Friday, May 30, 2008

Billings: apple of my eye

Afternoon of day 8 P and I arrived in Billings, Montana. My friends and family are probably tired of my gushing about Billings, but really more than 1/2 way through the country it was the first city that was an exception to all the rest. Many cities and towns we had been through were drive-through areas, highly commercial, with the same chains of businesses from state to state. Billings had its own personality, the weather was sunny and hot (you can see our Little Bighorn sunburns in some of the photos), with friendly people and fascinating architecture.

We had a lot of fun running around checking out the city, stopping by the super-cool Thomas Book Store, and taking photos of all sorts of things.

Lunch in Billings was a big deal too. We had been eating fried or fast food for days and were slowing down as travel food caught up with us. In Billings we were on the lookout for a satisfying lunch, while still on the cheep.

Providence shone upon us and lead the way to Stella's, a "kitchen and bakery". P got the biggest salad I have ever seen in my life, I was presented with the warmest, fluffiest, most golden pancakes, eggs, hash browns and Italian sausage. My Boston friends and I had enjoyed lovely Thai together before the road trip and no meal had even come close in quality and enjoyment until beautiful Billings. I wish the grandest fortunes to everyone involved in the Stella's operation, those people were such a grace to this leg of our trip and the weary far-from-home states of our hearts.

Our waitress found out from P that I had never had pie before and with a twinkle in her eye materialized in no time a piece of warm, gooey apple pie complete with vanilla ice cream and, yes, a kiss of whipped cream. My friend M had sent me on a mission to introduce myself to a quality pie experience while on this adventure and Stella's sure did supply. The crust (I know a good crust when I see one) was flaky, with sprinklings of caramelized sugar, the apple slices bite-sized. The warm cinnamon hint was divine with the vanilla ice cream... oh my goodness!

Not only was our pie-bearing waitress oh so helpful with our food and glowing from our out-of-towner praise, but she gave us directions to our next location: Yellowstone National Park. It was this lovely waitress who recommended the town of Gardiner for our pre-Yellowstone stay, and both of us were so delighted by that town, too, that I must wholeheartedly recommend this route for anyone passing through the area.

P was having funny-face day:

We kept stopping and gazing adoringly at the mountains of Montana on our way to Gardiner. Lucky we did that because the next day, while at Yellowstone, the clouds had settled in the mountains and these sunny 80 degree afternoons were no longer:

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Day 8: Little Bighorn, Billings!, and Gardiner Montana

Finally, I can blog about Montana (and everything after!)!
P and I had spent the night in a town called Sheridan on the WY/ MT border that was one of our least pleasant hotel experiences. We ate microwaved dinners from Safeway and stayed in a Hotel 6 that was a-top this wonderful hill, too bad the entire building smelled of stale cigarettes. We had such great luck on a low budget along the way, it was inevitable there would be one sad little town along the route. Sorry Sheridan and the workers at your Hotel 6, but you win.

But, apart from scenic Sheridan... there were mountains, and for this east coast girl there was the strong thunder-rumble of excitement growing in my heart from being in a place so far from everything I was familiar with. P said the next morning that we should cut back-tracking to Salt Lake City out of the agenda and focus on the beauty of those mountains, so we planned to cross over into Montana, then west through Billings and spend the day on a leisurely southern Montana tour.

The first spontaneous stop off of the highway was Little Bighorn. I saw it on the map and thought "How can we drive by Little Bighorn?" so we followed signs and spent our morning investigating.

Despite days of sun exposure behind us, Little Bighorn and it's many monuments are out on a higher elevation with very few trees but for the cemetery. We were burnt and dehydrated but so impressed with the area, the art, the representation of both US troops and Native American warriors (lead by Sitting Bull, remember this history lesson?) at the monuments. The trails tracking Custer's battle went far into the park, we spent about 45 min. there and didn't see all of it. There will be many more pictures when I begin posting on the Swatchy blog, too. We both felt moved by the place, that we learned a great deal more than we ever remembered reading about, and will go for a longer exploration in the future. If you are driving I-90 through Montana, it is a remarkable place.

Some photos from the highway as we made our way to Billings show what a sweet day we had in store for us weather (and landscape)-wise.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

End Day 7: Leaving Wyoming

From Devil's Tower the goal was to get to the town of Sheridan to spend the night, and spend the next day looking around Montana. All of these pictures were taken off of the highway. Wyoming was flatter than Montana (we hadn't gotten there yet) with many more farms and ranches, but for the first time we saw real mountains off in the distance by the end of the day! Still, the hills were beautiful, and we saw much more green in Wyoming than previous states.

Totem a ways away from a rest area:

This little house nestled in trees was next to the gas station we stopped at. I should have taken a photo of the "LEATHER, SKULLS, FOOD" sign but didn't see it until we were driving away.

Most of the time in Wyoming I spent staring at the sky... I've never seen anything like it! Closest maybe would be being out on the middle of the ocean, we were lucky to get extraordinary clouds that afternoon too. A lovely evening, cooler, driving toward the snow-capped mountains revived our adventurous spirits! Real mountains!

Devil's Tower

Devil's Tower, Wyoming. So surreal the whole time you are driving toward it the Tower looks like a structure, a prop, a painting... surely not real.

We had another sunny and beautiful, though hot, day. In the morning P had gotten up at around 5 a.m. for a run and the sunlight looked as strong as noon. The quality of light there is more white, less yellow than in MA or PA, so that may have something to do with it as well. You can see in some of my pictures the sky looks overcast, but really it was just such blinding afternoon light. We picked up our tourist goodies first and headed out to find a hiking trail.

The surrounding earth and hills around the tower are very red, with these small pines all around. We decided to hike the inner circle around the base of the tower itself:

The Tower itself is covered in moss, the kind that is dry to the touch and somewhat flaky, so the whole thing appears to be green... almost like oxidized metal... adding to the oddity of it's look. Also, these huge columns seem to sweep downward on an angle, creating the appearance that the whole thing pushed it's way out of the surrounding earth with a twist. It was incredible to learn that it is still unknown how the tower was formed, that there are 3 theories about it's creation. We also saw climbers making their way up, crows and vultures circling at the very top!

The view of surrounding valleys:

P at the base of the Tower:

And the tall pine forest surrounding the base, where the trail is, among the Tower's fallen boulders:

But First... Portland

Well my dears, I have finally arrived!!!
After about 3 days here (I figure its safe to stop counting days now, yes?) I have my voice and my health back. P flew back to San Francisco the day before yesterday and I admit, most of yesterday was spent asleep in bed catching up with myself, the hours, the weather and living *above sea level*. C's pregnant belly is growing at a remarkable rate. Her friends here are a great comfort, generous beyond compare, with warm and welcoming hearts toward all these weary east coast migrants.

Truly it was a lot harder to blog from the road than I had thought it would be. We had internet in almost every hotel room but were so drained by the time we found food and lodging in each town that the thought of photo-editing and blogging was a stretch. At the beginning of the journey P and I were up and back on the road between 7 and 9 each morning, but by the end we were usually still loading up the car or raiding the continental breakfast at 11:00 checkout. (by the way, if your Comfort Inn has a "Belgian waffle" maker go ahead and give that puppy a spin. yum.)

You may have noticed, too, that often our destinations were also in flux from state to state. After South Dakota it was clear our mutual intention was to see as many natural wonders as our journey could allow, negating many attractions along the way. Not too long after that, as we traveled through Montana to the gates of Yellowstone, it was clear both P and myself were transformed and awed by all the beauty, the slow unfurling of the landscape, the luck of such sunny days. We stopped at rest areas, diners, parks and coffee shops to scribble overwhelmed post cards to our friends in every state... running out of words to describe what we were seeing. That was one of the most fun parts, although looking for a post box or post office took a great deal of patience.

I know many people have done this same trek (ours traveled 80 until SD and then 90 until Oregon) and many more are planning one themselves. We were blessed with great weather, sheltered by protection (of course there is a story about what we found out about the brakes after getting to Portland), and guided by our growing sense of amazement~ I am so grateful for experiencing this kind of a trip in my lifetime! For those about to venture fourth, AAA was very helpful when our route suddenly changed, sunblock and shades for the driver are an absolute must, and Iowa's NPR station comes in crystal clear all over the highway. For those looking to travel healthy, there is a Trader Joe's in Chicago, a Whole Foods in Omaha, and an extensive health food section at the Fred Meyer in Idaho Falls.

Arriving in Portland, it is every bit as lovely as I have heard. There were few times P and I ever forgot we were on a move, not a vacation exactly, with a deadline for the arrival and a limit to our funds. But all along the way we were graced with meeting friendly strangers, learning a bit of history (and geography) and a consistant feeling that some journeys and some transformations carry a life all their own.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Day 7: on the way to Devil's Tower

Devil's Tower is in Wyoming, and so day 7 included a whole new state for the journey. You see Deadwood on the map above, and Sundance to the west of it? In red, right near Devil's Tower Junction you'll notice Devil's Tower Monument... our first destination for the day.

Pulling over for ranchers and cows (they waved at all of us with our cameras like "yes, yes, we know we're cowboys. Y'all just have a super day. Okie doke.")

It wasn't long before... off in the distance... stirrings of Close Encounters fluttering in my heart...

Early in the morning, already 80 degrees...

After an hour or two of driving we found ourselves getting nearer and nearer to Devil's Tower... but hungrier and hungrier. Stopped in one of my (now) favorite little towns on our route, Moorcroft (pop. 807). A small ranch-looking town, Celeste said today "that's probably what you thought Deadwood would look like" and had it just right. There was a pizza joint, which I found so unusual that we stopped in for lunch.

The owner came over and talked to us (I think it was real obvious we were from "out of town") and asked if we were coming from the tower. Turns out he was born and raised in NYC, had come to the area 30 years earlier and never went back. He made us an absolutely scrumptious personal pizza!

The hills... so amazing... more tomorrow about the Tower!

Day 6: The Black Hills

Last day blogging about Day 6, I promise. But we certainly did a lot that day... after Deadwood it was time for a leisurely drive back to the hotel to squeeze in one more visit to the pool before retiring. In some of these pictures (I had to darken them a bit) you can tell just how strong the sun was, though by this time it was late afternoon. P and I drove back to Rapid City through the Black Hills~ a beautiful introduction to mountains before our visit to Devil's Tower the next day.

The town between Deadwood and Rapid City appeared to be Nemo, also the name of the scenic mountain road we were driving on. We got out of the car and walked around Nemo~ a campground, church, and several horse riding ranches lay between the surrounding hills. By then my ears were popping, but I'm not one of those people who that is very painful for, so it was exciting. We saw horses all over the place on the drive home, even some mountain goats! It was here that the rock started becoming wildly colorful, too. I got out of the car several more times to get photos of the area!

Our view from the hotel in Rapid City. Day 6! :)