Cross Country Trip, Alaskan Cruise, part 2: THE END!

I know two people in Alaska: Santa, and my best friend from growing up, Kenny. They both live at the North Pole. Sadly, we saw neither on this trip. In fact, we saw relatively little of Alaska. It’s 14 times the size of Ohio, twice the size of Texas, four times the size of Montana, three times the size of California…you get the idea. It’s huge! I would love to come back again and see more, but getting here is daunting.

Our cruise started at the top of our journey and went south, so our next stop was the capital, Juneau. Juneau is only accessible by boat or plane.

What does one do in a remote capitol first thing in the morning? Find a bakery, of course!

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At 44 miles long, Juneau is the 3rd largest city in the world, though the population is only around 35,000 people. The town had a fun, funky feel to it. It reminded me of Portland—there seems to be a new and young food movement, which is how we happened upon a half dozen other bakeries.

It was so hilly that it’s sometimes called Little San Francisco, and it receives little snow because it’s actually a rain forest. (It also receives very little sunshine.) The town had one fast food drive-thru—a McDonald’s. Their arrival was so heralded that 90% of the population ate there on opening day. That may be the last time anyone over the age of seven was that excited about McDonald’s food.

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There were a lot of murals in Alaska, as well as a lot of flowers, and rhubarb, tons of rhubarb.

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Back on the boat, we searched for entertainment. Without alcohol and gambling, our closest friends became karaoke and trivia. Have mercy. Apparently the only words to “We Are Family” that we know are “We Are Family.” There are verses, lots of verses.

The next day we landed in Ketchikan. In both Juneau and Ketchikan, the cruise lines had built up little touristy meccas immediately in front of the boat. It was challenging to get past these and see the true heart of the city. In Ketchikan, we walked up the hill to a park and saw some salmon spawning. We also saw some harbor seals and bald eagles. We have bald eagles where I live, but this was the first time I ever heard their beautiful (and loud) call.

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This guy and his mate were in the center of town, totally undisturbed by people.

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These seals came in for a closer look at the kayakers.

Ketchikan had a dearth of bakeries. Let us observe a moment of grief-filled silence for their lack.

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While we’re on the subject of food (as if we’re ever not on the subject of food), let’s talk about the cruise. For years, I had heard about the awesomeness of the food on cruises. After having experienced it for myself, I can tell you that this is both true and not true. There is a. lot. of. food. Tons. Even if you only open your mouth to breathe, someone, somewhere will try to stuff a piece of food in it. I respect that. Most of the food is okay. Some of it is good. Occasionally it’s excellent. Mostly, it’s just a lot.

There’s breakfast, a breakfast buffet, lunch, a lunch buffet, a formal supper, 24 hour room service, 24 hour pizza, and 24 hour ice cream. Thankfully there’s also an awesome workout room that’s better equipped than my local YMCA. (And with a better view.)

They were big into celebrations on the cruise. The waiters sang to my parents for their 50th, and to my sister and brother-in-law for their 25th.

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*Cruise tip: Bring a travel clock. There’s no clock in your room and no way to wake up for those early score excursions, should you choose to take them. Speaking of shore excursions, choose wisely. Most are overpriced, crowded, and touristy. Personally, we had much more fun exploring on our own.

Our final stop was in Victoria, BC, which I recently discovered is an island. Sadly, we arrived too late for many things, but it was still pretty.

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There was this soda shoppe that made milkshakes. Finally, some sugar on this vacation!

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The next morning we were back in Seattle. What’s the logical thing to do when you’ve spent a week being force fed like a pate goose? Immediately look for more food, of course!

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Piroshky, Piroshky: Russian pastries so good they named them twice. The huge line was a good testament to how great these things were.

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We were foiled in our attempts to get crumpets, so we got Greek yogurt instead. What’s so great about Greek yogurt, you may ask. Well, this is unlike any yogurt you’ve ever had. It’s perfectly smooth and creamy with only a slight hint of tang. Think of the best most perfect custard you’ve ever had, make it ten times better, and you’ll be close to this yogurt.

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Next we tried Dahlia’s bakery. They’re known for their ($35) coconut pies. We tried a pie bite. It was meh, but the triple chocolate cookies were good.

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Finally, the piece de resistance, the thing I’ve been hoping to try on my previous visits–insert drumroll–Top Pot Doughnuts!

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Friends from back home will be wondering how these compare to Schuler’s…plug your ears if you’re unwilling to read this blasphemy…they were better. At least the glazed and sour cream old fashioned were better. Schuler’s still holds the title for chocolate covered cream filled, but these glazed were amazing. They tasted like the inside of a popover–perfectly soft, rich, and custardy. They were awesome and the perfect end to our wonderful vacation.

How do you wrap up such a marvelous trip? What was best–the breathtaking, marvelous sights? The view of our marvelous country? The food? It was the food, definitely the food. Of course family time trumps all of these things. Not only did we get to take the trip of a lifetime, but we did it together. And we ate. A lot. Thanks for reading and sharing with me, Vanessa.

Cross Country Trip: Alaskan Cruise, part 1

We made it across nine states and two time zones, through several national parks and monuments, navigated a couple of hotels that could flatteringly be described as fleabag, and yet none of that was as daunting as getting on the boat.

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First we had to make our way from our hotel in SeaTac to the pier in downtown Seattle, no easy task. Shuttles have been set up for this purpose and make a tidy profit, none of which goes to put seatbelts or shocks in their vans. Then you arrive at a giant terminal where—for a fee—a kindly porter will take all your luggage and make it disappear. Next you step inside the vast building, and that’s where the real fun begins.

We were herded; we were prodded; we were swiped and searched. It was all very Ellis Island.

Finally we were urged onto the boat and like the cattle we resembled, we settled in at the feed trough while our rooms were prepared. There were people, so many, many people. By this time we were so overwhelmed and desensitized that we may have been strip searched and de-loused. I don’t recall. All I know is that there were cookies, and they weren’t very good; if the lunch buffet was any indication, things didn’t bode well.

They picked up a little when we were allowed to go to our rooms. You know that scene in Titanic when the boat starts filling with water and the peasants are locked in steerage? Our room was a floor beneath that one.

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Actually, it was quite cozy. The bed was king-sized and it had some clever storage so that our suitcases remained out of sight. The lack of windows made for excellent sleeping conditions to those who are averse to having any light in the room. (If you’re like me and light bothers you, take some tape to put over the tiny lights in the room and the peephole. They’re more apparent and distracting in the otherwise pitch blackness.)

The first night and all of the next day, we were at sea. For someone who has never been on a cruise and may be wondering if you would enjoy it, here’s a handy test:

If you’re an extrovert who loves to meet people and enjoys food, then a cruise is your Utopia.

If you enjoy being pampered by a staff of 900 men and women whose only purpose is to serve you round the clock—including twice daily room cleaning and 24 hour room service—then a cruise is for you.

If you’re the type of person who hates to plan vacations and would prefer to have someone tell you when and where to show up, then a cruise is for you.

If you love alcohol and gambling, then a cruise is for you.

If you’re an independent introvert who doesn’t drink or gamble, like strangers, crowds, being touched, served or waited on and finds great joy in planning vacations, then a cruise might not be for you. (Guess which one I am!)

Despite the fact that a cruise might not be a great fit for my particular personality, it was a great experience and quite possibly the best way to see our particular portion of Alaska. Some of the things we saw are only accessible by plane or boat. And after an initial adjustment, I really began to warm up to the resort-like atmosphere of the boat. After a while, you begin to resent anything you have to do for yourself. It’s a good thing the cruise was only 7 days. Much longer and I might have started to refer to myself in the third person like the queen. “We would like our water refreshed now. We are ready for our turndown service.” But I digress…

The “fun day at sea” was made difficult by the ever-present yet low-grade nausea some of us experienced while we adjusted to our sea legs.  The day was foggy and cold, not ideal for relaxing on a deck (something unheard of with a 5 year old anyway.) We attempted to fill our day with fun ship activities. Carnival offered a lot of them, as well as a camp for kids. We took advantage of that for a short time here or there. They did a good job stocking the room with toys and planning games and activities for the kids. One day our daughter had her face painted like a tiger; another she was wowed by a magician.

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The employees were wonderful. Most of them were Asian, some were from Eastern Europe and a smattering were from the UK or US. All of them were kind, warm, helpful, and friendly. They made the journey pleasant and joyful, even if it was a strange adjustment to be waited on constantly. Even though we saved for the vacation for a long time and tried to budget carefully, the solicitousness of our servers often made me feel excessive and frivolous. This was made worse when we found out that many of them were highly trained professionals in their own countries–doctors, lawyers, etc. Our waiter was an electrical engineer, and yet he served us with professionalism and good attitude. It was an unexpected lesson in humility. And there was this.

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On the second full day of the trip, we cruised into the Tracy Fjords.

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The water is jade green from silt deposits. (Jade is coincidentally the state stone of Alaska.) The white chunks are chunks of ice.

We saw humpback whales, orcas, eagles, goats, and this glacier.

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As beautiful as the fjords were, we were ready to get off the boat. The next day was our first stop at Skagway. It was adorable! The town is home to only a few hundred fulltime residents but full of charm. It still looks like a Wild West frontier town with wooden boardwalks and wooden buildings.

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We took the Yukon Gold White Passage train, retracing the steps of the old gold seekers. The scenery was beautiful.

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Clearly, we were all spellbound.

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Next up: the capitol and more naps, many, many more naps.

Cross Country Trip, Day 10: Seattle to Bainbridge Island

We started our day by heading to Bainbridge Island. Not because we necessarily wanted to see the island, but because ferries are a must do and the best way to see Seattle’s skyline, or so everyone says.

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Are you a honkaholic? If so, Washington would like you to stop.

I’ve ridden in ferries before–to Put-In-Bay on Lake Erie and Monhegan Island in Maine. They could have fit in this one with a few of their friends and still had room to spare.

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This is one small portion of the giant, giant vessel. Commuters find them so boring that they remain in their cars and sleep. We took our car; don’t do that. The downtown is within an easy walk of the ferry station.

Here’s a bit of our view on the way:

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Bainbridge Island was a cute little town that’s worth a look. The stores were quirky and interesting.

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And especially this:

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I love, love, love premium ice cream. Not only does it taste delicious, but it doesn’t use artificial ingredients. My dye-sensitive daughter was able to eat strawberry ice cream for the first time in a long time.

Next we went to my favorite place in Seattle.

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First we went here.

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A crumpet is like a mix between a really good English muffin and a pancake. It was griddled, drizzled with melted butter and honey, and so good that I almost forgot to take a picture until it was too late. Must learn to make crumpets.

We hoped to see the guys throwing fish, but no one was buying. (Cheap, cheap people.) These guys were playing, though, and they were good.

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At the market, you can get some of the most beautiful flowers you’ve ever seen for five bucks.

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Along with fruit and vegetables.

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It’s like your neighborhood farmer’s market on steroids. With the original Starbucks.

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And the original and ridiculously long Starbuck’s line.

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Supper was my favorite clam chowder from Pike Place Chowder. It’s worth the drive or flight from wherever you live. Seriously.

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Tomorrow we board the boat, and I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to the food the view. I’ve heard a lot about Alaskan cruises and the amazing food unbeatable scenery. I can’t wait to go to a midnight buffet be with my sisters and their families again. We’re going to gain a lot of weight have a lot of fun.

Cross Country Trip, Day 9: Spokane to Seattle

This is the hotel dog, Penny, clearly an energetic rapscallion.

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Washington is farm country again. Unlike Ohio, Washington has kindly labeled their crops with little blue signs so you know what you’re passing. So far we’ve seen peas, alfalfa, potatoes, and my old friend, corn. I look forward to these signs with breathless anticipation…It’s possible that the scenery is a bit boring along I90.

Interspersed with the crops are orchards. Orchards are something else I have idealized. Occasionally my husband and I talk about chucking it all and buying an orchard. Then we look at our garden and houseplants and decide we should learn to keep those alive before we take on a thousand trees.

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We stopped at a fruit stand in Ellensburg.

Cherries are the thing here. I love sweet cherries; it was hard to pass them up, but we’re going to Canada. Bad things happen to people who smuggle fruit across the border. I’ve seen Locked up Abroad. I’m not going out like that.

Farther west the landscape turned scrubby and arid again, and there are a few dozen windmills standing watch for their Don Quixote.

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Soon the scrubby hills gave way to more mountains and pines. This difference in eastern and western halves of the same state is foreign to me. In Ohio, the only difference between the east and the west is that Canton roots for the Steelers and Toledo is uncomfortably close to Ann Arbor.

The first thing we saw in Seattle was this guy.

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A fascinatingly ugly troll holding a VW under a bridge.

We glimpsed the Space Needle as we drove past. It’$ po$$ible to $ee in$side the $pace Needle, but we cho$e not to. I’m not $ure why.

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Next we stopped at a landmark store called Archie McPhee’s.

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It was filled with odd things like this:

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Supper was at Ray’s Boathouse Cafe on Puget Sound. The view was spectacular, and so were the oysters. (Oysters are to Seattle what Lobster is to Maine.)

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We grabbed a cookie and tart to go before heading down the street for ice cream. On the way, we ran into a festival. (Still not exactly sure what it was for, but it was a chance to soak up some of the local culture.) The ice cream was Molly Moon, a local place that uses high quality ingredients. The chocolate was awesome.

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Oh, and it was next door to this cupcake place, Cupcake Royale. They were good, too. So far Seattle and I are getting along just fine.

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Cross Country Trip, Day 8: Essex to Spokane

Today we leave Montana. I must remain strong. Before we go, a couple of things about Glacier that I forgot to mention. It wasn’t as crowded as Yellowstone, glory, hallelujah. And the water was an aquamarine color, and so crystal clear that you could see all the way to the bottom.

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We stopped for breakfast at the Healthy Haven Café.

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It was the only restaurant we saw, besides the one at our hotel. A teenage brother and sister who tried to outdo each other on which could be the most helpful and efficient staffed the mom and pop place. Their grandma made our omelets and waffles to order. The also helpful pop advised us to take the scenic route to Spokane. Along the way, we passed fruit stands offering fresh cherries and huckleberries. (Side note: yesterday in West Glacier, we stumbled upon a farmer’s market and a woman selling homemade huckleberry pies for $26. There’s gold in them there berries.)

*A word about birds. My husband loves birds, and I’ve learned to love them, too. So far on the trip, we’ve seen bald eagles, osprey, white pelicans, magpies, eastern bluebirds, and—my favorite—ravens. Ravens aren’t common near us. Before this trip, I had never seen or heard one. Though they’re often confused with crows, they’re different. First of all they’re huge (25 inches.) They can live up to 21 years, and they mate for life. Their beaks are black, they’re extremely intelligent with intricate and dedicated family communities, they use tools, and they can mimic any sound, including human speech.

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Am I a raven geek or is geek an all encompassing term that doesn’t need a qualifier? Don’t answer that.

We made our way to some giant cedars in southwest Montana.

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Montana would like you to know that a cedar can topple onto your head at any moment.

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Next we eased next into Idaho whose beauty was nothing to sneeze at. Lake Pend Oreille created a picturesque byway. It was large enough for houseboats!

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For supper we ate at a restaurant I mistakenly thought was on Diners, Drive Ins, and Dives. It wasn’t, but it was still in a presidential train car.

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The portions were huge. My husband ordered a portabella mushroom sandwich. Must try to duplicate after vacation. I have the feeling we’re going to need to eat only vegetables for a long, long time after this trip.

As a final bonus for the day, our hotel (a Holiday Inn Express) has a dog, a golden retriever named Penny. How awesome is that?

Cross Country Trip, Day 7: Helena to Essex

Oh, Montana, how I love thee!

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It’s calling to me. Is Montana in need of teachers? Because I know a guy. Of course, it takes a special person to live somewhere so remote, so wild, and with such harsh winters. I am not that person. I am the person who would become stranded on the highway during a snowstorm and end up muttering and stumbling aimlessly in my underpants. Still, a girl can dream.

The drive to Glacier was so spectacular that it was difficult to imagine the park being better. We stopped for gas in Browning, the center of the Blackfeet nation. They were preparing for a pow-wow; the place was packed.

A few miles up the road, we entered the park from the east at St. Mary. Glacier has over a million acres, two huge lakes and a ton of waterfalls. The big attraction is Going-to-the-sun road. Isn’t that a lovely name for a road? The aptly named road runs east and west and crosses the Continental Divide. It is the only place to be named both a National Historic Landmark and a National feat of Civil Engineering. It’s narrow and cuts through mountain passes that are still blanketed with snow in some places. Though it’s impossible to convey the beauty in mere pictures, I’ll post some anyway.

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Signage for bears abounded.

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Lies! We saw no bears.

For supper we stopped in the town of West Glacier at West Glacier Restaurant. I don’t know how they came up with that name. Clever people. There aren’t many restaurants up here, so we were a little leery of one plopped in the middle of the main drag, but this one was great. The food was good, the portions large, and the prices—though somewhat higher than what we were used to paying—weren’t exorbitant. And they had huckleberry milkshakes!

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*A word about huckleberries. Huckleberries are wild berries grown only in the Pacific Northwest. They look like wild blueberries and taste similar. They’ve become iconic of this part of the U.S., and are a big business. There’s huckleberry everything.

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150 years ago, if one wanted to go to Montana, she must board a train, land in St. Louis, take a steamboat north to the bottom of the state, and go from horse or on foot from there. (A good reminder when the car gets cramped.) Now the train goes all the way to Glacier. In fact, it goes right to our hotel in Essex.

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Staying with that theme, the Izaak Walton Hotel has locomotives and caboose to rent overnight.

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We stayed in the main hotel that is more like a dorm, although cute and full of charm.

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The one large room is divided into two smaller rooms and a bathroom. I’m bunking with my daughter who thrashes like an addict in withdrawal. Pray.

Cross Country Trip, Day 6: Big Sky to Helena

Today was not a good day, at least according to the map. Planning a long vacation to a place you’ve never been months in advance—what could go wrong? Well…

Yesterday we exited west of the park, sneaked into Montana, and stayed in Big Sky. But we still needed to finish our park adventures and then head back north again. The better plan would have been to stay on the east side of the park and then go north, but that’s not what happened. A gentleman I met on the elevator reminded me of why I planned it that way, though. We stayed in a mountain inn with complimentary breakfast for $99. Dwellings closer to the park charge upwards of $300 or more a night.

Montana is unbelievably picturesque. To quote Norman Maclean, “A river runs through it.” Mountains, pines, and lush grasses are cut with sparkling, gurgling water. Anglers abound. (If I use that word for fly fishermen, does it make me athletic?)

Back in the park, traffic is heavy. Every time anyone spots an animal, everyone comes to a standstill so people can grab their cameras and snap pictures. Rubes, all of them. Look, a bison!

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The park rangers are not happy with the arrangement and shoo us along as if we live nearby and can see the sights anytime we want. Next time it happens, I’m going to show them the bunk bed pictures and try to buy more time with sympathy.

*Side note: most of Yellowstone is without cell phone service. Being nearly a Luddite, this doesn’t bother me, but I’m wondering if the teenagers in the park are having withdrawal. Possible symptoms may include waking up to the beauty around you, talking to people standing inches away, and thumb spasms from lack of texting.

The park makes up for their lack of phones by posting signs warning you of your impending doom.

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Signs not included in montage: “Beware of Armed Badgers” and “Beavers Wearing Crips Colors Are Extremely Hostile and Misunderstood.” Yellowstone is a tough place.

There was even a handicapped accessible sign here:

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Their definition of accessible scares me.

This is the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, complete with waterfalls.

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We also saw a mud volcano. It smelled like sulfur. This was probably my favorite part of the park, and it was slightly less crowded. (People, people everywhere. Oh, the humanity.)

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We exited north through Mammoth and Hot Springs which also serves as the park’s headquarters. It was huge and interesting, but of course we had no time to explore. There were also these guys.

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Supper was in Livingston, Montana.

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Such a cute town. Some towns have a vibe, and this was one. The people were friendly, the town full of charm and character. Interestingly, they get less snow than surrounding communities because they’re nestled between two mountains. They get lots of wind for the same reason.

Tomorrow we arrive in Glacier. We’re all sharing a room again. There’s no television or internet, but our daughter’s been practicing her interpretive dancing skills, and we brought Old Maid and Go Fish. Should be fun.

Cross Country Trip, Day 5: Jackson Hole to Big Sky

Last night I learned the meaning of true fear; it’s flipping from back to front like a dying fish, trying to get a foothold on a rickety bunk bed in the darkness. I developed a fit of fear-induced giggles. My husband didn’t. Perhaps it was fortuitous that the men and women decided to separate for the day.

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The men took off in search of manly pursuits.

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The women took a stagecoach and went shopping. It was just like the days of yore if yore included calling each other on cell phones to reconnoiter after our adventures.

Reluctantly we left the spectacular beauty of the Tetons behind. Time is our enemy on this vacation. In order to see as much as possible, we’re blurring through scenes in a day that might take a lifetime to explore.  Still, there’s no time for melancholy because this waits at the end of the road:

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Yellowstone stretches over two million acres. It could fit the states of Rhode Island and Delaware and still have room to spare. There are five entrances. We came at it from the south and were greeted by a canyon, and then this.

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Important things to know about Old Faithful:

It’s the most popular attraction in the park. Read: CROWDED. This is not the place for solitude and ponderous reflection. This is the place for elbows out and fight face on.

As soon as a geyser goes off, people begin claiming their space for the next one. There are some benches. Get there early to grab a good one.

There’s traffic, a lot of traffic. Drive time takes longer because you’ll get stuck.

Old Faithful isn’t the only geyser. There are tons of them, bubbling and brewing, spitting up water, steam, and ash. People get burned. Shoes melt. It’s different and beautiful and a little spooky.

Speaking of danger, caution signs about the abundance of wildlife abound, as they did in Grand Teton. Despite road signs warning of moose and bear, we’ve seen nothing but some elk. I’m beginning to think the park is a wildlife tease.

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In addition to the signs warning about being gored by bison, eaten by bears and wolves, and having your face melted off by a geyser, there are signs warning of a mass norovirus outbreak in the park. So far Yellowstone is an anxiety attack waiting to happen.

Supper was pizza. You know you’ve been eating too much when pizza seems like a light meal.

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The pizza place was located here.

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And now a word about Montana.

Perhaps one of my favorite parts of being a writer is eating Oreos for breakfast and wearing my pajamas all day is writing about places I want to go but have never been. To date I’ve written more than a dozen books set in Montana using a lot of research and a little imagination. And now I’m here! I’ve secretly been more exited about this than anything except maybe Alaska.

It’s as beautiful as I thought it would be, maybe more. And guess what? Montana didn’t let us down:

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Our first grizzly sighting! Thanks, Montana!

Cross Country Trip, Day 4: Casper to Jackson Hole

Our hotel in Casper didn’t have breakfast, so we came here:

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Sometimes there are restaurants that make you believe you’d be willing to drive cross-country just to visit again. Eggington’s is one of those.

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The cowboy skillet was…there are no words to describe how good it was. The orange juice was fresh-squeezed. Fresh-squeezed, people! In the middle of Wyoming. It’s a blessed time to be alive.  They had free samples of their brownies. They were outstanding, but I refrained from buying one; this is my version of self-control.

We all agreed that Casper is a delightful city. As we arrived for breakfast, they were preparing for a parade. I can’t say the parade was for us, but the timing was certainly coincidental.

Next we headed due west toward the Grand Tetons. What is the logical thing to do after eating a huge breakfast? If you’re a Gray, the answer is to find a milkshake place you read about in a guidebook. We tried two different places before giving up. Driving fruitlessly around the desert made us feel like this:

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Here’s a view from a rest area, one of only a few in the area. Handy tip to future travelers: build up your bladder endurance. For as far as the eye can see, there is only desert, brush, and pronghorns. Occasionally a tiny house or trailer dots the landscape, but it’s as if the locals put their money into land, equipment, and livestock instead of dwellings.

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Eventually we begin to see the snowcapped mountains of our destination. As we grow closer to these, a curious thing happens. The land becomes spotted with crystalline lakes. Blotches of green begin to dot the landscape again, providing a lush oasis in the midst of so much brown.

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As the drive stretches with no milkshakes in sight, I begin to regret the brownie I didn’t buy. This is what I get for trying to diet on vacation.

The closer we get to Jackson Hole and the Tetons, the more the wealth is on display. Here there are businesses, and they’re open. Houses begin to resemble resorts. Paint isn’t crumbling. Buildings aren’t condemned. This morning we stopped in the middle of nowhere to inquire about milkshakes from a woman whose teeth and features showed obvious meth abuse. The “town” was a few blocks worth of ruined dreams. Now everything is streamlined to look like one big log cabin and the stores could dress people in coordinating cowboy paraphernalia like Lloyd and Harry from Dumb &Dumber.

 That brings up an important point: Jackson Hole is expensive. I don’t usually talk much about the places we stay because they’re usually run-of-the-mill hotel chains I’ve located on Hotwire. I love Hotwire and use it often. (This is not a paid endorsement.) But sometimes not even Hotwire can find me a deal, especially in a place like the Grand Tetons. My philosophy is to stay cheap and eat well, which is how we ended up like this.

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Being almost 40 and sleeping in a bunk bed with your parents: priceless. Especially if it means being able to see views like these:

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Supper was a special treat.

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We took in a real live cowboy chuck wagon show.

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Why is it that cowboys—the quintessential American icon of masculinity—are such exquisite singers and dancers? Tomorrow we’ll finish the Tetons and head north to Yellowstone, and we’d better see a bear. Or else.

Cross Country Trip, Day 3: Rapid City to Casper

Fact: We’ve gained two hours since heading west, but it feels like losing. Last year when we flew to Seattle, we gained three hours in one day, and it felt like winning. Oh, how we lorded our Eastern Standard Time over the poor Pacific Standard Timers. We rose at dawn’s crack while they slept the day away. Now, however, I’m befuddled and exhausted, as if I’m the unwilling participant in a sensory-deprivation experiment. To make matters worse, my husband keeps sneakily changing the time on the car’s dash so that our rides feel eternal—as if time is standing still. *must keep an eye on him for any more sneaky behavior * We’re thankful the GPS has things under control. It not only knows where we’re going, but it keeps the correct time. The danger now is that it will become sentient and try to be our leader.

Fact: My daughter is a trooper. Despite many long hours in the car and a drastic schedule upset, she remains cheerful and enthusiastic, sometimes a little too much. While on the highway, she randomly screams for us to pull over because she’s sure she’s spotted a grizzly. I took this picture of her taking a picture of my parents; it’s a picture inception.

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Fact: An annual National Parks pass is $80. An annual pass for anyone over the age of 62 is $10, and it covers the whole car. My frugal heart is more excited about this than it should be.

Fact: Mt. Rushmore is not a National Park; it’s a National Monument and parking is $11.

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In addition to the monument, there is the Avenue of Flags

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And this guy.

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You have no idea how much this brought out my inner Julie Andrews. Truly, the hills are alive with the sound of music. Edelweiss. Gesundheit.

Next we moved on to Custer and this place.

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Fact: I’ve never had bad food from a purple building, and that holds true today. The pies—strawberry rhubarb and peanut butter—were both exceptional.

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A few miles later, we eased into Custer State Park where wildlife abounded. Not only was it gorgeous, but there were these:

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Pronghorns (which my encyclopedic husband tells me are NOT deer and are more like goats.)

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“Wild” burros.

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And especially these guys–wild bison.

Wind Cave was next on our agenda, but our Dear Leader the GPS had other ideas. We headed instead to our hotel and Wyoming. Wyoming is the least populated state. One town’s sign said, “Population 4.” It made South Dakota look like a booming metropolis, no easy task. Almost at the border, the landscape changed from lush, verdant hills to arid scrub grass. It’s brown and vast.  We saw no people and few houses, but train car upon train car loaded with coal. Where is it going? Where did it come from? Does Santa have a supplier in Wyoming?

Supper was a regional chain called Famous Dave’s BBQ.

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The BBQ nachos were superb; the fact that our waitress forgot to put in our order wasn’t. Receiving most of our meal for free as an apology was. (Frugal people of the world, unite!)

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For dessert, we hit another local place.

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I ordered rocky road to, um, celebrate the rocky terrain of Wyoming, and, uh, the road less traveled and, um…who cares? It’s chocolate!

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