Sitting at a Coffee Shop in St. Paul, MN while Henna and Corey attend Macalester’s Open House

Two years into the Pandemic I am sitting in an overcrowded coffee shop mask less. No one here is wearing a mask which makes it easy to eavesdrop on all the catty conversations. Someone supposedly is a total nightmare. Made her boyfriend go vegetarian. Also made him propose to her. And all the time she whines about how everyone is so entitled. Didn’t catch her name but I know I hate her.

I am not at all hating the world slowly returning to normal. Normal being war ravaging Eastern Europe, inflation running rampant and a despotic former President lurking about like Voldemort. But I do not always have to wear a mask so that’s nice.

Conversations here are turning more adult. Not sexy adult but boring adult. Something about their jobs. So I leaned over to ask them to talk more about their friend.

I did not actually do that. Instead I leaned into my coffee and thought a lot about my kid. How she use to be so small. Would hold my hand when walking to the park. Crap like that. Now she’s a season or two away from heading off to college. I am so incredibly happy she found such an amazing place to call home for the next four years. Wish though my neighbors would talk about something a bit more juicy.

A stroll around the neighborhood

Jackson Hole vs WY

Rawlins is not a nice place. At least that is how a local Airbnb describes the town. The listing states that while Rawlins “has fantastic people” it fails to meet the standards of a basic tourist destination. Three nights at this Airbnb would set you back about $360.

Our last night in the Tetons

We actually disagree with that sentiment. Rawlins has a very compact/functional downtown populated by the usual collection of repurposed old buildings and saloons. They also have an excellent Thai restaurant. Really great stuff. I recommend the spicy eggplant and also the shrimp massaman. Yum yum in my tum.

Sign above a barber shop in Pinedale, WY (just one hour south of Jackson Hole)

Which brings me to a rather obvious point. Jackson Hole is nothing like the rest of Wyoming. The covid vaccination rate for Jackson, for example, is a very impressive 71% while the rest of Wyoming comes in at a death wish 34%. A similar gap can also be found in the political realm with Biden easily outpacing Trump in Teton county (67% to 30%). But the biggest difference between Jackson Hole and the rest of the state is in housing prices which range from “you can’t afford it” to “hmmm, that’s just a bit more than I thought it would be.”

So where would we rather be? Guess it depends on the day. For now though this trip is quickly moving east with tomorrow likely bringing us home. We miss the mountains already

World on Fire

Sunset at Gros Verde Campground, Grand Teton National Park

The red moon last night was as pretty as it was unnatural. Whereas a few nights ago the Milky Way was still prominent across the night sky (and I saw three shooting stars in the time it took to empty my bladder at around three in the morning), last night there were maybe two dozen stars visible.

Similar vantage points taken a few days apart

The world is on fire. In Greece and Italy. Closer to home fires rage in California, Oregon and British Columbia. Their intensity is such that they choke people a thousand miles away from their flames. Here in the Tetons the smoke drifts with the weather patterns. The current heat wave brings with it a hazy blanket that drapes over the not so distant peaks.

Climate change does not care if you believe in it. It’s kind of like Covid that way. And the next ten years or so will likely be a doozy with feedback loop after feedback loop making everything hotter and drier than the day before. At least those were my thoughts while tending a fire under a bright red moon

The Miracle of Thermopolis

Ask anyone in Thermopolis about the Swastika building and they will tell you that it ain’t what it seems. The building was built in 1917. The “Swastikas” are reversed and were included in the architecture as a peaceful message to the neighboring Shoshoni tribe who have used this symbol for a millennia. All of this may be true but it is still not hard to see why this building might run people the wrong way.

Even more surprising is that several businesses adjacent to the Not Exactly A Swastika Building have menorah stickers prominently displayed on their doors. On Tuesday night, around 6 PM and at the height of the tourist season, all but one of those businesses were closed. The one employee at that business had no idea what a menorah was. When shown the sticker affixed to her window, the elderly woman explained that there “are not a lot of people of that religion” in the town but that the owner of the building was in fact “someone of that religion.” I told her that I was actually one of those people of that religion. She thoughtfully nodded her head at me then suggested the stickers were put on to make that one Jewish businessman happy. I walked out confused.

Dinner at Hot Springs Park

Later at Hot Springs State Park we met a very cool local who also thought the menorah stickers were a way to make that one Jewish businessman feel welcome. Hmmm…. Interesting. But that answer still did not feel quite right.

One Eyed Brewing Buffalo Company, Thermopolis

The next day we asked a few more locals about the menorahs. First thing we discovered is that everyone in town knows that this one business is owned by a Jewish couple from New York City. After that though the stories became a bit muddled. One person thought it was part of a fundraiser. Another knew it had to do with a chalk art festival. None of these answers really made a lot of sense.

During lunch at a local cafe we finally heard a story that felt true. A local eccentric once sketched out in chalk a few stock symbols of the Jewish faith with the word “repent.” This message was drawn in the general vicinity of that one Jewish businessman’s store. In a show of solidarity the surrounding businesses affixed menorah stickers to their doors. Later they were invited over for a Hannuakah dinner where they took turns spinning a dreidel and lighting a menorah. And that my friends is the Miracle of Thermopolis.

Buffalo, WY

View from front porch in Buffalo, WY

I spent much of our last morning in Buffalo, WY weighing whether or not to trade for the book I was about a third of the way in  (Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari). I was like Indiana Jones weighing sand before the idol. First I was going to leave behind Disappointment River (Brian Castner). It’s a great book. One of my new favorites. Everyone should read it. But after snagging the book at Half Price right before this trip I could not quite convince myself to release it back to the wild. So then I decided to leave behind two beers (Copper Mule from a brewery in Sheridan). That was before I realized that 1) I really like Copper Mule and 2) I might not be able to ever find that beer again.

Hazy skies near Medicine Mountain summit off US Highway 14a
Trail to Medicine Wheel

This would be a good time to mention that none of these deliberations were made in private. Henna strongly advised me to either leave behind Disappointment River or to stop bothering her. Corey was the one who suggested the beer. My Airbnb hosts did not care what I chose to do (and implied that if I wanted I could just take the book). In the end I decided to leave the book behind. I also promised myself that I will buy my own copy somewhere down the road.

Clear Creek in Buffalo,WY

Our three day stay at Buffalo was not all one neurotic decision making process. We also spent some time up in the Big Horn Mountains and exploring all that Buffalo has to offer. Let me tell you, this sleepy 4,000 person town has a quite a lot of history to explore including a violent cattle war that is equal parts Magnificent Seven and Young Guns. There is also this cool Cowboy saloon/historic hotel called the Occidental, a beautiful creek running through town, a Danish expat running a laid back wine bar and locals packing heat. But at last the road is calling our name and we will now take two days to drive about five hours to the Tetons. Hmmm. That would leave quite a lot of time for reading. Maybe I should take that book…

Locals watching us drive by on Highway 14a
Medicine Wheel. Near the summit of Medicine Mountain off Highway 14a. Sacred site for many Native Americans it is accessed by a forest road followed by a one and a half mile hike. Medicine Wheel was created by an unknown group of people somewhere between 250 to possibly a few thousand years ago. Per Wikipedia it lines up neatly with the sun during the Summer Solstice.

Custer, SD

We were a bit nervous staying in Custer over the beginning of one of the most elaborate cosplay festivals ever. But so far it has been more fun than annoying although I do wish the fine folks at Harley-Davidson would do something about quieting their engines a bit.

Corey and I first climbed to Black Elk Peak when it was named Harney. That was in 1999. Bill Clinton was president. A quarter would get you a steak, potatoe, beer and some change back. And we had never ever slept in a tent west of the Mississippi or seen the world from a 7,000 foot elevation.

A few years back we did this hike in a brutal hail storm. Why, you ask, did we hike in a brutal hail storm? Well when we began the hike it was a beautiful sunny day. Yesterday also started off nice with only a bit of smoke hanging in the clouds. And then about two thirds of the way back it was lightning all over the damn place. So we hung back before climbing that last ridge (where I would be the highest point) then charged ahead after estimating the storm was quickly moving away (this was determined via the Poltergeist method- counting the time between flash and sound). Storms are always awesome after the fact (assuming of course all is still well). This one was no exception. Truly humbling to see lightning strikes a few miles away along the ridges of the needle landscape. Later we saw a helicopter picking up water to drop. Maybe it was due to those lightning strikes.

In Sioux Falls we saw several state flags with the rainbow colors superimposed over the logo as well as a church proudly flying a Pride flag. At the Sylvan Lake Parking lot we had a long conversation with a recently retired couple from Minnesota about Covid. They were aghast no one was wearing masks. We nodded our heads in agreement. None of us were wearing masks. Our KOA neighbors (the ones with the flags) mostly sit in their RV. They are a family of four with two cute little girls who occasionally are sent out to sweep the ground of rocks. He does not always like to wear a shirt. Most of my neighbors here though seem apolitical and spend most of their time attending to or talking about their bikes. And that is what it is like hanging out in Custer at the beginning of Sturgis.

When Water Flows Down

At Falls Park in Sioux Falls, SD

The saddest of the falls we visited this week was in Sioux Falls, SD. The falls themselves were fine although they have, per the park signs, seen better days. For example there use to be a beautiful wooded island smack dab in the middle of the rolling falls. People supposedly came from all over the world to picnic there (grainy photos show men and woman in very uncomfortable dress pretending to have a good time eating a sandwich outdoors). The island was later flooded after a dam was built to help generate a little electricity.

Ruins of a mill once powered by the Falls

But falling water makes clean energy and if that means overly dressed ladies and gentlemen have to find a new place to picnic then so be it. The thing that made the falls sad to us was their incredibly close proximity to a very large meat processing plant. Falls Park even offered a small museum dedicated to giving tourists the “stockyard experience.” Yikes.

It’s not all slaughter houses and waterfalls though for us on what is our second road trip of the summer. We are also checking  out a few more colleges including Macalester in understated but still hip St. Paul, MN. But really we just want to head out west to see some mountains. Sadly though the view will likely be hazy. And if the fires weren’t bad enough, Covid cases are on the rise everywhere. And don’t get me started on the growing right wing threat to democracy. Some days I think it’s only the falls that keep us going.


Running on Full

Tourism, as defined by Webster, is the constant search for bathrooms within a large variety of settings. At least I think that is how Webster defines tourism. Honestly it has been a long time since I cracked open a dictionary.

Sometimes it is incredibly easy to pee. Like in the back country where few to no toilets means pretty much every space has been peed on. One exception to that rule can be found within the Mount Rainier trail system which features a partially walled but other otherwise completely open toilet. The views are amazing. Your only company are the marmots.

Maybe the most welcoming rest stop ever

Cities though operate at the other end of the spectrum. General rule of thumb is the bigger the urban setting the harder it will be to find a spot to pee. Even places like McDonald’s will likely require you to remember a number code or some other silly challenge before being allowed a stop at the golden throne. I probably shouldn’t complain though less they decided to swap out the number code with a Sphinx like riddle (OK, before you go to the bathroom tell me, what is white in the morning but brown by evening?).

Vermont of course has the nicest bathrooms. Recyclable paper towels, clean interiors a hint of syrup in the soap; pretty much everything needed to make your stay as pleasant as possible. Their highway rest stops are even more impressive. Quaint even. One welcome center we visited offered rustic wooden rocking chairs that overlooked an impressive wooded mountain valley. Besides maple syrup, the gift shop also sold an impressive amount of hand crafted objects. There was a rough looking but otherwise sturdy feeling barn immediately adjacent to the shop. The stop felt more like a destination than a quick place to pee.

Weathered barn at the Vermont rest stop

Nevada has the worst rest stops ever. Cinder block squares surrounded by broken glass and desert. You do not linger at a Nevada rest stop. Arizona rest stops are much nicer but, and this is an important detail, you do risk being bit by a rattle snake if you wander too far off the path. At least that is what the signs tell you.

The Midwest approach to rest stops falls somewhere between the continuum of Vermont and Nevada. For example, food options are usually limited to vending machines with clear signage indicating that the host state is not responsible in any way for you actually receiving a snicker bar at the end of your transaction.  To further discourage possible litigation these signs also let you know that some charity is responsible for maintaining the condition of these machines (it is assumed that this charity also gets a share of the vending profits but, come to think of it, that is not something explicitly spelled out). They may even offer a small, joyless outcropping of playground equipment somewhere at the edge of the dog walk park. But plan on going elsewhere for your syrup.

In between rest stops we also checked out some colleges. The Heinz Memorial Chapel at Pittsburgh University
Cool mural at Pigeon Bagel in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood. Yummy bagels but no public bathroom in these Covid lingering times.

North Bennington, Vermont

Shirley Jackson moved to North Bennington with her husband Stanley in 1940. There the two literary stars entertained an impressive list of up and coming authors while all the time suffering the disapproval of their very conservative neighbors.

The Powers Market was the place to go in North Bennington for both groceries and gossip. A trip to this market reportedly pushed Shirley into writing The Lottery. The gossip today is that Powers (now a coffee shop) has not been open for over a month.

North Bennington today does not appear that conservative. Celebration of their most famous author however is limited to a single brick within a time line walk.

Next door to Powers was North Bennington’s only restaurant, The Rain Barrel. One time artists such as Bob Dylan and Joan played their back stage. Today the place is a coffee shop/cafe with Kurt Vonnegut prints on the wall. In 1970 Shirley’s husband Stanley passed away while eating his dinner. He was 51.
Two of the homes lived in by Shirley and her family. Above the house where she wrote The Lottery and also her first novel The Road Through The Wall. The house below was purchased by Shirley and Stanley and is where Shirley passed away in her sleep at the age of 48.
Sculpture Park within North Bennington

We skipped Walden Pond in order to have time to savor North Bennington. No disrespect to Henry Thoreau, but I think we made the right choice. However romantic writing in isolation may be, Shirley’s path of speaking uncomfortable truths to an oblivious hometown seems to be the more admirable way forward.

Northeastern (Boston)

Never too old to play at the beach

We arrived in the Boston area on the heels of a tropical storm and several days before our scheduled tour of Northeastern (which is still a few hours from now). Took advantage of this time to grab brunch with our cousins Brook, Olivia and Jacob (goes by Jake and loves his pancakes!). Also did a bunch of sightseeing by which I mean we walked aimlessly throughout the city mostly in search of a bathroom. We also ate a lot of food.

Chowder just tastes better at the beach (Cape Ann)
Mystery Train record shop in Gloucester (and our car gets a little bit more cozy)