Yellowstone in Pictures (Day 1 and 2)

Well, according to this blog, it took us multiple weeks to get into Yellowstone. We apologize for way this blog has gone the last few weeks, but it’s just another casualty of a very busy schedule. It’s pretty amazing how life is busier when you’re at home as opposed to constantly traveling. So we’re gonna go full photoblog and share a gallery of photos from our first two days in Yellowstone. We’ll have the last two days in another two days.

Road Trip: The Long Road to Yellowstone

These posts have been a long time coming, but here we go. A few weeks ago, myself, Theresa and her two brothers, Greg and Mark, embarked from Chicago avoiding Interstates on a ten day journey to Yellowstone and back. This is that story.

Even though I spent my formative years less than 10 hours away, as a child, I never went to Yellowstone. I suppose that happens when you play a baseball doubleheader every weekend during the summer. But I never really resented missing it until I found myself there. And wondering why in the world I didn’t come sooner. We spent a year traveling to some of the most exotic and distant places in the world, but I hadn’t even been to one of the most exotic right in my own backyard.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. It’s a long way from Chicago to Yellowstone, and landing in Chicago, I knew we had three days in the car before arriving at America’s first National Park. The roads started off busy and slow as we plodded our way through the Chicago suburbs, which last all the way to the Wisconsin border. We stopped for an Amish farmers market in Viroqua, Wisconsin, and found some great cinnamon rolls and bread. For a market in Wisconsin, though, it was decidedly lacking in cheese. We managed to find some in the next town over though, and our breakfast and lunch for the next day or two were complete. And we found these amazing cheesehead hats!

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A small wrong turn in Minnesota cost us an hour or so, and by the time we made it to our planned campground in eastern North Dakota, the sun was setting. And though we’d noticed some strong gusts in the car, we hadn’t quite appreciated how fierce the winds across the northern plains can really be. We were met by park rangers that warned us of possible tornados and thunderstorms. Stepping out of the car, the winds told us they weren’t kidding. Maybe this whole camping idea wasn’t so hot after all.

Ever stubborn (and really just more out of any options), we found the most sheltered campsite we could, set up our tents and then cooked up a dinner.

After dinner, certain the thunderstorm was imminent, we retired to the car to wait it out, only to have it skirt by us with hardly a drop of water. Even though it lit up the sky across the plans beautifully, it was sure painful to try to stay up after the whole day of driving. Eventually, at some ridiculous hour, we crashed into our tents, only to be woken up as we always do when camping, at sunrise. Not a particularly restful start to the trip.

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Day two started early, but man the state of South Dakota does not change much until you get pretty far west. We drove a straight line for six hours before reaching Wall, SD. For anyone that has ever driven in this area, all the billboards point you here, to Wall Drug. It’s undoubtedly the most famous pharmacy in the country, and these days, a ridiculous tourist attraction in its own right. About ten minutes was all any of us could take, so we headed for the real reason to come the area, the Badlands.

There’s something funny about traveling the world before your own backyard … you tend to reference really far off places to make comparisons. Driving through the Badlands, both Theresa and were commenting on how this looks like Patagonia, and that looks like the Quebrada de Cafayate, ad nauseum. I’m sure Greg and Mark got pretty tired of it, especially as it continued all the way through the Tetons. But, well, those are apt comparisons. It was a really beautiful, scarred landscape, that’s probably best shared in pictures.

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We were entertained as we drove by the prarie dogs (or prayin’ dogs as a 5 year old Mark used to call them) and frightened by two rattlesnakes, one in the road, the other (a juvenile) Greg almost stepped on at a turnout! We also got our first look at a wild Buffalo. It was very exciting at the time, but by the end of our trip, after the massive herds and baby buffalo at Yellowstone, they really weren’t worth all of our excitement.

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After that, it was on to Mt. Rushmore, thankfully not a long drive away, but via an awesome road, the Iron Mountain highway. It was clearly built before today’s modern interstate routes, because it hairpined up the mountain, followed by loop-de-loops and one lane tunnels back down. It made for a really fun drive, especially in the thick morning fog we set out in. This fog was troublesome as we arrived to Mt. Rushmore, since it made it so we couldn’t see Mt. Rushmore. Fortunately, the clouds soon “thinned” out and we got our view of the giant heads.

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Frankly, I don’t know what to think about Mt. Rushmore. On the one hand, it’s a really impressive accomplishment. It’s absolutely massive, moreso than I’d ever imagined, and the sculptures are very well done. And I sat there thinking that future civilizations, long after we’re gone, are going to look at these giant faces on a mountain and it’ll be reflective of our culture like the Pyramids of Egypt or Angkor Wat. But looking at the “before” and “after” pictures of the mountain, I couldn’t help thinking it looked better before. It just seems like such a silly thing to do to such a nice mountain.

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After that it was onward, all the way across the state of Wyoming (with a failed attempt to see Devil’s Tower that was fully thwarted by the fog) to the end of our long road to Yellowstone, our gateway, Cody, Wyoming. And that’s our next starting point.

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Bear Creek Reminiscence

I’ve been to five continents and somewhere around 50 countries. I’ve made it to almost every state in the U.S. Yet still, the place pictured below remains one of my favorite places on earth.

This place is Bear Creek Aquatic Camp, a residential summer camp located on the shores of Kentucky Lake and run by the Kentuckiana Girl Scout Council. This past week I was in the area researching lake resorts for the Kentucky guidebook, and when I found myself just a couple of miles away from the camp, I couldn’t resist returning. It’s been nearly 20 years, since the first summer I spent there. I wasn’t sure what I’d find on my return, if perhaps, it were better to let my memories be memories.

But what I found was, largely, what I remembered. Things seemed a bit smaller (perhaps because I’m a bit bigger), and the counselors who were there preparing for the girls who were arriving soon seemed so young (perhaps because I am getting to be old). But the smell of pine that filled the air as you walked from the boating area to the swimming area was still there to tickle my nose. I could almost picture myself inside the still rustic cabins, whispering with friends until we fell asleep mid-thought. At the beach, I missed the trampoline from which we used to bounce into the water (replaced now with a slide for insurance reasons I’m sure), but I recalled the accomplishment of swimming across the bay and back. Running my hands along the multi-colored life jackets strung out between the trees, I remembered learning to sail, getting up on water skis for the first time, and the triumph of finally raising the sail of a windsurfer and going for a ride. At Inspiration Point, it seemed the words of campfire songs hung on the breeze. The lyrics of one of my favorites have stayed with me to this day, a sort of mantra for my life.

“On the loose to climb a mountain, on the loose where I am free. On the loose to live my life the way I think my life should be. For I’ve only got a moment, and a whole world yet to see. I’ll be searching for tomorrow on the loose.”

Bear Creek is a special place, one of those places that, over the course of a few summers, shaped me into the person I am today. It was where I got my first real taste of independence, where I gained confidence and learned to take risks, where I felt what it was like to be free. Nostalgia washed over me as I meandered through the camp. I couldn’t help but yearn to be young again, to be able to spend my summer there, to have the whole world seemingly in my hands. But as I stood at Inspiration Point and looked out across the lake, I hushed those wishes and decided instead just to be thankful for the time I had spent there, to be grateful for the experiences I have had and the person they have helped me become, and to appreciate the fact that one of my favorite places on earth is still there, sharing its magic with generations of girls.

Thanks, Bear Creek. And Happy 30th Birthday. May you have many, many, many more.

Road Tripping

Once upon a time—back when I had enormous octagonal shaped glasses; long, straight, thin hair; and chicken legs (okay, yes, I still have those), in the era when my taste in fashion ran to high waisted jean shorts, cotton tank tops, and Converse cheerleading tennis shoes—my parents loaded me and my three brothers into our red Chevrolet Astro van and drove us from Kentucky to California and back. Our family of six may not have traveled internationally when I was growing up, but travel we did. My sense of adventure is not anomalous; it came honestly.

On the way to California, my dad (and occasionally my mom) piloted us along a northern route. On the way back, we opted for a southern route. We stopped at national parks—Badlands, Mt. Rushmore, Yellowstone, Sequoia, Grand Canyon, Petrified Forest. We stopped at tourist traps like Wall Drugs. We bought tacky souvenirs at Stuckey’s, the gas station/convenience store/junk shop located all along the interstate. We had caricatures done in San Francisco, hung out with Mickey at Disney, met Jaws at Universal, and stuck our toes (and only our toes) into the Pacific Ocean. We saw Vegas before it went upscale. We visited family in Los Angeles as well as middle-of-nowhere Arkansas. We turned the van seats so that they faced each other, giving us no leg room but lots of space to play games. And for the most part, we all got along, the only difficulty we all still remember being our youngest brother Mark’s propensity for backwashing into our shared sodas (a ploy, we now believe, to get his own).

On Saturday, I, along with my two younger brothers, Gregory and Mark, and Jeff, set out on a partial recreation of this trip. We’re all meeting in Chicago, where Gregory lives, and from there, we’re traveling to Yellowstone and back, taking the northern route there and the southern route back. In addition to spending four days in Yellowstone, we’ll also be stopping at the Badlands and Mt. Rushmore, sleeping over in Grand Teton, checking out Denver, and stopping at any and all exciting roadside attractions we find along the way. We’ll be camping most of the time, so Internet access is probably going to be limited, but if it’s available, we’ll be updating (both here and on my brother Gregory’s blog) and on our Facebook pages. If we can’t get online, we’ll come back with lots of stories to tell. (Promise, swear, cross my heart, time sucking Kentucky book be damned).

To keep you satisfied until I make it back online, check out the photos below. Good for a daily laugh. Or five million.

King Beds and Jacuzzi Tubs

Staying in the biggest room at one of Kentucky’s most famous inns (Old Beaumont Inn in Harrodsburg), complete with four-poster King bed and two-person Jacuzzi tub, is pretty nice. Except, when it’s just you in that big ol’ bed, it’s pretty lonely too. I know, sob, sob. My life is hard.

Anyhow, yes, we have been MIA. Big time. Our apologies. But you see, research for the Kentucky book I’m working on has completely consumed my life, stolen every second and every ounce of energy I have. As for Jeff, well, I took the external hard drive with me to Kentucky, so he doesn’t have access to any of our photos. Oops. Plus he’s been pretty busy himself planting our garden, cutting down overgrown bushes, giving some semblance of organization to the mess that is our front bedroom, and you know, going to work every day.

But I’m going to make every effort to finish up posting about Colombia here in the next week or so. Because soon we’re going to have more stories to share. We’re off to Yellowstone in three weeks!

Carolina on Our Minds

When we embarked on our trip last October, we had in hand a return ticket to Seattle but no real idea where we were going from there. We had handed over the keys to our apartment in Bethesda and resigned from our jobs. We weren’t planning to return to D.C. Our belongings were piled into a Ryder van and moved to my parents home in Kentucky. Our final destination, the place we would call home when our year in the world was up, was unknown to us. Anything and everything was a possibility. NYC? Denver? Phoenix? North Carolina? West Coast? East Coast? Europe? Though we couldn’t quite see ourselves in the Deep South or the smack middle of the U.S., we weren’t ruling anything out. We left our futures up to fate.

Some people wondered if we’d just decide to keep on traveling, but I think we both knew that wouldn’t be the case. We love travel. We love this adventure. We will forever be planning or taking a trip, but we both have things we want to accomplish, opportunities we want to pursue that require a commitment to a time and place.

Some people suggested we consider settling overseas, perhaps calling Europe home for a few years, and when we left we thought that was an option solidly on the table. Yet after a year away from family and friends, we are ready to be a bit closer. We want to be able to talk to them more, see them more. I can’t say that a stint in Europe doesn’t have appeal, but it doesn’t fit for us right now.

As with Europe, other options lost their luster over the course of the year. The opportunities there weren’t right. The weather wasn’t good. The flight connections home to Louisville and Seattle were crap. We weren’t really big city people after all.

In the end, I think fate intervened. Jeff found a lab doing exactly the kind of work he wanted to do in an area that we’d talked about with interest for years. The lab, in turn, found Jeff to be an appealing candidate for a position there. A good friend of ours from D.C. took a position at the same place and reported back to us nothing but good things. Multiple friends of ours who had grown up, lived in, or gone to school in the area sang its praises.

Without ever really deciding, we seem to have come to a decision. This fall we will be moving to North Carolina, specifically the research triangle area of Raleigh-Durham- Chapel Hill. It’s a move we’re both excited about, though it’s also a move into the complete unknown. Neither of us have ever been to the area. In fact, we’ve only been to NC once, and it was to Asheville. I guess some people might consider this crazy, but we just consider it an adventure. We’ve spent a whole year going to places we don’t know much about; why not go ahead and live somewhere we’ve never been?

So now that you know where we’re going you’re probably wondering what we’ll do when we get there. Well Jeff has just received full funding to do research on RNA regulation in Dr. Jack Keene’s lab at Duke University. He’s back to the microscopes and centrifuges, a prospect that might make many of us run but which he regards with great anticipation. He’s lucky in that he honestly enjoys what he does, and he’s good at it to boot.

As for me, well I’m going to be a writer. I’ve just agreed to a contract to write the Moon Kentucky guidebook, so I’ll ease back into the real world researching my favorite state. This means that although we’re moving to North Carolina, I’ll actually be splitting time between there and Kentucky. And while I’m very much looking forward to writing this book and perhaps doing a few other travel pieces to have a bit of money flowing in, what I will be doing the rest of the time is writing fiction. Or at least trying to. It’s about time I pursued a dream deferred. I don’t know if I’ll succeed or fail, but I do know that I’ll regret it if I don’t give it a try.

So there it is. Our future, at least the next small snippet of it, laid out. And while we’re very much looking forward to it, now that we’ve thrown it out there for all the world to know, we’re going to lay it aside for a while. We still have six weeks left on this trip, and more than anything knowing what lies ahead gives us a freedom without worry to enjoy every single remaining minute.

Thoughts on Independence Day

So today is American Independence Day, a splendid holiday in my opinion. To celebrate the greatness that is our country, we get to eat tons of food, drink cold beverages, and shoot off all kinds of explosive devices (some legal, some not). If you’re especially lucky, you get to eat my mom’s pulled pork and Mississippi Mud. What could be better?

While I guess I’m not especially lucky this year, I’m not too bad off, as we’re actually hanging out with a college friend in Siem Reap, and attending a Fourth of July party with her. There will be food, drinks, and fun, but I’m not so sure about fireworks. So I guess I need you to shoot off a few extra Roman candles for me. And while you send explosives into the sky and try to avoid singing off your eyebrows or burning down your neighbor’s house, take a minute to reflect on all the things that you probably take for granted, but which trust me, should make you feel lucky that you live in the land of the free and the home of the brave. For instance:

*Western-style toilets–a throne with a seat, water in the bowl, a flushing mechanism that doesn’t require buckets of water, and toilet paper (that can be thrown into the toilet!).

*The right to wear whatever you want, even if I think you probably shouldn’t.

*Cheese in its many delicious incarnations.

*The right to make your opinion heard without fear that you could end up dead or “disappeared”.

*Laws that require your parents to send you to school rather than send you out on the streets to sell postcards, bracelets, or even worse, yourself.

*Tex-Mex food. Barbecue. Summer evening cookouts.

*The right to choose your own partner (even if, unfortunately, not all Americans are given the right marry them) and to decide whether or not you’ll have children and how many you’ll have.

*Drinkable water straight from the tap.

*A culture that believes women are as valuable as men, that the color of your skin doesn’t dictate what you can or cannot do, and that anyone can grow up to be President.

Now go celebrate the USA and set the sky (and nothing else, please) on fire! Happy 4th of July!

A Farewell in Photos to D.C.

Farewell to the Metro, my connection to the city.

Farewell to my favorite weekend destination, Eastern Market

Farewell to all my former places of employment, the Holocaust Museum, The Children’s Partnership, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum

Farewell to Dupont Circle, site of many interesting lunches, where I met “the Lord,” learned the sandwich song from Raccoon, and made the acquaintance of the only black Grand Master in chess.

Farewell to the monuments, emblematic of the city.

Farewell to all the other sights and sounds, both grand and mundane.

Farewell, D.C. I’m sure we’ll meet again one day.

Adios Amigos

Last night we said goodbye to DC with a party, where we were able to gather many of our friends together for a final farewell. Though I was initially resistant to the idea of moving to DC, over the years we lived there, it became home. And last night, as we closed the door behind the last of our departing guests, I think we both felt a touch of sadness.

Though there are things we’ll miss about the place, what we’ll miss most is the people…the once strangers who became friends and then grew dear to us, who left us with hugs and good wishes and funny pictures and nice cards and even a few tears, who made us promise to keep in touch and lamented the fact that it would be an entire year until they saw us again, who were integral parts of our daily lives for the past years. I think we’re both certain that we’ll keep in touch with many of them and that we’ll gather together on occasion, so we are not sad in the sense that we’re losing these people. We’re not. We’re sad, however, that never again will things be the same. We won’t be moving back to DC when we return, and during the year we’re away many of our friends will also be scattering. All of our lives will continue to evolve as they have over the past five years, but this time they’ll be going in so many different directions. Although we can always go back to DC, it won’t ever again be the same DC we left.

And so while we are looking forward to the future and the start of our trip, we are also taking a moment to look back. A tinge of sadness marks our excitement. But mainly, we just feel lucky. Lucky for the opportunity we have ahead of us. And oh so lucky for the experience we have had in DC and for the friends who have made that part of our journey one we will always look back on fondly. So, if you’re reading, thank you…thank you for everything.