French Hieroglyphics

In the end it was the hieroglyphics that nearly got me killed.  I left Corey and Henna for a few seconds to follow a windy trail up a hill.  This trail twisted over and over again like a corkscrew.  Not knowing what was around the next bend, the cemetery (or “cemetiere” as the sign below suggested) felt like it was always just slightly out of reach.  Each turn instead presented more and more junk, each piece more fascinating than the next.  There were old refrigerators, bits of a 1950s era truck, and a rotting wooden cart to name just a few of the discarded relics.  I would have gladly stayed on that trail, reached the lonely grave, and then turned back down to the lovely beer garden where my wife and daughter waited.  But I came across a small wooden sign, seemingly staked into stone.  The sign had an etched picture of a bird and arrow pointing up.  I left the trail to follow the bird and this led to a rope which I used to pull myself to a killer view of the St. Lawrence River.  From my vantage point I saw a string of Quebec farms pressed close to the river and across the river there was endless forest.  I paused, thought my family would be jealous, and descended from the rocks to the trail.  But rough trails up rocky hillsides are difficult to duplicate and I ended on the trail away from where I started.  There was a lone grave and more signs, but instead of pictures they offered French words.  Confused I started one way, but then thought better of it and went a different route.  There was a sign with the word “Riviere de la Ferme” and I thought maybe that was the name of the farm/ microbrewery I wanted to return to.  So I walked in the suggested direction and soon ran out of path.  In front of me was a small, buggy stream.  Somehow I had lost the trail itself and I found myself standing alone in a small cluster of woods.  I bravely panicked.  Just then I heard two voices:  An annoyed “Noel” and a sweeter “daddy.”  I called out to them and they repeated my name(s) in unison.  Their voices louder, I stumbled out of the forest and hugged my daughter excitedly.  My wife took my arm, said “let’s go,” and pulled me down the path.

I never learned the name of that farm/ microbrewery.  The proprietor was courteous but tough.  She also spoke some English, enough, anyways, to let me know that a few American tourists wander in each week.  There was also a very young and pretty waitress who flitted around the groups of people without ever making eye contact.  She did not speak any English and had to pantomime certain items on the menu to us.  The home brewed beer was interesting for its use of wine grapes.  This made for colorful but, to me anyways, lousy tasting drinks.  There were also lots of chickens, roosters, sheep, and other barn yard animals wandering around.  Adjacent to a pond, where ducks swam, was a stone table with old men playing chess.  A group of cyclists were also there.  Their English was also very limited, just enough to say hello and smile.  That was not too surprising.  Two years past we had visited Montreal and Quebec City and found most of the people more than willing to converse with English speaking customers.  But even just outside those big cities, it was often nearly impossible to get directions (which we need often) or order at a restaurant.  Street signs, which are in both English and French everywhere else in Canada, are only in French in Quebec.  French Canada has every right of course to protect their heritage, but I often think the symbol of French Canada should be a man wearing a beret shooting his self in the foot.  Besides tourism, think of all those things made in eastern Canada that could be sold south.  Knowing the language would aid that process.

The first thing that strikes you about the farms along the St. Lawrence River is their coloring.  Who needs red when you can color a barn blue, green, or yellow?  After cutting through a good swath of New Brunswick (and traveling on more than a few interior gravel roads) we welcomed the calming blue water, bright colors, and the frequent small attractions along our western route to Quebec.  Everywhere there were small campgrounds, charming cafes, and little towns filled with vacationers reading, playing, or drinking a beer among friends.  Not speaking French made these scenes out of reach, more than a simple difference in language could account for.  For example, while camping in Edmunston, NB (a few kilometers away from Quebec province) we noticed passing tourists smiling at us and then looking away when we returned there greeting with a “hello.”  French Canadians, like all Canadians, are some of the nicest, most articulate people I have ever met.  But in Quebec there seemed an automatic suspicion of all things un-French. 

No matter.  We have plans to visit soon, maybe two summers from now.  I have relatives in Montreal and they are the best of the best in terms of hospitality and conversation.  We will play Scrabble and talk books (I hope) and Henna will play with her younger cousins.  I hope to visit more farms and breweries and I will know not to hike without my support team.  We will also bring a French phrase book.

Where exactly is the Sir line?

Recently while crossing the Mason Dixon line en route to D.C. a thought occurred to me; where exactly do the Sirs start?  No one called me Sir in Ohio and I did not get any Sirs in D.C. or the Baltimore area either.  But D.C. is a strange place, one where the man working the cashier may have been a former lobbyist from Cleveland.  No one there is ever from there.  Tourists too come from all over the world just to marvel at the beautiful landmarks housing dysfunctional politicians.  It seems that in our capital there is no general agreement for anything, let alone speech patterns.

I did not hear any Sirs either in Williamsburg, but again Williamsburg is a home for the displaced (retirees, wine makers, colonial reenactors, and brainy college students).  Heading a little north and west I began to hear plenty of Sirs.  The thing about hearing Sir is you begin to think you should Sir too.  There is an art to this.  You do not want to over Sir anyone (“Yes Sir, Sir, we might want to go there, Sir”).  But you do not want to under Sir someone either.  I mean, if the elder person next to you calls you Sir, you should definitely Sir him back.  I tried my best to Sir accordingly, but right when I started to get the hang of it we went to West Virginia and the Sirs stopped as quickly as they had begun.

Take that Yahoo Page

Recently my Yahoo page offered one of their endless fluff photo essays (which I always waste a few minutes on) on the prettiest colleges in the U.S.  In what I was sure was an oversight, my alma mater, Ohio University, was not listed.  It just so happened that I took a recent road trip through beautiful Athens, Ohio and was pleasantly surprised at how well it aesthetically stood out even when compared to the University of VA (which I had just visited a few days prior and did make that stupid Yahoo list) as well as William and Mary (which I also had just visited).  Thomas Jefferson did not design OU (like he did with UVA), but OU is old in American terms (early 1800s) and is the tenth oldest US public university as well as the oldest college in the Northwest territories.  Although I attended OU for four great years, I had never approach the campus from W. Va which added to the charm.  Route 33, heading north-west from Ripley W. Va, snakes beautifully through the low hills and wide valleys of Ohio and W. Va.  Unfortunately the road loses some charm after Athens on its way to Columbus.  Take a gander at these photos and tell me if Yahoo missed the boat.

Our New Mini Trip

Greetings from Somerset, PA.  What am I doing in Somerset?  Just passing through on my way to Baltimore to marry off two young kids.  Really.  My cousin Chad and soon to be cousin Amy flattered me a few months ago by asking me if I would officiate at their wedding.  Very very excited to do just that in two days in Baltimore. 

Our last summer trip also began with a wedding.  Five weeks after that wedding  we returned home from Cincinatti.  We took the long way home to Chicago (all the way past Toffino, BC).  Now we have to balance school and plan on being home in just a few days.  Hopefully we will get a chance to see some of the museums we missed last time we were in D.C.  And tomorrow we hope to take a small detour to the 9-11 memorial that is nearby(Somerset is the county where the heroes on 9-11 made a stand against the terrorists).

Quick thoughts on the Ohio and PA Turnpike:  They sure like to pay tolls on the East Coast.  My I-Pass sort of worked meaning that each time I approached a gate I had to cross my fingers that it would work.  Twice I had to hit the help button in order to tell the attendant the pay code on my pass so that they could remotely open the gate.  There is a national park just south of Cleveland near Akron (Cuyahoga Valley N.P.)   Is this new?  I visited Cleveland several time in my years of being a Bobcat (O.U.) and do not remember such a park.  Are there campgrounds there?  The views from the PA turnpike were really stunning- lots of hills and trees.  But unfortuantly Somerset smells.  Really bad.  Like a steel plant and a dump got together and made a stinker.

We will post some more from this mini trip and will hopefully have some pictures to share.

The Smallest Show on Earth

A couple of days ago I wrote about the trips and adventures getting smaller.  It does not get much smaller than our day trip to Edison Park, Chicago (our home town/ neighborhood).  This weekend was the Edison Park Fest which I always find exciting, mostly because the parade route passes our house.  That means that once a year I live in the center of it all (and by all I mean Edison Park Fest).  But the rain came something fierce and washed the parade away.  There is nothing sadder than children, some of whom have been practicing throwing candy all week in anticipating of marching in the parade, realizing the parade is cancelled.  Henna was sad.  I know some of her friends were very sad.  But today there was no rain and we saw our first Flea Circus.   It was a lot of fun, especially since it was free, and I mean free (no passing of the hat here) and a few blocks from my house.  We also saw a dog show filled with neighborhood dogs.  There were contests for the biggest dog, the smallest dog, best obeyed dog, etc.  It went a little long for my tastes, but Henna had a good time.  Over the last three days I have eaten ribs, gyros, Italian ice, gelato, and washed it down with my first ever mojito.  We have also heard a lot of good, bad, and inbetween music but, again, it was all free and close to my house.  And Henna had fun jumping on various blow up “rides” that cost way too much ($2s just to go down a slide!).  But at last, all good things have to end.  Tomorrow Edison Park Fest will be just a memory.  But heart burn is forever.

Big Trouble in Little China Town

Sorry, I could not resist that title.  I must have seen that movie, with Kurt Russel, a million times as a kid.  I think HBO must have devoted entire weekends to just showing that movie.  The three of us went to ChinaTTown and did not find any real trouble.  The midwest just does not do Chinatowns as well as the west coast.  I have never been to Cleveland’s China Town (I have no idea if one exists), but I am guessing Chicago’s is the biggest in the U.S. midwest and, I have to say, it is nothing compared to Porland’s, Victoria (B.C.), or San Francisco.  It was nice and we had a good lunch.  And we bought two small turtles from a vendor.  Corey:  What kind of turtle is this?  Vendor:  Ah, just a turtle.  Corey:  How big do they get?  Vendor:  It depends on how long they live.  I went to the bathroom, that conversation went on without me, and when I located my family they had two pleading faces.  Twenty bucks later we have two turtles to join our one aquatic frog, one hermit crab, and three cats.  I mean, it’s not like we go away a lot and need people to look after these animals? 

Getting to Chinatown was kind of fun and, for us, novel.  We took the metra then a water taxi south.  There was a line of tourists waiting for the water taxi north (those views must have been stunning).  Our views were gritty and the smells were riverish with a tinge of industry.  Last time on a boat that small we saw whales, seals, sea lion, and bald eagels.  This time we saw weeds, broken glass, and rusting CTA cars.

Of Fairies and Cable Cars

Apologies for taking so long to post.  Since being home, our travels have slowed significantly and are adventures seem smaller.  But I think they are still worth sharing.

A couple of weeks ago we went to a Fairy Festival near Elgin, Il.  Corey saw an ad for the fest in a Chicago Parent magazine and, not surprisingly, Henna chose that over the music festival in Roscoe Village (Chicago).  What we imagined it would be:  lots and lots of families with girls dressed up as fairies and maybe retired pre-school teachers leading arts and crafts activities.  What it was:  a Dungeons and Dragons type renaissance fair with people walking around with bad English accents.  There were some families there (all looking pretty confused) along with a scantily overly suggestive belly dancer, guys in their 20s sword fighting, and a man with a falcon.  The falcon and the falconer were pretty cool (he was actually a high school science teacher) but the crowd had an edge and the admission was steep (and did not include anything other than allowing you to buy stuff at booths).  On the way back we stopped at the Cable Car Museum which was manned by a grumpy man who did not like tourists.  Me:  “Do you take credit cards?”  Grumpy Man:  “Urghhh, I guess so.”  Me:  “How old are some of these cable cars?”  Grumpy Man:  [silence and shoved a pamphlet at me].  The pamphlet told me that cable cars used to bring people from Elgin to Chicago where they could take other cable cars all through the city.  The museum also had some old train cars including one that ran on the South Shore Line.  That is the same line that takes my niece to high school each day.  It also took my wife into the city more times than she can remember along with her sisters, brother in-laws, mother, father, etc.  This car now sits as an artifact and Corey cannot be the only one who looks at it and sees not just an artifact of the greater adventure but a gateway to what used to be and still is.  In the same vein I noticed while driving that Elgin is on Route 20.  Route 20 goes west through Galena, Il. and Davenport, Iowa (a wonderful 2 to 3 hour day trip from Chicago) and then through the rest of Iowa and a Nebraska I have never seen (fossil beds, badlands, and bison) into a Wyoming I glimpsed a few weeks ago then into Yellowstone and Idaho and the high desert of Oregon (again, a place I was just in).  It was only my certainty that we would take that very route some day soon (either next summer or the summer after) that prevented us from writing you now from Yellowstone.

Stalker burros, bison road blocks, and granite presidents

I did not intend this trip to be a grand tour of KOAs, but that is what the last week has become.  A couple of factors:  1)  Henna’s profound love of swimming and her new found underwater diving skills and 2) Our love of cheap, fun places that allow us to camp.  Yesterday’s KOA (in Custer, SD) was perfect.  It had a  lot of tenters, families, and trees.  Besides having a pool, they also offered crafts for the kids and Henna painted a glass butterfly with a kindly older work camper.  Today, I am about 35 miles north of Custer at the Rapid City KOA which is off of I90, is filled with some type of camp group which descended on the pool just before closing as well as punkish looking teens (and a few nice families).  But the pool is nice and we had pizza delivered to us from a nearby place. 

Today we did a figure eight through Custer State Park.  13 years ago, Corey and I camped for the first time and had our first good hike in the Black Hills area.  My first night camping was memorable by the way, for me cutting my thumb pretty good while opening a can of tuna.  We could not get a fire going and I remember some guy who worked at the campground watching my efforts and saying, “it will catch, don’t worry” and walking away.  I do not remember if it ever catched.  The hike was Harney Peak which I always tell people is the highest mountain east of the Mississippi.  A couple of days ago I told that to Corey and she said “Harney Peak is not east of the Mississippi.”  A quick look at the map confirmed this.  So maybe it is the highest mountain east of the Rockies?  At 7200′ it is tall, but I am not sure that it is taller than the presidential mountains in New Hampshire.    One thing we can all agree on is that it is tall.  We told Henna there was a castle at the top of the mountain (there is a stone CCC firewatch tower at the top) and that she could eat as much candy as she wanted while hiking.  Yesterday she said she would do it but today she said no way. 

So we drove through Custer State Park  and were awed by how cool this park really is  After Yellowstone, Waterton, etc. we thought this would pale in comparison.  Not at all.  There are meadows, funky rock formations, windy roads that rival taller mountain passes, narrow tunnels that allow only one lane of traffic, a herd of bison that, toward the end of the day, surrounded traffic and caused our hearts to quicken as they walked toward the car before suddenly veering away.  While in a bison jam, a park ranger passed us going the other way and we asked if bison ever charge cars (I did this thinking the answer would comfort us).  He said, “yeah, all the time” and then drove off.  Meanwhile the bison are in front, behind, to the left, and to the right of us.  We can smell and hear them grunt too.  A couple of cars in front of us the drover froze up and we were stuck for a good ten minutes before being able to proceed. 

The burros are a different matter.  Quick review, in WY you can walk directly on dinosaur tracks and are encouraged to take any fossils you find.  At Jewel Cave I was reprimanded for holding an acorn in the visitor center.  At Custer State Park, you are not allowed to feed wildlike “except fot the burros…. we just want you to feed them something good like carrots” (the lady at the entrance gate).  So we fed them.  We also got of the car and petted them.  And then we walked in a great meadow toward a herd of burros.  Prarie dogs sent off their alarm and we watched for burro pooh and snakes in the grass (we found a lot of the first and none of the second).

Before seeing the bison and burros, but after first entering the park we took Iron Mountain Road which leads to Mount Rushmore.  The road was designed to give several cool views of the monument.  Quick fact:  Mount Rushmore is incomplete.  Congress cut off funding in 1941 (we were on the verge of WWII) and Lincoln is incomplete as well as some of the details of the other presidents.  There also was a big do-over due to unforseen cracking which left several imperfections to the left of Washington.

After Mount Rushmore but before the bisons and burros we parked at Lake Sylvian.  Lake Sylvian is lovely and also is the site of a trail head for Harney Peak.  How convenient.  The three of us started on the trail with the understanding we would only go as far as Henna wanted.  Henna wanted to go about 50 yards.  Corey graciously said I could continue for a bit and her and Henna went swimming in the lake.  I continued on the trail until I reached a spur leading to Little Devil’s Tower.  I figured that would be a logical turn around point and began walking to the tower.  What I did not realize, was that the trail led to the top of the little tower, not a view of.  About a third of a way up that spur I came across a vantage point that offered awesome views of the hills (they did look black from  there).  I did not have any way to record this.  There was a family at the same point and I decided to ask a big favor: would they e-mail me a picture of that view.  This request led to fun conversations and companionship the rest of the way up.  At the time of the request, I did not realize that they were actually a family of eight.  A very cool eight with the six children ranging from six to maybe their late teens.  They were quick witted (they laughed at my jokes) and very kind to me.  Still, I felt a bit funny hanging out with them, kind of like I was being unfaithfull to Corey and Henna.  The trail, by the way, devolved into spray painted blue diamonds on rocks which led us into gulleys and crevases.  Several points were only wide enough to allow me to walk with one foot directly in front of the other.  The view at the top was stunning with us just a little bit lower than the stone fire tower which we could see across a ravine.  As I was admiring this a little voice inside my head said “you told Corey you would be about an hour and it has been two.”  I came down as fast as I can, once losing the trail and having to backtrack.  I also resorted to throwing my water bottle down ahead of me so that I had both hands free.  When I finally returned to the parking lot, Corey and Henna were happy to see me and not upset in the least.  I felt true gratitude for them being so cool and understanding.

So here we are in Rapid City, two days before we hope to be home.  Since Dan and Liz’s wedding, it has been 34 nights. 21 nights have found us sleaping in a tent.  4 times we stayed in a KOA cabin.  We did 6 hotels and were lucky enough to have Lou host us for three nights.  Our total trip odometer is over 6,500 miles.  It is time to go home, but these have been an awesome 5 weeks.  I will post some pictures, hopefully tomorrow and then again over the next week.

Inching Closer to Home

The plan today was big.  We would take I90 to 16, cross into South Dakota and see wild donkeys and bison in Custer State Park and then the granite presidents.  We didn’t do none of that.  We got off I90 and were on 16S for less than a minute before coming across the West Texas Trail museum in Moorecroft, Wy.  A sign said it was free and we were out of the car not thirty minutes after leaving Gillette.  By the way, Corey said I was to hard on that town so on the way out we detoured through their downtown.  It was clean, had several stores, no resteraunts, coffee shops or book stores though.  Still not my favorite place, but not the worse place either.  Anyways, many attics made up this museum.  There were coffins, pianos, WWI uniforms, various mounted cow heads, and short histories of the families making up Kirk County.  There also was a very articulate and knowledgeable man with nothing else to do but answer my questions concerning ranching, the west Texas Trail, the history of Moorecroft, and dinosaur bones.  It turned out he was friends with the family who once owned the land where the dino tracks were found.  He talked about being a kid on his grandparents ranch and finding twelve or more arrow heads a summer.  He also said that ranchers are suppose to tell people when they find stuff, but that means strangers coming on to their land.  People in WY do not like that, but then again I am not a big fan of the meter man coming into my backyard.  One sentence on the West Texas Trail:  Cows were brought north from Texas to populate ranches in MT and Canada from the mid to late 19th century.

We then stopped for gas, made lunch at a rest stop, and traveled a few more miles on 16 into South Dakota.  Corey hates caves but I made her pull into the Jewel Cave National Monument visitor center.  Cave tours were sold out for the day but there was an enticing hike into “Hell Canyon” past the historic cave opening.  Three and a half miles long and flat, this seemed easy to us mountain people.  There was a big fire ten years ago which caused lots of stumps, no shade from sun, and a beautiful meadow filled with butterflies, wild flowers, and interesting birds.  Henna tripped twice and skinned one knee.  She also was stung by a bee.  The sun and humidity (which us mountain people are no longer used to) was brutal.  The hike, although gorgeous, became monotonous after the first mile or so.  We saw one family at the onset of the hike, but then no one else and Corey was convinced we had made a wrong turn.  But after climbing out of the canyon (it was a pretty small indentation by the way) we came across that historic opening and it was awesome.  Cold air came out of one hole and there were small openings that a stupid man could venture into and then die a lonely death.  The rocks here have a crystal sheen that rubs off and we felt this sense of discovery that often eludes us in more crowded places.  The trail then took a bend around the corner and we found ourselves in a parking lot with maybe twenty people waiting for a cave tour.  A few more steps and we met a ranger dressed in 1940s garb (that is when the rangers first gave tours) who showed us the origional cabin.  Again, there was no one else around to compete for our attention and I asked him about the area, the canyon, and the CCC corps (who built the cabin and highway 16 that takes you to the cave).  The trail from that point to the visitor center ventured on high ground and offered shade and cool breezes.  Along the way Henna gave me the “prettiest acorn in the forest.”  At the gift shop we bought a sticker and the ranger wannabe said “tell me you did not get that from the forest.”  You can grab fossils from WY but do not take acorns from S. Dakota.  A few more miles down the road was the Custer KOA where I write you these words.  Total distance for the day:  maybe a hundred twenty miles.  Tomorrow we hope to see Custer State Park, Mt. Rushmore, and Wall Drug.  But who knows, maybe a county fair will intercept us a mile east of here.

A quick thought

I am really posting this in order to share the photo below.  I tried to do so last night, but the wifi would not let me do so.  But, since I have your attention I may as well give a brief comparison between camping in the US vs. Canada.  First, the people:  Canadians are much nicer and friendlier than us.  Last night I mentioned that we are at a happy, family filled campground.  What I did not say is that our neighbors, despite almost being on top of us, do not return conversations.  Walking to the bathroom this morning only a few people returned my good morning.  In Canada several people introduced themselves to me.  A RCMP sought us out just to give us directions.  When we asked directions (and we did that a lot) people often stopped what they were doing and then led us to where we had to go (I should say that this also happened once in MN).  Second, it is much cheaper to camp here but you do not get as much.  At Waterton we had showers and teams of teenagers patroling the grounds for our comfort (and I am guessing a chance to escape their boss).  In the US you pay between $12 to $20 for a campsite (at Waterton it was $27) but you may not get soap in the bathroom.  No showers.  Usually one older man in a golf cart patroling a 100+ site campground.  You get what you pay for.  Finally, a quick word about camping.  Last night was our 15th night sleeping in a tent.  We also spent 4 nights so far in KOA Kamping Kabins which are small cabins where you supply the bedding and do not have a private bathroom (I think this would be the perfect way for a non-camper to camp; you can see America via these cabins and save a lot of dough, eat better, meet more people, etc).  So far the roughest nights were at Pacific Rim where we had a walk-in site a decent walk from our car.  I felt we were in our own private little rain forest and it did rain almost the whole time we were in our tent.  Last night and Waterton were probably our least wild nights- here we have wifi, little privacy, a nice bathroom with showers, friendly people working here, and are not to far from an overpriced store that could supplement our needs.  There also is a small resteraunt here.  Most of our sites have been inbetween these two extremes.  If you have not guessed it, we love to camp.  I like sleeping in my own portable home that I can set up almost anywhere (with a different tent Corey and I once set it up on a ship headed down the coast of Alaska).  Unlike an RV, we can still go anywhere we want.  I also love the ease at which I can make my own food via the small propane stove we have and/ or grill that is often at our sites.  I think I eat better on the road than at home.  Anyways, enjoy the pic below.  We are headed to the Tetons and Yellowstone and may not be able to post for awhile.  I promise lots of photos when we do (post).