Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Yellowstone, Cody and the 4th July

[click an image for a bigger picture]

When we started planning this trip, one of the places we really wanted to get to was Yellowstone Park. The further our planning progressed, the reality hit that it would be too far for us to travel that far across America. Then one rainy day in March we got our little red van (who now has his own Facebook page by the way) and suddenly the impossible became just highly improbable.

So it was then that we headed east from Idaho Falls (once again bathed in 100+ sunshine). We knew it would be a good day when we filled up with the cheapest petrol we’d seen so far: $2.60 per gallon (which I think makes it 45p per litre)! On to the motorway… sorry freeway and we were definitely in ‘dogs in pick-ups’ territory… walking around the back of an open pick-up with tongues flailing in the air at 70mph.
The journey was a long hot one but we were kind of used to it by now and we’d even invested in a foil sun-screen which kept things much cooler but did make it more hazardous to drive. The other thing we had become accustomed to was roadworks… they’re everywhere. A lot of the roads here are in a really bad way and I wonder if everyone started all the roadworks they could when the financial crisis hit so that they would have to be completed instead of scrapped. After waiting in one such set of roadworks on this oh so very hot day I have new found respect for UK road-planning (or maybe just a new found disrespect for American planning).

Anyway, we trundled along dusty prairies - which were largely empty apart from the occasional enormous farm house or ranch thrown in – and started winding our way uphill around tree-lined hairpin bends. Things became greener and cooler. Before too long we were at West Yellowstone: a mixture of old, new, shabby, neat… and souvenir stores. A quick stop off at the visitors centre was enough to tell us that we should have booked a camping space inside the park six months ago;
we eventually found a primitive but pretty one five miles from where we had just come. Bears had been sighted in the camp the previous week and we had to store all our food in bear-proof cages – how exciting!

We talked with the Park Ranger (our first real Ranger!) who suggested that as soon as we find a site we should get down to the Grand Geyser; not as well known as old faithful but much more impressive. On the way we saw our first thermal spring; the water was so blue and perfect bath-water temperature. Unlike ‘old faithful’ the Grand is also more ‘unreliable’ it only erupts approximately every ten hours and you can sometimes wait for hours with nothing happening. Thankfully we took a van full of supplies (crisps and water)… we did wait for hours –slowly being joined by more and more people on our semi-circle of benches (many with the attention span of a distracted gnat came, sat and went again) - and luckily something did happen; slowly the base filled, then overflowed with slightly stinky, sulphurous water.
Bubbles started to form like a slowly boiling kettle and the geyser teased with little ‘boilettes’ every five minutes, getting a little bigger each time. Then it erupted big time! The force of water was amazing as was the height it reached. People who’d stopped on the nearby roadside got a car-full of foul smelling vapour… we smiled smugly.
By the time it finished we were well into evening time and the dark clouds of a massive storm were heading our way, as we twisted and turned driving blindly through the relentless rain, I was sure that we passed Hagrid (from Harry Potter)but Katy pointed out we nearly just hit a Bison!! So we headed back to our camp; day one in Yellowstone over.

The following day was our first chance to have a real look at the place. I always thought that the landscapes in Walt Disney cartoons were too idealistic, now I realize that the animators just came to Yellowstone and painted what they saw. The lush green valleys, miles of pine trees and majestic cliffs, valleys and canyons are all here. Unfortunately, so too are people… and they keep taking our camping spaces! It became apparent that once again we would not be able to get a space inside the park; we also had to think about where we wanted to be for the 4th July celebrations so we ended up cutting straight across the park and headed out toward Cody (home of ‘Buffalo’ Bill Cody); very frustrating when it’s the park you’ve come to see! Even in Cody things were pretty packed but we found a spot on the edge of the town and set up home.

Cody is the furthest east we’d been and though still not in the middle of the states it was very much cowboy country. So what else was there to do in cowboy country but go see our first ever rodeo?
We got to the stadium and I’ve never seen so many cowboy hats and boots being worn without irony! I was even too sheepish to wear mine in case they laughed me out of town or thought that I was taking the piss (did I mention how many were carrying guns?)! Once again though, everybody was great and found our accent to be ‘just the cutest’… whatever, just don’t shoot.

Come the evening and we rolled up like the nerdy new kid on his first day at school… poor Jezza – bless him, everyone else had decided to bring their ENORMOUS 4x4 pick-up thing… I think we managed to drive underneath one of them.
Anyway, on the way to the stands, it was like the US equivalent of the Three-Counties or Royal Welsh Shows; a guy lassoing (?) children or anything that stood still long enough
and you could get your picture taken whilst sitting on a prize bull (for $10). Instead we used our $10 to purchase beer and headed for our seats.

Let me tell you they take it all pretty seriously. The place was packed and everyone around us knew all the riders. There was a fair bit of pageantry first including a National Anthem sung by Pattie (of whom more later) and a ‘ride-by’ by the town’s beauty-queen (whom our neighbour on the benches informed us is “the dumbest thing ever to breathe air”). Then down to the rodeo proper. I’d seen it on TV a few times but in real-life, it was surprisingly ferocious and over in a few seconds (isn’t that always the way?). Obviously it’s their job but its still amazing that everyone we watched ‘walked’ off under their own steam (limping to various degrees) and that was just the bucking broncos… the bull riding was even more spectacular.
Then they started jumping off galloping horses to grab hold of running calves and wrestle them to the ground then tie them up! Sounds cruel but the calves seem to know whats going on and happily trot away when released. And the lassoing skill of the cowboys was genuinely impressive. Surprise of the evening? A specialist lasso exhibition by a guy from South London (!

Following day was a bit of a day off. The town was building up to 4th July celebrations for the next couple of days and to give you some idea of the kind of place this is, people had already started putting their camp-chairs out by the side of the road… TWO DAYS EARLY!! And they were secured to anything – just left on the pavement – I can’t think of anywhere in the UK you could do that! For a moment I had visions of my new UK Camp-Chair-Import business but thought better of it. Instead we wandered around the park and browsed the stall selling various bits of tat; then we found some dappled shade on the grass and listened to some live bands playing.
These were shortly followed by Pattie (from the rodeo) who proceeded to croon for what felt like eternity occasionally interjecting with a witty comment. I slept.

We haven’t got any photos from 3rd July, so I guess nothing too memorable happened! We were up good and early for the 4th. Headed into town to find said chairs now occupied by flag-wavers.
We thought it would be nice to grab a coffee to watch the parade with. I queued… and queued… and queued (remember, this was for a coffee and a hot-water) 40 minutes later, Katy came in and took over so that I might see at least some of the parade!
The poor people behind the counter were absolutely run off their feet. Anyway, we were eventually served and watched the remains of the parade together and what a parade…
the people watching was magnificent (both paraders and spectators) - the whole thing was about as American as it gets.
Afterward we headed back to the park to find the same tat for sale and Pattie back on the mic with the same spiel as before!
Whilst we sat, we waded through a massive bag of kettle corn and I experienced my first ever corn-dog… and quite possibly my last.

Wandering back through town we decided to get a quick beer in Irma’s (a ye olde pub named after buffalo bill’s daughter). The place was packed but we got there just in time to watch a gun-fight (re-enactment luckily). This is possibly the worst acting we’ve ever witnessed since Crossroads finished (ask your mum).
And like Crossroads, even the walls shook when they closed the doors. To add to the surrealism, just after the show finished, a guy comes trotting down the street on his horse, ties it to a tree and goes inside for a beer!

Later that night we headed across town to watch the firework display – hyped-up to be the 2nd best in the state. For some strange reason the ideal vantage point was the delivery area in the Wal-mart car-park so we climbed up the bales of recycled cardboard and plastic and settled-in.
They were good but for those of you who have been to Ally-Pally, don’t bother making the trip especially to see Cody’s fireworks because you’ll be disappointed!

So that was our first 4th of July in America. We had a great time and met some lovely people but we still had the whole of Yellowstone to explore so, take a deep breath… we’re going back in!


Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Down a bit, right a bit and down a bit more...

So up early for a final run along the sea for me. Back home and pack. We head out of Seattle on a sunny morning to our next stop Portland. Now we have been winging it quite a lot – not booking accommodation etc - so as we headed towards Portland we we’re a little apprehensive to know if there would be room at the inn for us. At least we have the fall back that we can always sleep in Jeremy, not easily or privately but it can be done. We weren’t sure that parking on the side of the road in a suburban street and spending the night not sleeping was really “us” yet, god damn it we’re British after all! So using our new $10 cell phone from [the dreaded] Walmart we called ahead and they had room for us; once again we would be split up but it was cheap. And again, Tim lucked out with a lovely room down stairs in the shady quite area of the house with a dorm of boys, whereas I lost out with a small packed room, with no air-con, but a loud whizzy fan and the delights of the busy road outside the open window with a large, loud, snoring, bowler-hat wearing American oaf. Needless to say I was out the door bright and early for an explore and a lovely run around some park on a high hill with a massive reservoir. (I hope I’m not getting too technical - it was early, i was tired!)……after getting back, showering then finding my husband who had been consuming the free bagel breakfast we headed off.

Next stop would be Oxbow National Park, lovely big trees and fire pits, we turned-up and there was plenty of room for us, so unpacking our bits from Jeremy and paying our nights fee, we headed back into the City of Portland to have a look. It’s a pretty city, but pretty much like any other. The real bonus was that there was free Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream stand where we also got some USB sticks in the shape of an ice cream, fun fun fun and Just what you need on a scorcher of a day (though we did just miss out on getting our photo taken with a plastic cow).

Our main reason for going in was to try and get the snowboard bag back to Blighty. We went into UPS and chatted to a lovely lady who once she realized that the bag was full of stuff and not just a snowboard (because “they’re quite thin aren’t they?”) we had to provide lots more info. Armed with the dimensions and weight she typed in the info and gave us the cost: a whopping $700….now what we have to weigh up here is, is our “stuff” worth this much? As we stood there trying to work-out the conversion, (464GBP) we said thanks but no. So it would seem we’d have the bag for some time yet. Anyway you never know when you’ll come across snow again on the West Coast of America!?!?!?

Back at our campsite, we set up our bed and as we were sorting things out we had a welcoming committee from Disney….a lovely young deer came to say ‘Hi’ and hang out with us for a while, now we know the rules “ keep the wildlife wild, do not feed the animals” but it is so very tempting to have a pet deer for the evening but he decided to leave us when Tim started throwing up violently behind a tree (like I said it was hot day and I think he got sun stroke, poor Timmy Tim). So that was our camping in Oxbow, the following morning Tim was feeling 100% better (after going to bed at 8:00pm), I ran around the park and river, then headed back, packed up next stop who knows……

Actually our next stop would be Hat Rock – a place you will probably never hear of again (though this would be a shame)! We came across this campsite in the heat of the day, it was the first time we had actually had Jeremy’s air-con on (opening the windows just made us hotter, and closing them again made us hotter still)… that Jeremy even has a/c is amazing; the fact it works really well? what a delight!
…anyway so Hat Rock, this is a massive hat shaped rock, in the middle of barren land, which is the closest we have come to being in a desert, it was HOT BABY! We decided to both go in and see if we could stay, our first excitement was that there a pool, please let there be room for us? And what a delight to be greeted by Sally a lovely American lady who absolutely loves us Brits and everything British, she is a gem indeed.

We got a lovely site for Jeremy under a tree and close to the pool, which was our first port of call. It was so nice to be somewhere with lovely facilities, we did our washing then as we sat down eating our BBQ dinner we made a decision to have a day off, I know you must think that this travelling lark is like a holiday and it is, don’t get us wrong but it is really draining driving on highways in the heat and always having to plan where we will be the next day, so the next morning I went for the hottest run in the world and Tim stayed in bed under the tree in the shade.

We went to see Sally and hope that it was ok for us to stay another night, thankfully it was, so a day without driving and just chilling by the pool was in order after we had breakfast, we sat outside in the shade with our big map deciding where to go next and when the heat got too much we headed inside to power up the Toshbook and see what was on our route and where to go. We we’re joined at our table by a lovely retired couple, Bev(erly) & Cal(vin) Sherman, we offered to move but they insisted we stay and thereafter we chatted for ages. They are practically locals, they come from Heppner, but have a fifth wheel (BIG caravan to you & me which attaches to a BIG pick-up truck like an artic-lorry) at the boat-club just down the road but always come to see Sally as she does the best breakfasts (‘tis true). We had a lovely talk with them; it was obvious that they really adore their family who have now all grown up and left home - bless them. They invited us round to see them later that evening. I went to the counter to settle up with sally to be told that she was buying us breakfast just because we’d come all that way and we’re British… what a surprise and what a nice lady. Its common knowledge that all Canadians are nice; let me tell you there are some pretty good Americans too!

So, a relaxing day in the 100°F heat by the pool – dipping in and out to avoid frazzling… just nice not to be driving anywhere really. Later we headed down to see Bev & Cal, but there was a pot-luck dinner going on with their friends in the boat club and with too much British reserve couldn’t interrupt them so we had a walk around then headed for home.

The following day, another HOT run, then back to pack up and go, but not until we’d had another superb breakfast. As we sat outside Bev & Cal turned up for their breakfast as usual and we explained our Britishness and were suitably told-off! Apparently they had told their friends we’d be turning up the previous night and were looking out for us but we walked along the other side of the building - DOH! So we were invited down again before we left, as Bev had made us a “care-parcel”, like I said lovely people. So we promised we would head down to the fifth wheel and see them. Breakfast was once again magnificent and - once again - on the house (apparently because there was a bit of a wait!)… we left a good tip! We packed up and said our goodbyes to Sally leaving her with mum’s address for when she’s next in the UK (she’s yet to do Wales and there’s a lovely little cottage on the river Wye you know).

We kept our promise and headed to see Bev & Cal, and what a lovely caravan 5th wheel thingy it is, they even have fake grass as a carpet where they have their table and chairs outside, honestly it’s like a little home from home. Bev was getting very excited as the family and all the grandchildren would be coming to stay for the 4th of July weekend, she was going to be in baking mode for the next week in preparation for the event. We sat and chatted about where we were going and where we had been, during which Bev wheeled out her own concoction: Pretzel Salad! Kind of hard to describe (but a bit like a savoury cheesecake which is actually quite sweet… wacky Americans!), anyway, it was dee-lish! Then the time came for us to hit the road. Bev handed over our delicious “care-parcel” of crackers, cheese, grapes and cherries a delicious feast for us to have on our journey. Such lovely people… hope you had a great 4th of July!

So good bye to Hat Rock - a very pleasant find indeed, our next stop would be Boise, pronounced Boy-Zee, apparently the Americans dropped the French pronunciation, lazy Yanks! Boise is the capital of Idaho, so we’re hoping for big things.
This was another long hot dry drive in near desert like conditions with flashes of bright green as you drive by irrigated fields (it is the potato capitol of America after all… even has a potato museum and no, we didn’t go).

We found the Boise Hostel (which was actually in Nampa); the place was lovely – more like a big bungalow and we even got our room (for $30 night!), you do kind of forget how nice it is just to be able to go to bed, rather than having to inflate it every night. The place was shared with a PhD student from Germany (Heidi – yes, really!) studying plant disease; a religious guy called BJ who organizes cruise holidays (we’ve got his email address!) and Ken – ex-Navy guy and verrry fit! We had a great nights sleep, I got up and ran along the straightest of paths, in the hottest of heats. On my return, the owner was in the garden and offered for me to pick some of his strawberries for breakfast… what a treat!! Then into Boise to see what the capital had to offer, now don’t get us wrong - Boise is lovely, really clean, some lovely gardens, bars and cafes but it just seemed too clean and so quiet for a capital city (think The Truman Show).

Whilst walking around the city we were stopped twice by the same woman handing out flyers for a hairdressers salon and twice asked if Tim would be interested! After the second time we chatted for a while and she said if we came back through Boise, so give her a call and go for a drink! Boise is also the place where Katy’s long and often fruitless search for a hat came to an end… a nice straw trilby which you will no doubt see in many pictures from now on.

We had a nice lunch then the heat got me and I flagged, we found the tourist info office with air-conditioning where we chatted to a very helpful man who gave us lots of info for our next stop - Yellowstone and the surrounding area, while we cooled-off. Feeling better we headed back to the hostel, and chilled for the evening watching the most amazing thunder storm erupt, it was like watching in a movie, and my god there was some heavy rain, the stuff that really gets you wet. On the plus side, next day’s straight-run was a lot cooler.

Yogi & Booboo here we come - but not just yet… bit too far for one day’s travel so we stopped off in Idaho Falls (via the Craters of the Moon). Idaho Falls was notable only for the most amazing downpour of rain which greeted us as we exited the supermarket with our bbq goodies (it was a bright blue sky when we went in 20 minutes earlier)! A quick look at the soggy buns and a re-think found us in Chilies Restaurant followed by an early but sleepless night as we watched the tent become detached from the van… some muttering and rope tieing later and all was secure. I got up for a run, Tim was left to find the free coffee and some internet access, Idaho Falls was all out ready for 4th July celebrations, god bless America, they love a good national holiday, so there we leave you on our way to Yellow Stone, next instalment coming soon.....