Benny and his friend Griffin at Ocean Beach in San Francisco.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Home Again

The trip starts here.

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Mad Dash Home

I must say, Idaho didn't quite live up to its hype. You may be wondering "What hype? Dancing potatoes?" I know, I know. For some reason I built up Idaho in my mind as a picturesque state, and perhaps it is in the north. In the south, however, driving along 86 and 84, it felt like a bit of letdown. However, this route did help us avoid Utah, which I've crossed at least three times already.

Unfortunately, Idaho couldn't help us with Nevada. We spent the night in Jackson Hole, and then pushed on through Nevada. Our original plan was to stop at Elko. But we were making good time and Ron was starting to think about getting home early so he could prepare for his Sunday flight to Washington, D.C. So we stopped at an underwhelming Mexican restaurant for dinner, then put Benny in his pajamas for some night driving.

We drove another 60 miles through a blinding, sinking sun on the horizon to Battle Mountain, where their one hotel was full. So we pushed on another 60 miles to Winnemucca, It was 10 p.m. and every hotel was full there, too. Well, not every hotel -- the Winners Hotel was only $50 a night and was never full, the helpful Holiday Inn desk clerk said. Did not sound good, so we reserved a hotel room in Sparks, just east of Reno. It was another 2 1/2-hour drive, and Ron groaned when I told him the news. We had to get more windshield wiper fluid, though, since we'd drained the minivan's supply washing away the battalions of squashed bugs during this drive. Ron entered a Chevron just minutes before it closed and we had a diverting 15 minutes trying to open the minivan's hood while Chevron's employees celebrated the end of their shift in the parking lot.

We woke up the next day groggy but determined to arrive in San Francisco that day. Benny was disappointed he couldn't see Lake Tahoe from I-80. Tahoe seems to be the vacation destination for the Bay Area. "Every week one of my friends goes to Tahoe," Benny said. "Sometimes three of them have gone. I think they meet up with each other." Certainly Ron's and my coworkers love to trade tips about Tahoe cabins and skiing. "The North Rim's the place to be," one likes to say wisely. Of course, Ron and I are so contrary that Benny will be lucky to see Tahoe before he's 18.

We emerged from the Sierra Nevadas and cross California's central valley, then enter the Bay Area. I found myself surprisingly excited to return to San Francisco. We found a parking spot for our Honda Fit across the street from our apartment and the parked the filthy, bug-splattered minivan in our garage space. Benny cheerfully toted bundles and small pieces of furniture up the stairs so we were settled at home in no time.

My last task that night was to check the trip odometer: 2,891.6 miles over 11 states in one week.

There's something satisfying about crossing a continent from the Great Lakes to the Pacific Ocean. We watched the whole panorama unfold: the waters of Lake Michigan, the congestion of Chicago, then through relatively flat Wisconsin and Minnesota to enter South Dakota's prairie. Then cross the Missouri River into the West, with mountains and monuments and the Rockies drawing ever closer. Then through the hills of Montana and Idaho down into the Nevada desert. A quick hop over the Sierra Nevada mountains, through the Central Valley and we find ourselves on the Bay Bridge, one minute after the toll goes from $5 to $6, but who's complaining.

I don't know what else to take away from it except this is the source of Americans' helpless obsession with automobiles and the lure of the open road. In Europe you want to throw a few stacks of cash in a carpet bag like Phineas Fogg and board the Orient Express to Paris-Munich-Vienna-Istanbul or the Trans-Mongolian Railroad to Moscow-Ulan Bator-Beijing. In America you want to point your car toward the setting sun and drive until you're too tired to see. Some writers say the last hundred years will be seen as an amazing anomaly, when ordinary people could just pile into a car and go anywhere, limited only by their money for gas. They say that era is coming to an end, and it is true such habits greatly harm the Earth. Twenty years from now, will Benny be able to rent a big minivan with unlimited mileage, fill it with his family and odd pieces of furniture and drive across the country? Has this trip passed on the precept that cars equal freedom to another generation?

Now I'm back in San Francisco, and tomorrow I'll take a bus to Benny's summer camp and then a train to work like the good tree-hugging liberal I am, but when I'm looking out the windows of the N-Judah, I'll probably imagine I'm driving through Yellowstone's Gallatin mountain range.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Bison and Basement Rocks

Yellowstone Day! Ron had never been to the national park before and I hadn't seen it since I was 17. Benny spent the winding trip south to the park carefully ranking all the animals he wanted to see: "First bears, then bison, then antelope ... no, first bison, then bears, then antelope ... wait, there are moose? Okay, first bison, then bears, then moose, then wolves ... oh wait, the antelope ..."

I had cracked open my "Roadside Geology of Montana" again, since the route we chose took us through the length of Paradise Valley between two mountain ranges. I dutifully took pictures of mountains and moraines (those ridges left by the retreat of a glacier) and sandstone ledges, wondering why I bought the darn book. But then we came upon a great roadcut near the southern end of the valley. At Yankee Jim Canyon, the Yellowstone River, which we had been following for much of our travels in Montana, cuts through Precambrian basement rocks. These rocks are the oldest of the old, the rocks formed before life left any traces on earth. Basement rocks, as the name implies, are the bottom layer of the land, and generally considered the last rocks before the mantle (the plastic rock that the earth's plates float on).

Maybe it's the picky editor in me, but I always like to see the basement rocks of a region before I learn about all the mud and sand being laid down and then volcanoes barfing basalt all over the landscape. Montana's basement rocks are about 300 million years old.

Ron stopped the minivan so I could take some closer pictures. Fortunately there was a wide, graveled pullout opposite the roadcut, so I didn't have to take my life into my hands on a narrow shoulder the way I did in the Shenandoah Valley.

These Precambrian basement rocks are complexly folded gneisses (pronounced "nices").

We continued on to Yellowstone, grumbling slightly at signs warning us of a $25 entry fee, and had a nice surprise at the entry point. Since today was the first day of summer, all entry was free! What luck, to hit the most expensive park of the trip on June 21. We started twisting along to Mammoth Hot Springs when we saw a short line of cars pulled off to the side. Someone might have a flat, but generally pulled-over cars in Yellowstone mean one thing: wildlife.

We were not disappointed. Three shaggy bison were grazing by the roadside, unfazed by the vehicles.

We tried to have a picnic lunch at Sheepeater Cliff, but black flies clustered thickly under the trees, where the picnic tables were. So we ate in the minivan again. We haven't had much luck with the picnic lunches on this trip, really. Afterwards we climbed all over the cliff, which is actually basalt lava that broke into columns as it cooled about 500,000 years ago.

We arrived at Old Faithful just as it began its eruption.

And the park said goodbye with a final sighting of wildlife. Probably mule deer.

We stayed the night at a very nice Holiday Inn Express in Jackson Hole, which looked a little forlorn with its ski slopes bare of snow. Tomorrow we head to our ninth state: Idaho.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Little Bighorn

It was a big day today -- we went to see Montana and Little Bighorn Battlefield. I'd visited both when I was 17, on a trip with my family and grandparents before leaving for college. While I remember the Badlands, Yellowstone and Mt. Rushmore from that trip, I'd completely blocked out Little Bighorn, coming near the end of a long road trip. I guess I was burned out after too many scenic vistas and big pancake breakfasts.

The rockies still lined the western horizon, touching the heavy gray clouds, as we crossed into Montana and sped north on I-90 to Little Bighorn. We all were a little grumpy -- the minivan was beginning to resemble an attic on wheels, what with the bundles of clothing and piled-up furniture. Benny had rediscovered the paper airplane kit my mother had given him and was complaining because we wouldn't let him cut paper during the drive. The rocks along this stretch were a big yawner, all sandstones and shales. We stopped at a market to stock up the cooler, planning a picnic lunch at the national monument. But there were no picnic tables or areas at Little Bighorn, so we munched peanut butter sandwiches in the minivan while Ron read aloud about Gen. Custer and the battle.

The fine displays at the Little Bighorn visitors center cheered us up. Five years after I last visited in 1986, the Custer Battlefield National Monument was renamed Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. Efforts were made to incorporate the Native American perspective and red granite blocks were added to mark spots where Native American warriors fell. We headed to the back porch where we listened to a mesmerizing talk that covered the geographic, social, military and economic causes of the battle. In 1868 a treaty had been signed giving the region to the natives, but gold was discovered six years later in the Black Hills and the army couldn't keep the settlers out. Although the Indians won the battle, they subsequently lost the war to protect their independent, nomadic way of life.

Ordered to attack the Indian encampment, Major Reno galloped down into this valley and crossed the Little Bighorn river. The attack failed and his shattered battalion retreated to the bluffs.

Benny with a red granite marker for Cheyenne warrior Lame White Man.

Soon we're on the road again. The sky has cleared and the Rockies are bigger now. We spend the night in Livingston, Montana, and plan to drive down to Yellowstone's north entrance in the morning.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

There's a Mastadon Following Us

Well, we missed the missile site, which was a shame, because I'd looked forward to a brief moment of contemplating the Cold War that had millions of 1950s schoolchildren cowering under their desks. But it was cold and rainy this morning, with ominous storm clouds spreading over South Dakota's enormous sky. We at fistfuls of Cheerios in our dreary motel room and scrambled into our clothes for an early start.

A light rain was falling as we drove into the Badlands. Benny hopped around on the Door Trail while I stood on the platform with my umbrella. Tour buses disgorged dozens of shivering tourists in shorts. A lovely family with three children tripped by, all dressed in shiny raincoats, rain hats and boots. I looked at my flip flops and Benny's wet t-shirt and ball cap and sighed.

We drove through a downpour to Rapid City and dashed into an Applebee's for lunch. Benny laid out his new plastic cowboys, Indians and Wild West animals (which included a buffalo and a giant meerkat). Ron studied the map and I ate a giant bowl of pasta. We decided to check out the nearby Museum of Geology at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology. "World-Renowed!" the web site claimed, sounding like an 1880 Town billboard. But it promised to be dry, anyway.

Well, the museum was superb. It highlighted fossils in South Dakota and Wyoming: Oligocene mammals, giant marine reptiles, Jurassic dinosaurs. Benny was immediately taken by a giant Mastadon skull hanging 13 feet above the floor. We admired the skeleton of a 29-foot mosasaur, a reptile which swam in the shallow inland sea that covered much of North America. Back in the Badlands visitors center, we'd seen a lovely tableau of a big piglike animal ripping flesh off a little rhinoceros stuck in the mud while a small three-toed horse snuck away. Here in the museum we saw the bones of those three animals.

At the gift shop, Benny scored a toy mastadon and a sabre-toothed cat to threaten his plastic Indians and cowboys. I bought a copy of "Roadside Geology of Montana" and the woman behind the counter didn't look at me strangely at all. But then, she was wearing a T-shirt that said "Sedimentary, My Dear Watson."

We emerged from the museum and lo, the sun shone brightly. We dashed to Mt. Rushmore, which I hadn't seen since Ron and I drove a moving truck from Kalamazoo, Mich., to San Francisco in 1999, right after we returned from Prague. Benny clutched his mastadon while we hiked around the monument.

The four presidents are carved into the Harney Peak granite batholith, a huge expanse of continental rock that cooled underground, like the Sierra Nevada batholith in California. Mt. Rushmore's granite cuts across older schist, which was originally mud and dirty sand on an ancient sea bottom. You can see the color change below Washington where the white granite overlies the gray schist.

Then it was time to race the rain to Wyoming. There were the Rockies ahead, blue and distant, their swirling snowpacks blending with the overhanging clouds. We spent the night in Gillette, Wyo., and prepared to enter Montana the next day.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

South Dakota and 5-Cent Coffee

I'm writing this post in a 1950s time warp in Kadoka, South Dakota, typing away to the creak creak creak of the rusted-out swings outside our motel room door. Touted as the "Gateway to the Badlands," the motel was probably cute in the 50s, rundown in the 70s and now edges toward the decrepit. But it's been a long drive from Sioux Falls and we're not inclined to be picky.

Checking in at the lobby was delayed by the woman in front of me, who counted out eight 10-dollar bills with painstaking care. Behind me were six motorcyclists in leather and little matching bandanas. They talked about some big motorcycle rally and when the motel clerk mentioned a motorcyclist discount, I immediately said, "My hog's out front," but I don't think he believed me.

We ate dinner at a restaurant/gift shop across the street, where I found a copy of the book "Roadside Geology of Southern Dakota." The cashier stared as I brought it to the counter. "That book's been here forever,” she said. “We wondered what kind of person would buy it.” Then she eyed me suspiciously.

We woke up this morning in a Sioux Falls Holiday Inn, where Ron let me sleep in and took Benny to its fairly extensive water park. As we barreled down I-90, I tried to distract a bored Benny by telling him the plots of the Little House books set in South Dakota. He was quite intrigued, so much so that we took a not-so-quick detour to De Smet, the setting of the last three books. Benny has decided that he wants a farm now, and bought some toys at the Laura Ingalls gift store and spent the next 60 miles enacting elaborate scenarios involving a stuffed chipmunk, a stuffed horse and a wooden gun.

Traveling by covered wagon

Benny's ready for school on the prairie

East and west South Dakota are quite distinct, divided by the Missouri River, East South Dakota is all prairie and pretty farms with lots of water and west South Dakota is hilly and rugged with a daffy western obsession.

Ron and Benny at the Missouri River in South Dakota

After we crossed the Missouri, the billboards became more aggressive and pleading, sprinkled with cheery Wall Drug signs touting 5-cent coffee. Then they turned positively menacing as we neared 1880 Town. 1880 Town was amazing, we were told, it was exciting, it was nothing we have seen before. We simply could not miss it. Bad things happened to people who missed it. It had dinosaurs! It was 40 miles away, it was 30 miles, 20 … 10 … 8 … 5 …. We pressed our noses to the windows, anxious to see this fabled place. And there it was, a tiny fake town attached to a big Shell gas station. As we drove on without stopping, I half-expected to see a billboard saying “Did You Miss 1880 Town? Turn Around Now!” I’m sure tomorrow we’ll see a billboard saying “Did You Skip 1880 Town? How Do You Sleep At Night?”

We officially started this cross-country drive from South Haven, Mich., to San Francisco on Thursday. The first week of our vacation was a rushed, pollen-induced haze of sorting papers, mopping basements, hauling carpets and chauffeuring an antique cabinet all over Berrien County. I also caught a bad cold. But there was lots of family time and cookouts on the grill. I saw only brief glimpses of Benny as he spent every moment with his cousins.

Benny in Ann Arbor, Mich.

At 1 p.m. Thursday we finally hit the road, with Ron in the driver’s seat, Benny napping in the back and me sneezing in the front. Chicago traffic slowed us considerably, but we made it to Madison, Wisconsin by dinnertime and spent the night at Ron’s niece Christina’s condo.

On Friday morning, I was still a sneezing, coughing wreck, but we piled into the rented minivan and drove across Minnesota with grim determination.

But life became all kinds of better after a night at a very nice Holiday Inn. This morning my cold was almost gone and Benny has adjusted to road life and no longer demands snacks every half hour. Tomorrow we see the Badlands, Mt. Rushmore and quite possibly the Minuteman Missile Site. I simply cannot miss the missile site. It might have dinosaurs.