Taco John’s”.

I turned my head, and sure enough, there was a black bear, just walking through this little wooded alcove on the side of the road just outside a heavily traversed sector of Yosemite National Park.

Not exactly where I’d expect to find a bear. In fact, the crowds I’d encountered in the gift shop had just prompted me to say, “wow, this place kind of reminds me of Busch Gardens.”

I’ve discovered that we often can’t judge things by what we think we know, anyway.

For instance, I’ve always been told that Chicago is “the windy city.” Before last week, I’d never been there, so I simply accepted the information as fact.

Although our time in Chicago was admittedly brief, I can’t honestly report detecting so much as a zephyr within the city limits.

On the other hand, I’ve never heard any reference to wind in association with the Golden Gate Bridge, so you can imagine my surprise when a stiff wind nearly tore off the door of the van as I attempted to exit the vehicle to picnic at the Golden Gate recreation area.

I haven’t been out in such blustery conditions since my failed attempt to total my old Jeep by parking it under a large pine during Hurricane Isabel. There were no special weather conditions contributing to the gale. In fact, it was an otherwise sunny and calm day. It appears breezy conditions are the perpetual state of the bayside area.

But I guess discovering all these things for ourselves is kind of the point of a trip like this, after all. Having some of what psychologists refer to as “authentic experience"—some slice of personal reality by which to frame everything we read or hear in the future.

And as far as the bear—although I only caught a glimpse of him, and the other half of the family missed it altogether—one of his cousins crossed right in front of the van later last evening. He was viewed with much excitement by everyone in the family.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Roadside Mailbag

While waylaid somewhere north of San Francisco as our leader recovers from pallor and wooziness, I decided to take the opportunity to respond to some questions and comments that have come in over the past several days.

Hopefully, this shift in format will create more of an open forum and will increase the feel readers report of “really being here.”

In response to the South Dakota post, Catherine Wannabe wrote in wondering:

Was coffee really 5 cents at Al's?

Well, Catherine, here’s what I know. Al’s seemed pretty proud to offer these savings, boldly announcing their 5 cent coffee deal for miles on billboards. On the morning I left, I attempted to secure some of this 5-cent joe for the road. Approaching the counter I saw a sign—I’ll paraphrase a bit—that read something like this: Some coffee, 5 cents. A bit more, 5 more cents, even more, another 5 cents, etc.

All I know if that I asked for a cup of coffee to go, and I paid 57 cents for an 8 oz Styrofoam cup.

Catherine also asked this following question in reference to the Hell’s Canyon affair:

Could Allison have seen a sign about electrical transformers and was making a pun?

Unfortunately, I do not believe that the state of Oregon possesses the technology to have or maintain electrical transformers. Furthermore, if they did, I am sad to report that my daughter likely would not recognize them as such.

Let’s move on to a comment from Steve, who posted the following rebuttal to his wife, Jennifer, who speculated that he would not sustain a trip if he didn’t know where he was going to sleep each night. Steve writes:

Point of order i'd be ok with that, as long as i knew where we gonna eat each day, i can sleep anywhere.

Steve, there are no guarantees on a journey of this magnitude. The best laid plans have more twists and turns than a jaunt through Hell’s Canyon. Like you, I didn’t want to wing the food arrangements, either. We really thought we’d outwitted the system when we invested in that travel fridge. Who knew the thing could turn into an oven with an inadvertent flip of the switch. My advice? Pack a granola bar and hope for the best. You only live once.

In another food-related inquiry, Steve writes:

I've just gone one the Marie Calender's that ya'll stopped at, is this the same Marie Calender's that makes those wonderful frozen meals, or no ?? If so, that's awesome that you guys found that place.

Yes, Steve this is the same Marie, although I’d be remiss if I didn’t tell you that the frozen meals are only a shadow of what comes out of the kitchen “live”. In fact, the night before, I’d purchased a frozen Marie Callender’s frozen pot pie for a hotel room dinner. Yesterday, I ordered the pot pie at the restaurant, and it’s the difference between seeing a real superhero or just a six year old in his underwear and cape.

Tisa from Pennsylvania writes in with the following:

All I can say is ... Thank God, you found the turkey!!! I don't quite know why I have been obsessing with it, but now I can sleep!

Tisa, you are a woman after my own heart. I had little sleep myself since a blue striped sheet went missing last spring. My sister even bought me a replacement in hopes the entire affair would go away. I thanked her sincerely, but told her if she really wanted it all to stop, she’d have had to stage a “finding. You know wash it a few times, rumple it up and pull it out of a heating duct or something –“Oh, what do we have here?” Something like that.

Josh, on location in our nation's capital, writes:


Josh, did you really think you could spend so much time warning us NOT to go someplace without arousing so much morbid curiosity that we’d be guaranteed to go?

In closing, I would be remiss not to acknowledge this touching note from Susie Doe, who lost her husband Bill in a tragic toast burning incident in the 70’s. In response to the post Details at 11 she writes:

“Your father probably loved you and your sister very much.... and although overprotective, wanted you and your sister to be more aware of the pitfalls of life than were your stumbling deluded "invulnerable" peers...most of whom are now dead or in prison. And what of your father? Is he still alive?”

Susie, please accept my belated condolences on Bill. I am glad to report that my father is alive and well. To date, he has managed to avoid all of the fates it has been his duty to report, and has kept his family alert, vigilant, and safe.

On the other hand, I must express alarm on the statistics you report concerning my peers. I had not idea that the statistics on my generation were so grim. I guess I need to pay more attention to the news.

Well, friends, I must leave in search of San Francisco. Please accept apologies for questions I may have neglected, and feel free to draw my attention to any oversight so it can be addressed.

I enjoy your comments—please keep them coming!

I've left absolutely nothing in San Francisco

Here's what I know: We're not in San Fransisco, we're two days behind schedule, and I'm not altogether sure that we didn't spend the entire afternoon going in circles around a mountain.

How did this happen, you may ask? I don't know. Just like Uncle Billy said when Jimmy Stewart asked how the run on the bank got started in It's a Wonderful Life, "how does something like this ever happen?"

Theoretically, I shouldn't be posting this now. If we were on schedule, we'd be deep into the heart of Yosemite. But the poorly marked roads, dangerous conditions, and lack of infrastructure throughout Oregon brought us into California a little later than expected last night.

Some in our number felt it would be possible to make up the difference today and still make it to Yosemite tonight. That would have required a quickie drive-through style tour of the Redwood forest and blowing off the Pacific Ocean entirely, not to mention meals and San Francisco to boot.

We chose, however, to stop long enough to stick our toes into the Pacific.

Next we walked a 1/4 mile trail through the Redwoods and attempted to take some family pictures.

After that, we found a Target and remembered all the things we kept saying we'd "pick up next time we see a Target."

Then, we spotted a Marie Callender's--a California favorite--(best potato soup in the world!)and of course we had to stop.

Now, here's where stories might diverge a bit, depending on who you ask. But since I'm the only one blogging, you have no choice but to embrace the events I will present here as the official version of what transpired.

Shortly after we departed Miss Marie's establishment, feeling all full and warm inside, my husband said we had to choose between two routes: a fast and direct path to San Francisco, or a scenic trail that hugs the coast. I said it kind of depended on our goals. I quizzed him a bit on what it was realistic to accomplish under the circumstances, and I asked him if we would see the ocean any more if we strayed from the coast at that juncture. We both concurred that we'd meet up with water again San Francisco, and he said, well, we've at least seen some of the coast line today anyway, and he made a decisive turn.

Now, just following the decisive turn, I saw a sign that said San Francisco 199. I know I saw if, because I used the information to calculate the likelihood that we would at least make it to San Fransisco by nightfall, and, it being around 4 PM at the time, I felt pretty good about our odds.

Fast forward a couple hours. We're on this path that outtwisted Hell's Canyon, just without the scary cliffs. It's all scenic and pretty, and at first it's just this little path through the woods--Redwoods, actually, that suddenly reappeared.

Well, this just went on and on--kind of like this post--when suddenly, everyone started feeling pretty wibbly-wobbly, which is a fun quote from one of my favorite movies, but not a fun way to feel at all.

I ask why this quick and direct route was so remote and my husband says in shock, "Because you want to stay by the coast!" So much for what I misinterpreted as a decisive turn.

The route I aparently picked was, hands down, the longest, twistiest road I've ever been on. It made us dizzy. I really didn't think we were going anywhere, and I still don't, for two very important reasons. The first reason is that there were these white mile markers on the side of the road, and every time we passed one, it had a number in the mid-eighties.

The second reason is because after about an hour of this, I saw a sign that said: San Fransico 208.

These facts are not accepted in all circles for two reasons. The first reason is no one else will admit to any knowledge of the post-Marie's sign.

The second reason is, Brad keeps pointing to where we are on the map now and where we were then, and there's, like, and inch of difference that he finds significant.

All I can say is, we started the day three hundred miles from San Francisco, and after nine hours of driving we're about a hundred miles closer. You do the math.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Let it Snow!

Our Journey Through Time took us back a few calendar pages yesterday, as we found ourselves in a snowball fight at Crater Lake.

It was well into the 70’s on a sunny July afternoon and the path we followed to highest point of Crater Lake was lined with snow. Along the way, we stopped to play with chipmunks, take pictures--and throw snow at each other.Most of the day was spent on backwoods Oregon byways. Although we seldom encountered other vehicles, the state of Oregon still felt compelled to issue dire warnings. Every fifty or so miles, they randomly erect a sign that reads “CONGESTION”, just for kicks. We’d be rolling along through forest or farmland and –bam! CONGESTION! It really makes me wonder if the citizens of Oregon would survive I-64 at rush hour.

We crossed the border and are now in California. Just before dark, we went through the Redwood forest, where will plan to return this morning.

Currently, we are registered at a motel that now defines my new standard for low. If Brandon gives this place any stars, he may lose his credibility as a budding reviewer of standard. Upon check-in, the children sat on their bed, fondly remembering the finer points of all our prior accommodations.

“Remember the blankets at the woodcutter place?” Allison said wistfully.

“Remember the hot tub in Idaho?” Brandon sighed.

“Remember Internet?” I mumbled as my connection dropped for the zillionth time.

Literature provided by the facility warns of a previously unconsidered source of potential death. Evidently, we are in a tsunami hazard zone. We’re also told to be on alert for ticks, poison oak and “sneaker waves,” a mysterious force responsible for 63% of weather-related fatalities.

I must sign off for now, as my husband just reminded me that we can either spend more time in this room, or with the Redwoods and San Francisco!

Saturday, July 14, 2007


I scanned the dusty shelves stocked with bagged and boxed provisions encrusted in a time capsule of dirt. After leaving Baker City, we attempted to secure lunch at what was billed as a convenience mart. I passed on the outdated condiments and the embattled envelope of Lipton pasta Alfredo that looked as if it had spent hard time at the bottom of the rubble in our van.

Signs warned us early on that the scenic byway on which we embarked en route to Crater Lake and California would take us on a “Journey Through Time.”

In that respect, the trail did not disappoint. Indeed, the entire day was a journey back to a time before Internet, modern rest stops, and even restaurants.

My husband pointed out that our route followed the Oregon Trail. “That explains it!” our daughter said, recalling an Oregon Trail adventure play she helped my niece and nephew produce. Her cousins were the only actors, as all the other characters were either dead or off searching for food.

After many hours of pine forest and rocky brown mountains covered in low-lying scrub, we decided to find a town in which to settle for the evening, rather than press on the additional hour to Crater Lake. We naively hoped to follow through on the thought of a night at the movies.

We secured accommodations at a lodge with a rustic woodsman theme. Fake animals and plastic woodsmen aside, the lodge is quite comfortable.

Despite elements such as the rusty saw over the door, the room is well decorated. The furniture is gorgeous, cabin-style wooden-type stuff, and the room is stocked with Seattle’s Best coffee.

The proprietor informed us that wi-fi isn’t standard in these here parts. I actually feel fortunate to have a power outlet that enables me to pre-compose this post in Microsoft Word.

Speaking of Microsoft, my husband keeps claiming their headquarters are nearby, a fact that kept him pressing forward expecting to hit a high tech corridor. From our vantage point outside the lodge, we can see a sign indicating that we must haveblinked and missed the only existing pocket of technology an hour back.

As you might guess from this shot of the main drag, we were not successful in locating a movie theater. In fact, we resorted to emergency Cup of Soup and Wisconsin cheese and crackers for a makeshift in-room dinner.

If you are reading this post, we were likely successful in today’s goal of wrapping up this flashback in time and reemerging in twenty-first city California.

Miles to date: 4066.9
Highest gas price: 3.29 9/10
Creatures: fox (deceased)

Friday, July 13, 2007

The Way Things Are

Leaving Baker City, 11 AM PST

Miles to date: 3728

Miles traveled yesterday: 560

Creatures: alpaca

License plates: 40 states, 2 provinces, 1 US Government

Where we are

A truck full of onions
A sign reading: “Fer sale home grown beef” (not a typo)
An old pick up truck with a cute little log cabin built into the bed, traveling down the highway

In academic news, my supporters in the Graduate Office waved a magic wand and cleared my records of all roadblocks preventing my registration. In a seemingly unrelated development, registration was extended by a day and with a stroke of the keyboard this morning, I am fully registered for fall semester.

Checking out of the hotel this morning, it came to light that Brandon didn’t leave a rating sheet in the room. “You’re slipping,” I said.

“No, they are,” he replied. “They didn’t supply a pad of paper. I don’t even have pen to remember them by.” The oversight cost them a star.

Viewing Baker City from an aerial vantage point on the highway, my husband said "This town doesn't look too bad." He paused. "But the cemetery is huge."

Note to regular readers: Prior posts are continually being infused with more photo journalistic elements as time permits. It never hurts to scroll back and check prior posts for new features.

Baker City, Oregon

“There are so many ways to die here.”

The Idaho countryside changed dramatically as we found ourselves on a steep climb into Hell’s Canyon.

It wasn’t an alarming statement; the children spent our initial drive through Yellowstone making a list of all the ways we could meet our demise within the boundaries of the park. The possibilities included, but certainly were not limited to: microbes, scalding, buffalo goring, and poisoning from indigenous plants.

To my daughter’s delight, she discovered and purchased a book entitled Death at Yellowstone and makes it a point to share the most interesting cases with us in impromptu readings.

Prior to Yellowstone, we’d spent an afternoon flirting with mortality in the Badlands, so it was no shock to learn we were once again on the threshold of eternity.

What surprised me was the fact that the announcement came from my typically calm husband.

Secretly, I’d spent over an hour alarmed by the length of time that had passed since I’d last seen any type of infrastructure. The Yankees vs. Devil Rays game on XM was well into the sixth inning and I’d seen nary a wayside mart since the top of the first.

“My knuckles are white. That’s not good,” my husband says as the dusty road twists along steep, unguarded cliffs.

“It’s just a road, after all,” he reminds himself. “I don’t usually just fall off the side of a road,’ he says, turning the wheel to the left and his head to the right in an attempt to follow the road.

We nervously suggest that if it gets too dark, we might just inflate the air mattress and sleep on the hillside.

Immediately, we pass a sign:

DAY USE ONLY. NO OVERNIGHT CAMPING. My daughter insists the sign was riddled with bullet holes.

Crows swoop in front of the windshield.

“I guess they call it Hell’s Canyon for a reason,” my husband says.

We pass another sign:


“CAUTION. MACHINERY COULD BE ON EITHER SIDE OF THE ROAD AT ANY TIME.” Directly underneath was a sign with a silhouette of a big horn sheep, with the words BIG HORN SHEEP printed beneath the image.

More signs.

“I want to see the Transformers,” my daughter says.

“What on earth does that have to do with anything?” I demanded.

“I agree with her,” my husband says. “If we can find a way out of here and a hotel next to a movie theatre, I might just be very happy.”

My husband spots a turnout with a phone booth and a map. He exits the car and studies the map.

“Here’s the choice,” he says. “We can go right and the road turns into a rock. Or we can go left and find our way out of this mess in Baker City.”

Heading toward Baker City like the proverbial bat out of, well, Hell’s Canyon, he says “We just may ask ourselves one day if we regret not going up there. I tend to think not.”

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Driggs, Idaho

We’re spending the night in a sleepy little town just across the Idaho border. I easily could have used many adjectives to describe the small little hamlet in which we’ve chosen to relax, do laundry, and sleep. Although picturesque, cozy, and quaint all certainly apply, it is not without reason that I have selected “sleepy.”

The first reason is undoubtedly Freudian in nature, as the entire family is exhausted from a prior-to-first-light sojourn back into Montana to use the internet.

Now, before anyone either notes the absence of a prior-to-first light post or sends me links to internet addiction facilities, let me assure you that my mission was long-planned, of extreme importance and that I failed miserably at its completion.

Today was my day to register for my fall classes. Back home weeks ago, it seemed a simple matter to both me and my advisor to grab some wi fi, secure my schedule and be on my way.

However, firewalls blocked key pages. Over the phone, staff from the registrar’s office found flags on my account—missing data, questions concerning prerequisites and the like. The staff from the Graduate office was summoned, emails were exchanged, professors were contacted. Despite the best efforts of a vigilant staff, I remain unregistered for class at present.

But projection of my own state is not the sole reason I describe Driggs as sleepy. No, the weary state in which I have discovered Driggs is due to the underuse of no less than 5 cute little coffee houses that were shut down for the evening before dinner. One place--a trendy little shop with leather couches and pumpkin patina walls was actually pouring coffee down the drain as I entered the store.

So I’m blogging on hotel coffee brewed in a little 8 oz pot.

In other news:

The turkey was found in western South Dakota, beneath a pile of rubble. By all accounts it jumped out of the refrigerator of its own volition and burrowed beneath the children’s backseat accouterments.

Which reminds me that our daughter has yet to use the teal ice cube trays. She simply carries them into various hotels and displays them on chairs and tables alongside her knitting.

The Wisconsin cheese survived, although it has taken on a rather free-form appearance.

My son’s future as the mayor of Brandon, SD is in doubt, as he’s renewed a life-long interest in hotel management and ratings. His trip journal reads like a Frommer’s Guide, each page covering the perks and pitfalls of the various establishments at which we’ve lodged. A page fell out of the car in the Badlands and I rescued it from the parking lot. It seemed to be some sort of diagram of the perfect hotel layout, but I’m not sure. He got testy when he found me looking at it. Evidently, it’s not something he’s ready to go to press with yet. He does, however, leave a star rating and personal comments on the nightstand every time we check out. He’s hoping his remarks will come up at “hotel meetings” and his name will be tossed around in upper circles within the industry.
Dr. M’s nurse called to tell me how normal all my lab work is, and to remind me that there’s still a Pending test they want to make sure I schedule. Isn’t that just my luck. I’m getting chased down about tests I don’t want, and despite the combined efforts of an entire University departments, I can’t seem to get registered for classes and exams to which I’d happily consent.

Today’s stats:

states 3

Total miles since last post: 1025

miles to date: 3169

Creatures: mule deer, elk, coyote, eagle, pelican, antelope, swans

where we are

Things That Happen in the Car

“Can you try it in jazz?” my daughter pleads with her brother in the backseat.

My son instantly breaks into a smoky rendition of Old MacDonald Had a Farm—smooth mellow tones, complete with a well placed improv line from Louis Armstrong’s Wonderful World tossed in after the ducks belt out some bluesy quack riffs.

Here a (bluesy quack), there a (even bluesier quack)…and I think to myself, what a wonderful world…”

My son’s ability to make noise is rivaled only by his quick wit. He can turn out creative renditions of well known songs on a dime. We first discovered his gift when he was about three and began singing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” like a choir of toothbrushes. Imagine a lot of swishing where the rowing bits happen. We badgered him relentlessly, asking him to entertain us with renditions of the tune from all sorts of choirs. I don’t remember how many he did, but I do remember that he nailed each one without even pausing.

Last night on the way back to Yellowstone after dinner at the Internet pizza café, we entertained ourselves by challenging Brandon to sing renditions of Old MacDonald to music genres we randomly selected from XM radio. He nailed dance, rap and metal Old MacDonald, but fumbled with Gospel.

Meanwhile, much of our daughter’s time has been invested as the trip secretary. She logs miles, expenses, creature sightings—and all our conversations.

When controversy breaks out, she quietly flips to a page in her log book and begins reading transcripts from earlier conversations about the disputed issue. It’s been long assumed that family life would run more smoothly if we could secure the services of a court stenographer who was perhaps interested in moonlighting with some residential work. Judging from the current situation, it appears everyone would just become very careful about what they say. Maybe that isn’t such a bad thing.

Any time anyone says more than two consecutive words she missed, she frantically calls what was that? or she just simply repeats some preposterous version of what we said so we’ll be forced to repeat ourselves.

Although she’s been pretty observant on the trip, it’s come to light that there’s plenty both she and her brother missed along the way in life. On the way to the stable yesterday, it came to light that my son never knew I had horses as a kid. During the course of that story, we found out that the kids never knew their great grandmother ever lived anywhere other than the house she lives in now. Soon distant relatives were introduced, historical facts were unearthed and history was preserved.

I hope someday they will remember to tell their kids about the big trip of ’07 when they sang Old MacDonald for two hours. But thankfully, if they forget anything it’s all on record.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

West Yellowstone, MT just outside Yellowstone National Park

I am sorry to hear that my absence has alarmed my most stalwart readers. We have been deep within Yellowstone National Park for the past two nights, and I am afraid that wi-fi is not included in our campsite package.

We entered Montana moments ago and are currently at a pizza internet cafe. This will be a quick post, as I am paying by the minute for internet connectivity. Accordingly, please excuse any deficit in tight writing or well-crafted wit.

We spent this afternoon on horseback in parts of the park guides tell us are seen by less than 2% of visitors. My trusty mount, Buddy, safely took me alongside a steep cliff with a breathtaking view.

Prior to hitting the trail, we descended over 350 steps deep into the "Grand Canyon of Yellowstone" where an ever-present rainbow presides over a steep waterfall..

The park is teeming with bison and wildlife, although a moose sighting still eludes us.

We have seen dozens of vibrantly colored guysers, and have twice witnessed Old Faithful's blast.We will return to the park for one more night and will head to Jackson, WY and onward into Idaho tomorrow, where I hope to post further updates, stats and pictures!

It approacing prime time for creature viewing so I am off in search of moose.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

South Dakota

So…we pull into a little scenic pullover just before the Badlands, planning to make sandwiches. We’d just finished a visit to 1880’s town and had worked up quite an appetite meeting the sheriff, playing with a litter of kittens in the barber shop and touring the set of Dances With Wolves. I was taking a series of panoramic pictures and returned to the news that the travel fridge had somehow turned into an oven.

Evidently, there’s this nifty little switch that, according to my husband “lends versatility” to the appliance by allowing the user to choose to keep foods cold or hot. Trouble is, no one seems to remember choosing to cook our Wisconsin cheese, fruits and certainly not the replacement lunchmeat we acquired during some early morning shopping at our accommodations.

Fortunately, the proprietors of the cheese shop anticipated that a cheese storage mishap might occur on such a complex trip as ours, and had regaled us with cheese come-back stories that make the accomplishments of the 2004 Red Sox pale in comparison. It seems Wisconsin cheese is pretty hearty stuff. In the event of a waxy meltdown were told to just pop it in a fridge and wait for all the goo to absorb back into the cheese. For us this was simple flip of a switch.

Not hailing from the great state of Wisconsin, the berries and lunchmeat didn’t fare as well, and we found ourselves Lunchless in the Badlands—a situation that had all the makings of a good Tom Hanks film. There was tension, miscommunication, even laughter—in the hands of a good director, I’m sure the plot provides ample opportunity for a tear or two as well. At one point, we ended up looking for food in the shop of a Native American artesian. All he had was a box of flat bread mix that I threatened to whip up and cook on a rock.

Once fortified with a pasty chicken salad croissant and a couple of hot dogs from a convenience store, we ventured into the Badlands. By all accounts, temperatures were well into the hundred and teens. We walked a half mile trail, noting the many ways to die. Rattle snakes, falls, and heatstroke were the most obvious.

After exhausting the memory and/or batteries in all of our cameras, we made some technical adjustments in the van and headed to the much-hyped Wall Drug. We’d been seeing signs for this place for the past two days—which careful readers know to be many, many hundreds of miles. Our friend, Josh, advised us to resist, but others informed us it’s a must-do staple of any complete x-country trip. It’s simply a strip of western-style shops along a westerny-looking street. Frankly, it looks like a dozen other places I’ve seen along the way. The one notable difference was a little “traveler’s chapel” tucked in between all the kitsch and baubles. It was the only place that was completely empty. I took a few moments and read devotion from the complementary Daily Bread and enjoyed the beautiful stained glass. It was an ironic moment of serenity in a sea of commercialism.

We watched a storm roll across the distant sky as we drove to Mt. Rushmore. The countryside changed dramatically somewhere between the Badlands and Mt. Rushmore. Pine trees and rocky hills replaced desert-like terrain.

Allsion and I had the opportunty to do a photoshoot with a mother mountain goat and her kid. The goats were photogentic and readily approached us, a fact that a passing ranger didn't seem to understand as he yelled at me for "being way too close."

Back in the car my sister called and with the news that she hadn’t seen the turkey, which left us with the unsettled feeling that it’s lurking somewhere in the depths of the van.

Which brings me to another point. I know a third movie reference in a single post is pushing the format a bit, but I’ve known since Virginia this one was coming.

Awhile back, we watched Are We There Yet, in which a character portrayed by Ice Cube or T, I’m not sure which, takes a brand new SUV cross country with a couple kids. The vehicle is in showroom condition when they embark, and deteriorates exponentially en route. Somewhere on the west coast I believe it goes up in flames.

When we bought our Saturn Relay last year--with an eye toward this trip--the film played out in my mind's eye.

Let me take a moment here to report that we are in South Dakota and the car is covered in dust and smashed bugs and we're surrounded by a heap of rubble that, by all accounts, is harboring 6-day old turkey. I expect the magical converto-appliance will go up in flames just as we hit the coast early next week.

We ended the day at the Crazy Horse monument-in-progress. The Native Americans have really put us the shame here. Without any governmental “assistance”, they’ve been quietly carving out a hillside monument to Crazy Horse since 1939. My son read that just the face of Crazy Horse is bigger than the combined Rushmore quartet. No word on the size of his mount, but thinking proportionally, you can imagine why it’s taking so long. While they’re working on it, they’ve got this whole museum and nightly laser light show where they use the rock-in-progress as a presentation screen for a multi-media show.

If this post seems long, just think what the day felt like. We’re heading to Yellowstone this morning. There are no plans for lunch.

Today's Stats:

miles: 302

Creatures: a litter of kittens, mountain goats, buffalo, wild phesants, chipmunks

liscense plate sightings: 37

Somewhere in South Dakota

“I’ll get you an umbrella. Guess why you’ll need one.”

I was stumped for a moment. We’d pulled off the highway following a sighting of a large longhorn bullhead (later information would confirm it to be the size of one of the Mt. Rushmore heads) and discovered the piece to be the most sizeable artwork in what was billed as a “sculpture park.”

The sketchy grammar on hand scrawled signs tipped us off early on that this was an off-beat enterprise, but the quirky artist and the quiz-show format surprised even me—and I’ve even been called a quirky artist.

My Systems Analyst husband was thoroughly out of his comfort zone, so I had to handle the interaction unaided. I’m traditionally poor at guessing.

“I’ll get sunburned?” I respond gamely. This seemed sensible, as the evening sun loomed large across the open hillside field.

No. Guess again.

“I’ll look picturesque on the hillside?” This seemed a stretch, but, anything was possible at this point.

“Attack birds.”

Evidently some birds were nesting in his sculptures, and after visitors reported being hampered in their observation efforts, the artist implemented the umbrella-weaponry system.

Not far down the path of metal sculptures—which included dragons, winged toads, mythical creatures and the like interspersed with handmade signs bearing witticisms such as “…in order to be wise, one first must be mangled”—I spotted a little black and white songbird. This couldn’t be the attack bird that inspired the umbrella-warfare system.

I pressed on, keeping a wary eye on the alert for crows or large grackles reminiscent of the one I once appeared in the storage loft in my bathroom.

Whoosh—without warning the little black songbird and a small army of minions flew at our heads in a flurry of wings and feet and beaks.

We huddled under the umbrella as the birds continued their assault, crashing into the umbrella.

“This is the kind of place where you try to leave, but you can’t,” my husband predicted on the way toward the car. “The road will end, or will keep looping right back here.”

“This is going to give me nightmares,” my son agreed.

Settled in the back seat, my daughter announced: “This has been the highlight of my trip, and it probably will remain so for the next several days.”

A couple hundred yards down the exit path, we came to a complete stop as herd of cattle surrounded the van.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Chocolate Cheese, Minnesota and the Mississippi, Brandon in Brandon

Chocolate cheese. Chicken soup cheese. Blueberry cheese. Cranberry cheese. We couldn’t leave Wisconsin without stopping a specialty cheese shop. All chesses could sampled for free—I actually like blueberry cheese. It would be wonderful in salad. We made several purchases and headed for the Minnesota.

We ate our leftover Chicago pizza along the Mississippi river at the boarder of Minnesota and South Dakota. We left the highway and dipped into Iowa for awhile. I thought I knew what farmland was from PA—lots of rolling little farms all over the countryside. That’s not true farmland. True farmland is when there are cornfields as far as the eye can see in all directs for several hundred miles. That’s farmland. It’s beautiful.
At a rest stop in South Dakota, Brandon discovered literature about a town called Brandon. We ate West-Mex at Taco John’s in Brandon. A great little town that, according to my son, “has everything I like.” He thinks he may return someday to be mayor.
Today’s Stats:
Miles: 600
States: 4 (Wisconsin. Minnesota, Iowa, South Dakota)
State license Plates: 33
Creatures: Llama, prairie dog, jack rabbit, many cows, horse and sheep
Total state count: 9


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