A Travellerspoint blog

DINOSAUR DIG UPDATE!

Comment deserves its own post


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Hello! We've been home a couple of weeks now (and just returned from the NATS national conference in Orlando, Florida, where Tesla's Pigeon was performed), but roadtrop news is still coming in! If you've been following for a while, you know that one of the highlights of the trip was helping out at an actual dinosaur dig at the Wyoming Dinosaur Center in Thermopolis; this comment came in to that blog entry on Sunday:

Hey! It's Amanda from the dinosaur center, I'm really glad you had a fun time :) I just wanted to give you an update, the CB-300 bone turned out to in fact be a postorbital, the back half of the eye socket! Also exciting, the fragment found under it turned out to be a full allosaurus metacarpel and was given a bone number (though i dont recall exactly what it was at the moment). A week later we found the other postorbital so now we have a matching set! Hope the rest of your trip was great :)

SQUEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!

Yeah, I was pretty excited about that. I FOUND (PART OF) THE SKULL OF AN ALLOSAURUS! The first one found at that site, I believe. Yes, yes, it was dumb luck, but HOT DAMN. This makes me more determined than ever to figure out how to go back to the WDC and do it again in future summers.

Here are photos of my ALLOSAURUS POSTORBITAL AND METACARPEL!

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Posted by mormolyke 14:13 Archived in USA Comments (0)

The Road Home

Champaign, and back to Pennsylvania

sunny 85 °F
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We had one more friend to visit before we steered the Magnum back to our home state: Craig Cohen, whom I first met when both of us were working at a PBS/NPR affiliate in Harrisburg (sadly, the quality of that station and its adherence to its mission went down the tube eventually at the behest of its plutocratic masters, and nearly everyone I used to work with has been driven off by bad management). Craig stayed with us in Philadelphia a couple of times before he moved to Illinois, and it was finally time for us to return the visit and have him show us around his new/old hometown, Champaign. ("New/old" because he used to live there years ago, and has recently returned.)

Matt was excited to come to Champaign for this:

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That historical marker reads:

WEB BROWSER
Mosaic, the first popular graphical browser for the World Wide Web, was created by Marc L. Andreessen and Eric J. Bina at the National Center for Super-Computing Applications (NCSA). Upon its 1993 release to the public, Mosaic gave internet users easy access to multimedia sources of information. Web browsers have transformed the exchange of information.

A chain of causes and effects stemming from the event memorialized by that plaque led to our marriage, our careers, and this blog. History!

We also went to a brewpub called Destihl (I'm pretty sure that was the one) where we gorged ourselves on the best heart-attack-triggering food the Midwest has to offer, including fried cheese curds (again), potato croquettes, and beer-battered bacon. Yes, if you thought bacon was bad for you by itself, imagine it coated in batter, fried until it's crispy but juicy on the inside, and piled high on a plate *drooooool* *gains five pounds*

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We ended the evening by catching the Alien prequel Prometheus on opening night. We love going to cinemas outside of Philly; the theaters back home are notorious for not only horrible conditions and rude employees, but patrons who shoot people (and/or talk constantly). Craig wasn't too sold on the film, but despite its flaws, Matt and I were pretty into it. What can I say; I am a big fan of female-driven scifi. Plus it dropped allusions like the second Matrix movie, which is always fun (so long as the next installment isn't as terrible as the third Matrix movie).

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June 9. Day 34 of 35. It was strange to take our leave of Craig and Illinois that bright morning knowing that the next day we would be home, after some long, uneventful driving through ever more familiar landscapes. That night we bedded down at a motel fit for Scully and Mulder called Twin Pines in St. Clairsville, Ohio, and the next day, after a quick dip into West Virginia, we crossed the border into Pennsylvania while I belted out "Take Me Home, Country Roads" in the passenger seat with my mandolin.

We had two planned stops before we made it to Philly, though we ended up making three. The first had been on our to-do list for years: Fallingwater, the famous Frank Lloyd Wright house built over a waterfall south of Pittsburgh. We weren't allowed to take pictures on the interior tour, though it goes without saying that it was gorgeously designed, filled with eye-popping works of art, and I would kill to live in a house like that. The gift shop was amusingly sprinkled with Ayn Rand novels and related items.

FLICKR SET: Roadtrop: Fallingwater
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Our schedule had us heading straight across the state from Fallingwater to Centralia, but on the way, we realized we were in Somerset County, and soon, we began to see highway signs for the Flight 93 Memorial. Our first Google search for an address led us to the administrative office in a shopping mall, but we soon figured out how to reach the crash site. The 9/11 cliché is "Never forget," but it's hard to imagine how anyone who was old enough to understand what was happening that day could ever forget it. At the moment Flight 93 went down, Matt and I were on different continents, sending instant messages to each other on ICQ about how he was probably safe from the unfolding terror, being located in the middle of nowhere, Pennsylvania (York). Matt actually volunteered across the river from Ground Zero in Manhattan soon afterward, and the memory still chokes him up when he talks about it. I visited Ground Zero myself seven months later and remember the thick blanket of quiet that still surrounded the block, as though snow had just fallen; when the occasional car horn or burst of oblivious laughter penetrated the fog, passersby seemed to turn slowly to look in admonishment, and all sounds became muted again. So visiting this crash site, which is still in the process of being completed, was a similarly sobering experience. Several of the 44 white slabs of marble erected to honor the 44 passengers and crewmembers have short chiseled epitaphs under the black-enameled names. The epitaphs are so subtle that they don't show up in press photos, and it's difficult to read them until you are right next to the slabs: things like "flight crew," "co-pilot," a Japanese name spelled in Kanji, and most heart-wrenchingly, the words "and unborn child" under one woman's name. All I could think about when I saw that slab was how impossible it must be for the father of that almost-child, if he's alive, to visit this place without going mad.

FLICKR SET: Roadtrop: Flight 93 Memorial
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It was time for our very last stop. Honestly, when I first planned the trip, I wasn't sure if we were going to make it to Centralia; I figured we'd be burnt out and want to get home faster, but we had the energy after all. Unfortunately, Centralia was nothing like the deserted wasteland I'd imagined and which it's frequently portrayed as in news articles. For a start, there appeared to be more than six people living there. We saw many residents in the front yards of their houses, which made me feel a bit uncomfortable about being a snoopy tourist. Second, there were no glowing cracks in the ground spouting smoke, and the environment is pretty verdant for an area that is supposed to be quietly smouldering from below. Any eeriness in the atmosphere was dissipated by the constant whine of ATV's and hunters' irregular shotgun blasts. Yes, there were some streets that were no longer being maintained, and the wilderness was quickly reclaiming them. But it was no Silent Hill.

We took the opportunity to take some new headshots of me with my crazy silver hair, since I look nothing like any of the shots I have currently.

FLICKR SET: Roadtrop: Centralia
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And then we were done. Two hours later, we were home in Philly where the stars don't shine, kissing our cats and saying thank-yous to our house-sitter, composer Tony Solitro.

35 days.
9877 miles.
Over 175 hours at the wheel.

Over and out.

Posted by mormolyke 00:51 Archived in USA Tagged west_virginia ohio fallingwater pennsylvania illinois champaign flight_93 centralia Comments (0)

Madison, WI and Chicago, IL

"Now this could only happen to a girl like me ..."

sunny 75 °F
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I left Sioux Falls with mixed emotions that made the final week of the trip bittersweet. As we crossed into Minnesota on the way to Madison, Wisconsin, I knew I was leaving behind the mountains, high plains, and geothermal marvels that I found so compelling and speeding toward the large city environments that have always been my home. Home was a thought that both attracted and repelled me, containing within it an intimidating list of summer projects that I would have to face once back in Philadelphia. Oh, to be able to travel forever, or at least until home seemed more appealing.

In the meantime, we had found an unexpected must-see stop on our journey: the Spam museum in Austin, Minnesota. Yes, the whole concept of a museum devoted to Spam is absurd, but I was sold when I read on their website that they had a Monty Python exhibit.

FLICKR SET: Roadtrop: Spam Museum in Austin, MN
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The museum had a terrific gift shop containing literally every promotional item you can imagine emblazoned with Spam logos, but I could barely believe that they didn't have any kind of restaurant or cafe! Surely a Spam Museum would be the perfect place to promote their (oft maligned) canned meat by preparing interesting Spam recipes for visitors to try. I had been looking forward to some kind of gourmet Spam sandwich or Spam stir-fry or Spam salad, but I left disappointed. Bad form, Spam Museum!

Instead, we ate at another small-town culinary gem in the same mold as Murdo Drive-In: Tendermaid burger shop. While we watched, our server threw slices of cheese into a giant vat of ground beef patty to melt before scooping both ingredients onto waiting buns. I can understand even more clearly why America has such an obesity problem. This is absolutely Beef Country, and they know how to cook it.

By dinner, we arrived at the Madison apartment of our buddy Brandon, aka Malechite, and his collection of games, game-related toys, NIN paraphernalia and nice photography equipment, but we were soon back out the door, as I was on a mission to experience Wisconsin cheese. I love cheese. I mean, I really love cheese. Wisconsin delivered. We ate dinner at the Great Dane, where I began with fried cheese curds, then tried their $10.50 gourmet macaroni and cheese for an entrée. You wouldn't think that mac and cheese could possibly be worth $10.50, but this one was (and it lasted two meals, since I took away leftovers). We also visited Woodman's, a supermarket that is similar to any number of East Coast chain stores such as Giant or Wegman's, except that it has three whole aisles of cheeses. We bought some bags of cheese curds for the road. I never did get to try squeaky cheese curds, however, or poutine -- next time, Madison, next time.

In between cheesy destinations, we stopped at the capitol building; we had arrived at an opportune time. The recall election of awful governor Scott Walker was scheduled for the next day, and a mid-sized crowd of union supporters had gathered on the plaza to rally for their cause. I stood with them for a while, which was a nice feeling -- I'd followed some of their political misfortune from back in Philadelphia, and it was gratifying to feel as though I was actually taking part in a small way, even if I couldn't vote -- until I felt the protest had become a little too dirty hippy for me. I can stand (barely) watching people sing songs like "Oh Susannah" with tacky altered lyrics, but when there's talk of performing an "om" to the "strawberry moon," I start to get kind of mad that some people are making the movement appear kooky to the general population. Don't come to the rally wearing your purple rag skirt and tie-dyed shirt, for god's sake. You're fighting for jobs, right? Come looking like you're going to a job interview.

(As we discovered on the way to Chicago the next day, the recall election failed. More bittersweet.)

The "strawberry moon," by the way, was a reference to the partial lunar eclipse that took place that night -- what is up with eclipses occurring on this trip? -- coloring the moon a deep rusty red. We caught it rising over a lake, but we were driving and could't stop to take photos.

We did get a couple of photos taken, though, for an ongoing project of Brandon's:
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And here are the ones that we took:

FLICKR SET: Roadtrop: Madison
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On June 5, we left for the largest city on our tour, Chicago, one of Matt's favorite places, although I had never been before. Our stay there was also the longest of the roadtrop: a whole three nights in the same location! Wooo! Since it was such an extended stay, we lodged at an Extended Stay America 15 minutes from downtown, and experienced the luxury of being able to leisurely explore without immediate pressure to move on. We didn't have to see ALL of Chicago in four days; we could always come back (and probably will).

Some of the highlights included the Field Museum, where we saw the mounted fossilized skeleton of Sue the Tyrannosaurus Rex and spent hours in the most extensive and well-curated Native American exhibit I've ever seen, the observation deck of the Hancock Building at night, the Art Institute, which houses Seurat's A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte and featured a Roy Lichtenstein exhibition, and a free concert of ambient electronica and IDM in Millennium Park.

But enough of these words; pictures speak louder than.

FLICKR SET: Roadtrop: Chicago
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Posted by mormolyke 12:18 Archived in USA Tagged chicago illinois minnesota cheese madison wisconsin spam spam_museum scott_walker Comments (1)

South Dakota in a day

And Devil's Tower


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We left Thermopolis after a morning dip in the hot springs on June 2nd to make our way across Wyoming to Devil's Tower, the famous mashed potato sculpture seen in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, only a short distance from the Black Hills of South Dakota. The tower is such a shock, rising vertically out of the prairie, that it's no wonder the Native Americans in the area considered it sacred and connected it to several myths, mostly involving giant bears. The weather on this particular day lent an atmospheric helping hand to the ominous power of it; as we set out on the trail around the perimeter of the tower, some of the most terrifying storm clouds I've ever seen began to loom over our heads, with lightning flashing frequently enough for the two of us to emphatically decide to head back to the car, and never mind the trail. Walking around Devil's Tower is probably not worth being killed in a giant electrical storm.

Near the tower on the surrounding prairie, however, PRAIRIE DOGS!

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MEEP MEEP MEEP! We could have watched/listened to them all day. Forget meerkats (though I'm sure they're lovely); they should make a TV show about these little critters. And they had babies! PRAIRIE PUPPIES! I made sure to drive well under the speed limit because I'm not sure if there is anything worse I could do in my life than run over a baby prairie dog.

The storm was right on our tail, however, so eventually we had to drag ourselves away.

FLICKR SET: Roadtrop: Devils Tower
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We flew southward on straight, empty highways ahead of the awful stormfront, while weather reports warned of violent gusts of wind, hail, and impending doom. I think Matt has some pictures of the storm that he will upload at a later date, but trust me, we were being chased by the Nothing. Luckily, only a light, tense rain had begun to fall when we finally pulled into the driveway of Historic Log Cabins, a "Ma and Pa operated motel" in Hot Springs, and as it turned out, the storm blew northward again, so the Magnum was spared any hail dents. The proprietors of the cabins are evidently obsessed with Christmas, as the whole place is decorated with various items of Christmas paraphernalia. Staying in a wee little log cabin was super cozy -- it was a bit like we were kids playing house -- but I felt right at home, since the ceilings were the same height as those in the basement apartment I used to occupy in my mum's house in Sydney i.e. very low. I loved it. I would absolutely live in a tiny log cabin so long as I had a barn with HVAC for all the music instruments next door.

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Notice in the second picture above that we have nearly filled an entire second row of magnets on the Magnum by this stage.

Time out: so, this is really confusing, and it took me a while to get it straight in the planning process, so I should probably devote a quick paragraph to it: Hot Springs, South Dakota, as shown above, is a town just south of the Black Hills that has a really awesome mammoth fossil excavation site. Mammoth Hot Springs, however, is a stop on the loop road in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, and as far as I know, does not contain a mammoth. And Hot Springs State Park is in Thermopolis, Wyoming the town where we actually bathed in hot springs that morning. They have dinosaurs there, not mammoths. Good? One of the things I learned on the trip is that America is not so good at unique place names.

On June 3, we woke up fresh and well-rested to a beautiful morning in South Dakota. Our task: see as much of the state as we possibly could in a single day, and be on the other side of it by bedtime. Stop one: the aforementioned Mammoth Site, an active fossil dig containing the remains of 59 mammoths (and counting) who were daft enough to fall into a mud sinkhole. They have similar programs to the Wyoming Dinosaur Center, though it does seem they have managed to tap into more funding -- the whole site is housed under a pavilion, so you're actually digging indoors, which must be nice. I sort of prefer the authentic Jurassic Park feel of the dig in Thermopolis, not to mention the fact that dinosaurs trump mammoths. The coolest thing about mammoth remains is that they're dealing with actual bone, rather than fossilized bone.

FLICKR SET: Roadtrop: Hot Springs, SD
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There's something really very sad about the theory - for which I think there's ample evidence - that mammoths are extinct because early humans butchered too many of them. One of the exhibits there is a replica mammoth bone hut constructed of an ungodly amount of bones. It looks like something out of Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge, enlarged. Human beings can be pretty terrible.

After mammoths, it was time to whip through Wind Cave National Park to the land where obsessive men blast human likenesses into mountains: Crazy Horse Memorial and, of course, Mount Rushmore National Memorial, the most deeply American thing in the whole world. I was actually quite pleasantly surprised by the Crazy Horse visitor center, which is a sprawling museum and market for Native American art and crafts. It turns out the memorial was conceived with the full cooperation of the area tribe; I thought I'd read somewhere that it was just a misguided Polack who had no connection whatsoever to the natives. Among the other scuptures by Korczak Ziolkowski on display was a larger-than-life bust of Paderewski; I am ashamed to admit that I knew of him only as a musician and had no idea he was also Prime Minister of Poland at one point and an all-round national hero.

By chance, we had arrived at Crazy Horse on the one weekend of the year when visitors are allowed to climb up the mountain and dance about on the statue's outstretched arm. If we'd had more time, we might have attempted it, but from what I could tell, it was a fair hike (nothing like Half Dome, but more than we were prepared to handle).

FLICKR SET: Roadtrop: Crazy Horse and Rushmore
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Mount Rushmore, basically right around the corner, was ... I dunno. I've always thought the whole idea of dynamiting presidents - or anyone - into the side of a mountain was a bit insane and arrogant. Then again, I thought Egypt was pretty cool, and if insane and arrogant doesn't describe the pharaohs and their monuments, I don't know what does. In any case, there it was, massive and ridiculous, the only National Park Service site in the country with an $11 parking garage fee (not covered by the National Parks Passport). AMURRIKA!

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This was actually on sale in their gift store. Derp.

Our day was not done. We had one last stop before making the sprint eastward toward the border: Deadwood. No, we didn't go because of the HBO show, although we enjoyed the first season years ago. Husband Matt has an actual ancestral connection to the place! This is exciting to me because I've never had the pleasure of an ancestral connection to any place: I grew up so far removed from Greece and China, and records are generally so poorly kept there (in very difficult languages, to boot), that the idea of exploring my family's geneology is laughable. But sometime in the late nineteenth century, forebears on Matt's mother's side of the family with the last name Chapman passed through Deadwood, South Dakota, and on the way, at least one child died and was buried in the famous Mount Moriah Cemetery, which also contains the remains of -- you guessed it -- Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane. We searched the registry and discovered two children with the last name Chapman buried in a single plot, but the headstone is lost, so we anticlimactically snapped a picture of a section of grass (another of Matt's shots). No matter -- it's still cool.

FLICKR SET: Roadtrop: Deadwood, SD
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We sped toward the moon as it rose over a pink twilight sky. Suddenly, thwack! Thwack! Thwack! As the sun set, the insects came out. Swarms of insects, smacking into our windshield at 90 miles per hour. It was worse than anything we'd encountered anywhere else in the country, even the Everglades. I'm not exaggerating: it sounded like heavy rain. Some of the insects had so much mass they reverberated like rocks hitting the car. They'd bounce off the roof on their way over. I've never seen anything like it.

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It was impossible to get a good picture of the carnage -- this was after I had squeegeed some of the insects off. As Matt said, it's the only time he's ever had so many dead bugs on the front of the car, that it smelled like dead bugs. It was brutal.

Mind you, while we were stopped at the gas station, we saw a dented SUV with a missing headlamp that had just hit a deer. There are worse things to kill on the road than bugs.

We grabbed dinner around 10PM at a little place called Murdo Drive-In: they're super-friendly and make a delicious burger and milkshake. If I lived anywhere nearby, I'd be there every day. This might be sacriligious to say, but they may even rival In-N-Out.

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I can't even really remember pulling into a motel somewhere outside of Sioux Falls.

Posted by mormolyke 20:18 Archived in USA Tagged hot_springs mammoth rushmore wyoming south_dakota devils_tower crazy_horse deadwood mount_rushmore murdo prairie_dogs Comments (0)

What to wear and how to wear it (female edition)

Advice on what clothes to pack on a 35-day roadtrop

Taking a break from event-based blogging to offer some advice to would-be roadtroppers, and plug some items of clothing to which I feel indebted.

I wasn't sure what would be the ideal clothing on this trip beforehand. When we initially chose the dates we'd be away, I thought we'd mostly hit very summery weather, but after a little research, I soon realized we'd have to dress for all seasons, since places like Yellowstone (and as we discovered unexpectedly, parts of California!) would still be pretty wintry -- even snowy.

I knew I was overpacking slightly when I loaded up the car, but this was largely a function of not knowing for sure what would be best, and not wanting to have to go clothes shopping in the middle of the vacation. Particularly, I made sure to bring a variety of shoes, because as I've mentioned, I live a basically sedentary life, and you never know which shoes are going to rub until you start doing 16-mile hikes in them. Beforehand, I actually put all the clothes I wanted to take into a Polyvore collection, so I could survey my entire travel wardrobe at a glance, so you can see basically what I decided to take along there. Below are the clothes that were absolutely essential, and which I would bring again in a second if I went on another trip.

===My favorite scarf===

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I couldn't do without this scarf ... until I left it at a coffee shop in Wyoming. Because I'm an idiot. I managed to get in contact with the store owner a few days later when we were in Chicago, and she said she would send it back to me in Philly, but it's been two and a half weeks, and I'm still waiting -- so I just went ahead and bought a couple more. They are expensive, but I love this scarf way too much. I also had a bunch of cheap bandanna-type scarves (they're actually table napkins, shhh) to wear as sun shields and sweat-moppers when it was too hot for this one.

===Leather jacket + hoodie===

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Obviously, this was the combo for cold weather, with one or the other for temperate weather. The fact that the leather jacket was expensive was tempered by the fact that I bought a bunch of hoodies for $4 each from JC Penney, are you kidding me? Thank you, slave children in China.

===Totally stylin' cargo vest===

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This vest makes me look like a tourist, a boy scout, or someone who may or may not be packing heat in one of those pockets, but despite the questionable sartorial elegance, it was invaluable for keeping my hands free, my gear close at hand and easily accessible, and my back from having to shoulder a pack most of the time. I wore a less robust version on our trip to Egypt a few years ago, but thought it was time for an upgrade from a children's fly fishing vest from Bass Pro that I Rit-dyed myself in a saucepan. The fact that the roadtrop vest was oilcloth had the added benefit of keeping me cooler when the heat was blazing, dry in the rain, and warm in the snow, although it also has a tendency to coat everything in the pockets in oil, especially paper goods. I bought one in x-small and still had to take it in about six inches, go figure. It's hard for little people to find tough outdoorsy clothes that fit, and they didn't make this vest in children's sizes.

===Long-sleeved shirts===

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This is the only thing I wish I'd brought more of. I had two lightweight button-downs, and when using them alternately to keep the sun off my arms, even over tshirts, it was hard to keep them from getting gross and sweaty. I also could have used some long-sleeved tees, say, when we were in colder climates.

===BAGGY JEANS!===

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Yes, with their dropped crotch, these are not the most arse-flattering pants in the world. But goddamn, they are awesome. The dropped crotch gives your nethers room to breath, even when sitting down for long periods of time on a leather seat. You can wear them multiple days in a row, like a skirt, without them ever smelling like dirty laundry. They are breezy enough for hot weather, especially with the legs rolled up, and sturdy enough for snow. They are the color of dirt. I got them on sale for $40, and I wish I'd picked up more than one pair, because then that's ALL I would have worn on this trip.

I read elsewhere that you shouldn't bring denim jeans on a trip like this because they take too long to dry, but I never had that problem with these pants, mostly because they needed washing so infrequently. I wish I hadn't brought along other pairs of pants which, although they were made of technical fabrics and were more flattering, weren't as comfortable. I also wish I hadn't brought along so many pairs of shorts and short dresses -- I forgot that sitting on carseat leather in short bottoms makes for sticky thighs, so I had to line the seat with a towel or something. The leggings I brought along ended up being mostly used as long underwear under these pants. My long skirt was OK, but not so rugged. Basically, these pants were the bomb.

===Ibex merino underwear===

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I've tried a few different pairs of travel underpants, and I like Ibex best. They're 85% merino, which means they breathe well, don't retain the stench of human, and dry overnight if you wash them in a motel room sink before bed. I brought four pairs, and if anything, that might have been one too many. Oh, also, they have a John Muir quote inside the band: "Climb the mountains and get their good tidings." WHY THAT'S EXACTLY WHAT I DID, MR. MUIR! AND IN A PARK YOU EXPLORED TOO! Thanks, underpants.

I also brought merino socks by Goodhew for the same reason. It's like my feet don't stink! Amazing.

===Zensah calf sleeves===

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I plugged these before, but I'll do it again. Zensah compression leg sleeves saved my weakling legs. I will never go on a long walk without them ever again.

And now ... the two pairs of shoes that made the cut out of the too-many-pairs I brought with me:

===Keen Venice Sandals===

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Yeah, my Keen hiking sandals aren't particularly cool looking. But they work. They protected my feet and let them breathe so I didn't need socks for 90% of the trip. They are more comfortable than flip-flops or the Earth sandals I brought along.

And the big surprise:
===All Saints Shearling Boots===

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I bought these over the winter, and was really impressed with how comfortable they are. When it came time to think about what kind of boots I'd be hiking in, I kept wishing that I could find something that was just like these, but ... hikey. The shafts are leather lined with shearling (ugg boots, basically), so no breaking in was needed - and although shearling seems ideal for winter only, it actually performs quite well in the summer without overheating. I prefer shoes with a more flexible sole, like these, because they seem to be better for my feet and ankles. They're not heavy. They don't require much in the way of cleaning because of the style/color. One problem: leather soles. So I took them to a cobbler here in Philly and had lugs installed. Right up until the moment we left, I was wondering if taking these along as my hiking boots would be a mistake. After all, they're technically just fashion boots.

No mistake: they were perfect. I climbed Half Dome in these boots, and didn't get a single blister or have any problems with joint pain. The boots suffered no major damage either. And -- although this wasn't really a consideration -- I think they look great, even when filthy. Who needs "proper" hiking boots?

Posted by mormolyke 09:51 Archived in USA Tagged packing planning Comments (2)

DINOSAUR DIG!

The Wyoming Dinosaur Center's Dig for a Day

sunny 80 °F
View Roadtrop on mormolyke's travel map.

I have already gushed on this blog about how excited I was for June 1. In fact, when people asked me what I was most looking forward to on the roadtrop, digging for dinosaurs in Wyoming topped the list. I guess I never truly got over the paleontology phase I went through as a kid, and neither did Matt, as demonstrated a few years ago when we spent some time in L.A. and discovered the La Brea Tar Pits, which instantly became the coolest thing in that city. I'm pretty sure that if I had grown up there rather than Brisbane, I would have been all over those pits all summer long, and who knows what I'd be doing with my life right now.

[Aside: It's not a huge stretch from paleontology to archaeology; both Matt and I also went through Egyptology phases as kids, and we revisited that obsession in 2010 on our last big vacation.]

We left Yellowstone National Park for the charmingly named Thermopolis the night before, hoping to arrive sometime before midnight. On the way, we passed through the impossibly scenic Yellowstone Valley just outside of the park. The stunning sunset over Wapiti was distracting enough to make driving quite dangerous, so we pulled over to take pictures.

FLICKR SET: Roadtrop: Yellowstone Valley
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Dinner was a quick stop in Cody at a restaurant called Terrace; we were feeling adventurous, so tried a summer grill platter of meats neither of us had ever eaten before: elk bratwurst, semi boneless quail, and grilled rabbit, along with a bacon sage stuffing and braised red cabbage.

Elk. I ate elk. That will teach them to run in front of my car late at night.

While we were eating, I tried to sort out some accommodation for the night, and took a chance on the Coachman Inn Motel, which is "within walking distance of everything in the town of Thermopolis." This is because the entire town of Thermopolis is about a mile and a half end-to-end, but no matter! They also promised reasonable rates, clean rooms, and a FREE HOT WAFFLE BREAKFAST BUFFET! Sold. I called their number to book the room, and when the proprietor heard that we didn't intend to pull in until after 11PM, he wasn't phased. "No problem. I will leave your key in an envelope taped to the front door of the office, and we'll settle up in the morning, OK?" Wow. I guess we don't even need to lock our car doors around here.

The waffles were delicious, and we were soon on our way excitedly to the Wyoming Dinosaur Center, wondering what we should expect. Would there be many other diggers like us? Would the place be swarming with children? Would we be kidnapped and sold into paleontological slavery?

No, on all counts. I guess with the center being so remote, they only have one or two family groups digging each day during the summer, and since June 1 was early in the season, it was just us. Perfect! Our guide and instructor was Amanda, a junior in geology from Minnesota, assisted by intern Angela, who is double-majoring in geology and mathematics in Tennessee (I think). They drove us a short distance up the hill from the center itself to the quarry, explaining along the way that there are more fossils in the ground here than they have the funding or resources to dig up. My god, if I had grown up in Wyoming, my family would never have been able to grow a lawn; I would be digging in my backyard every damn day, hoping for a stegosaurus. Stegosaurus was my favorite dinosaur when I was eight.

At the site, we were shown around an in situ excavation containing whole skeletons and footprints, and then introduced to our active site next door. The whole area used to be the shore of a lake during the Jurassic period, and the fossils are contained in a layer of mudstone formed from the lake silt. Fossils found seem to be the remains of allosaurs and apatosaurs, and it is speculated that this was a feeding area where the vicious theropods preyed upon their large herbivorous cousins. OK, instantly this site became cooler than Dinosaur State Park in Texas to my inner eight-year-old; these were not little-known species I don't really remember from my dinophiliac days. Everyone has heard of allosaurus and apatosaurus. These are heavy hitters.

We were each handed a bucket, a blunted oyster knife, a paintbrush, and a dustpan and brush, given a quick lecture about how to recognize bone and what to do if we found any, and we set to work. The first surprise was how familiar the action of excavating felt. Last year, we tuck-pointed our field stone basement ourselves, and I'll be damned if I didn't have flashbacks to those long weekends, crouched on the basement foor with very similar tools, excavating old crumbly mortar from the cracks in the wall. My muscles already knew exactly what to do. The only things missing were the Shop Vac and the musty odor of cat litter.

After maybe ten minutes, as I scraped away putty-colored mudstone from the side of the quarry, a rocky chunk fell out, revealing something carbon-black stuck in the ground. What. Is. That. Oh. My. God.

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That, my friends, is a goddamn ALLOSAURUS FOSSIL, and a fairly sizeable one, apparently - enough to warrant classification as a 'bone' rather than merely a 'fragment.' When a fossil is found, their practice is to label it and leave it in place for later excavation, so we couldn't just yank it out to see exactly what it was, but the curve of it was interesting enough for Amanda to get a bit excited. In this dig they have yet to find an allosaurus skull: could this be part of an orbital? Another center employee who dropped in thought it was more likely a cervical rib. Either way, holy crap, that is so freaking cool. Amanda also accidentally discovered that the rocky chunk that fell out encased yet more allosaurus fossil - again, we couldn't just break it apart, so its exact nature will remain a mystery until further work is done, but it was classified as a fragment because it was probably less than ten centimeters long.

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Above: my finds, replaced and labeled. The bone was the 300th found on the site, which is called "Cheryl's Blind" or CB for short (after a hapless worker who drove some equipment over fossils there once), hence the label "CB300."

I was kind of relieved when Matt, working a couple of feet away, called out only a few minutes later - another find! The experience of finding something myself was so awesome, I didn't want to be the only one blessed with dumb luck. Matt found not one, but two bones in the next hour; both were classified as fragments because of their size, but the second one was pretty sweet: Amanda speculated that it could possibly be a complete chevron from one of the vertebrae.

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Obviously, we thought, we would not be able to take any of the bones home with us. Of course not! This is science! But then we were told, that if we found tiny fragments that were too small to be identified anatomically -- otherwise known as "floaters" -- we were in fact allowed to pocket them. Matt found one of these, maybe the size of a hazelnut, and it currently has pride of place in our tchotchke cabinet in the dining room.

Hours more of tireless digging didn't turn up anything else, but as far as we were concerned, we had gotten what we came for, and the rest was just gravy. Honestly, if I were independently wealthy, I would come here all summer long and pay to dig there every damn day. We wrapped up around 3:30PM and then were given a behind-the-scenes tour of the warehouse and laboratory back at the center. I'm not sure if I can tell you how I felt when I saw that the warehouse contains a complete stegosaurus skeleton ready to be mounted.

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SQUEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE

The open-to-the-public museum is also probably the best dinosaur fossil collection I've ever seen, including plenty of actual fossils as well as resin replicas, such as one of Stan the tyrannosaurus. You know that heart-sinking moment when you find out that nearly all of the dinosaur skeletons you see at museums are replicas? That was like finding out the truth about Santa Claus for me. But, more than two decades later, finally seeing (and digging up) actual fossils was like getting to visit the North Pole and hang out with elves. Science elves.

(This is also comparable to the moment when I finally got to see Tutankhamun's face mask at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, after being totally scammed at the Franklin here in Philly.)

FLICKR SET: Roadtrop: Wyoming Dinosaur Center's Dig for a Day
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The next day, we partook of the town's hot springs, choosing Hellie's Tepee Pools on the recommendation of a woman we met at breakfast. The outdoor hot pools with jets are wonderful to soak in, if you can get past the stink of sulfur. I'm not sure if I noticed any particular healing power in the water, but I guess half an hour isn't long enough for the magical crystal healing or whatever to sink in. It felt good. That's good enough.

Posted by mormolyke 01:17 Archived in USA Tagged accommodation dinosaurs wyoming cody yellowstone_valley thermopolis Comments (1)

Yellowstone National Park

And Grand Teton

semi-overcast 65 °F
View Roadtrop on mormolyke's travel map.

On the morning of Wednesday, May 30, I was overjoyed to discover that the (post-Half Dome) pain in my legs had finally subsided. A stress-free night and a good sleep, and my calf muscles were almost good as new.

I have to give a shout out here to my calf compression sleeves. I get shin splints pretty badly, which is one of the reasons I tend to be sedentary. Before this trip, I was determined to figure out how to deal with them, and came across compression sleeves as a preventative measure. Good god, why didn't anyone tell me about these before? Not only did they completely eliminate my shin splints for the entire roadtrop, they helped with overall calf muscle fatigue. I'm a fan for life, even if they do make me look like I'm wearing knee-high socks in the summer. I have a pair by Zensah and a cheap pair of neoprene sleeves I picked up on eBay; both work equally well, but the neoprene ones are kind of gross when I peel them off.

These things are win.

These things are win.

Anyway, enough of that. It was time for a visually stunning drive into Wyoming, through Grand Teton National Park, and into the mother of all parks, Yellowstone, complete with its terrifying grizzly bears and ability to basically destroy human civilization instantly should it choose to erupt. I thought when I was planning this trip that Grand Teton's mountains would scare the shit out of me, because I'm generally nervous around mountains. I come from the flattest country on earth, where the tallest mountains barely qualify as hills in this country. When the earth is nearly vertical for miles, I get a little uneasy. But it seems my Yosemite exploits have cured me of this feeling, at least temporarily. Actually, at some point, I remember wondering, "When am I going to stop swaggering and sneering at everything? When is the feeling that I'm King Shit because I climbed Half Dome going to wear off?"

That's not to say that the Tetons didn't take my breath away. They are some right proper mountains.

FLICKR SET: Roadtrop: Idaho Falls & Grand Teton
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The Tetons also apparently have the support of a lot of very rich people. The nearby village of Jackson was much bigger than we thought it would be, and felt very much like a resort town for the upper middle class plus. In fact, we found out later than Harrison Ford lives there, which didn't surprise us at all. The National Park's Visitor Center is without a doubt the nicest, swankiest visitor center we visited on the trip, which is saying a lot, because we've been into a lot of visitor centers.

Eventually, after navigating a lot of closed roads (both parks weren't officially "in season" yet, so there was still a lot of winter repair roadwork being done, which meant we couldn't drive around Jenny Lake *sadface*), we made it to THE SUPERVOLCANO.

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By now, you are almost certainly sick of me saying WOW THIS PLACE IS AMAZING, but WOW THIS PLACE IS AMAZING. This was one of the first sights that greeted us as we started on the Loop Road, next to Yellowstone Lake. It didn't seem real. It still doesn't. As Matt said at the time, "This is like cheating at photography."

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Our campsite was a right turn, but we turned left instead to see our first geyser eruption: Old Faithful.

Yellowstone was kind enough to put on a show for us. After watching Old Faithful, we wandered around the sulfur-odorous geyser basin taking pictures of the brightly colored bacteria* ...

FLICKR SET: Roadtrop: Yellowstone
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... when suddenly, whoosh! A random geyser in the basin erupted.

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And then, a few moments later, another! This eruption was even larger than Old Faithful and went on for such a long time that Matt was able to get close to it even though we were some distance away.

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Yes, that's my Matt there right next to the geyser, while all the other observers stay about three yards back. He got wet. But he was pretty happy about it.

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Turns out this third water spout was the Beehive Geyser, which erupts on a very unpredictable schedule that can vary from eight hours to a day. Thanks, Beehive Geyser!

Next, we were on a mission to see some bison, so we drove the (very) long way back to our campsite around Yellowstone's loop road, and were duly rewarded:

My video of buffalo fording a stream.

And OMG baby buffalo!

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We spent the night at Bridge Bay campground, where we were informed that bears will not break into cars. This seems counter to what we were told at Yosemite, which is that bears will rip your car apart, leading to thousands of dollars of damage. And Yellowstone bears are meaner! I have no idea what to believe, but I kept my bear spray strapped to my hip.

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Actually, we have christened these "bear blasters" after Powerthirst:

If I had a million dollars right now, I'd start a bear spray company and call it Bear Blaster.

However, despite all our precautions, we did not see a single bear the entire time we were in Yellowstone -- indeed, since I am writing this after the fact, I can report that we did not see one during the entire trip. I am not very disappointed by this. I read too many bear attack stories during preparation.

The next day was spent on a more leisurely trip around the Loop Road, seeing all of the typical touristy sights Yellowstone has to offer to the intrepid traveler willing to venture onto a supervolcano in bumfuck. Here be bubbling mud volcanos and bizarre terrace formations spewing the fetid stench of brimstone, and a gorgeous canyon with multiple waterfalls that required us to once again climb a lot of stairs to view. Unfortunately, climbing Half Dome a few days earlier had not made us instantly fit. Damnit.

FLICKR SET: Roadtrop: Yellowstone
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That last line of thumbnails contains shots from Norris, the "hottest" geyser basin in Yellowstone, and the area which most made me remember that this location could at any moment trigger the apocalypse. While here, we met a hilarious Chinese tourist couple who pulled up in their RV and upon seeing us, immediately asked: "What is a geyser?" It turns out they had somehow traveled to Yellowstone without doing any prior research whatsoever -- apparently a regular occurence for them, since they seemed astounded by my rudimentary knowledge.
"How do you know so much?"
"Umm, I like to read about national parks."
"Wow, you read a lot."
"(Not really.)"

A few minutes later, we saw the male half of the couple, Ray (he gave us his business card -- he is a "Representative for Celebrities and Entrepreneurs"!), bounding across the geyser basin toward a steaming hole in the ground. He was not on the boardwalk. He was clambering over the thin crust of the basin. The thin crust surrounded with warning signs not to walk upon it, because sometimes it collapses and causes the errant walker to fall into waiting holes of boiling water and die (so I have read). This has happened to tourists in the past, and we thought for a moment that we might be witness to this horror.

"Tell him to get back! He could die! Quick!"
His girlfriend yelled out some panicked Mandarin and he returned to us, grinning while we tried to impress upon him the importance of not running off the boardwalk to peer into geyser blowholes.

After we returned from our boardwalk stroll in the drizzle, he approached us again. "Where are you going next? We'll go with you. You can show us. You know a lot. Do you know where we can see bears? We want to see bears."

Unfortunately, we could not take him up on this offer of companionship, as we were on our way out of the park to our next exciting destination: Thermopolis, home of the Wyoming Dinosaur Center. We said our goodbyes. I hope they survived.

  • N.B. I used my PowerShot's "Super Vivid" mode for these pictures. Because, if you take a look at any pictures of these bacteria pools by professional photographers, you'll notice that they all mess with the saturation. If they can cheat, I can totally cheat too.

Posted by mormolyke 17:36 Archived in USA Tagged geysers yellowstone wyoming old_faithful bison norris mammoth_hot_springs grand_teton Comments (0)

Pensacola, and Mississippi's surprise Space Center

The blog post that time forgot

sunny 85 °F
View Roadtrop on mormolyke's travel map.

I was going through the pictures on the newly organized pix.roadtrop.com, and realized I totally forgot to blog about two of the sets therein:

FLICKR SET: Roadtrop: Pensacola to Biloxi
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May 13: After a marathon twelve-hour drive northward through Florida in heavy rains, we arrived in Pensacola to visit our friend Jordan, who joined the Navy a few years ago and is stationed down there. Jordan, Matt, and I used to create music together under the name Tears for Agnes years ago when we all still lived in Central PA. (Hopefully the project is not dead; we still hope to continue collaboration online ... whenever we all have spare time.) Sadly, our time in Pensacola was too short to do any proper jamming (being short on time was a theme that ran through our entire trip).

We were both really pleased to see and hear that being in the Navy has really agreed with Jordan. A few weeks later, while watching Prometheus in a cinema, I couldn't help but notice that Jordan pretty much looks like one of the "Engineers" now.

N.B. Believe it or not, this is a still from the movie, and not Jordan. I have never seen Jordan in his underpants.

N.B. Believe it or not, this is a still from the movie, and not Jordan. I have never seen Jordan in his underpants.

The next day, after accidentally attempting to drive onto the navy base while searching for Starbucks (apparently they have a Starbucks on the base for navy personnel only, who knew?), we set off for New Orleans through first Alabama, and then Mississippi, which has the honor of having the worst math and science scores in the country. Imagine our snobby Yankee surprise, then, when Matt spotted a highway sign for the Stennis Space Center. A space center? In Mississippi? Neither of us had even heard of it, but since we had already stopped at Kennedy and were on our way to Johnson in a few days, we figured we had to drop in.

Stennis Space Center's new Infinity visitor center only opened three weeks previously, and many of the displays were still in development. It were still fun, though; we arrived only about half an hour before they closed, so everything was pretty much deserted, and we could jump in and do whatever we wanted. It may not have had quite as much flash as its larger cousins, but it was not crowded with screaming middle schoolers, a definite plus. Helpful staff members all but gave us a personal tour of the facility, although perhaps that was more about getting us out the door so they could go home. I bought a nice pair of earrings.

FLICKR SET: Roadtrop: Stennis Space Center
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Posted by mormolyke 11:49 Archived in USA Tagged florida mississippi pensacola stennis_space_center Comments (0)

Strange Raven buries a rock

overcast 60 °F
View Roadtrop on mormolyke's travel map.

At Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone National Park, we witnessed the inscrutable behavior of a very strange raven.

When we spotted him, he was carrying a white rock in his beak and walking over the dusty ground between terrace formations.

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After choosing a site, he put the rock down and began to dig a hole in the ground with his beak.

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However, after placing the rock in the hole, he was not satisfied, and dug up the rock to carry it to another part of the ground.
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This happened three or so times while we were watching, until he finally seemed content with the burial site of his rock. The job done, he took to cawing.

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After a moment, a magpie alighted and began to yell at him.

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I've never seen a raven do anything like this before. Their Wikipedia entry seems to shed some light:

Common Ravens have been observed to manipulate others into doing work for them, such as by calling wolves and coyotes to the site of dead animals. The canines open the carcass, making it more accessible to the birds. They watch where other Common Ravens bury their food and remember the locations of each other's food caches, so they can steal from them. This type of theft occurs so regularly that Common Ravens will fly extra distances from a food source to find better hiding places for food. They have also been observed pretending to make a cache without actually depositing the food, presumably to confuse onlookers.

Common Ravens are known to steal and cache shiny objects such as pebbles, pieces of metal, and golf balls. One theory is that they hoard shiny objects to impress other ravens. Other research indicates that juveniles are deeply curious about all new things, and that Common Ravens retain an attraction to bright, round objects based on their similarity to bird eggs. Mature birds lose their intense interest in the unusual, and become highly neophobic.

Posted by mormolyke 11:40 Archived in USA Tagged raven yellowstone mammoth_hot_springs Comments (1)

Follow the Yellowstone Road

Back through Nevada and into Idaho

sunny 75 °F
View Roadtrop on mormolyke's travel map.

When we woke up at the America's Best Value Inn the day after climbing Half Dome, our first concern, apart from the unbearable pain in our legs, was the flat tire from Tunnel View. There was no way we would drive over the Sierra Nevada Mountains on a donut tire; as the German tourist so helpfully informed us, it was only rated to 40mph. As luck would have it, the concierge at the motel was married to a mechanic and, knowing all of the car shops in the area, directed us to Fast Tire down the road.

They were fast, holy crap! When we pulled up into their empty parking lot at ten in the morning on Memorial Day, four or five guys poured out of the garage, jacked up the car, and had the tire off before I had even had a chance to exit the vehicle. The tire was patched in record time, and the final bill came to ten dollars. Ten dollars! We were so impressed we gave them twenty (which still seems cheap to me).

Since the tire had taken us off our planned route, we decided not to travel over the Sierras via Ebbett's Pass, as originally planned, instead taking the quickest route back through Yellowstone (including driving at the highest altitude of the trip, 9890 feet) and Mono Lake. I'm so glad we did. At the adjacent town of Lee Vining, we stopped into Nicely's Restaurant and Laundromat, where you can get a nice hot diner meal while your clothes spin. Out the window, we could see the eerie and beautiful (I keep saying things are beautiful, but they are, dammit) Mono Lake, with its strange limestone formations, and a shape belying its volcanic origin. This was to be the beginning of a volcanic theme that lasted for the next five days as we crossed the country through Idaho, Wyoming and South Dakota.

FLICKR SET: Roadtrop: Mono Lake
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We saw a few strange things driving back through the northern part of Nevada. The "town" of Middlegate was essentially a restaurant at a crossroads which looked like a movie set, complete with a cowboy sweeping the porch as we pulled up.

FLICKR SET: Roadtrop: Northern Nevada
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While speeding down a highway at night, Matt suddenly shouted at me to get the camera so I could take the following picture:

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Yes: Dunphy, Nevada. We actually came to a complete stop on the highway in front of the sign so the picture wouldn't blur. There was not a single other car on the road. Matt is pretty sure that this is only the second time he's ever come to a complete stop on a non-congested highway (the other instance being when an emergency helicopter landed on the highway in front of him in Harrisburg once).

We spent the night at a truck stop town called Wells that consisted only of motels, gas stations, and desperately seedy casinos. I sort of wish we'd had the balls and the energy to go into one of those casinos, just to see, but frankly, our legs were too sore to do anything other than creak towards a bed.

The next day: Idaho.

If you'd asked me what I knew about Idaho before this trip, I would have said, uh, they grow potatoes there, and, uh, there's a city called Boise, but I don't know anything about it. I would not have said atomic power and volcanoes. This is what we discovered Idaho to be about in our drive across it. First stop: Craters of the Moon National Monument.

How could we go past something called Craters of the Moon without stopping in? I had initially omitted it from our route because I worried that we would be rushed, but we decided to make time by rejiggering our schedule. Instead of racing to see Grand Teton before nightfall and arrive at Yellowstone that evening to camp, we'd take our time, stay the night in Idaho Falls, and hit the Tetons and the supervolcano first thing in the morning. In the meantime: VOLCANOS!

As you have probably guessed, Craters of the Moon is a very alien looking landscape, but this is not due to anything lunar or the presence of craters. Thousands of years ago, nearby cinder cones spewed large amounts of lava and debris over a wide area, causing the ground to be covered in tortured black pumice fragments, boulders, and crags. Authorities apparently called it Craters of the Moon to stimulate tourism, back before we figured out that lunar craters are caused by meteors and not volcanic activity. It seems kind of a stupid name. The moon is clearly white, not black. I don't really get it.

Ten points for it looking like something not of this world, though.

FLICKR SET: Roadtrop: Craters of the Moon
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Next stop: EBR-1, the first ever atomic power plant in the United States. It's been out of commission for decades, but back in the day, it was used to provide the energy needs of the nearby town of Arco:

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Matt describes EBR-1 as "the creepiest place I have ever been." When we pulled into the parking lot, it was empty except for a lone motocycle. Two rusting turbines as large as houses lay to our left; to our right, a dusty desert plain was interrupted only by a road to a restricted atomic facility of some kind in the distance. In front of us, the EBR-1 building looked as deserted as the set for a movie about the apocalypse or the rise of zombies, an association that was greatly enhanced by a whistling and moaning wind that sounded like a horror foley cliche. Tumbleweeds blew around us. Actual tumbleweeds. The cheerfulness of the fifties-era signs only made the scene more ominous, especially when contrasted with the decidedly uncheerful warning signs about radioactive materials and hantavirus.

FLICKR SET: Roadtrop: EBR-1
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Inside, the place is more like a museum, with displays about nuclear energy, the fisrt successful test, and the process of running a nuclear power plant. Much of it was put together after the tsunami in Japan and the aftermath at the Fukushima nuclear plant, and so read like a pro-nuclear public relations exercise, emphasizing the relative safety and cleanness of nuclear energy. I enjoyed walking around the facility, though Matt grew increasingly creeped out the longer we stayed. It's true that the place had a Alcatraz-type ambience, but it's so well preserved, I could imagine being one of the scientists involved in the first production of electricity by a nuclear reactor. Those guys were pretty badass. And many of them are still alive, and contributed contemporary oral histories to the displays, so it didn't feel too awash with ghosts.

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For miles around EBR-1, the landscape is defined by cone-shaped buttes that, as their shape suggests, are volcanic in origin, although the exact geological mechanism varies. Aside from Mount Ranier, which we visited in 2003, this was as close as we'd ever been to a volcano, although the next day, we entered Yellowstone National Park and eclipsed that record by actually walking all over the crater of a supervolcano. Geology is pretty awesome. In the days that followed (and especially after our time in Thermopolis, which I'll talk about in a future blog entry), we discussed maybe one day going back to school for geology. For fun. We could attend classes together at night school and get matching Bachelors of Science. It would be the nerdiest and cutest thing ever.

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It was really nice to pull into Idaho Falls before sundown, with no further sightseeing plans. We ate dinner at an awesome Mexican restaurant called Morenita's right around the corner from our motel, forced our stiff legs down the stairs to our room with much groaning, and fell asleep.

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Posted by mormolyke 23:02 Archived in USA Tagged volcano california yosemite nevada idaho mono_lake ebr-1 craters_of_the_moon Comments (0)

Yosemite - A flat tire and a Half Dome

The longest hike I have ever taken summarized in the longest blog entry I've ever written

sunny 70 °F
View Roadtrop on mormolyke's travel map.

Our Memorial Day Weekend trip to Yosemite began with one of those I-know-this-will-be-a-funny-story-later goddamnit events.

After driving about thirty miles into the park around winding mountain S-curves, we entered a long, straight tunnel. We both like driving through lit tunnels. There's something very THX 1138 about them. But neither the thrill of the tunnel, nor the previous eye-popping sights witnessed on our roadtrop, nor our combined 65 years of lifetime visual experience could possibly prepare us for our emergence on the other side of the hill. Behold, the appropriately named Tunnel View:

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Cue: Oh my holy wowwwwwwww.

The large bald cliff face on the left is El Capitan. The waterfall you can see is Bridalveil Falls. And if you look closely, peeking its famous profile out from behind clouds is Half Dome. You might recognize it from the Sierra Online logo or perhaps identify a stylized version of it in the North Face logo. We had permits to climb that sucker.

After staring breathlessly at the view for a while, we turned back to our car in the convenient parking lot behind the lookout ... to find our driver's side rear tire as flat as a pancake.

Goddamnit.

"No problem! Where's the Fix-A-Flat?" asked Matt.
"We were supposed to have Fix-A-Flat? That definitely wasn't on the packing list."

Goddamnit.

Well, let's see what happens when we try to pump it up with our 12V compressor.
Ssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssst.

Goddamnit.

At this point, we were thirty miles or an hour's drive into the park on Memorial Day weekend, so AAA was not really an option. It was time to unpack half the car so we could get to the jack and the donut tire, while other park visitors looked at us with pity and made predictable noises of commiseration. I tried to take photos to commemorate the event, but only snapped one before I started to feel a bit weird watching my husband change a tire while I stood aside and took pictures like an insensitive tourist.

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Then I noticed a few other tourists taking pictures of us. Those insensitive clods! I was all ready to make withering comments and chase them off, when I realized they weren't looking at our pneumatic misfortune, but at the magnets attached to the hatch. It seems our burgeoning collection had finally reached the tipping point at which they began to draw attention, comments, and yes, people asking to take pictures of the back of our car. This is from a couple of days earlier when we were in Area 51 (and before getting a car wash in Fresno). You can see we had to start a second row:

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The other amusing interest we drew was from a German tourist, who, after Matt had already changed the tire and we were getting ready to pull away, felt the need to inform us several times in a very German way that our donut tire was only rated for 40mph. Uh, yes, the park speed limit is 35mph, so that shouldn't be a problem. "You can go no more zan forty miles per hour. Do you know how zis vorks?" Yes, sir. Yes, we do.

Just as the sun was setting, we arrived at the Upper Pines Campground, which we had to book months in advance in a process that resembled scrambling for rock show tickets. Unfortunately, the looming cliff faces that surround the location didn't quite make up for the overall crowdedness of the campground, which meant loud children and nauseatingly revolting bathrooms. Also, we didn't have any firewood, and we were too tired to go scouting for some. At least our neighbors were friendly - they were camping in Upper Pines for seven weeks in their RV, and on Memorial Day Weekend, their grandkids were visiting. When they heard we planned to hike Half Dome the next day, they advised us to start early. "That's a long hike. You want to be back before dark." Gulp. As we prepared for bed, we listened to the family jam out campside tunes on a ukulele; if I weren't so keen to rest before our giant hike, I totally would have busted out my mando and joined them.

FLICKR SET: Roadtrop: Yosemite

Hiking (and Climbing) Half Dome: It begins

Hiking (and Climbing) Half Dome: It begins

Sunday, May 27, 2012, 5:00AM. Our cell phone alarms took turns interrupting our snoozing. We had wisely forced ourselves to do all our packing and preparation the night before, so we rolled out of the Magnum, threw on our packs, and set off to hike Half Dome, a rock that, until about 1870, was considered insurmountable.

The dome of the rock itself is 1,360 feet tall, but that's not taking into account the altitude. Hiking in high altitude is a good way to make unfit people feel even more unfit. I am the first person to admit that I live a basically sedentary lifestyle. I probably normally spend between eight and twelve hours of each day sitting in front of a computer screen. I don't exercise. Ever. I get puffed climbing a flight of stairs. But, with the low oxygen at high altitudes, even people who run every day feel their chests heaving with little exertion. What possessed me to attempt this challange I will never understand.

So, Upper Pines Campground is already at 4,000 feet above sea level. Just to get to the base of Half Dome, you have to climb about 3,500 feet straight up over an 8.5-mile hike from the valley; many people take two days just to hike there, camping halfway. Not us! The hike includes the 600 treacherously slippery granite stairs of the Mist Trail. Last year, at least four people died on the Mist Trail alone: three were swept over Vernal Falls, and one slipped on the steps and died of head injuries. Then, before you get to the infamous Half Dome cables, the Sub Dome must be scaled via yet another excruciating round of 442 switchback stairs hewn into the granite rock, and 600 yards of perilous sloped trail that looks impossible to scale from below. By the time you reach the top of Half Dome, your elevation is 8,835 feet above sea level.

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I'm not going to lie: that hike was killer. At times it felt like a death march. By the third waterfall, I really didn't care about waterfalls anymore; I could only think of my aching calves and quads. I imagined Pai Mei waiting for me at the top somewhere.

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After 8.5 miles of uphill walking, which took six or seven hours, we finally arrived at the Stairmaster. I mean, the Sub Dome. The process of moving at this point went something like this: 1. Ascend five to eight stairs. 2. Sit down exhausted and catch breath. 3. Repeat about 75 times.

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By this point, there was no turning back. We had invested too much. We had to attempt the infamous cables.

The Half Dome cables have a reputation for being scary and dangerous, which is not unjustly earned. Last July, a 26-year-old woman plummeted 600 feet to her death after slipping and falling from the ropes. The next month, a man fell 4,000 feet from the top of the rock down the sheer cliff face. Perhaps the most terrifying Half Dome story is that of a group of climbers in 1985 who were subjected to a thunderstorm when they reached the top. When the next group of hikers ascended, they were met with a horrifying sight: all five of the hikers had been struck by lightning, killing two of them. I was probably wise not to read the book about the disaster before attempting the climb myself, though I think I'm going to pick it up when I get home.

A note on acrophobia: when I was a kid, my parents would call me "Monkey" for my tendency and ability to skinny up poles -- including one outside our house that was at least 25 feet tall -- but I stopped that well before I reached my adult weight. As a grown-up, I can absolutely understand why my parents were always freaking out and yelling at me to come down, though at the time I felt completely secure gripping a pole between my feet. I've found that as I get older, I become more afraid of heights. Partly I think it's because I've seen more people fall. In particular, my dad fell off a roof in 2003 -- I ran outside to find him lying in a spreading pool of blood (he was fine after some stitches to his scalp) -- which scared the hell out of me. Partly, it's because I have more to lose now. And partly, it's because when you're a kid you think you're immortal, and the older you get, the more you realize how untrue that assumption is.

Where was I? Oh yes, climbing Half Dome. I figured before the trip that, given my worsening vertigo, the greatest hurdle of the climb would not be physical, but psychological. And so, I decided to take the fear factor completely out of the picture by getting both of us climbing harnesses and via ferrata carabiner sets. With these sets, you hook yourself to the cable as you climb it using carabiners at the ends of two lines with suspension systems. When you get to a rope support pole, you move the carabiners over to the other side of the rope one at a time, so you are always connected to the rope by at least one line. I remember using sets like these at school camp in grade ten on some crazy high rope course, and wasn't even slightly scared.

It totally worked. While other people were overcome by vertigo and turned back, or froze on the way up or down, paralyzed by fear, Matt and I powered up that rock like it was nothing. Well, our arms and legs were tired, but we weren't afraid of falling off the ropes and splattering our brains and other organs over Yosemite Valley for helicopters to locate.

We were accompanied by a girl we met on the Sub Dome, Laura. Laura and her sister Hope leapfrogged us (and vice versa) several times on the trail, but when they got to the Sub Dome, Hope decided she didn't want to try the cables, so she kindly agreed to look after our gear so we'd have less encumbrances.

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At the top, being from Philly, we kind of had to do the Rocky pose. Oh, so Rocky ran up the Museum steps? What a pansy. Try climbing Half Dome, you weakling.

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We also met a marmot (ahhh so cute!) who had zero fear of humans.

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The human in that shot was another friend we met on the hike, Sandy, who along with her buddy Nelly accompanied us for the entire hike back. They were great company, and hiking downhill was a huge relief after all that climbing, so that I barely noticed the time and effort it took to return. It only took about four hours to get back to the Valley.

When we finally arrived at camp, our limbs aching and our bodies covered in sweat, dirt, scrapes, and blisters, we made an executive decision that the Upper Pines Campgound just wouldn't cut it tonight. At that point, we would have given up our freedom and dignity for a proper hot shower and a hot dinner with plenty of protein, so we packed up and headed out of Yosemite for civilization in the form of an America's Best Value Inn and Taco Bell (nothing else was open, dammit). The motel was too expensive, but it was so worth it.

For the next two and a half days, we could barely move. Every time we came to a set of stairs, we turned into arthritic ninety-year-olds, creaking slowly and with much groaning. But we carried on!

FLICKR SET: Roadtrop: Climbing Half Dome

Posted by mormolyke 10:53 Archived in USA Tagged california national_parks yosemite dome half half_dome tunnel_view Comments (1)

116 degrees to 18 degrees

Death Valley to Sequoia

all seasons in one day
View Roadtrop on mormolyke's travel map.

On Friday, May 25, I woke up on the wrong side of bed in Death Valley National Park. The motel where we were staying advertised wifi, but through a satellite connection that was effectively useless. My best friend in Sydney had some worrying health news. I was tired of the desert. I missed trees. It was too hot and sunny. I had a crazy suspicion that being 280 feet below sea level was screwing with my head somehow. I knew I was feeling petulant, so I offered to drive; since I was apparently determined to have a bad day, I might as well play chauffeur and let Matt enjoy himself.

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Before leaving aridity behind, I gritted my sulky teeth while piloting the Magnum to the incredible and strangely beautiful alien environments around the park. At Devil's Golf Course, so named because of the beyond-rough salt terrain, a wind began to blow that was strong enough to rock the car and nearly sweep Matt off his feet.

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At our final stop, Natural Bridge, Matt decided he wanted to hike the half mile trail to the rock arch. As we pulled into the parking lot, closer and closer to the base of the rocky mountains, I watched the outside temperature reading on the dash climb quickly. 101 degrees ... 105 degrees ... 110 degrees ... 112 degrees. When the temperature reached 116 degrees, I drew the line. Nothing would get me out of that car into that temperature in the mood I was in, not even Matt looking disappointed as I dug in my heels and proposed waiting in the parking lot.

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Nope.

Matt had a good time hiking solo to the Natural Bridge regardless (he says the strong wind counteracted the intense heat), and when he returned, we struck out west, through a series of blinding dust storms.

FLICKR SET: Roadtrop: Death Valley
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The other side of the Sierra Nevada mountains greeted us with velvety green hills and orchards of citrus and berries. We had little time to enjoy it, however, as we raced toward Sequoia National Park, where we were planning to camp for the night. I was worried we wouldn't be able to find an available camp site before nightfall and kept my foot anxiously on the gas pedal, watching the temperature drop almost as quickly as it had risen in the desert as I steered the car around steep mountain curves. The air grew sharper and clouds rolled in. Icy rain occasionally fell around us.

Very suddenly, the typical forest canopy gave way in front of the car, and the sight that greeted us made my heart skip a beat. I gasped and cried out, pointing like an idiot child to the rust-colored tree-trunks that towered over the Douglas firs. Huge redwoods, their trunks wider than my armspan, and a little further up the road, the even more massive and breathtaking Methuselahs: giant sequoias.

I joined Greenpeace for a year when I was 11, and I guess I would consider myself an environmentalist, but I wouldn't call myself a tree-hugger. I do my part for conservation, but I'm not much of an activist. I have never given a thought to, say, chaining myself to a tree to protect it from loggers. But looking up at those sequoias was about as close as I have ever come to a religious experience. The sight of them, especially after days of desert dust, made me tremble. I thought about the centuries upon centuries that they had stood - thousands of years, for some of them - and I forgot all about everything that had left me stuck in a selfish bad mood all day. Pretty soon I was peering up through tears.

I think I would maybe die for those trees. I think they might have more right to be alive on this planet than I do, and that's a first for me.

Before we reached our campsite, the air temperature dropped below freezing, and as we parked and started a campfire, it began to snow. The low that night was 18 degrees Farenheit. We'd experienced a temperature fluctuation of nearly 100 degrees in less than 12 hours.

The snow made for some beautiful pictures of the forest the next morning, especially when we visited General Sherman - the largest living tree in the world, and about two and a half thousand years old.

FLICKR SET: Roadtrop: Sequoia National Park
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Posted by mormolyke 01:37 Archived in USA Tagged california death_valley sequoia Comments (0)

Nevada

sunny 85 °F
View Roadtrop on mormolyke's travel map.

After crawling back out of the Grand Canyon on Wednesday, it was time to hit the road again. Next stop: Hoover Dam. There's not a whole lot I can say about it except that the architecture made me think of Ayn Rand (since I'm composing an opera about the sex life of Ayn Rand for my dissertation, there are probably too many things that remind me of Ayn Rand at the moment).

FLICKR SET: Roadtrop: Hoover Dam
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We couldn't stay long (which was fine, because with all that white concrete, it was about as hot as the Grand Canyon) because we were headed for a pit stop in Vegas to have dinner with a friend I met at West Chester University, Chrissy McHugh. Chrissy is getting her masters in flute performance in Las Vegas and is not a fan of the city - and neither are we, despite our limited experience with it. In fact, it wouldn't have been part of the Roadtrop at all, if not for Chrissy.

Mostly, neither Matt nor I are particularly into gambling, drinking, magic shows, or hookers, which probably cuts out about 90% of the point of visiting Vegas. We also have had a beef with the city since 2008, when we planned to have our wedding vows renewed at the Star Trek Experience on our anniversary; our plans were foiled when the Star Trek Experience was closed down forever just two weeks before the date. The building in which it was housed was sold to developers to turn into condominiums. We choose to blame Las Vegas itself for this mishap.

Matt had never been before, but I visited Vegas when I was nine years old with my late dad, and I only have one clear memory of the city from that trip. My dad was the kind of parent who was always angrily telling me not to touch things in shops, which of course meant I touched everything as soon as his back was turned. I remember being in some touristy tchotchke shop in Las Vegas with him, and as soon as he looked away, I picked up a strangely shaped mug on a shelf. I was puzzling over the shape of the handle I clutched, when I realized in horror that it was a life-size ceramic penis, pointing up. I very nearly dropped it on the floor like a hot potato, which would have meant explaining to my dad why he had to pay for a broken erect penis mug. This thought was paralyzingly frightening. My heart was pounding as I replaced it on the shelf and sneaked into another aisle as discreetly as I could.

No such misadventure this time, as our only stop was Komex, a Korean Mexican fusion restaurant (think Korean barbecue tacos) recomended by Chrissy - a delicious choice, and at a bargain price. And Chrissy was lovely and entertaining company, as always.

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Next stop: Area 51, via Nevada Route 357, officially known as the Extraterrestrial Highway. Yep. I didn't recently watch all nine seasons of the X-Files three times on Netflix, reliving an extremely nineties and teenaged infatuation with Scully and Mulder, for nothing. Also, when I first immigrated to America, I always said that I wanted to go to Area 51 after becoming a citizen, because even if they arrested me, they couldn't deport me. As of 2008, I am a citizen, so Area 51 it is. We both wanted to be able to say we'd been there (well, close by).

In my pre-roadtrop preparatory research, I found a website about visiting Area 51 that is bursting with far too much information about ufologist observation of the site. It contained detailed instructions about camping in the area, and the most exciting option seemed to be Campfire Hill, only two miles from the entrance to the infamous Groom Lake Air Force Base. According to the website:

You will have a decent view of the night sky, but you are also guaranteed to get a visit from Area 51 border security, known as the Cammo Dudes. Don’t worry, you are well within public land, so their goal is likely centered around ruining your night vision with their high-powered spotlights.

Make sure you have plenty of water, food, and gas before camping at this location. Also, you might need a four-wheel-drive vehicle to make the short climb to the top of Campfire Hill; however, you can always park your car at the bottom of the hill and make the short climb to the top.

Directions: Take Hwy 375 to Lincoln County mile marker 34.6, where an unmarked-well-maintained-dirt road intersects with the Highway (37° 24.892′ N, 115° 24.586′ W). If you are using a GPS this road may be marked “Groom Lake Road” or simply “51 Road”. In either case, follow the road about 12 miles until you see a small fork go the right. This road dead-ends shortly in a cul-du-sac, and you will see a small hill to your left. At the top is Campfire Hill.

We followed these instructions to the letter, arriving at the dirt road (which was indeed marked "Road 51" on our Garmin) at around 11PM. Neither of us had ever driven down 12 miles of bone-shaking dirt road before. That was an experience in itself, surrounded as we were by the dark desert and yucca trees (aliens) that loomed suddenly in the headlights like ghosts. By the end of the road, the exterior of the car was coated in a thick layer of dust, and we had lost our magnet from the Everglades. To my surprise, Matt didn't hesitate at this point to ram the Magnum off-road and right up the actual hill as though it were an actual Dodge Ram and not a low-slung station wagon meant for drag racing, while I squeezed my eyes shut and imagined our exhaust being ripped off the undercarriage by a rock, and how we would have to hike about 30 miles to the nearest store of any kind to call for help, if we weren't abducted by aliens and given cancer and forced pregnancy first.

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To my relief, the car made it safely to the top of the Campfire Hill ... which was completely empty. There were no crazy people waiting around a campfire with binoculars and telescopes, eager to tell us of conspiracies and UFO sightings. It was us, and a whole lot of creepy nothing.

We bedded down quickly and slept fitfully on the slope of the hill, wondering if the Cammo Dudes would roust us during the night.

We were woken by the dawn light and an eerie soft tapping on our window. Dudes in Cammo? Aliens!? No, it was some kind of red-orange finch behaving very strangely (because it was an alien!), pecking and licking our window and flying around our car as though it wanted to get in. Or maybe it was only attacking its reflection in the glass. At any rate, it was time to get our car down from Campfire Hill and get moving.

FLICKR SET: Roadtrop: Area 51
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Oh, we did have one strange encounter. At the bottom of the hill were some strange (to us) cylindrical structures that we assumed were cow feeders, but we drove closer to take a look. Despite the fact we were able to see any approaching cars for miles all around us, in the few seconds it took us to look at the feeders, a white pick-up truck was suddenly right behind us in the Road 51 cul de sac when we turned around. I'm not kidding. We have no idea how it got there so quickly. Perhaps Men in Black are really Men in White Pickups. At any rate, we made an immediate nervous exit, looking over our shoulder to see if we were about to be arrested.

To make our Area 51 experience more interesting, we decided to check out the A'Le'Inn, a strange little diner and motel a little further up the Extraterrestrial Highway. On the way, we stopped at the infamous Black Mailbox:

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The Inn itself is kind of amazing and well worth the visit if you're fascinated by this kind of stuff. I'm pretty sure all the money we spent there on breakfast and souvenirs is going straight to the Tea Party, however:

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Bizarrely, the only other customers there for the first half hour or so were three guys from Melbourne who had just been in Vegas for a bucks' night. It seems like wherever I go, I meet Australians. It was fun talking to them about Australian-American culture clashes, and watching their faces when a bunch of military men and women came into the inn in cammo BDU's. I may be (almost) used to running into uniformed military now, but there was I time when I made that same face.

Posted by mormolyke 07:17 Archived in USA Tagged hoover_dam las_vegas nevada rachel area_51 Comments (1)

The Graaaaand Canyon

sunny 85 °F
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Ahh, Grand Canyon, ubiquitous entry on the itineraries of tourists of America from all corners of the globe. As you candidly admit in your visitor center information, you may not be the longest, the widest, or the deepest canyon in the world, but you might be the grandest, if only there were a way to empirically measure grandness in scientific units.

In my frenzied pre-roadtrop planning, I had of course booked us a campsite ahead of time, and as we pulled in at 11PM, we remarked at how crowded together the campsites seemed. This was explained the next day when we discovered the nearest tents were actually taking up the spot where we would have pitched a tent, had we not installed a bed in the back of our car. A trio of guys (one from West Chester, PA, of all places) had assumed we weren't taking our campsite, since we arrived so late, and put it to good use. No harm, no foul -- they were friendly and apologetic, and it didn't inconvenience us.

Being an idiot, as I was talking to them, I let the milk I was heating for my morning chai boil over. Something about the high altitude, perhaps, made it behave rather differently than milk normally does when overheated: it shot in a perfect cylindrical stream, as though from a garden hose, from the kettle's spout, right onto my arm. It didn't seem to hurt at first, but after the guys cleared out, I realized my arm was actually scalded pretty badly. Application of cold water and first while chanting the mantra "Stop whingeing; I am a trooper," did the trick, and it stopped hurting, though the burn looked like a huge port wine mark. (Now it looks like peeling zombie skin.)

And of course, seeing the canyon from the ground for the first time made both of us forget everything else in our heads. Writing this a few days later, I can say that as we have traveled, seeing gorgeous and unique landscapes wherever we go, we've become a little bit immune to all of the beauty, but we have still run into sights that have made our jaws drop, and the canyon was one of them, despite all the pictures we've seen.

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In my last entry, I talked about nearly hitting an elk on the way into the park late at night. Once camped, we were to discover that our space was shared with a herd of elk and unkindnesses of ravens - in fact, the Grand Canyon has given us our closest encounters with wildlife on the roadtrop so far. It is surreal to be walking through the campground, round a corner, and find your way nearly blocked by a creature the size of a van, eating a tree. Elk are so huge, I can't imagine anything preying on them besides packs of wolves, which don't exist in that area, and fast cars on dark country roads. They looked at us puny humans with what can only be described as complete indifference, or perhaps dismissive contempt, as we inched our way around them a mere five feet away, frantically taking photographs.

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In the next 40 hours or so, Matt and I did some walking on the Rim Trail, built a campfire to roast marshmallows, and finally hiked 1.5 miles into the canyon (and back out again) on the Bright Angel Trail. Hiking into the canyon was easy, but the climb out was pretty killer.

FLICKR SET: Roadtrop: Grand Canyon
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Neither of us was really prepared for how much high altitude affects breathing and exertion, but the worst of it was probably the fast-rising sun, which achieved an uncomfortable blaze by 9:30AM, making the most difficult part of the hike a race for shade as well as a climb.

We had no idea how relatively easy that hike was. We were to learn our lesson a few days later in Yosemite.

Posted by mormolyke 22:59 Archived in USA Tagged grand_canyon arizona Comments (0)

Thank you for your functional wifi, Motel 6

New photos uploaded

sunny 70 °F
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I am three national parks behind in my blogging, but if you want a sneak peek, I finally managed to get the photos up at the usual address (http://pix.roadtrop.com):

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We're currently in the middle of nowhere, Nevada, about to cross into Idaho. We were supposed to camp last night at a state park, but if you take a look through the latest pictures, you'll see the massive hike we took two days ago that totally kicked our arses and turned us into stiff-limbed zombies who require piping hot muscle-relaxing showers and beds. Tonight: Yellowstone!

Posted by mormolyke 05:57 Archived in USA Comments (0)

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