Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Winding Down the Road

Dateline: HUNTINGDON, W.V.

I'm not sure I've mentioned before that I like weather. Really, what I like is weather that changes, as seen in my (in)famous complaint about San Francisco's entirely-too-consistant 62-degrees-and-overcast year-round climate. It's been warm, it's been hot, it's been cold, it's been muggy and dry and it has rained for me on this trip at different points. There was one day in Wyoming where I started it at 34 degrees (that's Farenheit, y'all) and hit a peak of 95 by the middle of the day. There was a downpour my first full day in Nashville that necessitated staying in and watching Wilfred while eating pizza.

Yesterday, I met weather face-to-face, was humbled, still loved it.

I wish I could say I came thisclose to a tornado, but I cannot. (I think I would crap myself if I saw a tornado on the horizon, much less within a dangerous distance of my car or person.) Weather this time was merely a thunderstorm, with rain so heavy I could barely see the car driving in front of me, and lightning that seemed to touch down just over the next hill. I was driving alone alone narrow two-lane roads, on my way to visit the Maker's Mark distillery, and while I tend to think of myself as a confident and able driver, I couldn't imagine myself navigating those tight curves in the middle of nowhere. I love thunderstorms, but I do not love driving myself into a ditch.

So I chickened out, turned myself around, and found the nearest strip mall to park and regroup. I considered briefly giving up and heading back to Lexington ... but for what? Lauren was busy spawn-sitting, and most everything else I wanted to do was dependent on decent weather. I thought about sitting in the car and reading or knitting and waiting the storm out - in about two hours, per Instead I went into the Rite Aid, made a small purchase and asked the lady behind the counter for the nearest nail salon. It happened to be just five doors down, so I whiled away the stormy hours getting a mani-pedi.

By the time it was done, and all my nails were shiny and red, the clouds had lifted a bit and the rain had stopped. As I drove back out over that narrow road, the sun started to peek through the clouds, and it started to warm up just as I drove into the distillery grounds. I'd just missed one tour's departure, so I took my time looking around the vistor's center/distiller's house, which was decorated in fifties' era furnishings, and had talking portraits hanging on the wall.

As an aside, for anyone thinking of doing the Bourbon Trail in their lives: don't let your GPS take you to Maker's Mark. It'll take you down a crazy one-lane road for four miles, and you'll spend the entire time wondering if you've got the right directions. Check the website for something better. Trust me, you'll keep your sanity this way. Unless you like almost dying in a crash as someone barrels around a blind curve at 50 miles per hour towards you.

I really liked the Maker's tour, by the way: this time we got taken through the ferment-and-distill process, not in as much detail as the Buffalo Trace hardhat tour, but we still got to taste the fermenting mash (which was completely different from Buffalo Trace's - it's got a  higher corn content, and is wheated, not ryed), saw the inside of one of the rickhouses, and then we went through to the packaging and bottling warehouses. I felt just like I was in the middle of an episode of How It's Made, without the soothing narrator's voice there to put me to sleep.  The guide gave us a tasting that comprised four different samples; the "white dog", which is the liquid that comes out of the distill before it goes into the oak casks; the regular Maker's Mark bourbon product; a sample of "over aged" (10 years) bourbon; and a sample of a newer line, the Maker's 46.  The tour ends conveniently in the gift shop (of course), where I bought a bottle and got to dip it myself into a vat of red wax to get that trademark Maker's look.

From there I headed up to Heaven Hill distillery, and crashed the latter half of the final tour of the day (I was a bit late in getting there). It wasn't a great tour: we didn't get to go into any of the actual production houses, it was all contained in displays within the main visitor's (sorry: Bourbon Heritage) center. They have a wide selection of bourbons that they create - they're the second-largest producer of bourbons in the country, after Jim Bean -  but the tasting was only of one. It was kind of disappointing, because this was the one distillery I didn't know really by name, and which I hadn't tried before. I was hoping to discover something exciting to take home with me and didn't really get anything.

Dinner was with Lauren and his family at a Cajun place in downtown Lexington, Bourbon 'n' Toulouse, which I highly recommend -- I had a great etouffe and jambalaya.  I wanted to get a little way down the road before calling it a night, so I drove just into West Virginia before pooping out, and here I am.

Today I head into Virginia. Trying to decide the best route, because there is no direct highway connection with the DC area from here. (I guess it's not Rome.) Do I head south and drive mostly through Virginia, or do I take the West Virginia route and do a little traveling through western Maryland?  We'll see what I decide during breakfast.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Tippling Point

Dateline: LEXINGTON, Ky.

Three weeks on the road, and I think it's starting to get to me, even with the weeklong pause in Nashville to work and take a break from driving.

Not to say Nashville wasn't a blast. Angela has stayed at my studio in San Franciso a few times, so it was odd to spend time in her stomping grounds and hang with her in a town that wasn't familiar to me. It was also strange to see ceramic pieces that I'd created scattered around her apartment - things I'd made and sent to her and forgotten about over the years. (Okay, that was more flattering and ego-boosting than strange.)

I spent the week working, so there wasn't too much in any one day to report, hence the long silence. There was a lot of chilling out at home, going out to eat, and general catching up with my hostess. We visited the Parthenon (built for the city's centennial celebration in honor of Nashville's nickname, "The Athens of the South"), saw some (free) live music, did some light shopping. Ate amazing ice cream. Met some of the friends I'd heard so much about over the years.  Drove around downtown and admired the Batman building. Gained about five pounds (well, at least I probably did - see below picture of fried pickles for part of the reason).

Kentucky isn't the most beautiful state I've been in (Wyoming may very well have won that distinction, with stiff competition from western South Dakota), but there's a soothing pleasing comfort in the rolling hills and estate houses that smack of an older American gentry. I drove into Lexington yesterday evening to visit with my friend Lauren, but was so wiped out and overwhelmed that I needed a night to myself. I kind of need it tonight, too. Today we hit the Bourbon Trail, did a tour of Buffalo Trace distillery, and tastings at Four Roses and Woodford Reserve. The tour was fantastic - they took us through the distillery from corn to final product. We got to taste from the vats as the mash was fermenting in various stages, which was an experience I hadn't expected.  Of course I spent too much money, I'm pretending on things that are unique to Kentucky and that I can't get out in NY. Right now I'm busy digesting a Hot Brown dinner (a very Kentucky dish, I am told) and trying to plan my tomorrow, which is as yet unplanned. I think I want one more day by myself before I head to my next and final stop, Reston, VA. I'm tempted to drive out to a couple of the distilleries we didn't get time for, like Maker's Mark, just to get in another tour and do a little more tasting.  Mammoth Cave also is tempting, or I might look into what's in western Virginia for exploring. We'll see what the dawn brings. I like seeing what the dawn will bring.

Less than a week left of the Epic Road Trip. I still think this was the best idea I ever had (the move plus the month of travelling).

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Rollin' Down Music Highway

Dateline: BRENTWOOD, Tenn. (just outside of Nashville)

I'm at Angela's tonight, where I'll be based for a whole week - the longest time I'll have a "home" all month.

This means two things in terms of my vacation:

1) I have to start thinking with my work-brain again for a little while.
2) My vacation is officially half-over.

I wonder if it'll feel weird to not be on the road for long stretches at a time, I've almost gotten used to it.

As I was telling Angela and Jacob, this trip felt mostly like a smooth gradient of American culture as I moved from west coast to midwest. Sure, I took into account the utter wackiness of California - and especially San Francisco - living, and adjusted my expectations accordingly. The people I met were more or less the same: basically nice, somewhat selfish when not thinking about it, a little more religious as I moved east and south, a little bigger, a little more fond of fried food and less inclined to dedicate large portions of the menu to vegetables.

When I crossed the Mississippi into Tennessee, however, I suddenly felt just how different the shift was. This wasn't America anymore: this was another country, another planet. This was The South.

People are genuinely nice here. They say please and thank you, and not ironically or sarcastically or even out of rote because their parents always made them say it. They hold doors open for each other. Today I was waiting for a teenager to finish crossing a driveway so I could turn into it, and he actually noticed and sped up his pace for me.  Who are these people, with their rolling accents and open smiles and neighborly attitudes? I'm not saying that people aren't friendly everywhere else -- New Yorkers are friendly, once you've opened them up, but they're closed to strangers, whereas San Franciscans are friendly to your face but aloof once you're out of sight.  I get the impression that in the South you're a friend unless proven a stranger. Maybe that's a tourist's generalization. Maybe that's just my misimpression.

(As an aside: everyone told me that I would get a "big shock" when I hit the Midwest and saw how fat the people would be here. I must say: I don't see that. Sure, there's more plumpness, less anorexia, but I haven't been completely blown over as I'd been led to believe. Either this means that the accounts have been exaggerated, or that I've somehow sheltered myself from all these grossly obese people, or Californians have just also gotten fatter and are in denial of it.)

At any rate:

Graceland was unexpectedly interesting. Worth actually going, but probably not worth the price of admission ($32 a person, just to go into the house - other parts of the estate are available for the $70 VIP pass) unless you're a die-hard Elvis fan. But now I've gone and can say I've participated in yet another piece of Americana, and I learned something about the man's life -- like how much of his money he actually gave away, and put back into the community that he was fun. I mean, the guy actually created tornado relief funds, and paid the medical bills of random patients in the hospital. How many of today's overrich entertainers can say as much? The estate itself is not just a lot of show and flash and bling (well, there is a lot of that, but hey, it was the 70s), but really did reflect Elvis's own tastes and needs and personality, and showed evidence of actual active use on a regular basis. Graceland was an estate he called home, and used as a home, not just as a trophy.

For dinner Jacob took me out to Texas de Brazil, a Texas-style churrascaria right off Beale Street. I think I realized there, just as another one of the servers sliced a piece for me off a slab of roasted lamb and I was dipping it into mint jelly, that this is probably the best vacation I have ever taken. I think in that moment I was as happy, relaxed, and anxiety-free as I've ever been in my life.

I like Memphis, and wish I'd gotten a chance to see more of it. Another place I'll just have to get myself back to.

I have tomorrow off, and then I work a four-day week out of my company's Nashville office. I expect to have a million, billion emails to comb through, and hope that I haven't forgotten my seven years' worth of experience. Maybe I should pull out my work pants and make sure they still fit -- after the last week or so of eatin' and drivin', I think I've gained about 10 pounds. Ugh.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Poor Boys and Pilgrims With Families, We Are Going

Dateline: LAKELAND, Tenn.

I'm just outside of Memphis, on the third leg of the couch-hopping portion of my trip. The last few days have been mostly hanging out with friends, in Omaha, then Jefferson City, then St. Louis, and now here.  Nothing terribly exciting, and it's been hard to be social and update the blog at the same time, which is the reason for the recent silence.

Omaha was nicer than I expected. They have a cute downtown, a bunch of rehabilitated railroad warehouses that have been turned into boutique-y commercial spaces and restaurants. My friend David and I did a little shopping downtown, went out to dinner for the requisite steak meal, and pretty much just vegged out the rest of the time watching Arrested Development, which he had started but not yet finished.

I was only able to spend just about 24 hours in Omaha before I had to head down to Jefferson City, Mo., where Andy lived. Since Missouri's capital isn't actually on the route of the interstate (apparently one of only three or four U.S. capitals that aren't, something like that -- putting Jeff City in the same category as capitals such as Juneau, Alaska), I was more or less forced to do a bunch more two-lane road driving to get there. There's not terribly much to do in that city, and since Andy and I both had to work our ways East that weekend, we spent Thursday driving through Missouri's Wine Country (did you know they had one? And that it's the oldest wine country in the United States? Craziness) and stopping at a few wineries along the way.  The wine here is a lot different than that back in California. I ended up buying a case, mostly of wines much sweeter than I'm used to picking up -- it seems like everything here is dry or sweet, nothing along the full-bodied spicy route like a Tempranillo or Malbec. Icewine was something I'd not encountered anymore, and ended up grabbing a couple bottles of that.

We tipsily continued on our way to St. Peters, a suburb of St. Louis, where we crashed with Andy's friends Evan and Mike, went for a long walk through the loal giant park system, had surprisingly good Vietnamese food (the pho' didn't have tripe or any of the other "weird" bits we have in California, but was delicious nonetheless), and ate a bunch of cookies.

Friday I had only really half a day for St. Louis, since I had to be in the Memphis area at a reasonable hour that evening. Andy'd gotten us noon tickets for the top of the Arch, which gave us just enough time to grab a sandwich at Amighetti's, and then a frozen custard Concrete at Tom Drewes (eat this, do it now) before heading to the riverfront.  The arch itself: if you have a fear of heights, or claustrophobia, don't go up. The little 'elevator' pods have five seats, all sized for people from the 60s, not the current fat-American butts, is low-ceilinged, and it has a window as it climbs to the top that allows you to see into the guts of the arch itself, and all the way up and down the shaft and emergency stairwell.  Once you get to the top there are a series of tiny windows that you have to lean against the slanted wall to see into, giving you a great view of the city on one side and the Mississippi River and southern Illinois on the other.  You can look straight down to the people walking under the arch below, and the sense of vertigo could be overwhelming if I were more sensitive (or, I can imagine, if it were a windy day and the Arch was swaying). Below is a blurry esoteric picture of my boobs in one of those pods on the way back down (they wouldn't give us enough time to take a proper picture to give you all a sense of size and Jetsonian style.

Unfortunately, I didn't get time for the City Museum, which was talked about. This of course just means I'll have to get myself back to St. Louis again while I'm still young and healthy and OK with wearing knee pads.

Stayed up late last night once I got to Lakeland (after a much longer drive than expected) hanging out with Jacob and catching up since we hadn't seen each other. We just ate breakfast, and are getting ready to head into Memphis proper and do a trip to Graceland. More on that later.

Monday, September 10, 2012

On Central Time

.Dateline: MITCHELL, S.D. (Yeah, I'd never heard of it, either.)

Did you know that half of South Dakota is on Mountain Time, and the other half is in Central? I didn't, until I crossed a county line and suddenly the hope that I'd get to Sioux City by 10 p.m. turned into an 11 p.m. ETA. Just like that.

So yeah, I stopped about an hour's drive before that, and still ended up getting the late-night rate at Econolodge. Go me!

Anyhoo, continuing where we left off yesterday:

Blah blah blah Yellowstone was awesome. But we knew it'd be. It was also very touristy, which we also knew it would be. But that was kind of nice because I didn't feel so bad about being tired out and just wanting to do the easy hikes -- there were a lot of them, and in most cases I was the most-fit person walking along them.  (By the way: I think I was the only person my age without small children at the park. Besides Dan, who apparently was also there biking around  like a crazy person, but we ended up just missing each other between Mammoth and Canyon. Freaky. Sorry we didn't meet up, Dan!)

I got up early yesterday (Sunday) morning in the hopes of sprinting over as much territory as possible, in the hopes that I could catch at least Mount Rushmore before having to crash somewhere in Rapid City. No such luck: as I mentioned yesterday, Yellowstone is FRICKIN' HUGE, and I miscalculated which hub would lead me to the eastern exit,  meaning that instead of one hour to leave it took almost two.  (Yeah.)  Instead of being a good planner, and picking a direct route to the Interstate, I went via a two-lane road through the middle of nowhere wilderness.

Which ended up being the best thing ever. I drove through the Bighorn Mountain Range, which was beautiful, and realized that pretty much my favorite type of driving is the kind that takes you on backwoods two-lane roads going around mountain curves at 45 miles per hour.

Wyoming is a gorgeous state. It's no wonder people choose to live there, even if it's out in the middle of nowhere. You've got lush forests, geothermal happenings, great rolling plains, rocky mountains, steep ravines, and Devil's Tower (which I did make a point to detour out to, see picture below). I can totally see why people would be willing to have to shop at Wal-Mart for this kind of life.

South Dakota has also been amazing, in some of the same ways (rolling plains, mountains), and a lot of different ones (mostly to do with erosion or carving into large chunks of mountain).  I left my motel early this morning to head into the Black Hills for Mount Rushmore and Wind Cave National Park. I ended up doing a drive-by of Rushmore -- I thought it was ridiculous to pay $11 to go into a parking lot to ooh and aah at a thing you can see from the frickin' road. I don't care how elaborate the visitor's center exhibits were, not worth it in my book. So instead I took a few pictures from some pulloffs, and then took the scenic route to Wind Cave.

By the way, do both things in the final phrase of that last sentence: go to Wind Cave, and take the scenic route (US-16A through Black Hills National Forest). Wind Cave was great, even though they only offer one of their five tours during the off-season. I'll have to go back during a summer and take one of the others. It's really unlike any other cave around -- it's not a very wet cave at all, so there are almost no stalagmites or stalactites. Just miles of boxwork and branchings and meanderings that we can only imagine. The tour was nine bucks, and that was an infinitely better deal than the $11 to park at Rushmore.

As for the drive: WOW. If you love driving and are a confident driver, I can't emphasize enough how much fun this road was. Hairpin turns, pigtail bridges, narrow tunnels cut right into the granite cliff of the mountain that you're speeding atop ... there was a moment where I was going through one of those tunnels, and Mount Rushmore was perfectly framed in front of me by the stone.

So do yourself a favor: drive this drive if you're ever in that part of the country and have a car and can handle this kind of thing. Don't take backseat drivers or passengers that get carsick. It won't be nearly as fun.

Back to the Interstate (which would have been a lovely drive if I hadn't already been spoiled by the Black Hills) I made it to Wall Drug on the recommendation of Todd and Craig back in SF - tons of fun, really tourist-trappy and kitschy - which delayed my venture into the Badlands by a good hour. Which was fine, because it meant I showed up there about an hour or two before sunset, right when the park is at one of its most beautiful.

The Badlands tends to get a pass by a lot of travelers, I think - it's a little out of the way, too far from the rest of South Dakota's well-known offerings to be truly feasible in the same day. I tried, but all I was able to do was the main Loop Road and a lot of viewpoints.  The landscape is .... well, beautiful. That seems to be a theme in this entry, but there's something breathtaking about such a forbidding, colorful landscape. It just appears suddenly in the prairie, and then it just takes over everything.  The taste I got this evening really makes me wish I had more time. I'd considered getting a campsite (and spent 60 miles of Interstate driving regretting not doing so), but remembered that I do like taking showers, and want to get as much Omaha time as possible given my being behind schedule on this here trip.

Tonight marks the final night of the first leg of my trip -- the alone and naturey part. The taste of nature I got in the last seven days just blows my mind, and makes me hungry for a lot more. (I'm glad now I got the $80 annual National Parks pass -- it got me into Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Devil's Tower and the Badlands. $50 worth of entry fees, and it's good for more through the end of next September. I'm going to do my best to get a few more parks in so that it pays for itself.)

As for the alone time: well, I'm unsure about whether I'm happy it's ending or not. There have been a lot of times I wished I had someone in the car with me, because life is best shared, I've always thought. Also, having to take your own picture all the time SUCKS.  But I've also had a lot of thinking and purging time in this aloneness. I'm not sure I'm ready for that to be over. We'll see.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

In an Unwashed and Unconnected State: Wyoming

Dateline: RAPID CITY, S.D.

My hair is drying from my first shower in days. It feels good to be clean again, though it wasn't as bad to be dirty as I expected. (Attraction to flies not withstanding.) I've been mentally writing this entry in my head for days, but between the post-shower relaxation, and all my remaining energy being monopolized by my stomach as it digests the enormous meal I just ate, it's all I can do to keep up with Family Feud on the Game Show Network. We'll see how coherent I'm gonna be.

At any rate: I'm alive, I didn't get lost in the woods, and bears didn't eat me -- nor did dragons or the Quebecois that had the campsite next to mine (*queue Maurice Chevalier laugh here*).

I spent the last three nights camping out in two National Parks: Grand Teton and Yellowstone. I went with the suggestions of a couple people who said not to skip the latter, and I'm glad I didn't.  The big downside to this plan: they don't seem to believe in internet connections at National Parks, meaning I've been out of touch for too long. I had planned on documenting each day, but with no ability to immediately post, there was no motivation to write. It's a bad thing that I'm a procrastinator.

Thursday I got a campsite in Grand Teton for the night at Jenny Lake (highly recommend: it's beautiful, quiet, and affordable), and spent about 40 minutes trying to figure out how to put up my tent on my own. Somehow it was easier in my parents' backyard last weekend than doing it in real life. I almost gave up and went to get a room in the lodge at the main lake up the road, and then suddenly it came together in a passable way. When it didn't collapse after a few minutes, I figured it was good to go, and patted myself on the back as a true outdoorswoman.  As a reward, I drove out to one of the hikes recommended by my guidebook, a 6-mile round trip up Signal Mountain to a view that was promised to be gorgeous. Just as I was starting, a guy with two dogs started on the same trail, so I figured I should be fine going it alone, since I'd be close behind someone who had animal protection in case the wildlife got a little too close-and-personal.

And then I saw the sign warning about possible bear attack, and how to handle it. And I realized that I was not following two of the suggestions -- that is, traveling with someone else (the guy with dogs didn't count, since he was at least 30 feet in front of me from the get-go), and carrying bear spray.  I thought for a moment about going back, and either picking up some of that spray or picking a different trail to hike, but mentally smacked myself for being timid, and told myself that I should be more adventurous and take more chances with my life.  This was supposed to be an adventure, right? What kind of adventure has no element of danger?

So that's how I spent three hours being scared half to death, expecting a bear to appear out of the bushes at any moment and take a swipe at my face in way of greeting. The trip up wasn't so horrible, since for most of it I knew that guy and his dogs were within distance of hearing if I screamed, but the way down was bonechilling: I didn't run into anyone, and it got darker and darker until it started raining on me for the last mile of my trek. I sang "99 Bottles of Beer" loudly on the way down, and did a lot of crazy talking to myself. The biggest thing I saw? A mule deer that I startled out of its afternoon meandering for dinner. No bears at all.

The hike also took a lot more out of me than I had expected: by the time it was over, every muscle in my body hurt, and I had a dehydration headache (and yes, I did carry a bottle of water up with me that I drank on the way). I chided myself for being a wuss, but on the drive today I realized that it wasn't all me being out of shape - though yes, that's part of it. It was a pretty steep climb up a hill that was at a much higher elevation than I'd hiked in years, if not ever.

But despite all that, it was worth it. I don't think I'd do it again anytime soon -- not alone, without anti-bear weaponry that is -- especially since I could have driven up to the top and seen the exact same thing without all the fearmongering.

Oh, well. At least now I know I can do that. Hooray for me.

That was the big thing I got to do in Teton. I didn't have much time, especially since I wanted at least a day in Yellowstone. I took a lot of pictures, did a lot of driving through the area looking at things.

Friday morning I packed everything up pretty quickly -- there were less shenanigans taking down the tent than in putting it up -- and headed into Yellowstone. That park is huge. I mean, I drove through the entrance gate, and it took me a good 30 minutes of driving before I passed the first major Visitor Center area. I spent the first two hours driving around trying to find a good campsite, and ended up at one of the big Xanterra ones, in Madison. (All the major hubs have names -- Madison, Fishing Village, Mammoth, Canyon, etc.) Putting up the tent was much faster, whch was great because it gave me half the day to go exploring and end up at Old Faithful just in time to see it blow.

Yellowstone is pretty, but not quite like Grand Teton. What it does have going for it, at least as far as I am concerned, is all the geothermal activity. Geysers and mud pots and hot springs are everywhere, I wonder how they can tell a real fire from all the steam coming up all over the place.  I did as many small nature walks as I could - mindful that I was still sore and winded from Signal Mountain, o wuss that I am - as well as doing the longer Fairy Falls trail and stopping off the side of the road a lot to take pictures.

On Friday I drove up north of Mammoth and swam in the Boiling River swimming area (definitely a highlight of the trip - it's where a river of hot-spring water dumps into a regular river, combining to make a perfect blend of water that's just bearable for humans). Then I drove the whole 142-mile loop, visiting various spots along the way. The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone was much more impressive than I'd expected, and I saw a lot of bison, birds, deer, chipmunks ... but no bears. (Yay!)  A couple times I got stuck in traffic as tourists got excited by an elk sighting 20 yards off the side of the road and just had to stop and take a picture, or a few times when some bison decided to use the road as their own personal path to the next meal. It was kind of fun to have so many close encounters. I spent two night in Yellowstone, and wish I'd had time for more.

It's after midnight here, and I have a long day ahead of me tomorrow. Gonna stop writing for now, and continue the update when i can -- hopefully tomorrow evening. For now, all, here's a photo of me at the Dragon's Mouth Spring. I already shared it on the Facebooks, but it's still good for this entry, too. I even look happy. ;)

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

A Religious Experience

Dateline: ALPINE, Wyo.

Didn't quite make it all the way to Jackson as I planned, and the view of the stars is woefully obscured by the bright lights of the parking lot of this Motel, but I've showered and soaked off the residue of the Great Salt Lake, and am ready for a quiet evening of Community (thanks, Dara) and sleep. I think I need to recover from Utah.

I've known for a while that Mormons were nice. One can't almost help but forgive them their delusional religion (as opposed to other delusional religions) because it turns out such really frickin' nice people.

After having been to the Mormon Mother Ship, I'm starting to wonder if maybe they're not doing something right with their delusion. The downtown was clean, my friends. Like, Disneyland clean. I pulled into downtown Salt Lake City at about 9 a.m. and there were people all over the place, pruning trees and bushes, replanting flowers, wiping down the garbage cans, scrubbing the sidewalks on hands and knees. They were still at it four hours later when I left.  It was immaculate and white and like the cities you see in movies like Ten Things I Hate About You. It's what a city should look like. Unless you like litter and dinginess and the smell of old piss. Then San Francisco is definitely your place. 

(For those of you who will claim I only saw downtown, and therefore the painted face of the city, I will note that I got lost in the adjacent neighborhoods a few times while trying to find parking and then while trying to find the highway. They were also clean and well-cared for, if not as pristine as Mormon Central. It's a town where it's clear that people actually care about where they live and how it's maintained. They put effort into it. There's something appealing about that.)

I took a million pictures of the Temple Square grounds, snuck to the second floor of the Tabernacle, watched good Mormons get let into the Temple itself via a backdoor as if it were a club with a secret password, stifled laughter while touring the Visitor Center/Museum, bought a copy of the Book of Mormon as a souvenir and had amazing pork belly for lunch at The Copper Onion.

I'd intended after that to head directly to Jackson to grab either a campsite or a hotel room, but I did want to see the Lake, so I took the advice of the front desk girl at last night's hotel and headed to Antelope Island.  It was a long drive through several towns, and a hot day, and $9 just to get into the park, and I almost thought it was a wash. I drove around half the island, saw a few bison and some picturesque views, but didn't get down to the water. On the way back out, I saw the sign I'd missed coming in  -- "BEACH ->" -- and went for it. As I pulled into the parking lot, I could see about a quarter-mile in the distance, across the sandy salty playa, a group of people wandering at the edge of the water. I headed for them, and met a guy coming back who was soaking wet -- those people weren't wandering, they were bathing in the water of the lake. I was woefully unprepared -- my bathing suit was back in the car, I had no towel -- so I figured I'd just dip my feet in the water, but a couple visiting from New Jersey convinced me to submerge myself, dress and all.  It was ... well, there's not really a good way to describe the feeling. The water was lukewarm, not the SF-style 55 degrees I was expecting when someone told me it was "cold, but nice", and so salty that I just floated on the surface without even trying.  I would guess that's what the Dead Sea is like, and now I can understand what would make a bunch of crazy religious pioneers decide to stop and make their lives here in the middle of vast beautiful emptiness.

Last night I said that the adventure didn't feel like it had begun until I entered Utah. This moment in the Great Salt Lake is where all the stress I'd been carrying around with me, some I didn't even know I had, floated away. When I finally walked back to the parking lot and found my car missing, I didn't panic at all. I just laughed and shrugged my shoulders and figured that these things happen. My car wasn't stolen, by the way: I'd walked back up to the wrong parking lot. We found it after a little while, but it wasn't a relief to do so. It just was a thing that happened. Does that make sense?

I laughed most of the way out of Utah and through the small corner of Idaho that was on my route. And again I had to laugh when I was stopped in the middle of a stretch between Wyoming towns by a family on horseback herding their cattle on the side of the highway back into the barn. I probably nearly got rammed by a panicking steer a couple of times as I tried to sneak around them.

Tomorrow I'm going straight to Grand Teton Park and gonna try to get a campsite. I'm actually considering skipping Yellowstone -- or just doing a drive-by -- in favor of Grand Teton and then going to the Deadwood area. Any thoughts or suggestions?

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

That's It, California - I'm Gone


Not to disparage Nevada, but as I crested that final hill just before the Utah border, and saw the flooded salt flats spread out below me, shining blue and white, I almost cried at the beauty that alleviated the previous too-many hours of ugly boring landscape.

I'm glad now that I did the drive straight through on my first day. Long but worth it.

Random mental notes I took during my day's drive:

-- Stopped at Harrah's in Reno and ate at Hash House a Go Go, at Jeremy's recommendation. The name was, obviously, questionable, the decor not exactly what I expected (though it should have been what I expected of a casino restaurant), the food worth the stopover and the getting momentarily lost in the streets of Reno. I had the sage fried chicken, it surprised me. In a good way. 

-- Lost three dollars in the slots, and had absolutely no urge to continue in the hopes of contributing to the trip fund. I'm glad I'm not the addictive-gambling type. Maybe I'd have blown a bigger wad if I'd played the  blackjack tables, which might have triggered my competitive streak.

-- Nevada's rest stops had the most disgusting toilets of the three states I've visited so far on this trip. I actually squatted to pee for the first time ever, it was that gross. And the toilet had no seat, really, anyway. Ugh.

-- The girl working the drive-through window at the Elko Starbucks (exit 301 .. or 302? I forget) is very chatty. About herself. In the five minutes I had to wait at the window for my mocha frapp to be finished, I found out that she was born and raised in Houston, came to Elko to live with her mom (because why else would an 18-year-old move to Elko?) and was really, really excited about snow. Good for her.

-- About 20 percent of Nevada's stretch of I-80 seems to be going through a re-paving. I had to drive 55 mph through miles of orange "work areas" about a million times.

-- Something about Nevada made it really easy to drive 90 mph and still feel slow (when I wasn't in the work zone, of course - double fines!). (I accidentally hit 100 at one point when I wasn't looking.)  Utah, on the other hand, I cruised through at 75 (the legal speed limit) and felt like I was speeding. I often caught myself dropping down to 70.

-- This is the most landlocked I've ever been in my life.

It wasn't really until I drove into Utah that this felt like a true adventure. Maybe that's because I've been through that part of California, and have visited Nevada before -- though certainly I haven't been further east than Black Rock City.  But suddenly in Utah I felt that excitement that comes from being someplace new, from venturing into the unknown and feeling brave about it.

I pulled over at the first rest stop in Utah that I could, both because I needed to pee and also because I needed to give myself a chance to walk out on those salt flats. This was one of those few situations where I wish I had a companion with me on this road trip, but I made do as you can see in the attached photo. Note that, as I commented on Facebook, the picture doesn't do the flats justice as far as demonstrating their beauty or fullness of awe.

It was weird to drive away from that and watch the sunset in my rearview mirror instead of in my face. Weird, and liberating.

Tomorrow I explore SLC, and hopefully get down to the Lake, if possible, before heading to Jackson Hole and the Grand Tetons. It's probably about time for me to pass out, especially if I want to try to hit the pool in the morning for a quick swim - I'm feeling lumpy, need some exercise. I'll try to post again in the next 24 hours if I can find some Wi-fi to steal.