Nature Disneyland

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I know Yellowstone is amazing. I know it was the first National Park and is the reason we have a National Park system to begin with. I know I was supposed to be impressed, and in some ways, I was. Here is my experience.

I did Yellowstone in two parts, with a trip to Bozeman, Montana in between. More on Bozeman later. I met my friend and another friend of hers at the Grant Village Campground which is on the southwest side of the largest naturally-made alpine lake above 7,000 ft in North America. I drove in from Cody, Wyoming on the east side of the park and went through Shoshone National Forest, which was interesting to see.

Shoshone National Forest

Shoshone National Forest

I travelled around half of the lake to get to the Grant Village. It was a beautiful drive with lake and mountain views the whole way around. I even got a life bird at a stop at Pelican Creek (cinnamon teal, not pelican, though they were there too) and saw a coyote.

Eleanor Lake

Eleanor Lake

We set up camp at the tightest packed campground I have ever seen and set off on a short, late-afternoon hike to see Lone Star Geyser on a recommendation from other park patrons.

Lone Star

Lone Star

They said it was better than Old Faithful if you catch it when it is going off, but it is less reliable, going off every three hours or so. It was an easy walk down a decommissioned road, and when we got there, the geyser was going! Lucky us! We watched for a while, then it simmered down. There were only four other people there and one of them said that was only the pre-eruption and that the full, 40 foot high eruption would happen in half an hour (the information plaque said that too). So we waited. And waited. And got a lot of mosquito bites. And waited some more. And just as we were about to go, off went the geyser!

It was worth waiting for. Not only for the innuendoes it inspired, but for the sheer power and weirdness of such an event. It was impressive, for the first five minutes. Then it kept going for another fifteen. We started talking to a couple of guys who were also watching it. They had been on a hike and lost their way. They were looking for a ride back to their car (sound familiar?). I was eager to give back for all the kindness I had received on my trip, so we offered to take them. We had the whole 2 mile walk to get to know the young adventurers. They were fresh out of college and taking road trip to see all the National Parks. They were enthusiastic and happy and we all appreciated their stories and positivity.

The evening was topped off by a beautiful sunset over the lake, then mac and cheese and hot dogs cooked over the fire. Delicious!

Yellowstone Sunset

We had big plans the next day: hike to Fairy Falls and see the iconic Grand Prismatic Spring. The hike was really more of a walk and falls were nice.

Grand Prismatic from the trail to Fairy Falls

Grand Prismatic from the trail to Fairy Falls

Steaming Hillsides Fairy FallsGrand Prismatic Spring was truly incredible, but the effect was dampened by the inability to find a parking spot and getting pushed around on the boardwalk to get out of the way of peoples “perfect” photos. I realized that there was no way to get around the people, so I took some pictures with people in them. Go with the flow, right? The place was really other-worldly and with all the people around, it felt like a theme park. Still, I am really glad I saw this spring.

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We took the long drive out of the park to see some of the more scenic spots like Tower Falls and some pretty wildflower meadows. Overall, for me, it was a rather frustrating drive behind very slow rented rv’s and wildlife-induced traffic jams. People would pull over on the side of a road without a shoulder, blocking traffic and running around in the middle of the street to chase an elk into the woods with their cameras at the ready. Is it really so important to get that picture of the poor elk? I don’t think so. I guess everyone experiences nature in a different way, but I was satisfied to see the elk and not harass them.

After a respite in Bozeman for a few days, I gathered my energy and patience and went back into Yellowstone by myself for another night on my way to Grand Teton National Park. IMG_4400This was a Thursday and I almost didn’t get a campsite the park was so packed. I also lollygagged in Norris Geyser Basin. That was a nice, boardwalked, self-guided tour of one of the geothermal sites in the park. Again, it was difficult to find a parking spot and there were people everywhere. I took the monorail from the parking lot to the geyser…oh, sorry, that’s a different park…

Norris Geyser Basin

Norris Geyser Basin

IMG_4403People and a pool

I set up my campsite at the site farthest south in the park, Lewis Lake, and then I accomplished one of my trip goals: going to a small-town rodeo. I left the park and went to West Yellowstone. The Wild West Yellowstone Rodeo was perfect. Exactly what I pictured. There were maybe six contestants and they did all the events I wanted to see. There were bad jokes and audience participation led by the not-so-funny rodeo clown and demonstrations of true skill by the cowboys and girls. I thoroughly enjoyed my evening there.

Rodeo TonightCalf RopingIn the morning, after a cold night’s sleep interrupted by a drunk or maybe high girl screaming at 2am, I left Yellowstone for the Tetons. I had enough of the traffic and the pushy tourists. I have mixed feelings about this park. I respect everything the park has done to make its main features accessible to all, but standing on a boardwalk and getting shoved around was not what I wanted to continue to do. The geothermal features of Yellowstone were worth experiencing and I am happy that I went. Perhaps some day I’ll go back and see more, like Old Faithful, which I skipped. Yes, I did. Sacrilege, I know, but I saw one geyser and fighting for a parking spot to see another was not on my agenda. Congress and President Grant were right to preserve this unique place, but I wonder how much our “preservation” is actually damaging it. I suppose it won’t matter after the volcano erupts!

Watch your feet!

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Badlands are Badass

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I powered through the rest of Minnesota and South Dakota in order to have two days in the Badlands. I knew I would want to spend time exploring them and I was right. I got there in the early evening. It looked like some storms were coming through and I had to drive almost all the way through the park to get to my campsite. I thought I would just drive through really quickly to make sure I set up my tent while it was still light out and not raining. I would explore the next day. Ha! Impossible in this park. The landscape was so striking when I pulled up that I definitely had to take my time.

Rain in the Badlads

Badlands became a national park with the stipulation that the Park Service build a road to show the public all of the most interesting features, so driving that road was the best part of the park. The storms in the distance made it even more dramatic. I still managed to set up my tent before the sun set. It was completely worth stopping and looking around.

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IMG_4183During that first drive of the loop road, I checked off all the common species people go there to see. I saw bighorn sheep, pronghorn, and bison, and I was happy to back in the land of the prairie dog! Not as huggable as the groundhogs of the east, but pretty darn cute.

My campsite was basically in the middle of a field which was fantastic. No running water and no fires allowed, but so scenic and isolated. There were a handful of other campers there plus a bison giving himself a back rub on a picnic table. Perfect! This place is great.

There was a huge thunderstorm my first night. That area gets 16 inches of precipitation per year on average and I swear half of it must have fallen that night. The lightning flashing looked like there was a strobe light in my tent it was so frequent. Thankfully, I did not wash away or get hit by lightning. I woke up in a dry tent with a drizzly morning outside. I unzipped the rainfly and stood up to see what the day looked like and I was face to face with a bison! Okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but he was really close to my tent.

Wake up with Bison!

Regardless of the rain, I was determined to hike the longest, and basically only, trail in the park. This park allows backcountry hiking and camping, which is great, but not when I’m by myself. I stuck to the trail and managed to get plenty lost anyway, no backcountry necessary. It all worked out thanks to the couple from Quebec who took me back to my car (see The Kindness of Strangers Saves Me From Myself).

Walk in the Badlands

 

Badlands Flower

By then, the sun had come out and I took another leisurely drive back to my campsite, stopping at some of the pull-offs I missed the day before.

When I got back to the campsite, the friendly bison was there again (I have to assume it was the same one). This time he was scratching his back on the bathroom building. Apparently, there was someone inside, since some kids were standing outside yelling, “You might not want to come out right now! There’s a buffalo out here!” It was the funniest thing I had seen in a while. That poor person on the toilet!

The Badlands were like nothing I had seen before. Jumping out of the plains in a 100-mile-long wall, they are impressive and unique. I enjoyed my time there very much. It was not crazy crowded or hectic and I never felt rushed, which was great since the landscape shifts and morphs as you drive around curves or as the light changes and it behooved me to take my time. It may not be high on people’s destination lists, but it should be. I loved it.

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The Kindness of Strangers Saves Me From Myself

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Spoiler alert! I’m in Wyoming. I will write a post about my adventures in South Dakota soon, but I had to write this one while it was fresh.

Obviously, my trip is not over yet, but I have been absolutely overwhelmed time and again by how genuinely nice people have been to me. Those I have visited are a given. My friends and family are fantastic and I love them, and friends of friends have been great too. What I have been most struck by is the genuine interest and enthusiastic kindness that has been shown to me, especially when I have been in need. I know many of you were worried about me traveling alone and camping by myself, but let me assuage your fears: I have not felt unsafe ONCE the entire trip. Maybe it is because when you visit a national park, everyone is there to do the same thing, enjoy the experience, so spirits are high and crime is low. But I have seen the same from people I met in cities at bars or walking down the street.

I mentioned earlier the willingness of people to pay for my drinks, it helps to be a nice girl at a bar alone in that respect, but it goes beyond that. I was driving through Minnesota in a serious thunderstorm with wind gusts up to 70 mph, so I called it a night and stopped in Rochester, MN only because it was the closest place I could find a hotel. The man at the front desk took pity on me and gave me a super discount and a room right next to the door so it would be easier for me to move my stuff into my room in the rain. The drive was stressful, but my mood was lightened by his effort to help me how he could.

Small things like that really make a difference to me. I was following my phone GPS and lost service in South Dakota between Mount Rushmore and Wind Cave National Park. I basically knew where I needed to go and followed my paper map, then all of a sudden I was at an entrance fee booth for Custer State Park. I told the attendant what happened and he clearly wanted to help me. He said, “I’m really supposed to sell you a pass….but if you just follow this road then make your next left you’ll be on your way to Wind Cave.” It did not do him any harm to let me go through without paying, but I certainly appreciated it!

Some bigger things have happened that caused mild panic and anger at myself. Only mild, as they would have been inconveniences if not remedied, not major catastrophes. In Madison, I took my bike off my car and locked it at the campground before I went into the city for dinner. I absentmindedly forgot to screw the pieces on the rack back together before I left and the small screws and pieces holding the fork of the bike to the car went flying off on the highway (the bike was locked safely at the campsite, only the rack was harmed). What was I going to do now?! Put the bike IN my car? Not likely. Talk about a pain in the butt (head actually, since the wheel would have been resting on my driver’s seat)! Lucky for me, Madison is a major biking town and the next morning I stopped at Machinery Row Bicycles and the mechanic, nay, wizard there looked at it, grabbed some spare parts from the shop and had me rolling again in 15 minutes for no charge! I could have kissed him. I put a healthy donation into their beer fund.

I took a nice hike in the Badlands. Basically the only long, marked trail in the park, you could turn it into a loop by taking a little spur that reconnects with the main trail. I was enjoying my walk, birding, loving the landscape. I made my loop and was back at my car a little sooner than I expected. Oh, wait, my car was not in that parking lot. I had turned the wrong way and went to the end of the trail, instead of making the loop. The Badlands are gorgeous and impressive, but man! It all looks the same! The parking lot I was in was for a very short trail and fossil exhibit. Surely someone would take me back to my car and not make me walk 5 more miles. Single dude with mohawk? No way! Not even asking. I’m sure he was nice, but I did not want to be stupid about this. How about a couple my age? “Sure!” said the girl, “Oh wait, we’re moving and our car is packed with stuff.” I certainly understand that. Ok, middle-aged couple taking pictures in front of the fossils. Perfect! It turned out they were from Quebec City and were so nice, even though I think sometimes they did not quite understand me. They said (imagine the french accent), “Yes…you can travel with us! We will do for you like we will do for our own daughter.” And they gave me a diet Pepsi and some almonds. I was so appreciative and the woman gave me a big hug when whey dropped me off.

Yep. It all pretty much looked like that.

My walk through the Badlands. Yep. It all pretty much looked like that.

The culmination of all of this and what made me really want to write this post just happened on my way into Greybull, Wyoming driving through Bighorn National Forest. The forest was beautiful and it felt good to be back in the Rockies. I was driving along, enjoying the views when I saw a guy on the side of the road with a scope or big camera. Either way, I wanted to see what he was looking at. I pulled over and I thought, “Oh, horses….wait a second…those are really big…MOOSE!!” I have never seen a moose before and I have wanted to for so long. I turned on my flashers jumped out and started chatting with the photographer. He has a day job, but loves nature photography and was digging watching the moose and getting some good shots. You can check out his pictures here:https://www.facebook.com/mikesmithphotographywyo. We chatted for a while, then it was time for me to continue on my way to get through the mountains with some daylight left. Did I mention I had turned on my flashers? Apparently my lights were on too. Yeah, my battery died. No cell phone service and foolishly, no jumper cables. You never think to buy them until you need them, right? The photographer said he might have some and stopped taking pictures of the moose to run back to his car. It was so nice of him to stop what he was doing to help me. Sadly, he only had a battery charger that didn’t quite do the trick. By this time, some more moose-ooglers had stopped and a nice couple from Iowa, I think, said they had cables and gave me a jump. Good to go!

I can’t thank all of these people enough. These experiences have given me a renewed faith in humanity. Coming from Annapolis where I did not like to sit alone in bars because everyone seemed to good to talk to me, I’m more and more impressed by people every day. It has calmed some of my paranoia about doing this trip by myself too. Most of the people in this world are good people!

….but I’m still locking up my bike at night.

Wisconsin is Made of Cheese

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On my way into Monroe, Wisconsin I stopped for some requisite cheese curds. I was entering the dairy capital of the universe, after all. Little did I know cheese would be part of every meal for the next three days. Nevertheless, curds in hand, I found my home for two nights, the Gasthaus Motel. Don’t let the “motel” moniker fool you, this place was family run, small, and most importantly, clean and comfortable.

A tiny beer by a local brewery. It made me feel like a giant!

A tiny beer by a local brewery. It made me feel like a giant!

Besides my love of all things dairy, reason enough to visit the state, I was really there for my friends wedding reception. The couple was already legally hitched, so Saturday night was basically going to be a big party. I met her, her fiancé, and respective families and we caravanned to the groom’s parents’ sheep farm for pizza dinner.

Their farm was picturesque complete with a friendly sheep who ate grass out of your hand. I’m so grateful I was invited to tag along to this dinner. I got to know the groom’s family and meet many of the bride’s other friends and finally put faces to names.

Sheep Serenity

It was so much fun, we all went back the next day before the reception. The wedding was really fun and it was so nice to spend a lot of time with my oldest friend, the bride, and all the new friends I made over that weekend.

Sunday, I had big plans: visit the Historic Cheesmaking Museum and the International Crane Foundation.

Cheesemaking MuseumAfter a quick diner breakfast for $4.75, I took a tour of the Cheesemaking Museum. I basically knew the process for making cheese, but it was interesting to see the way they made it when the settlers from Switzerland first brought cheese making to that area. I learned that this area is the only place in the U.S. where Limburger cheese is still made. It is all made by hand and it very labor intensive. In my opinion, they could really stop the hard work after the gross Limburger sandwich I ate at Baumgartner’s after the wedding, but I guess some people like it. (They’re crazy.) I also learned that a wheel of Swiss weighs around 200 lbs and it was one person’s job to go to all the Swiss cheese factories in the area and wash those enormous wheels while they were aging with a salt scrub to keep the cheese from molding. That person had to move each wheel of cheese to do this. At his height, the tour guide said, “Ernie washed 400 wheels in a day!” Wait a second…Ernie…that was the name of the 80-something man sitting next to me in the diner! The tour guide could not say for certain that was the same Ernie, but I think it was. He was missing a finger on one hand and I’m pretty sure if you dropped a 200lb wheel of cheese in your finger, you’d lose it. I digress…

The historic copper cheese making kettle

The historic copper cheese making kettle

I scurried away from Monroe to make it to the 3pm tour of the cranes. However, I HAD to stop at the Alp and Dell cheese company to pick up supplies. I’m glad I did, because the guy working there gave all of us in the store a short yodeling demonstration. Wisconsin is pretty awesome.

The International Crane Conservancy houses representatives of all of the worlds’ 15 species of crane. They are huge and beautiful and this stop on my trip was well worth it.

One enclosure at the International Crane Foundation

One enclosure at the International Crane Foundation

I set up camp in Lake Kegonsa State Park, then took an iPhone-guided tour of Madison for dinner and drinks. I tried some of the local brews at The Old Fashioned which only serves Wisconsin beer.

Wisconsin Beer

Wisconsin Empties

I went to sleep back at my campsite and awoke the next morning to cranes calling and saw some turklets (baby wild turkeys) poking around the campground. I’m sure the park would have been fun to explore, but I was on a mission to get to the middle if Minnesota that night in order to have ample time exploring the Badlands with a stop at The House on the Rock, one of the craziest places I have ever seen.

 

Chicago

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I got into Chicago in time for dinner after a quick stop at Three Floyd’s Brewery near the border between Illinois and Indiana. The beers were delicious and a very nice man sitting next to me offered good conversation and to pay my bill. Midwesterners are so nice. I stayed with a friend during my whole visit to Chicago and it was so much fun seeing her and the city that I decided to stay an extra day. Her neighborhood, Wicker Park, was hipster, but largely without the snotty attitude. Mostly it had good restaurants and bars and was ideally located for public transportation. I parked my car for the week which felt very nice considering all the driving I’m doing.

Unfortunately, the weather turned rainy and chilly the day after I got there. At least that wasn’t the camping portion of my trip! Still, it put a damper on some of my plans. I persevered and rode my bike the first morning anyway. I only had to make one turn, according to Google, to get to the waterfront where there is a nice bike path along Lake Michigan. It was not raining when I left and I was feeling pretty good, then I found construction and got a little turned around on streets without bike lanes. Whoops. I made it to the lake just as it started to drizzle which, combined with the stiff breeze, made me rather cold. Overall, not my favorite bike ride ever, but the skyscrapers did look impressive from the waterfront and I saw some nesting black-crowned night herons, so it was not a total loss.

Chicago by the Lake

After a hot shower, I ate a great lunch at one of the many places in the area that offer locally sourced ingredients, Birchwood Kitchen. Between the rain and my full belly, I pretty much called it a day and waited for my friend to get home from work. We spent the night drinking at a friend’s house down the street and it was a perfect way to spend a rainy evening.

I was pretty, ahem, lazy the next morning, but managed to get off my butt to go to lunch at Handlebar, also in the neighborhood and exactly what I needed: spicy Mexican-ish food with an egg on top. It was supposed to rain that day too, but it held off so I went downtown and wandered through Grant and Millenium Parks, then I just kept walking. I went to Magnificent Mile during rush hour and felt like I got a good taste of the bustling, working city. I had time to kill before I met my friend and others for a free improv show (so fun!). I thought a drink with a nice view at the top of the Hancock Tower would work, but the visibility was so bad, it wasn’t worth the price of admission. Instead, I went to a pub (see Chicago Dog).

Buckingham Fountain in Grant Park

Buckingham Fountain in Grant Park

Sculpture in the garden at the Art Institute of Chicago

Sculpture in the garden at the Art Institute of Chicago

I made my bonus rain-free day three count with brunch tacos at Big Star (another expert suggestion by my friend’s roommate, who was responsible for many of my food choices). Fueled by pork belly, I went to the top of the Willis (formerly Sears) Tower. The view was incredible and the glass ledge was unnerving and thrilling. It was fun to see from above all the places I walked the day before. I went pretty far!

Pictures of me are rare traveling by myself, but I definitely had to get someone to take this one.

Pictures of me are rare traveling by myself, but I definitely had to get someone to take this one.

Yikes!

Yikes!

I enjoyed the rest of the afternoon sunshine at Lincoln Park wandering around the nature trail and the zoo.

Lincoln Park Nature

No stop on my tour of the U.S. would be complete without a trip to a brewery. Conveniently, Goose Island Brewing Co was less than 2 miles from the park. The roommate met up with me for some very good beers that they do not sell in stores and we happened to be there for a premier of a Belgian blonde ale that was stellar.

Photo credit to the roommate

Photo credit to the roommate

A celebration was in store that night as my friend’s parents came to visit. A group of us went to another good restaurant in Wicker Park, Chop Shop. Then the younguns ditched the ‘rents and went to this super cool bar called Violet Hour. It had a speakeasy feeling with no visible door or sign on the outside and very tall booths making dark corners on the inside. The drinks were pricey, but I guess you pay for ambiance.

I said a fond farewell to my friends, old and new, after a nice breakfast at Bite. Seriously, there are no bad restaurants in this neighborhood. In spite of the rain, Chicago had so much to offer and my friend and her roommate, who kept me company during the day, were phenomenal hosts. I hope I can go back for more fun soon! Special thanks to Louie for the entertainment.

Louie!

Louie!

Indy and Family

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This is a little out of order since I posted that photo of the Chicago dog. I couldn’t resist! We now return to the regularly scheduled blog.

From Cleveland, I took the scenic route through Amish country in Ohio to to get to my aunt, uncle, and cousins in Indianapolis. It turns out, there is not very good cell phone reception in Amish country. Go figure. I got a little lost, but luckily I had these cool paper things in my car called “maps.” You may have heard of them as the precursor to Google. The drive was very nice and I ogled the horse and buggies like the other tourists. The land was hilly and the farms small and picturesque.

After I picked up a pie, I continued on to Indianapolis. Most of my time there was spent just visiting. I got some quality time with my very pregnant cousin (at the time of this post a mother, congratulations!) and even more quality time with my other cousin who showed and shuttled me around. I saw parts of the city of Indianapolis that I had never been to, since the other times I was there I was a kid or was there for a specific event. We went to the Eiteljorg Museum where there was a fantastic Ansel Adams exhibit. I wish I could take pictures like his of all the places I’m seeing, but my iPhone will have to do.

Picture of pictures

We also went to some hip areas of the city: Mass Ave and Broad Ripple. Both showed me a vivacious side of Indianapolis that I never saw before. I sampled many local brews and restaurants and had cousins’ brunch at Traders Point Creamery.

Art on Mass Ave

Art on Mass Ave

The Rainbow Bridge in Broad Ripple

The Rainbow Bridge in Broad Ripple

I am thankful I was able to stop in and my family were excellent hosts. It had been a long time since I saw that side of the family and I hope it will not be that long again. If it is, the baby will be grown by the time I get to see him!