Sunday, June 20, 2010

Final Thoughts

We had a great time! As a wrap-up, I have some lists to share. We have some favorite goofy moments, too, which are caught on camera . . .

Mike and Si thought it was funny that I wanted to show off my library tshirts at all of our cool destinations.

Us in the Canadian Badlands.

Random tidbits:
  • We saw license plates from every US state except Hawaii and Delaware. Hawaii is understandable, but where are all the travelers from Delaware???
  • We saw license plates from 8 Canadian provinces, Mexico and one that said "Intl Consul".
  • We only listened to 4 1/2 books on CD. One was very long: Neil Gaiman's American Gods. The others were all fairly short mysteries: Burgler in the Library, Burglar on the Prowl, Champagne for One and Black Mountain.
  • We seemed to spend just as much or more time talking to each other in the car than we did listening to books. I was surprised by that, but it was wonderful!
  • Our vow to stay away from national chain restaurants as much as possible resulted in spending more money on food that we'd have liked. Local eateries are much more expensive than fast food!
  • We saw 29 cool mammals in the wild, including a wolf, grizzly bears, a black bear and 3 different kinds of ground squirrels!
  • We saw 169 bird species which included 40 new life birds for Mike - wow!
Hotel Lineup (in chronological order, rated * - *****):
  • Super 8 a little N. or Madison, Wisconsin - *** : clean and comfy, but nothing spectacular
  • Motel 6, Bismarck, ND - * : it was very small and crowded, barely clean, threadbare towels
  • Parke Lodge, Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan - *** 1/2 : seemed clean, but it was like the place had been abandoned in the 80's and just recently purchased and repainted. Threadbare towels again, but the cute ground squirrels and the beautiful sunset made up some ground here.
  • Travelodge, Drumheller, Alberta - **** 1/2: very large room, very clean, lush towels, very kind people running the place. Would have gotten 5 *'s if there had been a pool!
  • Driftwood, Banff, Alberta - ***1/2: very very comfortable beds, charming, almost rustic lodge-type feel to the place. Could use some work on the lobby of the building, but the reception at the Ptarmigan where you check in was beautiful. Great service here, but lousy parking area.
  • Bear Mountain Hotel, Waterton, Alberta - ****1/2: this high rating even comes w/o them having cable tv! The beds were comfy, we had 2 smallish rooms so we were able to have some privacy, the bathroom was lovely, if small, and the people running the place were really sweet! They have a picnic area set up in their parking lot with a gas grill and picnic table, and they graciously allowed us to use it even after we'd checked out. This place reminded us a lot of the cabin by Lake Erie we've visted (wood panel walls, etc), except built for the mountains instead.
  • Dancing Bears Inn, East Glacier Park, Montana - ****: kind people, decent room, wood paneling again, and a cat that helps to welcome you! This was the first "breakfast included" place we saw that had some kind of protein option, but as it was only microwavable frozen things it doesn't get the 5th *. Nice folks and great town. The water wasn't potable when we were there - hope it improves for them soon!
  • Rodeway, Sundance, Wyoming - *: this is the little hotel woman who tried. Seems like one person was running the whole operation (of course, it was Sunday night and apparently nothing happens on Sunday nights). The room was freezing cold and never really warmed up to our needs. The pool was an outside walk away, but pleasant and clean enough. The breakfast was 3 kinds of cold cereals and some apples. Totally LAME!
  • Super 8, Rapid City, South Dakota - ***: this was simply an ok place. The room was clean and adequate. The breakfast area was all tall tables with barstool-type chairs (I felt really bad for the man who came in a wheelchair), but at least there were a few selections, albeit all cold.
  • Super 8, Sioux Falls, South Dakota - ***: this was a great breakfast, but it felt like the whole place was a little grungy. Like maybe last week it was full of smokers and never really cleaned well or something?
  • Scott and Tony's, Oak Park, Illinois - *******: Charming home, comfortable hospitality, excellent company, entertaining conversations, delicious food, even lights-out adventure!
Top Meals We Enjoyed (random order):
  • Last Chance Saloon, outside Drumheller, Alberta - we loved the atmosphere, the history of the place (old mining ghost town trying to spark a renaissance or something), and the guys loved their grill-your-own steaks!
  • Grand Hotel in Big Timber, Montana, near the Natural Bridge State Park - we were extraordinarily surprised to find this gem of a gourmet place in what seemed to us to be the middle of nowhere! Buffalo steaks, Elk relleno, molten chocolate cake - all delicious!
  • Delaney's Family Restaurant in Oglesby, Illinois - delicious food, homey diner atmosphere, prices weren't astronomical
AC/DC Ground sloth in Drumheller - too funny!
  • Kroll's in Bismarck, North Dakota - We'd planned to have breakfasts and lunches out of our cooler as much as possible, but we couldn't resist the command on the sign "sit down and eat"! We had to, and we were glad we did! Delicious German-centric yummies!
  • Luna's in East Glacier Park, Montana - this made the list primarily because of the amazing red potato chips! Deep fried and flavorful!
  • Gepetto's Pizza, which Tony ordered when the electricity was out Friday. Wow - I think their Chicken Artichoke pizza may be the best pizza I've ever had in my life! My mouth is still watering thinking about it!
Man feeding birds on the mountain top in Banff.

Best People Encounters:
  • Edwin Smalllegs - Blackfeet Indian volunteer at Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump. He was friendly, interesting, and talked with us about his heritage as well as his anticipation of watching the NHL finals that night on his large-screen tv. He is a memorable fellow.
  • People Mike and Si ran into at Many Glaciers. Mike and Si set up the telescope and were also sharing binoculars with a family (to see the Mountain Goats) and an English man (to see the Grizzlies), and all were thrilled.
Spoon shop in East Glacier, Montana.
  • We pulled off the road often to take pictures, as you can imagine, and one time, on a very curvy mountain road, a man and woman in a pickup came up beside us and stopped to make sure we were ok - isn't that nice?
  • The staff as so many of the places we visted, but especially Luna's restaurant.
  • The top of the gondola ride at Banff, there was a Slavic man who was feeding birds from his hand. He was so joyful and excited about it!
  • There was a group of young German women who were also at the top of that gondola ride, and were taking pictures. They wanted pictures taken when they were jumping so that it looked like they were in mid-air over the vast expanse of nothingness off the mountain. Mike helped them and was even able to get one of all three of them leaping into the air.
In case you were wondering, these statues are not anatomically correct.
  • Waitress in Ptarmigan restaurant in Waterton. It was fun talking to her and hearing about how she will get bored in England and get a work visa to visit and work in another place for a while. We also laughed with her about how boring Saskatchewan is.
  • Swiss guy at the hoodoos near Drumheller and the fun he had posing for pictures Mike took of him with his camera.
  • Family we met in Moose Jaw who were driving across the continent from New Brunswick to Vancouver to see their children and grandchildren.
Trying to catch that buffalo.
  • Yarn shop owners, both in Canmore and in Forest Park. Wonderful women and such fun to talk to! Oh, actually, the woman I spoke with in Forest Park wasn't the owner. I think her name was Kelly, and she was a true kindred spirit!
  • Scott - my bestest friend.
  • Tony - my best friend's partner, and I'm glad they have one another. Both great guys.
  • Ken - nice to see friends, isn't it? It was good to talk to him again, as I haven't seen him online in a long time (my fault, not his).
Surprises along the way:
  • free hamburgers were being served up at the tourism information center as we entered Alberta - very nice, eh?
  • finding affordable lodging with loads of character in the Rockies - we expected these places to have higher prices!
  • seeing a wolf in the wild (Mike and Si saw it - I was too far away)
  • Gepetto's pizza - yummers!
  • seeing snow storms up in the mountains in the middle of June
  • a roadside rest in Wisconsin that had a scenic overlook (along a short trail) that turned out to be really beautiful
  • the Royal Tyrell not disappointing us, even after all the expectation over years
  • Museum of the Rockies being so much fun (and it was an afterthought stop, too!)
  • finding everything closed on Sunday nights - guess we've gotten both spoiled and jaded in the city
  • the Subway in Sundance, WY having a giftshop like it was a Cracker Barrel or something
  • seeing people smoke inside restaurants (again, we've gotten spoiled)
  • casinos at every gas station (ick)
  • poor signage in Canada - how do they expect people to find stuff?
  • recognizing the scenery and holes on the Banff golf course from having played the course on Grandpa Jim's computer game (it was beautiful and funny)
  • finding that we'd often enjoy talking to one another more than listening to books
  • higher speed limits! (75 MPH, 110 KPH!)

So that was our vacation! Thanks for reading along! We'd love to hear your comments, too!

Saturday, June 19, 2010

We arrived in Chicago Wednesday evening, and it was so nice to see our good friends, Scott and Tony! They are fabulously gracious hosts as well as old friends.

Tony had to work Thursday and Friday, so we went our separate ways during the days. Thursday, Simon and Mike went to the Field Museum downtown, and Scott and I did some window shopping and had lunch around Oak Park. It was delightful! I also discovered another great little yarn shop, and a fun bead store!

Scott had a previous commitment to lead a movie viewing and discussion Thursday night, and the three of us joined him. We watched the movie Up in the Air and then discussed it with several folks from his church community at Unity Temple. The movie was interesting, the people were fun to talk to, and we had a great time. Afterwards, we met Tony back at their house and had some delicious casseroles that he'd made (he's an amazing cook!)

Friday morning Scott and the 3 of us went downtown to the Shedd Aquarium and met up with our friend, Ken (I know him from a great discussion site all about words!), who lives North of Chicago. Even though the place was REALLY crowded, and the day was horribly HOT, we had a very nice time. It was good to be together, and cool to see the fish and other aquatic animals.

There is a new show at the Shedd, however, called Fantasea, which I felt was dumbed down for the masses. They didn't talk about the animals at all, they had people in fantasia-like costumes interacting with the animals and were trying to make the standard animal show have a plot of some kind, but the result was really just a silly, fluffy thing instead of the meaty, intellectual kind of show I'd expect from a world-class aquarium.

Friday afternoon some heavy storms came through Northern Illinois, and all of the power went out in the neighborhood. Tony came home from work early, we ordered pizza for dinner (omg, Gepetto's pizza may have ruined me for all other pizzas!), and we had a really nice time talking on the front porch. Despite the inconvenience of no power, we still had a lovely evening.

This morning we were up early to pack the car and face our last drive to bring us home. Tony ran out to their local Farmer's Market and bought us some delicious fresh donuts for breakfast (yum!), and we finished up the milk from our cooler. Mike drove us home, and that's it!

We had some great discussions today in the car and I have some wrap-up lists for you, which I'll post tomorrow. See you then!

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The badlands were absolutely beautiful! This National Park is yet another location where you can literally just hang your camera out of your window and snap pictures randomly and come out with fabulous scenery. Again, I'm going to let Mike's artistry cover the landscapes later, because I really want to show us having some fun!

Mike was in his element, taking beautiful, luscious photographs. I really can't wait for you all to see them! He'll be uploading them onto his FB account where you'll be able to peruse them . . . after our trip.

That map link I gave you before only seems to have the first part of our trip! Here is our trip from it's farthest point back to our home!

We were able to see some new birds here, being that it's a new kind of habitat, and we were also able to see some more prairie dogs!

I love prairie dogs! We were hoping to see some black-footed ferrets but no luck . . . our consolation sighting was that Si saw a swift fox. Cool!

After a beautiful morning in the Badlands we visited Wall Drug. Boy, this place has changed and grown a lot in the 30 years since I last visited! I think it's at least 2x the size it was. So many crazy things! We had fun (although Simon thought it was more silly than he could be).

If you've never been to Wall Drug, it's a huge store full of every kind of touristy thing you can possibly imagine. In the middle of it all, there is an actual drug store. There are also kitschy statues and stuff all over.

Simon hit the nail on the head when he said that these people have a sense of humor, and have collected all of this stuff because they know it's funny. Gotta love it!

After Wall, we were able to drive to Mitchell, SD and drive by the Corn Palace. We loved that they even have a tribute to the 100 years of Scouting and the BSA anniversary.

We found a local park in Mitchell and grilled out for dinner, which was quite nice. It was good to have some homey hotdogs instead of fancy eat-out food. I think we're tiring of restaurants, and Simon has even been saying that he's kind of tired of steak! I never thought I'd see the day.
Quick update:
  • spent about 4-5 hours driving around in the badlands, taking pictures, looking at wildlife, etc
  • love those prairie dogs!
  • went to Wall Drug
  • also visited Corn Palace
  • in Sioux Falls tonight
  • watched the trip odometer turn over to 4444.4 miles today - and climbing!
  • there is flooding in this state, but we're ok because the freeway is free of it
  • it's late, I'm tired, and we're going to sleep
Tune in tomorrow or the next day for pics and more.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

I've been trying to get a map of our route, and I hope this works! Our trip might be overload for Google Maps, though. Let me know if it makes any sense to you or not!

Today we left Columbus, Montana and drove into Wyoming! I was sound asleep when we entered the state, but I was awake by the time we reached Devil's Tower. This is the area of the country that I saw about 30 years ago on a long trip to National Center West with the Girl Scouts, and we camped one night near Devil's Tower. It's so cool! It's the core of an ancient volcano, and the mountain is all eroded away while the cooled magma is still there. Neat, right?

It's rained nearly all day today, but we managed to look around and take some fun pictures. We drove down to see Crazy Horse Monument, which is privately owned and funded. There is also a big Native American museum filled with all kinds of artifacts, both old and more modern. Simon coined what sounded to me like a new term . . . "leech town" for the little towns around the monuments where everything around town has something kitschy to do with the point of interest, and it all costs more money than it should. Suffice to say that the Black Hills area is rife with Leech Towns.

We drove around Custer State Park and were able to see some great wildlife. The donkeys were blocking the road with their grazing and begging, but they were really cute!

The Buffalo herds were mostly far away from the road, but there was one large herd that was very close to the road that had a lot of calves. It was exciting to finally see a real herd! I tried to get Simon to run at them and get them to stampede, but he wouldn't play along.

Finally we got to Mt Rushmore. We'd saved it for last because we kept hoping the rain would clear. It didn't, and neither did the fog, as you can see. If you enlarge the pictures you can see better! I did manage to get a few clear shots of the big stone heads with great patience. The visitor's center is greatly changed from 30 years ago when I was here before. It's really big and impressive now, and I don't remember it being like that before.

Tomorrow we will go through the SD Badlands, visit Wall Drug and maybe get all the way to the Corn Palace or further. Then we'll be in the Chicago area, staying with dear old friends, Scott and Tony. So far we're still having fun with one another, too, which is a great thing, don't you think?

Sunday, June 13, 2010

We had a great day in Glacier. It rained on and off, but we still saw a lot of things. Mike and Si saw a Black Bear pretty close to the road, and later saw a mama Grizzly and 2 cubs - there are some great pics, but I'll wait til we're sharing Mike's pictures. We saw some beautiful waterfalls, too. It's really lovely with all the mountains and fields and wildlife.

When we left Glacier we drove Southeast through Montana and made our way slowly through the state. We found some cool roadside historical markers from Lewis and Clark's expedition, and we passed a lot of ranches. This is really amazing country! We've seen so many pronghorn antelope and mule deer that we barely even mention them anymore!

We winded our way down to Bozeman, Montana. Montana Univ. has the Museum of the Rockies, curated by Jack Horner, and we wanted to see what dinos they had there. This pic was taken out front. The steel cast was made from the fossil named Big Mike, one of the most complete T Rexes ever found or something. We saw the real fossils inside. They also had a great exhibit of Leonardo DaVinci's machines with life-size models made of wood that you could (often) touch and work. It was very cool!

Outside of Bozeman is National Bridge State Monument, which we visited. The water was running so strong and fast it was nearly deafening! You can see the river disappear underground and then come pouring back out. Cool!

This park was really well designed, too, because the whole area was wheelchair accessible, which made it easily walkable even for someone like me with bad joints, etc.

Bozeman is really small town, but they do have a really nice restaurant! The Grand Hotel had excellent food, including buffalo steaks and elk. We all had an truly delicious meal (even if I did eat too much!)

We left Bozeman and drove about 1.5 more hours to Columbus, MT to spend the night.

After spending the night in a cheap place along the road, we went to Little Bighorn National Battlefield. This ranger was a great storyteller and told the riveting story of how the battle went down, and he pointed out exactly where everything happened. Very interesting. We drove around a bit to see the smaller markers where the soldiers and native warriors fell, and then we moved on. Tonight we are in Sundance, WY. The rain has come in full force since about 1, so we're going to bed early and hoping for some breaks in the bad weather over the next couple of days so we can get some good pics in the Black Hills around the monuments!

Ta-ta for now!
Believe it or not, the internet connection here is even whonkier than at our last place! I'll have to wait at least one more day before another big post. Suffice to say all is well, Mike and Si saw bears in the wild yesterday, we've had a good day today and we're in Columbus, MT for the night. Tired but doing well. :-)