Summer 2008 Travelogue
Day 1-Las Vegas to Capitol Reef National Park (Torrey, Utah)
We covered 500 of the most glorious miles imaginable today – and that’s only horizontally speaking. Vertically speaking, we went from 2000 feet up to 9600 feet and then back down to around 6800 feet. Meteorologically speaking, we went from 109 degrees with no humidity to 60 degrees and a downpour, including five minutes of pea-sized hail. (We tried to remember the last time we were in a rainstorm that lasted for well over 30 minutes – no luck. It was at least a year ago. And as for hail, haven’t seen that since we moved away from Chicago in 2005.)
In an amazing 40-mile stretch of Utah 12 north of Bryce Canyon, the topography goes within less than 20 minutes (and via a sensational series of those breathtaking mountain road switchbacks) from spiky ferrite-rich (aka deep orange-red) sandstone hoodoos to rolling high-altitude plains dense with emerald green pines and tall, thin, ramrod straight trunks of pure white birch (or is it aspen? poplar? I’m no botanist) clustered together like massive stands of gigantic drinking straws. We see sheer 1000-foot drops, wind-carved caves, black and tan and white cattle grazing in lush green meadows 9,000 feet in the air, and dainty deer calmly grazing by the side of the road. The deer look up as we drive by, as if to murmur “Just snacking here. Go on about your business,” their expressions patient, humorous, inquisitive and indulgent.
There’s one scenic overlook about 20 miles south of Torrey where the entire high basin is set out before you. Black mountains, whitewashed limestone shorter mountains speckled with smallish shrubbery, more swaths of striated orange sandstone topped with whimsical knobs and spikes, and a gorgeous reservoir of blue water sparkling in the resurgent sun. A helpful sign informs visitors that the black mountains in the distance are the Henry Mountains, and that the state of Connecticut or the country of Luxembourg (for European visitors, I guess) would fit easily into the space before our eyes. And the silence is preternatural, prehistoric, an absence of sound that is itself a sound, serene and beautiful. It’s a marvel.
As is Zion National Park, a desert setting created, ironically enough, entirely by water. Water forms up on the Colorado Plateau and rushes downward, through Bryce Canyon, to Zion, then on to the Grand Canyon – successive rungs in what is called the Grand Staircase. We’ve been studying geology in preparation for this trip and the spectacular scenery, which would be fabulous enough if we knew nothing of its origins, is even more spectacular armed with our rudimentary knowledge. With a majestic and gorgeous eloquence, the topography makes manifest the power and the inexorability of time and the forces of nature. Give water and wind and heat and pressure enough time and they will build a glory like Zion or Bryce, then reduce it to rubble, then build something else equally fabulous and extraordinary. All without thought or will, consciousness or purpose.
Our eyes full, we find our way back to more mundane delights, like dinner. The Capitol Reef Inn boasts a café with surprisingly good food – local, organic and fresh. Lots of vegetables, which is too often a luxury on a road trip. The Ten-Vegetable Salad has the promised 10 vegetables, not counting the lettuce or the cabbage in its base and, wonderfully, not including onions (which I hate): zucchini, squash, cucumbers, broccoli, cauliflower, red pepper, green pepper, carrots, tomatoes and sprouts. And they all taste as if they were picked earlier this afternoon. Glorious.
(Pictures, especially those taken with one's cell phone, are such a weak representation of nature's glory, but I'll post a few anyway. They're certainly better than nothing, and they are reminiscent, if not representative.)
Day 2-Capitol Reef National Park (Utah) to Yellowstone (Wyoming)
One could easily spend two weeks doing what we thought we could do in two days. Although the distance from Las Vegas to Yellowstone as the crow flies is not daunting, that distance is utterly irrelevant when one is not a crow. Everything takes us a little over twice as long as expected as we pilot our car and see the sights on the twisting roads that skirt the mountains of Utah, the southeastern corner of Idaho, and the west coast of Wyoming. The scenery is so breathtaking, the geological diversity so stunning, and the potential for delicious drive-in food so tempting that we end up arriving at the Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone at 1:00 in the morning the day after we were supposed to arrive. The last few hours of the drive had all the earmarks of the Bataan death march. I haven’t even seen Yellowstone in the daytime yet and I already sort of hate its guts.
The day started beautifully. We’re definitely trying to go with the flow on this trip, but having already – on day one – bookmarked three sites on our must-see list for either the return trip or some future trip, we decided to get moving early. Despite our “never get up before 9am” rule, we got up at 7:45am Mountain time (which was a lot like 6:45am for us) and started our day in the Capitol Reef National Park.
“Oh my heck!” as people kept saying in Utah. Capitol Reef is reminiscent of both Bryce Canyon and Zion, but it’s more diverse geologically and it features the Waterpocket Fold, a 100-mile long wrinkle in the crust of the earth created some 70 million years ago by violent seismic activity. Like all geologic features (with the exception, I suppose, of actually erupting volcanoes), the wrinkle and its surroundings look tranquil, majestic and unflappable as they bask in the morning sun.
It’s hard not to anthropomorphize these buttes and mountains; they’re covered with holes and dents and protrusions that conspire to create faces and bodies, like giant canvases of abstract art. They seem to me to be stretching in the recently risen sun, settling in for their day and only incidentally inspiring awe in wide-eyed humans. Capitol Reef’s mountains are cluttered (gorgeously) with shale and sandstone rubble that, while affixed and unmoving, appears to be cascading downward. The rocks balanced on the slopes are cantilevered as if they’ll continue their downward fall any minute – which they will, geologically speaking. And the shale, which breaks under pressure into flat sheets (think flints or chalkboards), has littered the landscape over the last few hundreds of thousands of years with what look like deep orange-red two-by-fours.
After we reluctantly leave Capitol Reef, we wend our way up to the Uinta National Forest and Mount Nebo. Here, we see a little of the dramatic ferrite-rich rock of southern Utah, but far more in the way of evergreens, aspens, cattle, and the gentle slopes characteristic of glacially created mountains, too high to have been carved smooth by rivers, but for the most part too low to sport the craggy peaks that crested even the glaciers. These mountains rest gently on the landscape, their rises and folds like the enormous paws of colossal animals in repose. As we switchback our way up to the Mt. Nebo overlook at about 9200 feet, the greenery keeps parting to offer dizzyingly sensational vistas of rock, forest, mountainside and, now, a few snow-streaked craggy peaks, too. Every time we get out of the car to gape or to read a historical or geological marker, the silence fills our ears with its soundless beauty and our hearts and souls with tranquility.
Everyday reality reasserts itself in the form of the nasty traffic jam that slows us up on our way out of Salt Lake City. After the adventuresome and thrilling drive on the unpaved road that shoots down the Santaquin Canyon from Nebo, during which we saw no one from 8500 feet down to 4500 feet (thankfully, given the narrow twistiness of the road), the traffic is not only unwelcome but bizarre too, like a category mistake.
It’s not as bad as it might be, though, since we have just had a late lunch at Hire’s Big H in Salt Lake City, a drive-in with an unusually delicious bacon cheeseburger (the bacon thickly cut, freshly cooked and crisp), a world-class grilled cheese sandwich, and the best chocolate malt I have ever had. (No vegetables so far today, unless you count the onions inside the onion rings, which I do not.) It turns out to be lucky that we eat more than we intended to, since this will prove to be our last food for the day.
The drive from Salt Lake City to Yellowstone quickly takes a turn for the worse. Our GPS, guide books and maps keep telling us things are 23 miles away, then reneging on those promises. Miles pile on miles and traffic is city-ish for too long on US 89 (the scenic route which is indeed that, although it can’t compare to Utah 12). There is one bizarre stretch of one-way road just north of Montpelier, Idaho, that is regulated by a stoplight with a sign that states the delay is 15 minutes and prohibits running the red light. Once the light turns green (finally), we and our accumulated companion cars simply have to trust in our fellow man not to run the red light at the other end and crash head-on into us as we traverse a narrow, unpaved gully littered with construction equipment. Apparently, Western-state drivers are either accustomed to this setup or less impatient than the drivers we’re used to – there is no trouble whatsoever.
As the miles stretch interminably – we really had no idea, it turns out, how BIG these Western states are – and Yellowstone begins to seem like a pipe dream, there are of course marvels to see. Coming up on Bear Lake from the south is jaw-droppingly beautiful. We sigh, exclaim and nearly drive the car off the road in our zeal to fill our eyes. The verdant high-altitude pastures and mountains all along the route are bucolic and serenely glorious. In our short time in Idaho, we see llamas calmly grazing on green fields in the apricot-colored sunlight.
But the miles between Jackson, Wyoming, and our actual hotel room in Yellowstone are appalling. The sun goes down around 10:30 and we soon feel as if we’ve spent our entire lives driving on a cramped two-lane road lined on both sides with tall trees and thick scrub, no one in front of us and no one behind. The moon is intermittently visible and, as it rises higher and higher, very picturesque, but it is of little comfort when every turn in the road leads only to more road and lights indicating civilization frustratingly refuse to appear. It’s also a bit frightening since every now and then the thick forest breaks and we see only treetops out the side window; for all we know, there could be nothing but air between the crumbling side of the road and the terra firma of a valley 6,500 dark feet below.
10:30 becomes 11:30, then 12:30. Will it ever end? We imagine, with slightly desperate giggles, driving on forever, until the forest reclaims the road altogether (a process that is seriously underway) and us along with it. The sun will never rise, we will never get to the Inn, the kids will have to go to Las Vegas and sell our stuff…
But the Inn does finally appear – and I can’t remember a more welcome sight. I’m counting on Yellowstone to make it up to me tomorrow by being spectacular enough for those last horrible miles to have been worth it. And a nice healthy breakfast at the so-called “best restaurant in any national park” Old Faithful Inn café sounds pretty darn great, too.
Day 3-Yellowstone (Wyoming) to Glacier National Park (Montana)
After a wonderfully refreshing five-and-a-half hours of sleeping like the comatose (or, at least, the way I imagine the comatose must sleep – soundly, insentient, and almost entirely without moving), we get up early again. Breakfast is simple and full of protein, and sitting in the sun 150 feet from Old Faithful, waiting for the eruption, is pleasant and peaceful. As we wait, we think about geothermic activity.
We know from our geology course that the magma plume that created Yellowstone 600,000 years ago is about 200,000 years overdue for its next cataclysmic event (the last three being, respectively, 600,000, a million, and two million years ago). The next one, which is inevitable, will return North America to the Stone Age and create thick clouds of ash and dust that will block the sun and create a year of more of extreme winter around the globe. The vapor and plumes of bubbling water steadily leaking out of Old Faithful and Yellowstone’s many other steam spouts are eye-catching and interesting, but, representing boiling basaltic magma as they do, they’re also a tad alarming.
Still, though, Old Faithful’s eruption is wonderful – after a few minutes of teaser spray, 5,000 gallons of pure, white water shoot 150 feet into the air in a glistening column surrounded by billowing clouds of steam. Thrilling. And how amazing that this phenomenon has evidently been occurring every 75 minutes or so for 600,000 years. Clearly, geothermal energy is the thing to harness – it’s virtually unlimited, nonpolluting and reliable.
The rest of Yellowstone is a low point on our trip. It’s a tacky tourist trap, albeit one set in an exceptionally beautiful assemblage of volcanic plains, glacial mountains, craggy peaks, conifers, burbling brooks and rivers, dramatic falls, thermal pools with thin crusts of ash, etc., etc., etc. We leave (via a gorgeous northwesterly descent) with a strong sense of relief.
It’s only Day 3, but we’re falling seriously behind and we don’t want to risk another midnight National Park run, so with only a little regret we decide to take the interstate and get ourselves across Montana as fast as possible instead of taking the scenic route up through Great Falls and then over to Glacier NP. To get to the interstate, we still have to do the first leg of the scenic route, and the 77 miles from Yellowstone up to Livingston are so gorgeous and soul-replenishing that we forgive US 89 for the trouble it caused us yesterday.
And I90 is an unexpected delight. Not only does it get us to Missoula in record time, it’s spectacularly scenic AND we get to stop at Matt’s Place in Butte. Matt’s is an extremely discouraging-looking establishment next to a gas station that serves a toothsome pork chop sandwich (the Montana classic, apparently) and more first-class chocolate malts. Thank you, Jane and Michael Stern, for your Roadfood book; without it, we would never have considered venturing into a place as sketchy-looking as Matt’s.
We fall in love with Montana as we drive across it from Livingston to Missoula and then up to Kalispell and Glacier National Park. The roads are a miracle – perfectly banked, incredibly well maintained, and virtually deserted. The few other cars we encounter use the left lane for passing only and maintain both appropriate stopping distances and consistent speeds of 75-80mph, road courtesies we thought had vanished forever.
We have to remind ourselves that this I90 is the self-same I90 that is the difficult Dan Ryan in Chicago. Out here, it could easily be part of a national park itself; it’s hard to imagine the scenic route could have been any more scenic. Enormous flat green pastures ease into the gentle, rolling foothills and towering mountains that undulate across the landscape, the foothills seemingly slip-covered in rich tan suede, the khaki and sable mountains studded with evergreens, some like polka dots, others so dense that the mountainsides look carpeted. Every now and then, there’s a sheer shale slope, just for dramatic effect, and huge, gray-black peaks streaked with puddles of snow loom benignly in the high, far background. The sky is indeed big, big, big.
For one astonishing section between Bozeman and Butte, there’s a collection of those crazy rock formations that look like some giant and maniacal child broke up a mountain, then reassembled the craggy boulders into a generally conical shape, but with all sorts of gravity-defying slabs and blocks. These unlikely structures pop up all over Nevada and Arizona, too, but in Montana, evergreen trees have taken root in the spaces between the chunks, adding a tall, green component to the overall red-orange otherworldliness.
Flathead Lake opens before us as we head north, a panoramic spectacle even better than the Bear Lake vista that astonished us yesterday. Better because Flathead Lake looks like Alaska, which we fell in love with last July. Tall, steeper but still rounded glacial mountains rest gently on the calm azure water, ranks upon ranks of evergreens blanket their slopes, more evergreens crowd onto the islands that dot the surface of the water, and in Montana it all basks gorgeously in bright sunshine. We start talking about renting a cabin up here next summer or maybe even buying a summer cottage. It’s not Alaska, but it’s darn close in look and feel, completely appealing in its own right, and a lot easier to get to from Las Vegas.
Glacier National Park keeps the Alaska illusion alive with the serenely magnificent Lake MacDonald. Our adorable little cabin at Lake MacDonald Lodge is just steps from the lake, and the Lodge’s dining room offers a flawless meal of ruby red Idaho trout, simply and perfectly grilled, crunchy steamed broccoli, and a pear and gorgonzola salad that would be right at home in the fanciest of big city restaurants. Dessert is the fresh 54-degree air blowing off the lake.
Day 4-Glacier National Park (Montana) to (as it turns out) Minot, North Dakota
It’s official – we have a new second favorite place on earth. Glacier National Park is beautiful beyond words. Beyond cameras, too – its scale is too vast and deep to be captured two-dimensionally. Even Ansel Adams’ superb and evocative photos look flat when your remarkable human eyes are taking in the even more remarkable real thing.
But I’m going to give words and pix a try anyway.
Glacier-carved peaks. The craggiest of craggy escarpments. Lakes of a blue so deep it’s almost navy. Luxurious forests. Hanging glaciers with the consistency of rock and the appearance of snow. Waterfalls that seem to appear out of nowhere, but follow them upward with your eyes and you see first the streams, then the rivulets, then the mounds of snow from which they pour. Steep shale abutments and buttes. Pure, fresh, cool air redolent of pine and sun and snow.
And the most incredible mountain road we’ve ever seen. The Going-to-the-Sun Road is about 50 miles long. As it winds through the Park, it climbs up the steep slopes of the Continental Divide, which it crosses at Logan Pass, 6646 glorious feet above sea level. The road was designed by a landscape engineer named Thomas Vind and built between 1921 and 1937. Considering that it takes two months every spring to clear the snow off it and make it once again passable, the construction must have been quite a production.
The Sun Road is considered an engineering marvel. Mr. Vind’s design eschewed the construction norms of the time and called for carving the road directly into the so-called Garden Wall, a three-mile section of nearly vertical cliffs near the summit of Logan Pass. According to our guidebook, this design “replaced 15 switchbacks and hairpin turns with flatter grades, less environmental impact, better panoramic views, more sun exposure for faster spring snowmelt, and only one switchback.” The goal was to harmonize the improvement with the landscape as a first priority. Done and done.
We entered the park from the west last night, and so this morning we took the Sun Road west-to-east. I can’t wait to go back and try it east-to-west, both because it will be differently spectacular and because that way we’ll be hugging the mountainside instead of teetering in the outside lane on the edge of zillions of cubic feet of nothing but air (and gravity). Driving it our way was dazzling, to be sure, but I experienced a giddy anxiety I could have done without. In the spot or two where we got to hug the mountainside, I discovered that the interpolation of an extra lane between our car and the abyss completely erased the heart palpitations and sweaty palms. (Interestingly, I had no problem STANDING on the edge of the crevasse, just driving or being a passenger on it. Also interestingly, I have not had this problem with mountain roads before this trip. I wonder if it, like my lost love for roller coasters, Ferris wheels and the like, is the result of having deep-sixed my left vestibular nerve.)
For the rest of today’s trip, there was no point in taking pictures. Not because it wasn’t magnificent scenery, but because it was the kind of magnificence that doesn’t photograph. Huge landscapes across glacially created plains – the reason for the Big Sky Country name. The sky is indeed enormous; you feel like you’re seeing hundreds of miles in every direction, to the ends of the earth even. Some trick of perspective makes it seem as if you’re actually looking at the roundness of the planet. The sky appears to be tucked under the edges of the land at each horizon, high fluffy clouds and all. It’s like being on a beautiful green plate with sloping edges, inside and a small distance above the lip of a vast inverted blue and white bowl. Extraordinary.
We take US 2 east across the top of the state. There are very few towns along the way, but occasionally there’s a town big enough to have an intersection and wherever there’s an intersection, there’s an amusing sign with the word “Canada” followed by an arrow pointing to the left. Most of the towns we pass aren’t even one-horse towns; they offer no evidence whatsoever of equine, human or any other activity. Occasionally, there’s a bigger town and it always has a casino.
The miles go fast today. For over an hour (and about 75 miles), we don’t see a single other car going either direction. Just beauty and solitude and nature, as far as the eye can see. Around Wolf Point, MT, the landscape starts to look Midwestern instead of Western, probably because of the foliage. With the huge peach globe of the rising moon coloring an out-of-nowhere last gasp of rolling hills and buttes, Montana ends.
North Dakota is instantly less interesting because it’s so familiar – we could be in the plains and farmlands of Illinois now. Our guidebooks tell us the best that can be said of driving across North Dakota is that the roads are nice and flat and fast. We figure we won’t miss anything in the dark and so, our eyes still full of the glories of Montana, we keep going. If we can get to Minot, we’ll be about halfway across.
We do get to Minot, where we’re lucky to get a motel room because the state fair starts tomorrow (news to us), and so comes to an end one of the best traveling days of our lives.
Day 5-Minot (North Dakota) to Lake Superior (Grand Marais, Minnesota)
We wake up and realize, with diluted pleasure, that we’re now in the Central time zone. This was our home time zone for so long that it’s always a kick to be back in it, but it means that our six hours of sleep actually took seven and we are once again leaving somewhere later than we intended to. That was all well and good when the reason for the delay was Utah’s theatrical and eloquent beauty, or the well-worth-it wait for Old Faithful to do its thing, or the pure perfection of Glacier National Park. But a time-zone change just puts us an hour behind.
Oh, well. We have a quick breakfast, with surprisingly Florida-like fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice, served by a friendly waitress who sounds exactly like a character in Fargo (“Oh, yaah! Shurr!”), and then we’re on our way. The drive to Grand Forks is flat and quick, but we feel claustrophobic. Hard to understand why, but the sky truly isn’t as big here, nor are the horizons as far off, as in Montana. The abrupt change in beauty level from state to state reminds me of the transition from Texas (so flat, scrubby and boring) to New Mexico (instantly rolling, with prettier flora) when you drive east to west across their tops. Montana – 10. North Dakota – well, not 10.
Also, this North Dakota leg really is just like any of the countless road trips we used to take to Madison or Door County or Ann Arbor or Rock Island or Des Moines. It has a beauty of its own, but it’s too familiar a beauty to excite us. The Midwest is the Midwest is the Midwest – and North Dakota is apparently part of it, topographically, botanically and zoologically (a fairly grand term for the wildlife we see, which seems to consist mostly of insects, many of whom seek to bite us every time we get out of the car). This reacquaintance with bugs is very unpleasant. One of the unexpected benefits of our new home in the Pacific time zone is that there aren’t any bugs. I’m not at all happy with the itchy welts on my knee, ankle and neck. They take me back, and not in a good way.
We do make one stop – to take a touristy picture of the sign marking the geographical center of North America in Rugby – but other than that, we just book as fast as we can to Minnesota. (BTW, this geographical center of North America business assumes for some unclear reason that the continent consists only of the US and Canada. Evidently, though, even if Mexico and Central America were included, the center would still be somewhere in Pierce County, ND.)
We’re on our way to Lake Superior, still by way of US 2, which has been our host since western Montana. There’s now no interstate alternative, but the road remains quiet and mostly traffic-free with peppy speed limits of 70 (ND) or 65 (MN). US 2 spends most of its length winding through peaceful ranch land or peaceful farmland, of which there is a tremendous amount. There’s open space everywhere at the top of this country. The road occasionally and charmingly becomes the main street of some small or medium town (Havre (pronounced “Havver”), MT, Fosston, MN, Beaver Creek, you name the state, etc.).
Urban people that we are, we just can’t believe the smallness of the towns that crop up along the road, and not just on US 2. Every time we pass a Smoot, Wyoming (pop. 100 and completely dark at 9 at night) or a Dunkirk, Montana (pop. apparently two lean-tos 15 feet to the side of the road) or any of a hundred others in the states we’ve visited so far, we wonder who lives there and what they do and whether they love it or are dying to get elsewhere.
The first part of Minnesota is basically an extension of North Dakota, but just east of Bemidji, it’s a whole new ball game. Lovely Lake Cass (we think) opens up to the north and serves as a sweet gateway to the Chippewa National Forest. Suddenly, the landscape starts rolling even though the elevation trend is downward. The trees start standing up straighter and, bizarrely, the curvature of the sky seems to rise, too.
It’s a very nice run over to Duluth, where we leave US 2 just as Lake Superior appears before us, surmounted by the pretty bridges and buildings and green, green hills of the first city of any size we’ve seen since Salt Lake. To eyes and brains still agog over Bear Lake and Flathead Lake, this first view of Lake Superior is perhaps not as impressive as it might be. But it nevertheless feels like a refreshing splash of cool water.
After saying goodnight to US 2 (which we’ll see again in the morning) and enjoying a brief and surprisingly scenic stint on I35, we pick up MN 61, which reminds us first of Sheridan Road on the North Shore of Chicago, and then of the vacation destinations in Door County (our next stop). Instead of Lake Michigan or Green Bay on one side and dense forest or luxuriant pastures on the other, we have Lake Superior and ferrite-laden granite cliffs up to 800 feet tall.
Our home for the night is The Naniboujou Lodge, originally established in the 1920s as an ultra-exclusive private club with Babe Ruth, Ring Lardner and Jack Dempsey among its charter members. The private club concept fell victim to the Depression, and the Lodge is now a bright and colorful inn decorated in the style of the Cree Indians and proud of its listing on the National Register of Historic Places. We settle contentedly into Room 10 and listen to the waves of the greatest of the Great Lakes roll rhythmically onto the shore a few feet from our open windows.
Day 6–Grand Marais (Minnesota) to Sturgeon Bay (Wisconsin)
We wake up to sunshine here at 643 feet above sea level, almost exactly 9000 feet below our highest point on this trip. Room 10 and Naniboujou are even nicer in the daytime – the shower pressure is everything you could ask for, and the scrumptious breakfast is way beyond. Toast made of orange-raisin breakfast bread, an amazing concoction that looks like regular bread, but manages to burst its successive flavors subtly but unmistakably on the tongue. Wild-rice-and-blueberry sausage. Fresh eggs. Great coffee. A champagne flute of freshly squeezed orange juice. And all in a dining room (pictured below) that somehow manages in its garishness not to be garish at all.
As we leave, piles of bright fog steam up from Lake Superior. The clouds are billowing overhead, too. This looks like it will develop into the first overcast day of the trip, which is OK with us. We haven’t seen a dreary day in a long, long time. Except for the hailstorm that heralded our departure from Zion NP on Monday and a few random two-minute sprinkles as we drove northwest across Montana on Wednesday, we’ve had nothing but blue skies and fluffy cumulus clouds for months.
We pay more attention to the roadside cliffs on our return trip down MN 61. Layers of granite, siltstone, shale and sandstone, in a wide variety of colors, are plainly visible. (To our eyes, that is, but not so much in the lame picture below - sorry. Look closely, though, and you’ll see the layers.) We learn from a handy geologic marker that these layers are evidence of the last volcanic activity in MN, which was 1.1 billion years ago. At that time, volcanoes apparently erupted intermittently for 20 million years along a huge continental rift from Lake Superior to Kansas. The cycle of eruption, sedimentation and renewed volcanism created the layers in the cliffs. So here, too, we’re seeing geology hard at work, visually evocative of the power and majesty of time and the forces of nature.
We start talking about how geology is a descriptive science, as opposed to an experimental one where you can theorize and then test. With geology, you look at rocks, etc. and theorize, but you can’t test. My husband, the medical doctor, is rather dismissive of the bona fides of descriptive sciences, but as he explains the difference to me, I start thinking about the inexplicable nature of the question why no matter what kind of science we’re talking about.
All science seeks to answer what and how. A descriptive science like geology answers what pretty well and does a decent job with how, albeit without any ability to test and prove, but it doesn’t get into why. Other sciences do get into why to some degree. Medicine, e.g., can tell you why you die if you pick up a bacteria, develop an infection and leave it untreated, although it can’t tell you why deadly bacteria exist in the first place.
This makes me wonder whether why is even an important question when dealing with natural forces that occur over billions of years. Why is so quintessentially a human question, and human experience is less than an eye-blink in the enormity of time where a human minute is analogous to hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of years. Vis-à-vis nature, why is really a totally irrelevant question. In the end, the only real answer is why not? Existence is no more or less likely than nothingness.
And, obviously, the same is true whether you’re relying on science or on religion, supreme beings, deities and the like to explain the universe for you. There’s a freedom, I think, in not imposing the human brain’s need for purpose on things like mountains and volcanoes and billions of years. They are because they are. And given their inspirational beauty and power, isn’t that really enough?
Feeling quite refreshed by this philosophical turn of conversation (and perhaps a little impressed with ourselves), we turn back to navigating through Duluth, once again on US 2. We were originally planning a side trip around the Apostle Islands, but decide to skip that and the 70 or so miles it entails now that the day has indeed turned overcast.
But it’s a nice bright overcast. We drive along happily, enjoying the quiet road, the dropping temperatures and the thickly forested and very gently rolling landscape. We’re tickled by several signs in the northwestern Wisconsin town of Ashland (pop. 8600): Timeless Timber Lumber & Gift Shoppe (read that again – have you ever heard of or imagined a lumber and gift shop?); and, at the Bayview Park Fair, which is underway, Deep-Fried Cheese Curds and Cheesecake on a Stick (separately, I hope, although the sign is ambiguous) or for those not so cheesily inclined, Lobster & Shrimp Boil.
It turns out that the Pearson Salted Nut Roll, a world-class salty-sweet treat I remember from childhood and haven’t seen in years, still exists in Minnesota and Wisconsin. “Full of protein” the wrapper proclaims, so we take the wrapper at its word and buy them at every stop we make to keep in the car for snacks.
Our route takes us through the Upper Peninsula of Michigan from Ironwood past Iron River and through Iron Mountain. (Three guesses what’s in the ground here.) For about 75 miles, the U.P. has a Montana thing going on (virtually complete lack of towns), but with lush forest instead of lush plains. It’s tranquil and the miles pass by quickly as we listen to music for the first time on the trip.
Bidding a fond and, this time, final farewell to US 2, we rejoin Wisconsin a little over a hundred miles north of Green Bay (the city, this time) and before we know it we’re on 57 North to Door County. This road has improved dramatically in the decade since we were last here. It used to be a sorry procession of impatient families (hassled parents, restive kids) in cars with Illinois plates driving along jumpily behind agonizingly slow campers with Wisconsin, Indiana and assorted other plates for miles and miles and miles, with very limited opportunities to pass. Now, it’s deluxe divided highway most of the way. 57 joins 42, there’s the beautiful bridge over Sturgeon Bay, and then the two roads split again, 42 to wend its way up the Green Bay side of the Peninsula, 57 over to and up the Lake Michigan side.
We stay on 42 and arrive at our temporary home away from home just in time to watch the deep-pink sun slide into Green Bay’s smooth, smooth waters.
Back in the Humidity
My God – did we just forget? The humidity is like a tangible presence, a malevolent organism that is seeping into our skin, our bones, our cells and, unfortunately, our patience. We’re both so sticky and soggy that we’re short-tempered and headachy.
I remember disliking humidity, but I don’t remember it being impossible to get on with life. Counters feel sticky. Clothes are limp within moments of being removed from drawers and put on. Paper takes on the soft, wet, repulsive feel of some gross worm-like thing. Towels are useless when you get out of the shower, but nevertheless somehow absorb enough water to be still-wet hours later. Air conditioning makes interiors cold, but does nothing for the dampness. Your choices seem to be hot and sticky or cold and damp. And the insects are vicious. They’ve clearly taken over the world in this neck of the woods and they do as they please, inside and out.
My hair dryer makes me incredibly happy because the hot dry air feels like the desert. I consider whining like a child that I want to go home. I go ahead and do it. My husband smiles, as if it's a joke, but he looks pained and equally unsure we can actually stay here.
OK, we decide. We’re being ridiculous. We’ve always liked Door County. The home we’ve rented a few feet from the shore of Green Bay (the actual bay, not the town that’s had enough of Brett Favre) is gorgeous. We’ve gone to the grocery store for basics and to little gourmet markets for cheese and chopped cherry jam and artisan bread. We have enough bug repellent and anti-itch remedies to stay a step or two ahead of the bugs (we hope). The Internet connection works. Although the router doesn’t (so much for wi-fi on my laptop), there’s an adorable bakery/restaurant/gift shop with excellent wi-fi and coffee just two miles away. I pull myself together and whip up a batch of chocolate chip cookies. While they bake, I work on my new book. The words flow and the time flies and the cookies are delicious.
This is going to be fine.
Climate Reassignment and Corn
Well, it was fine spending the last three weeks back in the Midwest. Very relaxing, lots of old memories and a few new ones. But it turns out we really have been climate-reassigned. In addition to the humidity, which we never did get re-used to, there was a problem with clouds. We're accustomed to the desert sun (and to considering it unusual for even one cloud to mar the deep blue perfection of the sky), and we were slightly depressed by 21 days of seeing clouds.
It was dark and/or raining as often as it was light. Even on nice Midwestern days, the clouds can't seem to stop themselves from congregating, piling up and occasionally darkening the sky. As I sat in the sunroom and wrote, I was initially distracted and then somewhat mesmerized by the way the waxing and waning ambient light kept causing the backlighting on my computer keyboard to come on, turn off, come on, turn off. And I remember why I never bothered with sunglasses when I lived in Chicago. My Vegas shades had the unpleasant effect of making the Midwestern sky look gray and threatening no matter what the actual weather.
By Midwestern summer standards, though, the actual weather was great. About half the time, we were able to open the house and live in the fresh air. That was a nice change, both from the hot humid Chicago summers we remember and from the four months of nonstop air-conditioning required during Las Vegas summers. (In the desert, we end up feeling hermetically sealed, all but shrink-wrapped, by the time we finally get to open our windows in late August or early September.)
We left this morning, heading west. Destination: Las Vegas. But not before another few days of travel, including some more National Park hopping. Today, we crossed Wisconsin and made our way into Iowa. The western part of Wisconsin is very beautiful and rather European-looking, with its rolling hills, carpets of green, green, green farmland portioned into neat individual farms, grazing cows, pale blue skies and puffy white clouds. A few dozen miles before the Mississippi River, the hills roll more precipitously and the highway starts to feature sheer roadcuts, first of sandstone, then of sandstone and limestone. The geological layers are as clear and evocative as ever. The mighty Mississippi, which helped carve all this picturesque landscape, isn't so mighty this far north. If you've seen it in New Orleans or Memphis or even Rock Island, it seems surprisingly contained in Dubuque, although it's still a perfectly respectable river.
We cross it into Iowa (state of my birth) and the landscape is as gorgeous as farmland gets. Seriously rolling hills, more of the green carpets, but also acres and acres and acres of the cornfields Iowa is famous for. And what a glorious plant corn is. It evidently rained here earlier today and the gold and green corn stalks, with their distinctive tall layered leaves, are practically iridescent. The vistas are long and wide, and the red and white and silver farmhouses and outbuildings seem to have been placed for maximum charm. There's also some low-to-the-ground leafy crop (soybeans, perhaps?) blanketing many of the hills and fields in neat, packed-together rows. These form a lovely counterpoint to the high, waving cornfields. When we crest ridges, we can see that the corn is in rows, too, and that both crops have intricate row patterns, some neat and parallel, some at right angles to each other, some semicircular.
I feel obliged, as a public service, to include both a paean to, and the proper recipe for, fresh sweet corn. I don't think you have to be from Iowa to think the taste of fresh corn in August is one of the best tastes there is.
On the other hand, you might have to be Iowish (as my kids refer to me) - or a member of my family - to consider the following meal the essence of summer perfection, but try it and see what you think. Make the corn the main event. Have 3-4 ears per person and serve them, buttered and salted of course, with two sides: fresh tomatoes, and tuna salad (just tuna, celery, salt, pepper and a little mayonnaise - nothing fancy). Yum.
In any event, here's the proper way to prepare fresh corn on the cob. Depart from it at your peril.
--Buy firm ears of corn still in their protective green husks. If possible, open a top or two to check that you have fresh very pale yellow ears with even rows of smallish kernels. If you do, pop one of those kernels under your fingernail and listen for the little crack - if the kernel doesn't pop like a balloon-skin tight with water, pick a different ear or maybe even a whole different market or roadside stand. Note: your corn should be from Iowa, Wisconsin or Illinois if at all possible. I've had corn grown elsewhere and I don't recommend it. That said, though, freshness is the key. Your corn should have been growing in a field a couple days ago. If you're close enough to IA, WI or IL, great; if not, go with fresh.
--Enlist everyone you're feeding to shuck the corn and smooth off the cornsilk.
--Drop the shucked ears into a big pot of boiling salted water (the kind you cook pasta in) and leave them there for 2 minutes. Not 3 minutes, not 5 minutes and certainly not the outrageous 10 minutes people sometimes speak of. Overcooking fresh corn is a crime and the squishy result should be neither tolerated nor perpetrated. (I'm not even going to attempt to express my contempt for the use of microwaves in the cooking of fresh corn.)
--After the 2 minutes, remove the ears from the water with tongs, give one to everyone, and let them do their own buttering and salting. Eating with fingers is recommended, and plenty of napkins and dental floss will be required.
Plain to Glamorous
Nebraska is, continentally speaking, like a giant see-saw with a kid sitting on one end. If it weren't for friction, you could put your car in neutral on the western border and coast downhill all the way to the eastern border (which would be a nice way to go, given how dull it is to drive across). As we went east to west, our GPS informed us that the elevation was steadily increasing, a 4000-foot development completely imperceptible to the naked eye. We noticed we were at about 1200 feet in Omaha (double the altitude we left in Door County on Saturday). The elevation had risen to nearly 3000 feet by North Platte and 5160 feet when we crossed the border from Nebraska into Wyoming. Just west of Sidney, NE (about 4800 feet), dusty tan-colored buttes started dotting the flat pastures and the land started to undulate, marking the beginning of the geologic folds characteristic of the build-up to mountains as serious as the Rockies.
We also learned that the Mountain time zone starts a few miles west of North Platte and were pleased to recoup one of the hours we lost on the trip east. I'm always impressed by people who live on time zone borders; it must be both confusing and cool - in terms of the simultaneity of different points in time, one of my favorite concepts - to live in one time zone and work in another. There doesn't seem to be a very large population in the relevant part of Nebraska, but I bet there are still a few people whose lives occur simultaneously in the Central and Mountain zones.
We weren't sure how far we would travel yesterday, but on Nebraska's flat, fast, straight roads we made it easily to North Platte, where we stopped at a La Quinta Inn that turned out to be delightful - not a word I tend to use for hostelry of this stripe. This Inn was a marvel, so much so that it deserves mention here. It was quiet and clean; the staff was friendly and solicitous; there was a generously sized swimming pool kept at the perfect temperature and chlorine level (nothing like swimming laps at the end of a long day of driving to work out the kinks, mental as well as physical); the room got totally dark and deliciously cool and non-humid; and, miracle of miracles, the shower pressure was superb. Just excellent work on the part of the La Quinta people.
Right off I80 in North Platte, there's a shiny silver diner, one of those adorable structures that look like Airstream campers and are always getting hitched to vehicles and hauled to new places in the movies. This diner is called Penny's and inside we found a tall, skinny short-order cook who thought we could do better than our first breakfast choices and told us what to have instead. Can't fault his judgment; breakfast was terrific. Penny's is open 24 hours a day, so if you find yourself on I80 and hungry near North Platte, check it out. If you see the tall, skinny cook, tell him the people from Las Vegas said hi.
We stuck with I80 until Cheyenne, where we joined I25 heading south into Colorado. It must be confessed that the first part of Colorado is like more of Nebraska - except, significantly, for the gorgeous tan, then mink, then blue-gray complexity of successive mountain ridges that suddenly appear in the distance off to the west. Some of the peaks are snow-capped, despite the 88-degree temps in the valley.
We turn west into Loveland, which looks like Chicago's newer suburbs - brand-new stucco strip malls chock-a-block with Barnes & Noble stores, Chipotle restaurants, and every other chain you've ever heard of. But not too far west of this Everytown, USA suburbia, there's a ridge topped with a line of hoodoos and buttes, the road turns sinuous, and bam! We're driving through steep, splintered shale slopes, dense with evergreens standing tall and punctuated by occasional reddish sandstone and exposed dark-grey granite boulders glittering with minerals. We open the windows: 73 degrees here at 7420 feet, no humidity to speak of, and postcard-perfect vistas everywhere. The mountains are so glamorous, so quietly and unconsciously showy, after the plains.
Our destination for today is Estes Park and, in a nice first for this trip, it's only mid-afternoon when we arrive, which gives us plenty of time to explore Rocky Mountain National Park before dark.
Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, to Moab, Utah
Estes Park has a little of that Malibu, Carmel, Aspen sort of pretentiousness - lots of touristy stores and restaurants trying way too hard to be ultra-cool, rather seedy tourists ditto, and aggressively indifferent customer service everywhere except Rocky Mountain National Park, where the rangers and others are as nice and helpful as they can be. But what a beautiful place the National Park is! It's quite a spectacle, from its wide, flat glacier basin, littered with boulders and smaller flotsam and jetsam left behind by the retreating glacier eons ago, to its subapline slopes streaked with meandering rivers gleaming in the sunshine and dense with evergreens (some of them sadly, but beautifully, showing the brownish-red foliage that marks their impending death courtesy of the western pine beetle), to its giddy apline heights, where it's too cold and windswept for any but the smallest plants and hardiest animals to survive. The plants are tiny and even closer to the ground than the high desert scrub we're used to; here, they're all but underground. It's 70 degrees or so and sunny at the Park's entrance, 50 and grayly threatening up at 12,000-plus feet.
Unfortunately, our exploration of the Park had to be cut short. At 10,600 feet, I suddenly developed the headache and dizziness of altitude sickness. This never happened to me on past high-altitude trips, so I presume it's another regrettable side effect of having lost half the normal complement of vestibular nerves. Luckily, the cure for altitude sickness is simply to get lower, which we did as quickly as possible. But I can't offer pictures of the higher altitudes because I was too dizzy to take any.
Colorado's landscape is unbelievably peaceful, what with its huge plains that seem to stretch forever, its gentle green and tan slopes rising to steeper, still forested, darker slopes, and then further up to the craggy, snowcapped peaks that scrape the blue cloud-dotted sky. Every so often, there's an exposed granite slope or a ridge of sandstone buttes or those crazy mounds that look like broken mountains loosely reassembled into conical piles, these ranging from boulder-y hunks of whitish limestone or gray-black granite, to smaller chunks of orange sandstone rubble to splintered sheets of flinty shale, some black, some brown, some red. The land here seems as big as the sky did in Montana, and the sky is pretty sizable, too.
I70 is another gorgeous interstate highway with breathtaking canyons, slopes, trees and vistas basically every mile of the way. There were a few tense moments as we crossed Vail Pass. It's a little higher than 10,660 feet and I was driving. Sure enough, as we topped the crest, my head felt rather as if it had suddenly detached from my body. Gripping the wheel and breathing deeply did the trick, though, and I got us safely back under what is apparently my altitude limit for the time being. We have only two complaints about this part of the trip. There are none of the scenic overlooks and pullouts we've come to expect in gorgeous locales. Admittedly, they'd have to post them about every two seconds in this part of the country, but still, it would have been nice to have places (other than the shoulders of high-speed roads) to stop off, ooh and ahh, and take pictures. And Colorado drivers are apparently somewhat immune to the extraordinary beauty everywhere; if you slow even a little below the speed limit on any road to gape at nature, someone with Colorado plates zooms up and tails you impatiently.
After Glenwood Canyon, which is spectacular in a less-forested, more-sheer rock sort of way, we run into the Colorado River. At first calm and narrow-ish, the river picks up width and speed and becomes host to a virtual traffic jam of rafters. We follow the river down the western slope into Grand Junction, CO, and then into Utah. Not too long after we cross the border, Utah starts showing off its high-desert splendor: rounded mounds of gray, porous rock so striped and leathery-looking that it might as well be elephant hide; light tan rock shaped by erosion and wind into folds as soft as suede; high slopes of granite and shale, topped with vertically rippled sandstone buttes that in another few tens of millions of years will be hoodoos, separated along the lines that are already visible. And in the background, seemingly hovering just under the sky or possibly painted onto a gauzy backdrop, cloud-topped bands of hazy gray peaks.
Just before Moab, the buttes stack up into serious ridges and slopes and turn the extravagant red of ferrite-rich rocks. The scenery becomes surreal - bright red, with layers of green the color of silver patina, tan, khaki, sable and black. We're in the country of slickrock, fantastical arches, river gorges, mesas, and enormous mountain ranges. And, of course, the piercing blue sky, clear air, and arid heat of the desert. We breathe easier, literally, and feel clean, pure and, for the first time in a little over three weeks, gloriously dry.
Utah, the Beautiful
Once upon a time, some 300 million years ago, southeastern Utah was covered by a sea. When the sea retreated 250 million years ago, it left behind thick salt beds. The wind picked up sand grains and carried them to the region, depositing them on top of the salt. By 200 million years ago, the area looked like the Sahara. Then the sand dunes hardened into rock. The weight of the rock liquified the underlying salt beds, which started moving along the ground (not unlike the way glaciers move) and the movement cracked the rock above. Water seeped into and further scored the fractured rock. The effect of water and ice freezing and thawing year after year widened the cracks, increasing the porosity and permeability of the sandstone, which permitted the entry of yet more water and, eventually, created the buttes, spikes, hoodoos, arches and other fantastical formations we see today. It also exposed some of the sand beds, sinuous fissures in the enormous landscape.
As the minerals in the Entrada (red) and Navajo (buff) sandstone met the atmosphere and oxidized, the iron turned red, the manganese turned black, and the clay minerals turned purple and green. The glorious results are on vivid display in Canyonlands and Arches National Parks. Visiting them is like visiting the moon and Mars, too. The grandeur and depth are hard to capture photographically, but I did what I could. (See below.)
You get a strong sense of the vastness of geologic time when you consider that water was and is the main sculpting agent in all this (as it is everywhere on earth), even though this region gets only 10 inches of rain annually. As the professor in our geology course reiterated, we don't have to worry about time in geology - we have all the time in the world.
After spending most of our day in Arches and Canyonlands, we decide to drive the La Sal Mountain Loop Road at sunset. This turns out to be a 50-mile paved loop that climbs up to 8,000 feet or so (with minimal terrifying switchbacks) from the Mars-like red sandstone of Moab up to verdant plains and tree-covered mountain peaks, then back down into the red and buff backside of Arches NP along the Colorado River. It's a drive of surpassing beauty, the calm green of the forested mountain slopes and the cascading water (murky with eroded red rock though it is) providing a restful optical counterpoint to the stark magnificence of the sandstone spectacle.
Utah is a state of extraordinary beauty. It looks, depending on where you are, like the Alps, the Sahara, the plains, the moon, another planet altogether. Although we fell in love with Montana, we recognize that Utah is the money state for scenic travel: five eye-popping National Parks, countless dense forests, craggy escarpments, lush high-altitude plains for grazing cattle, and damn good French fries just about everywhere you go.
Extinction, Outlaw Country, Home
Probably because of our urban roots, we tend to assume that interstate highways will be if not ugly, then certainly less than scenic. This assumption could not be more wrong where I70 is concerned. It's gorgeous in Colorado and gorgeous in Utah. We take it today from Moab to its terminus at I15. Along the first leg of the journey, I70 climbs to the top of the San Rafael Reef, gaining 1,000 feet of elevation and losing 50 million years of geologic time in about eight minutes. Because of erosion and the shape of the land on this anticline, the rocks at Black Dragon Valley are 50 million years older than the ones on the banks of the Green River. Black Dragon Valley's rocks are the oldest we see on the trip. They date from 250 million years ago, just before the greatest mass extinction event in the history of the planet. For unknown reasons, 95% of all species on earth were wiped out. Land and sea were virtually devoid of life; the Paleozoic era had ended and the Mesozoic had begun.
This makes us wonder just how many times this whole life experiment has occurred. Does it take approximately the same number of years each time to evolve from single-celled organisms to space travel? Or are some iterations faster or slower? Does every iteration exhaust some non-renewable resource along the way? Does it cause its own extinction or do external events - plate tectonics, geothermal events, ocean venting of hydrogen sulfide gas, meteors, supernovas, marauding aliens, what have you - typically bring down the curtain? How will the next iteration fuel its transportation if it arises sooner than the 700 million years it took Mom Nature (as our geology professor liked to call natural forces) to create the petroleum we've all but used up in the last couple centuries?
Fueled ourselves by these lofty questions, we drive on - and up. The elevation climbs to over 7200 feet and we reach Ghost Rock, the so-called Outlaw Country where Butch Cassidy and others hid out from the law. It's Navajo sandstone here: buff-colored, stark, spectacular and reminiscent of the zillions of Westerns filmed in this area.
I70 ends at I15, the road from Salt Lake City to Los Angeles. We've driven this road before and thought it dull, but either the dull part is north of the junction with I70 or our geology-educated eyes are better able to appreciate its beauty. It has some extravagantly spectacular segments north of St. George in Utah, in the part of Arizona that sticks its neck up into what you expect will be the Utah-Nevada border, and south of Mesquite on the way to Las Vegas. In a spectacular example of engineering short-sightededness, I15 parallels the Las Vegas Strip and creates serious gapers' delays even on the rare occasions when there is no accident. (How did the road engineers miss the obstructive impact on their high speed highway of several blocks of the most eye-popping manmade scenery in the world?) We're so happy to see the Strip - the signal that we're 20 minutes from home after over 7,000 miles - that we don't object to having to crawl along for this stretch.
And then, suddenly, we're home, with our own sandstone and shale mountains out the windows to the west, our own glittering pool of blue water, our own furniture and art, our wonderful, wonderful shower. This has been an amazing trip, full of delights, the last and not least of which is the comfortable delight of being at home.