no matter where you go, there you are

Sunday, April 24, 2011

miscellaneous #1

Looking at the list I made awhile back of what I wanted to share about Molly and I's road trip, I just can't pick one item to venture into. Do I jump to the last few days when we were in Virginia, or the time spent in the southeast? this very moment, I just want to talk about it all. Don't have time, or space, to do that now but I will make this post about a few "little stories" that don't really have a home any place else.

Roaming Wyoming
As we spent the day venturing across Wyoming, the scenery was pretty spectacular. The landscape went from flat plain to forest and mountains back to plains. And finally back to forest and hills again in Yellowstone.

One of the really interesting places Rt. 14 led us through was Big Horn National Forest. At one point in particular there was a series of switchbacks leading us along the sides of mountains and past plenty of "watch for falling rock" signs. Speed limits of 25-30 mph, 15 around the bends and if the car veered even a little, there wasn't much edge to keep you on the road. It was hard to admire it all from the car, especially since I was driving, so we pulled over at one overlook to admire some of the hidden gems of America.

Down in the Valley
Looking at a list of state run campgrounds and finding their locations on Google maps (regular view) totally doesn't prepare you for what these campgrounds are. My assumption was that after we left Yosemite and began the drive down towards Death Valley that the numerous campgrounds along the way were all going to be in the woods/mountains and all cute. Well, I was wrong. Almost immediately upon exiting Yosemite the terrain on the East side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains is rough and barren. It's as if the plains and the desert had a baby. The first campground we came to was completely empty. We couldn't even find the real entrance, or we did and there just wasn't distinctive camp sites. Or people. It was creepy.

Alas the next one we arrived at had people at it but it was one of those things I have only imagined in books. The highway is completely surrounded by rough land with mountains running along the sides a mile or two away. The color palette here is tan, sand and sage. And as your driving through all this barren land you come across a patch of bright green about half a mile off the road. That's the campground. There's a little creek and about 15 trees, no running water...a permanent outhouse is affixed and the wind makes sure you know where it is. It was so strange being there. I'm not skilled enough at describing things to explain it, but it was like walking into a movie or something. It was primitive, yes, but there was something else about it.

Four Corners
When I went on vacation with my family back in 2001 to the Southwest United States, Four Corners was amongst the many sights we saw. But because it is so iconic, and its remote location wasn't out of our way at all, I felt it was important for Molly to "be in four places at once." The four states that make up Four Corners are Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. The monument is not very big but very American with state seals and flags marking each state's corner. It is about a quarter mile off the road, and besides getting your picture taken and browsing the souvenir stands run by the Navajo Nation, there isn't much else to do. So it was a quick stop for us and once again, we were on the road again.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

viva las vegas!

I'm not a party girl, nor a person who likes to drink a lot...or someone who likes spending money, so why would I want to spend part of my vacation in Las Vegas? Well, $30/night for a hotel room in the Stratosphere Hotel and Casino (one of the big strip hotels) is quite an incentive. Unlimited rides up to the tower and 2-for-1 unlimited rides on the extravagant "theme" rides on the top were also nice gifts included in the hotel price.

After spending the day in Death Valley we arrived in Vegas around dinner time. We entered the city by driving up the strip to our hotel and that was it for our Vegas Strip experience. Just from the drive-by though, I give Vegas great credit for making each hotel unique in design, accurate in its representations and bringing back great memories of Europe for me with the Venetian and Paris hotels. The exterior of the New York New York hotel was my favorite cause you couldn't tell which were hotel room windows and which were just part of the hotel's exterior design.

Walking into the hotel lobby/casino of the Stratosphere, it was a quite a sight for me. I'd never been in a casino before so my knowledge of them was limited to when Friends went to Vegas or the beautiful heist of Ocean's Eleven. Check-in took a half hour and I was surprised to see so many kids around. Las Vegas is sometimes thought of as an adult playground, so why would families choose to vacation here? It's not any cheaper than Disney World...I don't know, but if I were a kid, I'd rather be somewhere else.

Out itinerary had us staying 2 nights, and our plans non existent beyond the hotel reservation. We went to IHOP for dinner, a long 2 block walk from the hotel, and then spent the evening relaxing and watching some TV. We'd stayed in a few hotels so far but none were as nice as the Stratosphere and it was just nice to feel like we weren't roughing it for the entire trip. The beds certainly were a nice break from the tent we'd been in the last few days.

Next day, we spent an hour or so poolside and the skies were that impeccable bright blue. It was beyond relaxing in the sun, but with the powerful Vegas sun shining down, an hour was all we had in us.

 We then grabbed a discounted lunch (courtesy of the hotel) which was too big for one meal so we saved the rest for dinner. Next was one of our two trips to the top of the tower. The Stratosphere tower is about 1150 ft tall which is about 2/3rds the size of the CN Tower and about 1/3 larger than the Space Needle. The elevator ride was crammed but quick, and we exited at the observation deck. Outside it was windy but the view of the Vegas strip and the surrounding neighborhoods was quite pretty.

After a little navigational issues in finding the correct entrances to the rides, we first braved "Insanity," a thrill ride shaped like a claw that spins you around while dangling riders over the edge. It actually wasn't that scary dangling over the edge, but they only spin you one direction and I don't do well with that kind of ride. So when that was over, once was enough and my stomach took a minute or two to settle. Next was "XScream" which is like the front of a roller coaster that shoots you over the edge, but stops before you really go over. I liked the premise but wasn't a fan of the ride. Maybe it was because we were in the back row so we didn't get the feeling we were supposed to, but who knows? The last ride, "The Big Shot" was AMAZING! This is where the unlimited rides deal came in very handy. Similar to many amusement park rides, "The Big Shot" is the 4-sided tower like ride that either shoots you up then drops really fast, or brings you up slowly before dropping you and bringing you back up again. This one shoots you up first and that thrill of going up that fast so high up was so completely awesome Molly and I couldn't get enough. That evening when we went back to view Vegas at night, we went on "The Big Shot" like 4 or 5 times.

Besides spending time chilling in the hotel room during the afternoon and eating our leftovers for dinner, we did dabble in a little gambling. It was Las Vegas after all. And we came out on the "plus" side after winning $10 in "Deal or No Deal"! Gambling is something think I could get quite addicted to if it were fake money, but since it's not, stopping after our big win was quite easy. We tested out a couple of games and learned the basic logistics of them, but they really need an instruction manual. Especially when you go into a casino thinking that games that look like slot machines still involved pulling a lever to play. We didn't go near any of the card tables.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

the mountain of our fore fathers

After the awe-inspiring formations of Badlands National Park, we drove west into the Black Hills. The landscape differences between the two locations was incredible. One minute you were in the plains of the midwest and the next, you're driving around mountain curves surrounded by tall, thin pine trees. Our first destination was Mt. Rushmore. If you don't know, Mt. Rushmore is a granite mountain top with the busts of 4 presidents (George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln) carved from the stone. I'm not sure of the reasons the artists decided this location, in the Southwestern corner of South Dakota was a good destination for their masterpiece, but alas there it was determined they carve. Well, it was really more like blasting with dynamite and then carving, but it took time, effort and skill nonetheless.

The site is now owned by the National Park Service and contains a large amphitheater, exhibits on the bust construction, and a small area on Native American culture. And of course, multiple gift shops. The walkway leading to the overlook of the mountain is lined with 4-sided columns. Each side had a stage flag waving from the top, and carved lower, the name and date of admission into the Union.
Massachusetts' flag

It was a gorgeous day and we took time wandering the exhibit halls and reading up on the creation of Mt. Rushmore. We then strolled along the walking path which takes you right to the base of the mountain and here we took a peek at the teepee and other Native American artifacts out for viewing.

It was a beautiful day; sunny and not excruciatingly hot. We couldn't have asked for better weather. I'd been to Mt. Rushmore once before with my family way back in 1996 and my only memory is from the family photograph we have so visiting it again was pretty cool and I felt fairly patriotic. It didn't take long to complete our visit so by early afternoon we were already heading out to find our campground in the Black Hills. We also tried to visit Jewel Cave but unfortunately all the tours were sold out. It worked out though and we spent a very relaxing evening in our tent and caught up on much needed sleep.