Friday, June 3, 2011

"Portland: Where Young People Go to Retire."

We awoke on Tuesday morning to drive across the remainder of Washington and hit the scenic highway 101 for a visually romantic drive along the northwest Pacific coast. It was rainy all morning— appropriate for the the Northwest, unlike the unusually sunny day we spent in Seattle. Though it was soggy and cool, it was still fantastic. The wooded hills and mountains were covered in thick streaks of mist and blanketed in dense patches of ferns. It’s a temperate rain forest, after all; and though the smack of rain against the windshield is always a familiar sound, coupled with the salty Pacific wind, it was exotic and mysterious. As the mouth of Columbia River opened into the Pacific (the final stop for the west-bound Lewis and Clark expedition), we crossed the bridge from Cape Disappointment into Oregon. The ocean was a grey sheet set against a grey sky— you almost had to squint to see the horizon line. A fisherman on his boat would feel like they were marooned in a grey cloud.

We stopped to get gas and have lunch in historic Astoria, where we learned two life-changing items: it’s against the law to pump your own gas in Oregon (a service one could quickly become used to), and the freshly-caught Halibut fish and chips at Ship Inn is everything a lunch on the Oregon Coast should be, particularly when paired with a ruddy British ale.

A couple of observations about Oregon and Washington: #1— log trucks. I knew that the lumber business was important to the region, but I really hadn’t seen them much before. Timber isn’t terribly available in my particular arena of the Midwest. But in the Northwest, the logging companies were vast, productive, and busy. As we passed through Longview (actually, this in Washington. We had to return for a brief foray on Interstate 5, and it goes back into Washington. A bit anti-climatic, actually), I was very impressed with the logging industry. #2— Tree farms. I didn’t realize that tree farms— beyond Christmas tree farms— actually existed. They do. And they’re strange. Row upon row of tall, spindly trees ready to be harvested— peering between a rows is like looking through a shady tunnel with a leafy canopy. I visualized a chase scene inside a tree farm and it would be decidedly sweet. Lastly, #3— hipsters. They’re everywhere. As plenteous as the trees and the rain. And as we passed from Vancouver into Portland, we were where I had long-imagined to be the home of many the hipster.

I loved Portland. It wasn’t quite what I expected, particularly upon first entering the city. Jill, I think, was looking for something space-aged: urban farms atop of shiny, modern buildings and bullet trains or something. There was certainly something of that modern-esque atmosphere: but there was also a rustic quality to the city that appealed to me. First, we visited Powell’s Books— a block-sized used bookstore and coffee shop. Yes, it’s essentially my idea of heaven. This place is huge. They give you a map when you first enter; genres of books are separated by color-coded rooms and then you are set loose to go nuts. My cohorts laughed at me because I was in the store for 15 minutes and I already had a small stack of books I was considering (my final choices were The Violent Bear it Away, the only book by Flannery O’Connor I don’t own, and A Handful of Dust, another novel by another favorite author). We then went across the street to the Buffalo Exchange for a brief foray at thrifting. We tried to find a place for Melissa and Jill to get their noses pierced, but the piercer advised they wait until after our final camp-out, to avoid infection. So instead, we visited the Portland Rose Gardens. I can’t recall how many varieties of roses are in the gardens, but when they are actually in bloom, they must be quite the sight to behold. Despite the lack of roses, the Rose Garden was still beautiful.

For dinner, we visited the Deschutes Brewery. I tried a beer called Hops in the Dark, a dark, rich IPA, and it was absolutely heavenly I also tried an Elk Burger and for the record— delicious. Melissa’s uncle very generously put us up in his home, but before we settled in for the night, we had to make one more very important stop: to the Rogue Distillery, where one can purchase my very favorite beer: Double Dead Guy Ale. I also tried a little bit of their Spruce Gin and it was also incredible. I went to bed a very tired but very happy girl.

Overheard: "Everyone in Portland is the same— they all have the same bumper stickers.”
Gastric Shout-Out: Elk Burger at Deschutes
Listen To: "Grown Ocean," Fleet Foxes

See Us Addled.

We woke up Monday morning after a much-needed sleep and started to explore Tacoma. Sleeping has been sparse; you can sleep when you’re dead. But it still makes coffee an absolute necessity. We stopped at a coffee shop in Tacoma (where I nearly left my debit card. Whoops.) browsed a thrift store, and walked by the the Museum of Glass which was incredible and apparently a Tacoma landmark. We then hopped back into the car and began the trek to Seattle. Seattle was a lot of fun: vibrant, young, coastal, sunny, and full of coffee. We visited Pike’s Place Public Market where we were quickly overwhelmed by the odor of fish, roadside musicians, wares to purchase, and more coffee to buy. In fact, Pike’s Place is the home to the original Starbucks where we stood in an excessively long line to get a latte. Worth it; you can hate Starbucks anywhere else in the country— but you can’t hate the original Starbucks in Seattle. We visited with vendors (shout out to Dave!) and went to lunch at a Mediterranean grill called Sabra’s and then enjoyed a beer at an Irish bar called Kell’s.

We decided it wouldn’t be an afternoon in Seattle without a monorail trip to the SPACE NEEDLE. Every time I say SPACE NEEDLE, it’s needs to be dramatic. The SPACE NEEDLE gave a great view of the city and the bay, and the Seattle Folk Festival taking place below. Naturally, we had to go. I’ve never seen so many hippies, hipsters, and dirty mountain people. Face paint, hula hoops, hitchhikers, legalized marijuana campaigners, ear gauges, men in "mantility skirts," guitars, piercings, dogs, pot, dreads, tattoos, sarongs, armpit hair, bra-less-ness, tie dye, punks, free hugs, and in general, people who wished they had lived in the 60s. It was a fun atmosphere in which to observe the huddled masses and contemplate the many, many ways people attempt to make themselves unique.

We were gifted with a hotel in Bellevue and after we had checked in, we checked out the eating scene in downtown. We dined at a restaurant called z’Tejas (apparently, this is a chain but we didn't know it at the time) where our waitstaff was...unique. I don’t know exactly how long we waited but it was inordinate. So naturally, Melissa stole cornbread from someone else’s table, we befriended a cute family, and ate our weight in chips and salsa. The poor waiter was apparently having a rough night; he kept mumbling his apology to us but we didn’t really understand what he was saying. So we wrote encouraging notes on our receipts and decided to go elsewhere for drinks.

We ended up at a place called Munchbar in time for the Break Dance Contest. Needless to say, we did not fit in— we left our see-though blouses and 5-inch stilettos in Yellowstone. The dancing was impressive, I have to admit: I didn't get a picture of the actual dancers performing, but they could do jaw-dropping moves. However, the five of us were a bit out of place in the midst of this particular crowd and so we finished the night at a small Irish pub that was more our speed.

Overheard: "There was a fine white line and a lot of people have just crossed it and there’s just a lot of paperwork involved.”
Gastric Shout-Out: Grilled Chicken on Rice at Sabra's
Listen To: "Drumming Song," Florence and the Machine

Tacoma or Bust

We awoke Sunday morning to the sound of an alarm sounding at 5:00 AM and the gentle patter of precipitation on the tarp atop our tent. No, there would be no sunrise to witness on this chilly morning; instead we found ourselves adrift in snowflakes. The good news is that we were able to enter Yellowstone Park and as we did so, the rangers’ decision to close the park the previous night was suddenly terribly easy to understand: snowballs left little crevices in the snow as they had rolled down the mountainside and in some places, the snow drifts easily overshadowed our vehicle. It had snowed pretty heavily in the park and we realized that setting up a tent in that mess would have been, well, a mess. We thanked Baby Jesus and took a tour of Yellowstone.

I can honestly say that this has been my favorite part of the trip so far. Firstly, the scenery is unbelievable: towering, snowy Rocky Mountains, Blue Spruce and Ponderosa Pines, and steamy, misty geysers surround us travelers and it was a visual feast. Though the snow could might have dampened the spirits of some of my fellow travelers, I saw it as part of the aura of adventure. Secondly, the wildlife is astounding. We saw plenty of deer and numerous Bison, but we were also fortunate enough to get a good view of a grizzly bear (Note: a grizzly has a hump; a black bear does not) while it grazed a hill. We were also able to see some female elk. I think Yellowstone is a national park that does a excellent job of making the human presence relatively non-intrusive: there are paved paths and a few areas for camping, pull-offs, and bridges, but it’s a very respectful atmosphere. The people in the park have a hushed reverence for the wildlife, the scenery, the natural phenomenon that is Yellowstone National Park.

As we circled the park, we learned that Old Faithful was about to blow it’s infamous top. Despite the snow (Yellowstone was scheduled to get 5-8 inches that day!), cold air, etc., we stood outside until the geyser did its thing— it was a remarkable sight. The pictures won’t fully convey this, because it was so snowy, and white frothy steam and water don’t show up well against that backdrop.

We finally made it out of the park— and out of the snow— and crossed the border into Montana. The first thing we noticed about Montana: THERE WAS NO WELCOME TO MONTANA SIGN. You’re dropping the ball, Montana. I personally thought Montana was beautiful; mountains and valleys and scenic views, particularly in Paradise Valley. But it was a long drive from Yellowstone to Idaho. The general consensus was that Montana wasn’t popular with my cohorts; but we all agreed that the panhandle of Idaho was gorgeous. We stopped to eat at a restaurant called Tomato Street (delicious) in Coeur d’Alene, which was set against the mountains and a beautiful lake (Side note: speaking French in Idaho, even in a French-sounding city, proves to be ineffective. We did test that theory. Poorly.). We passed into Washington. I wasn’t sure what to expect from the Washington; but we weren’t expecting a barren, grassy land and frankly, that’s what Washington mostly was. It was lovely, but by now, we were geographically spoiled. It was dark by the time we hit the mountains in the west. In fact, by the time we hit Tacoma, it was a beastly 1:18 Pacific Time and we were exhausted. We crashed on couches and borrowed beds at Rebecca’s friend’s house, which was in an alleyway and populated by urban chicken farmers. In all, we drove 15 hours that day, all the time attempting to find a Catholic Church in order to attend Mass—we were unsuccessful. Sorry, Baby Jesus. Better luck with the Ascension.

Overheard: "Why's Washington's face on the street signs?"
Gastric Shout-Out: Smashed Fontina Sandwich
Listen To: "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall," Bob Dylan

Monday, May 30, 2011

Why, oming? Why?

We awoke bright and early this morning at 5:00 AM, tethered our goods to the top of the car and humped it westward. We passed the Wyoming border in the wee morning hours, to the half-hearted cheers of the sleepy crew, and soon a tall rock, jutting forth in the lonely Wyoming skyline, peeked it’s devilish head. Devil’s Tower loomed ahead and it was fun first stop. The Devil’s Tower is an igneous rocky petrusion, a holy site for Native Americans, and a sort of personal Mecca for plucky rock climbers. We hiked around the tower, exchanged pleasantries with other visitors, and talked about what it would be like on top of Devil’s Tower. The Indians’ legend says that a bear scratched the surface while trying to reach its prey at the top. Since the early morning hours had made us silly, we created our own legend:

“Why Devil’s Tower is called Devil’s Tower” Brave and intrepid climbers all venture forth to the great rock jutting forth in the Wyoming sky, all with the single purpose of conquering it through the strength of their limbs and some serious mad skill. Many fail and fall great lengths to their doom. Those stouthearted few who, however, climb the height fall upon a most incredible sight. At the top of the tower, a colony of monkeys greet you with rolled doobies and coolers of Coors light. Great, sweeping eagles lay deviled eggs for the climbers to feast upon whilst Lionel Richie’s hit, “All Night Long” blasts from speakers tucked away in rocky crags. The climbers all enjoy the feast but must, at the day’s end, descend the treacherous tower. The combination of cannibis, alcohol, eggs, and monkeys tickling open armpits often proves too hazardous for the tired climbers, who hurl the fruits of their reward down the tower in the form of projectile vomit, showering unweary tourists with ralph. And that’s why Devil’s Tower is called Devil’s Tower.

While crossing Wyoming on Route 90, the only word that came to mind is “lonely.” The land is good for ranching but little else and therefore there is nothing but cows, horses, and sheep for miles and miles. When I was younger, I read a book about a boy who spends a summer by himself tending sheep in Wyoming. The book explored growing up while alone in a land filled with red dirt, shrubs, and sparse grass and it was all I could think about as we flew down Interstate 90. It’s beautiful in its own way— it’s wide and expansive and open, clouds make well-defined shadows on the plains, and the slow rotation of oil rigs keeps time while swifts dive across the plains.

And suddenly, from nowhere, I see the vague shadows of mountains. I was surprised because I wasn’t expecting to see mountains yet— the atlas I used warned us of the Big Horn National Forest, but not of the Big Horn Mountain Range that corresponds with it. It was an unexpected pleasure to wind our slow way through magnificent rocky passages until we hit...snow! We found ourselves in what looked like a blizzard in the passages of the mountains. Rebecca bemoaned that she was getting seasonal depression and I admit that seeing that much snow at the beginning of our summer vacation was confusing.

We finally made it to Cody, Wyoming, home of Buffalo Bill Cody. Just beyond the town was the Shoshane National Forest and then, finally, at long last— Yellowstone. We planned on getting to Yellowstone as quickly as possible and explore it before settling down for the night. The foothills of the Rockies loomed overhead as the peaks swelled in the background and we excitedly took our picture next to the Yellowstone sign. But trouble was ahead. At the Ranger Station, the gates were closed and I was sent to see what the trouble was. Apparently, recent snows in the high elevations had made the conditions ripe for avalanches. As such, Yellowstone would be closed.

Faced with the grim possibility of never seeing Yellowstone, I, despairing, asked the Ranger what we could do. He suggested settling back in the Shoshone Park, in one of their many campgrounds. I told the news with a heavy heart; Yellowstone was one of roadtrip adventures I was most anticipating. Little did we know how much better it was to be this way...

So we set up camp in Rex Hale Campground, made foil packets filled with vegetables, and roasted them on the fire. It was actually a lovely campsite, despite it all: near a babbling creek, with plenty of deer around. We regarded the warnings of grizzly activity with suspicion— we saw the skeletal remains of a deer nearby, everything but its poor legs licked clean (That bear is in the clean plate club!). But that night we were bear-free, though Rebecca and I briefly considered pretending to be bears while the others slept. Instead, we got to bed early with the hopes of having an early-morning start, so we could see the sunrise before we were permitted to pass through the Yellowstone gates.

Overheard: "Welcome to Cody, Wyoming! Where the men are men and the sheep are extremely nervous."
Gastric Shout-Out: Foil packets/silver turtles/hobo dinners/boyscout hamburgers
Listen To: "Snow," Red Hot Chili Peppers

Friday, May 27, 2011

"Don't take away South Dakota's tourism; that's all they have."

Hello from Rapid City, where people rush more! Get it? Get it? I've been making jokes like that all day, to my cohorts' chagrin.

The day began with the trek from Red Cloud to Rapid City. Along the way, we got out of the car to enjoy the sight of the Badlands. They really are remarkable. We only got to see the smallest tip of the Badlands, but it was gorgeous. I wanted to climb down and poke around, but my wiser friends stopped me: there's not much stopping the loose soil from tumbling beneath you. The sheer amount of erosion that took place there is incredible and I'm glad I got to see them up close— it's something I've wanted to do since grade school.

We moved onward to Rapid City where we went to The Daily Grind Coffee Shop, a used bookstore (I insisted on buying a bird and mammal field guide so I can be irritatingly informative about whatever critters we see— p.s, saw some antelope today. Or pronghorns, as they are also called), and got lunch at Black Hills Bagels with my sister, who happens to be in Rapid City visiting her boyfriend. At this point, we are now officially joined by our fifth traveler, Rebecca, who finished teaching her fifth grader here in Rapid City today. Next year, she will be moving on to a different school experience, so I hope she took our little tour as a last hurrah for the year.

For those who have never visited Rapid City, the town is host to what seems to be the largest conglomerate of tourist traps in the United States. Whether it's forcing statues of our country's presidents into compromising positions in downtown Rapid City's infamous Presidential Walk, or allowing yourself to be terrified in Bear Country or the Reptile Gardens, or visiting Deadwood to gamble, or reverently pretending to pick the nose of Abraham Lincoln as he gazes nobly from the foreground of a Rushmore photograph— well, there's a little something for everyone. In all seriousness, I rather like Rapid City, in spite—or because— of the hokey little billboards screaming at you as you wind your way through the Black Hills. Part of me is scandalized because the Black Hills are simply stunning— covered with Ponderosa Pines, rocky crags, and teeming with wildlife. It seems a terrible shame to squander that view with gaudy invitations to seek adventure in Sitting Bull's Crystal Caves. And yet...and yet that's part of the charm of South Dakota. I suppose I could sit glumly in the car and bemoan the desecration of nature, and frankly, I don't think I would be unjust to do so. However, as a guest of the Hills, I decided to enjoy the advertisements as a quirky, silly, capitalistic South Dakotan eccentricity. How very patriotic of me.

After an afternoon of loudly discussing false information around wandering Rushmore tourists (I might have said that George Washington's left nostril is haunted because a tourist fell from it while pretending to be a booger.... keep in mind that I'm a teacher on vacation) and photo-bombing their tourist photos, we returned to the city for last-minute camping preparations and a Chinese dinner at Coco Palace. We rushed about, removing our things from Jill's car to Rebecca's car, which we will be using from this point. Next stop, Yellowstone National Park! Let's hope the weather is better than what they've been promising!

Overheard: "I nearly peed my pants when she said ginger."
Gastric Shout-Out: Black Hills Bagel sandwich— Oven-roasted turkey on a Spinach-Parmesan bagel.
Listen To: "Awake My Soul," Mumford and Sons

Thursday, May 26, 2011

"Hey Jill, what should I title my blog today?" "Thunderstorms on the prairie, thunderstorms in my heart."

We spent the day within the campus of the Red Cloud grade school, middle school, and high school. We met and hung out with the kids — I got viciously beaten in a game of knock-out, but a girl told me she liked my hair (YES!) — and rode on the school bus (driven by Magis' very own Maria!) with them at the end of the school day. One second grade girl insisted that I guess all twelve of her favorite colors, which was tough: the last favorite was “vanilla.” Some of the third graders had made shields out of some painted wood and they were explaining their paintings to me. My favorite was a boy who had painted a half-alligator, half-bunny hybrid dubbed “Bunnigator.” Excellent.

We then got to attend the 8th grade graduation at the mission church. I’m always struck by the universality of the Church when I encounter unfamiliar cultures, and I loved how they adapted traditional Lakota practices into the liturgy. For example, their incense was burned in clay vessels and an eagle feather— signifying power and deity— was used to drift the incense towards the congregation. Before the entrance hymn, the Sons of Oglala chanted and drummed. Even I, a virtual ignoramus about the Lakota culture, found that the mysteriousness of practices increased my reverence during the mass. We ended the day by attending a party for the volunteers who are leaving the reservations.

Tomorrow, we plan on hitting up the Badlands tomorrow, checking out Rapid City, and meeting my sister for lunch. In the meantime, we spend our second night on the couch here in volunteer's "cottage." Oh, a quick weather update: mostly sunny and even vaguely warm, thunderstorm during the evening... thus, Jill's very helpful title to tonight's blog. Happy reading!



Overheard: "It's your face; but it's my choice whether or not I want to kiss it."
Gastric Shout-Out: A self-served Arnold Palmer that completely made my day.
Listen To: "Dancing Queen," ABBA.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Brave New World

We left today, driving through what seemed at the time to be a torrential downpour, and except for a fuzzy radio, we were silent. Krissy spent this initial leg of the journey lesson planning; Jill and Melissa took turns driving; I tore through 100+ pages of Adolus Huxley’s A Brave New World. I was a little grumpy. The weather was cold and I was starting to fear that I had severely mis-packed my clothing items. It was cold, wet, and not at all what I had originally wanted for our trip. I imagined a sunny, warm, summer roadtrip and the version I was getting did not entirely fit the bill. But then I ran across this little line in the book: “But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.” I made up my mind not to focus on what my anticipations and idealisms had demanded of the trip but rather let whatever was intended for me to experience happen.

These determined thoughts in mind, we continued to trod through Nebraska, making our way further north. After eating at Jordan’s Cafe in Valentine, NE (“It was like heaven on Earth” - Jill Lisemeyer), we passed into the Rosebud Indian Reservation, officially crossing the South Dakota border.

I’ve passed through South Dakota once before, but it was during winter. Now, in the springtime, hills roll with green velvet, alive with prairie dogs, pheasants, deer, wild turkeys, and occasionally punctuated with gutted, rusting cars outside the trailer homes of the Lakota people who inhabit these plains. It’s a strange juxtaposition: startling poverty amidst startling beauty. Even more startling is stopping at a gas station and peering inside a darkened room to see the hunched backs of a half dozen silent people, stooped over casino games that make bright sounds in the black room. Such images restrain my overall admiration for the pastoral landscape.

Upon arrival to the Res, we visited the cemetary in which Chief Red Cloud is buried (pictures of the cemetery to come*) and I spent some down time finishing my book. Now I wish I brought another with me. Well, I can't read while I sleep, anyway. Which, by the way, is what I'm going to do now.



Overheard: "Look at him. Look at his smile. He's not wearing any pants when that photograph was taken, was he?"
Gastric Shout-Out: Jordan Cafe's sweet potato french fries.
Listen To: "Postcards from Italy," Beirut

* Here are some pictures of the cemetery. I thought that the grave were visually striking.