Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Theodore Roosevelt National Park, ND

Theodore Roosevelt National Park in western North Dakota is one of the least-visited national parks, but well worth the four-hour detour from Rapid City, SD. First, the drive up is perfectly straight and perfectly desolate; no towns, very few other cars, nothing but farmland and buttes as far as the eye can see. (Do be sure you pee first, as there are not many opportunities for it on that road.) Great driving, though not as scenic as Montana.

The park itself is like an older, rounder, more colorful version of the Badlands, with more greenery. And a resident buffalo herd and a few wild horses, all of which we saw.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Mt. Rushmore, Wind Cave National Park, and Badlands National Park, SD

We spent a full day exploring the Black Hills and Badlands of South Dakota. We started at Mt. Rushmore, first thing in the morning, largely so the boy could see it. The Black Hills area is generally the Gatlinburg of the West: crowded, tacky, and full of tourist traps. Mt. Rushmore doubly so. And it’s a shame, because the area is so pretty.

We continued to Wind Cave, which was a new national park for all of us. We took a quick tour underground, and the boy loved it. He ranks the geysers of Yellowstone and Wind Cave as a tie for his favorite experience of the trip. We drove through a bit of Custer State Park on our way out, and saw more buffalo and a herd of pronghorn antelope grazing by the side of the road. 

I dropped the men off at the South Dakota Air and Space Museum, right outside Ellsworth Air Force Base, and loaded up on groceries at the nearest Target.

Then we headed to Badlands National Park, and during some road construction on the interstate, we took a rock to the windshield and had our first bad thing happen on the trip: a cracked windshield. We sat and watched it crack across the passenger side and I completely panicked. I’d never had a cracked windshield before, and despite my husband’s protestations that it was purely cosmetic damage and not anything to worry about, I had visions of the windshield popping out at high speed. I had to call our insurance guy, the local dealership, an auto glass specialist, and my dad before I could be convinced that we were in no immediate danger.

We cleared the Badlands and since it was crowded, we had a picnic dinner at the city park in Wall, SD, before browsing the infamous Wall Drug and returning to Rapid City for the night.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Devils Tower National Monument, WY

The posts of the road trip have been admittedly a little sparse up to now: I was generally posting something quick, with a few pictures, very early in the morning from a Motel 6 somewhere, in order to just get something up. Don’t let that fool you; we had an amazing time, and every day was a revelation. Amazing scenery, amazing driving, good family times, and all of it was pretty affordable.

After a couple of days spent in Yellowstone/Grand Teton/Jackson, WY, we headed out across Wyoming toward Devils Tower. The last time I drove across Wyoming, I remembered it being completely empty. Apparently everyone else has discovered Wyoming in the intervening four years, because it was definitely not empty. We drove across the Wind River plain and the canyons of US 16; I highly recommend both drives, especially US 16, but we were caught behind slow-moving RVs more times than I care to remember. Ditto Devils Tower: our nerves were so frazzled by the time we arrived that we had no patience for RVs, tour buses, or other people in general. We zipped in and out, got some pictures, and high-tailed it for Rapid City, SD, where we were planning to spend the night. 

Verdict: neat to see, no need to stick around if you're not a climber. Cute prairie dog colony at the base, though.

At dinner that night in downtown Rapid City, we discovered yet another street fair. Not as exciting as a county fair and rodeo, of course, but still an unexpected bit of fun. We stopped into an old-timey candy store, bought a bunch of rock candy and Sioux City Sarsaparilla, and made sure the boy was loaded up with sugar right before bedtime.

A general observation: Wyoming and South Dakota have gotten very vacation-y in the summer. Everywhere we went, we were surrounded by other tourists (generally slow-driving ones). Granted, we were in the most vacation-y parts of both states. But still. Montana, on the other hand, was almost always empty-feeling and comparatively devoid of other tourists. Flathead Lake was a little touristy, but even on the interstates and inside Glacier National Park and in Livingston, gateway to Yellowstone, I never felt the kind of frustration I felt in Wyoming and South Dakota.

So. I officially revise my favorite national park to Glacier, and my favorite driving state to Montana.

Sunday, July 28, 2013


We just happened to hit Jackson, WY, at the same time as their County Fair. With rodeo.

Of course we had to go.

My stepson had never been--to either a county fair or a rodeo. It was exactly what you'd expect--a lot of rinky-dink rides, tons of junk food, livestock exhibitions. We ate cotton candy, rode the Ferris wheel (and watched the sun setting from the top), and bought tickets for the rodeo.

He was a little unsure ("People ride cows? What?") but he loved it. I loved it. We all loved it. I loved that the beer stand only sold Coors Light, and the guy apologized for charging me $5 for it.

Mountains, beer, AND a rodeo, all in one day!

Friday, July 26, 2013

Grand Teton National Park, WY

Grand Teton is like a breath of fresh air after Yellowstone (almost literally, given the sulfur fumes). It's less crowded, smaller, and involves only one thing: enormous mountains, jutting up from flat prairie.

It's breathtaking, as you can tell from the pictures. We stopped and had a picnic lunch overlooking Jackson Lake. The next morning, we took in the Snake River Overlook (where Ansel Adams took his famous picture) and ended the day by driving down through Idaho, on the other side of the Tetons, and back through a vertiginous mountain pass. It's a long drive (out West Yellowstone, down route 20, across the mountains on 26), but prettier and way less frustrating than sitting in all the park traffic.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Yellowstone National Park

Old Faithful

The first time I went to Yellowstone, I hated it. It was crowded, hot, full of dead burnt-out trees, and as far as I could tell was nothing but a monument to swamps and slow people.

However, I discovered the secret to liking Yellowstone this time around. First, go early. Very early. Even the remote parts will get crowded by lunchtime. Second, go to the eastern side of the park.

The western side is all geysers, fountains, burbling mud, and weird smells. Some of it is interesting--we saw Old Faithful erupt (and even got a little on us), but this is of course the most crowded part of the park. The eastern side contains the lake, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, and all the bison/bison grazing fields.

Also, the drive from Livingston, MT down to the north entrance is spectacular. Especially at sunrise.

Mammoth Hot Springs

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Highway 89, Montana

I just had the best drive of my life.

It was on 89, through central Montana.

89 is a two-lane road that cuts down from near Glacier National Park through Great Falls and the Lewis and Clark National Forest to Livingston. It skirts the Rockies almost all the way. The speed limit is 70. It passes through a few towns, but very few.

So it is a long, straight, high-speed road that has the Rocky Mountains on one side and plains on the other, with very few other cars. There are other cars, of course--but because the road is mostly long and straight, in a treeless country, it's very easy to pass them. To blow past them doing 95, perhaps, because what cop would sit out there to catch speeders?

And oh, it was gorgeous. Truly the best drive of my life. Beautiful, easy, fast, and clear. The topography changed going through the Lewis and Clark National Forest, of course, but then it opened back up in mountains and plains. The only problem was the relative lack of bathrooms, and the lack of good places to pull over and take pictures. It's probably just as well--I would have been taking pictures every mile or so.

And on a beautiful clear, sunny, hot day--we played the music loud, drove fast, and exclaimed over the scenery.

Spectacular. Just spectacular.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Into Montana

Columbia River, Central Washington
St. Ignatius, Montana

Flathead Lake, Montana

I can't tell you how good it feels to be on the road again. To be not working. To be able to relax a little. To see some of the most scenery ever.

We started the day early. The climb into Snoqualmie Pass through the Cascades was a little foggy, but the instant we crested and started going downhill, the sun came out. Central Washington is flat and rolling, much like Oklahoma (but not quite as green). All the rest areas we stopped at had fantastic views. Idaho was mountainous and forested and the interstate got much twistier at that point.

Once we got off I-90 in Montana, we began the trek up 70-mph two-lane back roads to Kalispell. We passed some ridiculous mountains (how did I miss St. Ignatius the first time I drove up here? I've never seen a more beautiful small town) and Flathead Lake, which is a prime vacation destination and so was full of slow-moving people.

We grabbed dinner at a joint called Moose's Tavern, which was a strange combination of bar and family pizza joint. With sawdust on the floor. Never fear, though: the pizza was excellent and the beer was cheap. We lingered for a couple of hours, playing Uno.

My stepson is having a fantastic time. We spent most of the day talking and laughing in the car, everyone exclaiming over the scenery. In a few minutes I'll wake everyone up and we'll go to Glacier National Park, then continue down central Montana to spend the night in Livingston.

Two thoughts: when I made my solo road trip four years ago, I couldn't imagine doing it with another person. Now? I love having a driving buddy (my husband). We work very well together in a car, and it's so awesome to be able to share the experience with someone.

Also, I realized my favorite thing ever is this. In a car, driving, pretending I'm an outlaw. Seeing the sights, driving fast, paying for everything with cash.

Next stop: Glacier!

Saturday, July 20, 2013

On the road again

It's hard to believe it's been four years.

Four years ago, almost to the week, I was road-tripping through the same part of the country that we'll be road-tripping through all of next week. Montana, Wyoming, the Dakotas.

I had been laid off from my job in New York, spent a few fruitless weeks searching for work, and decided one day that if I couldn't solve the problem, I could at least make the problem irrelevant for a while. I took off on a solo, ten-week, cross-country-and-back mother of all road trips. I covered 19,000 miles--all of the continental U.S. states, plus brief forays into Mexico and Canada--and reconnected with the man I would marry less than a year later.

It was quite a trip. As soon as it was over, I packed up all my stuff in New York and drove it back across the country to San Diego, where I moved in with the aforementioned almost-husband. And then started this blog.

When we moved here, to Seattle, I wanted one of our first vacations to recreate the upper Western part of my solo road trip. I drove from Seattle to Glacier National Park, down to Yellowstone and Grand Teton, across Wyoming to Rapid City, SD and the Badlands. It was one of my favorite parts of the trip; incredible scenery, very few people (outside Yellowstone and Mt. Rushmore, anyway), and amazing driving. My husband hasn't seen many of the places we'll go next week, and my stepson hasn't seen any.

So, I'll be blogging it all again. In the meantime, here are my thoughts from 2009, when I was seeing it all for the first time:

Driving from Seattle to Glacier
Glacier National Park
Jackson, WY
Rapid City, SD

And hey, some pictures!

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Food for the family road trip

I've been on a lot of road trips (as you know), but this will be my first family road trip; my 13-year-old stepson will be along. Also, the road-tripping is the vacation this time; rather than driving straight through to some far destination, we'll be meandering through Montana, Wyoming, and the Dakotas, spending several hours each day driving, but also stopping to eat, sleep, and see things.

But we're still trying to keep this economical. Thanks to our Prius, we can cover close to 4,000 miles on $300 in gas. We'll stay in the nearest Motel 6 each night. My annual National Parks Pass (last year's birthday present from my parents) means we can skip paying admission at all the national parks we plan on visiting.

Which just leaves food. We can eat at least two meals a day out of the cooler in the backseat, stocked with sandwiches, fruit, homemade cookies, and road-trip staples like beef jerky and trail mix. We'll have a couple of picnics in the great outdoors. Dinner will be eaten in an actual non-chain restaurant each night.

I've written about road food before (and here), but with a kid along, we'll need more kid-friendly fare.

How do you go about stocking a cooler for minimal expense?

1. Buy bottled water on sale, and freeze the bottles. These will be the ice for your cooler; they can be refrozen each night (thanks to the microwave-fridge that comes with each room at the Motel 6) or drunk as they melt. In a pinch, the hotel can provide ice for the cooler. Refill empty water bottles and Camelbaks each night in the sink.

2. Sandwiches and wraps. I'll buy a loaf of bread, some sliced turkey and cheese, a package of large tortillas, and a big box of salad greens at Costco. Add a small jar of mustard and a jar each of peanut butter and jelly and sandwiches are taken care of. The salad greens will go inside the tortillas, along with bacon and some shredded cheese, to become wraps. (And a much-needed source of greenery.)

3. A variety of other stuff. I made two batches of chocolate chip cookies. Costco also provided apples, bananas, beef jerky, granola bars, and the base ingredients for some homemade trail mix (nuts, dried fruit, chocolate chips). In addition, I packed some dried fruit, a small bag of baby carrots, a box of cereal, a bag of pretzels, and some crackers.

4. Caffeine. This can be slightly tricky, depending on how you feel about cheap truck stop coffee. Normally tea is the basis of my road trip caffeine; hot tea bags are cheap and easy to pack, and I can throw one into my refillable mug every morning and top it off with free hot water at the nearest gas station. Ditto iced tea bags--throw one into the Camelbak, add water, done. But my husband is a coffee drinker, and I'm getting back into drinking coffee myself. So we'll need a way to get decent coffee while on the road--that's not from Starbucks or a gas station.

I think the way to solve that problem is with iced coffee. I can make two large Thermoses of good coffee before we leave home, and doctor them up with cream, simple syrup and an orange peel. Then each morning we'll fill the Camelbaks with free hotel ice, add the coffee, and away we go. I'm not sure we'll have a full ten days' supply  in those two Thermoses, but I can go back to drinking tea when it runs out and my husband can drink gas station coffee for a couple of days.

Regardless, if we're carrying our own coffee and tea supplies, and our own food supplies, we'll never need to buy anything at a gas station that isn't gas.

So breakfast can be wraps, fruit, and iced coffee; lunch can be sandwiches and more fruit; and there will be an infinite variety of snacks.

Other things we'll bring with us, rather than buy on the road:

Sunscreen and bug spray
A couple bottles of wine (for picnicking purposes)
All the Camelbaks, water bottles, Thermoses and travel mugs (no need to buy any beverages, ever!)
Guidebooks from the library
Tissues, paper towels, wet wipes, and Febreze (for the car)
Laundry detergent and quarters (just in case)
Silverware (rather than buying plastic)
Stamps (for postcards)

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Prepping the car for a family road trip

I've taken a lot of road trips in my life, but this is the first one I'll be taking with a kid. Visions of National Lampoon's Vacation (and The Shining) keep going through my head.

More on that later. Today: getting the car ready!

What your car will need for a family road trip vacation:

1. A wash, inside and out. Clean out the pockets and glove compartment while you're at it.
2. A check-up. At the very least check the oil and tire pressure.
3. Cleaning supplies. A box of tissues, a roll of paper towels, some wet wipes, some Febreze, trash bags.
4. GPS, phone charging cords, iPod cords.
5. Speaking of iPods, cue up a good playlist. Or some books on tape.
6. Road atlas and guidebooks.
7. A blanket. Good for picnics and for naps. (And a pillow.)
8. Umbrella, flashlight, emergency kit (one of those kits with flares, jumper cables, and a first-aid kit), and a roll of duct tape.
9. Make sure your insurance, AAA membership, and spare tire are all in good shape.
10. Quarters, for parking and tolls.
11. A bottle of ibuprofen or aspirin.
12. Depending on the age of your kids, games, drawing supplies, and/or a deck of cards.

I'm also throwing in some extra totebags.

Next up: what to put in the cooler!

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Egg drop soup

I love fast, easy, three-ingredient things.

Since we're going on a ten-day road trip next week, I haven't been buying a lot of groceries. The fridge will be empty when we leave, but until, it's slim pickings. I still have quite a lot of eggs, though, and egg drop soup is faster and easier than a souffle.

Basically all you need is good broth, eggs, and cornstarch. You can fancy it up with soy sauce, fish sauce, ginger, scallions, all kinds of stuff as laid out in this article in The Kitchn, reprinted below:

(I used only homemade broth, eggs, cornstarch, and a little soy and fish sauce. And it only took like four minutes from start to finish.)
4 cups (32 oz) chicken or vegetable stock
1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon cornstarch
2 to 4 large eggs
Salt or soy sauce

Flavoring Extras - Use one or all
1/2" fresh ginger, peeled and cut into rounds
1 stem lemongrass, bruised
1/2 teaspoon peppercorns
2 star anise
6-8 whole cloves
1 cinnamon stick
1 tablespoon soy sauce
2 tablespoons miso

Soup Extras - Use one or all
1/2 block (7-8 oz) extra-firm tofu, cut into bite-sized pieces
8 oz mushrooms, thinly sliced
1 bunch baby bok choy, thinly sliced
4 spring onions, thinly sliced

Pour the stock into a saucepan and place over medium-high heat. Put the smaller flavoring extras you're using into a tea ball or spice bag. Add all your flavoring extras to the saucepan with the stock. Turn down the heat to medium-low and simmer for 15 minutes. Scoop out all the flavoring extras with a slotted spoon. Taste and add salt or soy sauce as needed.

Add any soup extras to the stock and simmer for five minutes. Save some scallions for sprinkling on top of the soup at the end.

Scoop out 1/4 cup or so of the stock and whisk it with 1 tablespoon of cornstarch in a small bowl. Whisk this back into the stock and let it simmer for a minute or two until the broth no longer tastes starchy.

Whisk together the eggs in a small bowl with the remaining teaspoon of cornstarch. Make sure your soup is at a bare simmer. Holding a fork over the bowl (see photo), pour the eggs slowly through the tines. Whisk the broth gently with your other hand as you pour. Let the soup stand for a few seconds to finish cooking the eggs.

Serve immediately, topped with thinly sliced scallions.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Chocolate pudding

Mmmmm, pudding.

3/4 cup sugar
1/3 cup cocoa powder
2 tablespoons cornstarch
2 2/3 cups milk
4 beaten egg yolks
1 tablespoon butter
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla

In a heavy saucepan combine sugar, cocoa, and cornstarch. Add milk. Cook and stir over medium heat til mixture is thickened and bubbly. Cook and stir for 2 minutes more. Remove from heat. Gradually stir about 1 cup of the hot mixture into the beaten eggs. Return all of the egg mixture to the pan and bring to a gentle boil. Reduce heat. Cook and stir for 2 minutes more. Remove from heat. Stir in butter and vanilla. Pour pudding into a bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Do not stir! Chill.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Frozen vegetable soup

When my husband threatened to get sick, too, I decided to make a batch of chicken noodle soup for him.

Then I realized I didn't have any chicken.

So I decided on vegetable soup instead.

However, my vegetable supplies were a little puny. I had to supplement with frozen veggies.

Fortunately, that's not a problem. Vegetable soup is more a guideline than a recipe. I ended up adding an onion, several carrots, one old zucchini, a can of whole tomatoes, a bag of frozen green beans, a bag of frozen corn, and two bunches of radish greens, along with a handful of dried macaroni. Oh, and I got to use up a bunch of homemade broth. With seasonings, it was a very delicious soup.

It's similar to refrigerator soup, except without meat, and with frozen veggies.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Nutella muffins

It's been a long few days, recovering from that godawful stomach bug. I spent a couple of days feeling weak and puny, with no real appetite at all. Yesterday, my husband started to feel bad, and I had a terrible vision of him getting this thing too. Fortunately, he hasn't so far, and my appetite has come back.

I celebrated by making a batch of Nutella muffins.

From Kirbie's Cravings, reprinted below:

(Note: I halved this recipe.)

1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/4 cups light brown sugar packed
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup of Nutella
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup chocolate chips
2 eggs
1 cup (8 ounces) milk
2 teaspoons vanilla
2 teaspoons vinegar
1 stick butter, melted

Preheat the oven to 400°F. Line oversized muffin molds with liners. You can also line regular muffin pans. Makes about 12 oversized or 24 regular. In a large mixing bowl, whisk together flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, salt. In a medium-sized mixing bowl, whisk together the eggs, milk, vanilla, Nutella and vinegar. Add the wet ingredients, along with the melted butter, to the dry ingredients, then the chocolate chips, stirring until all ingredients are combined. The batter will still be a little lumpy.

Scoop the batter into the prepared muffin tin about 2/3 full. Bake the muffins for about 25 minutes for oversized muffins (about 18 minutes for regular), or until a knife inserted in the center of a muffin comes out clean.

Saturday, July 6, 2013


I spent the Fourth of July in a fetal position.

Not because of fireworks or anything. I got a vicious stomach bug that has apparently been making the rounds at work. I think I threw up more times that day than I ever have cumulatively in my entire life. Seriously. I think I pulled something.

Fortunately, it was short-lived. I spent 12 hours in absolute agony--I couldn't even keep water down--and then as quickly as it hit me, it was gone. I managed to go to work last night, though I was operating at about 40% capacity. My stomach is fine now, I'm just still recuperating from not having eaten very much in the last couple of days.

Also, I lost four pounds in 48 hours. Yay?

So I'll be doing my Fourth of July grilling tomorrow, assuming my recovery stays on track.

Anyway, at least I got sick on an already-scheduled day off, so that I didn't have to miss any work. And better now than on the road trip, right?

Speaking of which! I will be taking my hubs and stepston to revisit some of my favorite parts of the Great 2009 Cross-Country Road Trip: namely, Montana, Wyoming, and the Dakotas. We'll see Glacier National Park, Yellowstone and Grand Teton, the Badlands and Mt. Rushmore, and Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota. It'll be an epic 10-day car loop through some fantastic scenery.

I've already been accumulating some of the things we'll need: updated summer clothes, sunscreen, new water bottles, beef jerky, a catsitter. You know, the basics. I got a bunch of travel guides from the library and new tires for the car (we needed those anyway).

T-minus two weeks and counting!

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Mt. Rainier National Park, WA

I've been waiting for a Monday and a perfect weather day to coincide for a while, so that we could finally get to Mt. Rainier National Park. Why Monday? Because it's one of my two days off, and because the park would be far less crowded than on a Sunday (my other day off).

Yesterday dawned a perfectly clear, hot day. Summer has finally arrived in the Pacific Northwest, with temperatures in the high 80s (I had to run out and buy three fans this weekend). The last of the park roads had been opened--there are still two feet of snow on the ground at the higher elevations, and that's on July 1--and there were a fair amount of people in the park, but I'm sure not nearly as many as the weekend.

 It was gorgeous, naturally.

The only downside was having to drive back on two-lane mountain roads behind a bunch of slow-moving tourists. I get super-aggravated, stuck behind someone like that. I really have to find a way to not be aggravated by that, or else I'll spend the entire road trip in three weeks in full bitch mode.

Oh yeah, the road trip!

Ten days of driving through Montana, Wyoming, and the Dakotas. At least five national parks and several national monuments. Some of the most breathtaking scenery on the continent. Ten days of sitting in a car, not working.

Stay tuned...