Friday, December 28, 2012

Vegas, A Fake Eiffel Tower, and Home

by James Walker

Days 11 and 12 - Friday and Saturday, June 29-30th, 2012

Our last days were simple. We came down to Las Vegas for a reprieve before returning home, and we got some Chipotle and checked into our hotel. We also found a little video blackjack machine down at the South Point Casino that made us feel like we were winning, but ultimately took all the money we fed into it. A note about the people at The Silverton Casino: I was absent-minded enough to leave my wallet on top of a slot machine. A few minutes later I realized what I had done and went back to get it, but it was already gone. Reminding myself not to get worried too quickly, I talked to the security there and they raised their eyebrows and smiled at me saying I was one lucky guy because they had just found it! Apparently, moments after leaving my wallet, the janitor picked it up and turned it in, with nothing missing. I was so lucky!

The next morning we went to a few other casinos, really just to browse more than anything else, and stopped at the Paris Hotel to ride the elevator up to the top of the fake Eiffel Tower. It was fun to be at the top of even a false Eiffel Tower, but the hot desert air was determined to remind us that we were far from France and we didn't stay long.

The last leg of our Grand Adventure was the same as the first, but instead of stopping momentarily in Las Vegas, full of excitement about the days ahead, we were taking our time in the city of neon lights, making the most of our last few hours of vacation. Soon we would be returning to work, the monotony of our daily lives replacing the constantly changing landscape of the last two weeks on the road. Despite the relative shortness of a 12 day vacation compared to the countless days spent at home, we had found a new normal, one that we were not excited to let go of. We had trekked across the United States in a nice little SUV and it had been good. The hikes, the sweat, and the sunburns had made us stronger and we felt healthier and happier than we ever had from the comfort of our soft beds at home. We had by no means been on an adventure as wild as the likes of Christopher McCandless or John Muir, but we had found our own bit of adventure and our own bit of home out on the road during those two weeks. We had always been wanderers at heart, stuck in a town we didn't like, hoping for something new. But those days spent driving across the United States reminded us that we aren't stuck and we weren't without hope, but we can find something different and new if we really want to. Someday we'll settle down and I'm sure that place will be full of tall pine trees and mountain tops. Someday we'll find a true home of our own. But we'll always travel.

Our Route:

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Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Great Salt Lake and The Avett Brothers

by James Walker

Day 10 - Thursday, June 28th, 2012

Our stay in Park City wasn't really planned. Due to the fires throughout Colorado, we had changed our plans so we would spend less time there and more time in Utah at the end of our trip, giving us time to see something we hadn't considered before. This was great because instead of running into Salt Lake City as fast as we could, then running out again the next morning, we had time to roam. The only down side was that for our extra night in Utah, we chose to stay in Park City. While it was clean and had some great gluten-free pizza, we were in another Ski Resort town in the middle of one of the hottest summers on record, and there was nothing to do.

While that's not entirely true (Alpine Coaster, Park City Museum), we chose to spend our time in Salt Lake instead. The drive is pretty short and we soon found ourselves cruising confusing streets like East 500 South and South 700 East. Look it up and you'll find that those are the cross streets where Trolley Square and Whole Foods are located. Drive down these streets as a newcomer to Salt Lake City and you'll definitely make a few wrong turns.

Today was an open day, though, and we had time to get lost. Our only solid plan was an Avett Brothers concert that night, so we wandered around town, seeing a few of Salt Lake City's biggest landmarks. First, we stopped at Trolley Square for a bite to eat at Whole Foods, and afterward walked through the courtyards at Temple Square. Here sits a massive temple for those of the Mormon faith, surrounded by a complex of buildings associated with the religion. While we were not here for religious purposes, the temple itself is amazing and well worth a visit.

Sitting behind the temple is a great hall with the Mormon Tabernacle Organ inside. By chance we came when the organist was performing a recital, so we went inside to see the big pipes play. Next we found ourselves at the Hogle Zoo, watching everything from giraffes to polar bears suffer through the hot June sun. Here's a little video. Eventually the time came to check in to our hotel and make our way over to the Avett Brothers show.

At this point, Erinn and I were both fans of the Avett Brothers, but neither of us had heard too many of their songs. Erinn had somewhere around 20 of their songs and we listened to them throughout the trip in anticipation of the show, but we knew going in that most of the songs we'd hear that night would be new to us. What I hadn't anticipated was how much fun the show would be or how much I'd like all of the rest of their songs. It was an absolutely fantastic show down at the Gallivan Center in downtown Salt Lake City. The venue had a big concrete stage surrounded by grass with big steps to sit on and while it was nice to lounge on the grass before the show, everyone stood up and started dancing once the Avett Brothers came on stage. Those songs we did know, Erinn and I sang along with. Those songs we didn't know, we fell in love with.

It was a great show and a wonderful way to end our trip (sort of). While this wasn't the last night of our trip, it was the last new city we would see on our adventure. The next day we were going back to Las Vegas, where it all began for us just ten days before. Neither of us were excited to head south toward home, but ending our adventure with an amazing concert in Salt Lake City one night and some random gambling in Las Vegas the next was a fun way to bring it all to a close.

After the show we walked back to our hotel, singing songs and dreaming of anything but home. Many months later, we're still listening to the Avett Brothers, partly because the music is great and partly because it reminds us of the time we spent on the road and all the amazing sights we were able to see together.

Our Route:

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Saturday, December 22, 2012

A Scenic Drive Past the Grand Tetons

by James Walker

Day 9 - Wednesday, June 27th, 2012

Before Yellowstone, our trip had been nothing but hot. Whether we were walking around the dry, red rocks of Utah, checking out the shops of Boulder and Denver, or camping in the shadow of Devil's Tower, we had been constantly hot. Everything changed the moment we entered Yellowstone. The first night was chilly, but nice. Bundling up in sleeping bags had been comfortable. But each morning brought the kind of cold we were not used to in late June. I love the cold, but our bodies had been conditioned to endure the hot and the humid, and this sudden coldness made our joints freeze up and our fingers so numb it became nearly impossible to force them together hard enough to pull up the zipper on a jacket.

And this last morning in Yellowstone we had to break down the tent. We had to push through the cold and ignore the pain of numb fingers just long enough to pop out the poles and shove the tent into a bag, nevermind all the dirt and mud.

It was worth it, though, to get an early start on the day and enjoy a morning driving through Wyoming. We set off south from our camp in Grant Village heading toward Grand Teton National Park. It's a quick step from the borders of one National Park to the next. One moment you're in Yellowstone and the next you're being greeted by another big wooden sign announcing your entrance to the Grand Tetons. Not much changes initially, but soon after the entrance, you leave the covering of trees and came upon a beautiful view of Jackson Lake and the Grand Tetons themselves. There is a turnout here where I'm sure countless people have taken their own Grand pictures and we joined all the other travelers, capturing our own memories.

The road continues on along the eastern side of the lake with more beautiful views of these great peaks. We stopped at a visitor's center around the middle of the lake, picked up a map, stopped at a store to pick up some gluten-free cupcakes, and continued on. Soon after, we reached a point in the road where we could continue on the main highway or take a right on the smaller Teton Park Rd. Here, the highway veers away from the lake while Teton Park Rd gets nice and close. This trip wasn't about speed, but about enjoying the journey, so we took the smaller road and soaked in the views of Tetons.

It's a good thing, too. We had been writing down all the animals we had seen so far on our trip. Bunnies, squirrels, snakes, goats, bison, elk, foxes, and even bears. We had seen so much out in the wild, but we had not yet seen a moose. On this detour, though, we stopped at another viewpoint and talked to a couple who asked us to take their picture. Somehow our lack of moose sightings came up and they said they knew just where to go. Just after passing the exit to the park, there should be a tiny little road, they said, called Moose Wilson Rd. All we had to do was keep a watchful eye as we passed a few of the ponds and we should see a moose. We took their advice and headed down a skinny road we weren't completely sure about and stopped at every pond we saw hoping to come across this evasive mammal. We soon learned that we didn't need to try so hard to look. Just as it was in Yellowstone, when there's a big animal to be seen on the side of the road, there'll be fifty cars piled up with people falling out of their windows to get a picture of it on their iPhones. We were happy for the traffic jam, though. It gave us reason to leave our car in the middle of the road with all the rest and snap a few pictures of our own. Eventually we made our way out of the mess and found the main road again.

Jackson, Wyoming is beautiful. There are mountains all around it and the city itself is charming. We stopped at an Albertsons to get some food and see if we could find some gluten-free beer and even the Albertsons was adorable, all covered in wood like a giant cabin filled with veggies and toilet paper. But as charming as it was, we continued south, our destination still many hours ahead.

We followed Highway 89 down toward Utah, saw a lot of farmland and barns, took a quick drive through a bit of Idaho, and drove up into Park City, Utah. It's another nice city, full of beautiful hotels, surrounded by mountains groomed for skiing. We stayed at a weird condo/hotel where each room is owned (and decorated) by someone else. It was a very nice hotel, but the room we started with had doors that didn't lock, so we switched rooms, the concierge upgrading us to a room that had a door to the pool we weren't going to use. At this point, we were pretty tired, so we found a local pizza place and got some gluten-free pizza with fake cheese on top and took it back to the room to watch TV and kick back. It was a delicious end to a beautiful day in Wyoming.

Our Route:

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Monday, December 10, 2012

A Day in Yellowstone

by James Walker and Erinn Crowder

Day 8 - Tuesday, June 26th, 2012

Good morning Yellowstone!

Boy was it cold when we woke up! And I don’t just mean chilly. I mean get dressed in your sleeping bag and run to the warm car every 5 minutes to warm up so your fingers don’t break off while you brush your teeth, cold.

Well, of course our first stop was the Old Faithful visitor's center. When we got there we saw a sign for the next eruption, which was about an hour and a half away. We decided to wait instead of trying to come back later so we walked around the visitor's center and then walked past Old Faithful himself. As eruption time was getting nearer, more people began to show up and we went to grab a spot to watch the famous show.
It started. And it ended. 

It was less impressive than I thought it would be. All that hype, all those pictures. We did think it was cool and definitely something that needs to be experienced, but we also did start referring to it as Ol’ Unimpressive. We saw a giant raven in the parking lot, which I believed was choosing its next prey. Yes, you saw that right. We saw a big raven. And I wrote it down. It was nearly as impressive as the geyser. That's how unimpressive Old Faithful was. Sometimes famous things just don't live up to their hype. And we drove off to see the next stop on the list. 

Guess what? More bison! And closer than the previous day! Would the surprises never stop? I sure hoped not. Next place we parked (barely… the parking lot was crazy! Keep this in mind for the remainder of the story…) was the Grand Prismatic Spring at the Midway Geyser Basin! We loved this! Way cooler than Ol’ Unamazing. The Grand Prismatic is the crowd pleaser, but it is accompanied by Turqoise Pool and Excelsior Pool, which you'll pass while walking the pathways to Grand Prismatic. We walked up to these boardwalk pathways that led to giant steam clouds. I really can’t describe it. The water was bright blue with streaks of orange running from it. The steam rising from it took on the color of the spring below it. It was way more impressive than my description. We awed at the various springs along the path, snapping pictures. The wind was very strong, blowing the steam from the spring in constantly changing directions. One moment you would be soaking up the warm air from the spring and the next you'd catch a chill from the cold morning air. One of the funny and kind of sad bits is that the wind was so strong up on this hill that it had blown dozens of hats off of people's heads and many were now sitting in the springs. It's hard to imagine how anyone would be able to clean it all up without damaging the springs themselves.

Then we returned to the parking lot…. And there was a bus. This bus was sitting in front of our car, obviously wanting us to move so it could park. People were gathered around the front of the car. We ran to the car and got in. No one said anything to us until we started to pull out. The man said something about how he wrote our license down and gave a snarky smile. I guess we parked in a bus area (but so did 50 other people). Well, being the guilty person I am, I worried for the next 10 minutes of our drive, sure that we would be hunted down and sent to prison, if not publicly executed.  

We stopped at a waterfall… or the scenic area for part of the waterfall (a big one, Firehole Falls). Then a few more springs (very smelly). And then we hit traffic. We didn't mind this so much when we found out it was due to a bear and her cub! But we really didn't see much except for part of the mama bear and a little fluff of a a baby bear. It was still exciting! We added that to the list of animals we’d seen on our trip and continued on. We stopped at a store near Tower Fall, grabbed a Yellowstone root beer, took in the view of Tower Fall and continued up the path to see the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. It was cool! It begins with a huge waterfall, Yellowstone Falls, and continues on as a winding river weaving through a canyon. And of course… there were rainbows. I don’t remember the exact details of the rest, but there was a lot of getting in car, driving, getting out of car, walking, repeating. At one point we walked past a field with a bison standing in it. So close. It was the closest one yet and James decided he wanted a closer look. Despite my efforts to not have him gored, he began to approach it. Luckily another silly man was closer and James ended up turning back. 

We next stopped at another one of those "scenic view" points that overlooked a valley. There were lots of people gathering and this usually meant there was an animal nearby. After getting out and straining our eyes for wildlife, we asked around. Some people were saying they could see a bear, but I am betting it was a bison in disguise. We drove a bit more and hoards of bison were just standing there. With no tourist paying any attention. Across the street there was another outlook and there were deer or elk in the far distance. Then we stopped at Sulphur Caldron and Mud Volcano in Hayden Valley and it reeked. Worse smelling thing all day! Well, we didn't stay there long. I am not a fan of sulfur. Next, we stopped at Dragon’s Breath, or something that sounded like an ingredient in a wizard’s potion, where a hot flow of steam is continually streaming out of a hole in a rock.  There were hot springs scattered around this area, putting off a lot of steam. It was neat and pretty fun to see. We ran into a local guy just hanging out and laying in grass, taking a nap. I should mention, it was a bison, even closer than the ones before. We were positive that Yellowstone planned their appearances to prepare us for the vast numbers and closeness of the species. I was sure the next one we would see would be in the back of our car, complaining about the radio. We hopped in the bison-free car and began to drive.

F-O-X. Fox, the next animal to be added to the list! Cute lil guy was just running around a grassy area, waiting for us to take pictures (how thoughtful). We turned the corner and saw an ELK, the animal with the largest population in Yellowstone (of the large animals). And where had they been this whole time? Here apparently. We got out and looked at the handsome guy. James, once again, got too close. We drove around another corner and MORE ELK! I see what you’re doing Yellowstone… We went back to camp, relaxed, made dinner, and went to sleep.

Click here for a detailed map of Yellowstone Park.

Here is the route we took during our adventures in the park:

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