Friday, August 31, 2012

Back for a while, but the heart lingers

Three weeks have past since we returned to Ithaca after our action-packed summer adventure, and a day hasn't passed without a daydream about some aspect of our trip. Like the boys, I wish we had a magical transportation device so that I could instantly pop up on Trail Ridge Road or Avalanche Lake or Arches or any number of our vacation spots. Last week I was watching the USA Pro Challenge bike race in Colorado, and the experience of cycling up Trail Ridge Road and beyond 12,000 ft. seemed like yesterday. Then I saw a cheesy TV ad for cheap sunglasses and they used stock footage of the Going to the Sun Road in Glacier and again I was instantly transported. I changed the screensaver on our desktop computer so that we get randomized photos from our trip, and I find myself fully absorbed in memories of the summer.

I had high hopes leading up to the trip that we would all learn a whole bunch, accumulate lots of memories that would last a lifetime, grow as a family and have more good times than bad. Ever the optimist, I had faith that Leo wouldn't experience car sickness, our boys would get along more often than not, and that Gail would sleep better than she thought she would.  If you read the blog, you'll know that the only real disappointments on our trip were the minor car accident and the rude campers at Arches, not a bad track record at all!

I love overhearing the boys talking to their friends about their travels. They clearly learned a lot and hopefully have developed a love for adventure that will keep them exploring for the rest of their lives. We have all taken chances and have done things outside of our comfort zones, and have been rewarded more often than not.

If you have ever considered a trip like this, I urge you to start planning. Yes, it will cost more than you think, and there will be some hardships along the way, but you and your loved ones will almost certainly be rewarded in ways that will be hard to quantify. Create your own agenda, take chances, and have faith that everything will work out—it usually does, and if not, you'll probably end up with a few good stories!

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Notes from Leo

Leo writes:
We are almost home, only two days of driving left. We are closing in to the end of our vacation. We are watching the Olympics.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Favorite stations; final cycling report

Radio has really kept Gail and I entertained, especially during the long days of driving. Things sure are different from previous long trips across country when I was limited to traditional radio, which is often hit or miss. Also, there's the frequent phenomena where you land on an exceptional station, only to lose the signal too soon and have it replaced with some evangelical program or faux country station. This happened yesterday as we were leaving the Badlands—I was really grooving on the musical offerings on KILI radio, the non-commercial voice of the Lakota people, broadcast from the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. They played some terrific traditional music, followed by some great country music, including a snarky song about the B.I.A. Sadly the signal faded much too soon, and instead, we were being asked to contribute to some Christian radio ministry.

We have Sirius satellite radio in the van, and we've really appreciated this fine service, in spite of some  programming limitations. My favorite station throughout has been the BBC World Service, which has kept us entertained and informed with their excellent news and arts coverage (The Strand), as well as the call-in show World Have Your Say, not to mention their Olympics coverage. We haven't been able to see much of the summer games, but we appreciate the interviews and thoughtful analysis.

In the last few days we've been really getting into the Sirious Soul Town station, a fine mix of classic Motown and Soul. You can't go wrong with Barry White, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, The Spinners and The Temptations. Other stations that have kept toes tapping include Caliente and First Wave (mostly 80s techno pop and New Wave, think New Order, Pet Shop Boys, Duran Duran, The Cure, Elvis Costello, The Smiths, Kate Bush, Talking Heads, Pretenders and such). I'm so glad that we decided to continue our subscription, and I might hold onto Sirius because of the BBC alone.

* * * *
The cycling portion of our vacation is over now, and I really feel like I made the best of my opportunities, thanks to a very understanding family. On Monday evening during our very short Badlands visit, I went for a lovely 22 mile ride through the park with the setting sun as a backdrop. Someone told me not to bother cycling in the Badlands due to traffic, but they couldn't have been more wrong. Traffic was not at all an issue, and the temperature dropped down to the upper 70s, much better than 100+ and blazing sun.

Last night I managed to get a 20 mile ride in around Albert Lea. There's a bike path that took me past farms, along railroad tracks, along a lake and under a highway. It was a scrappy little ride, but it sure as hell beat sitting around a buggy camp site. That brought me to a total of 620 miles and 51,000 vertical feet on the bike on this vacation, far more than I thought I'd be able to do. In just a few days I'll be back to the familiar Ithaca area hill climbs, but I'll be thinking about all of the memorable National Park rides for a long time to come.

If we had to do it all again...

It's Wednesday, so this must be Shererville, Indiana. It's hard to keep things straight when your days are just endless stretches of I-90. We had to negotiate our way around Chicago today--Armin did a great job in the killer traffic and we landed here at Best Western a little while ago. Tomorrow we push on to the Cleveland area.

This week has been all about the driving, except for a quick stop in the Badlands to let the boys get their last Junior Ranger badges. We didn't hike, but we did enjoy the beauty of the place from our campground. Then we drove across the vastness of South Dakota to Albert Lea, MN. We found a state park and had our last night of camping. We got packed up this morning just ahead of the rain and headed off across Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, and here into Indiana.

On a trip like this, you always do some postmortem. Armin and I have been talking about what, if anything, we'd do differently if we were starting this trip over again. We agreed that we wouldn't change the itinerary, since we loved all of the national parks we visited. What would we change? Here's my list:
  • I would pack fewer books and games. We didn't need the huge tub that I brought, and if I'd scaled back then we could have saved a substantial amount of room in the car.
  • We could have done with fewer clothes for each of us. We ended up doing laundry about every 5 days, so I could have left behind another big bin if I'd scaled back on the shorts and t-shirts.
  • However, we could have used more warm clothes. I wish I'd had another pair of long pants and maybe some gloves and a hat. Weather in the mountains tended to be chilly!
  • The air mattresses could have stayed at home. Armin and I were happy with our Thermarest pads and the boys were perfectly contented with their thin foam pads. The air mattresses never even came out of the car.
  • I wish I'd thought of some different lunch options. We are all pretty sick of bread and cheese.
That's a pretty minor list of changes, which leads me to think that we did a pretty darn good job of planning and packing. 

What were some of the things we were especially pleased about?
  • Sunbutter squeeze packets! These little guys were an essential lunch item. Squeeze one onto a tortilla, add banana, and you have a happy kid. We aren't as sick of sunbutter as we are of cheese.
  • Indian food pouches. Yes, I know we've blogged about these before, but they were perfect for when Armin & I needed something different, quick, and tasty. We bought a bunch in Ithaca, and were then surprised to find them pretty widely available in most mid-size towns.
  • Our stovetop Bialetti espresso maker and Gevalia espresso. Essential for mornings. And afternoons.
  • Our little MiFi device. We loved being able to stay connected to everyone!
Tomorrow holds more driving, and we'll be glad to see Ithaca on Friday afternoon. I hope I can finally get some sleep tonight. I've been so excited about the prospect of getting home that I've had a couple of restless nights. Of course, it could be that I'm just not tired enough--I've gotten used to the constant movement of camping and hiking, and my body is not happy to be sitting still for 8 hours at a time. I'll have to treat myself to a nice long run over the weekend!

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Leo loves the pool here!

Leo writes:
I did not think that I would make it 10 hours in the car.  The pool is great here so it is worth it to go so far. Anyway we’re having a nice day here at Best Western. Tomorrow we’re heading to the Badlands.

Goodbye, Glacier, we're heading east.

It was a bit hard to pack up the tent at Glacier this morning, though our sadness at leaving this gorgeous park was tempered by our eagerness to get home and reconnect with the cat, the house, and our friends.

We made good use of yesterday by taking the shuttle up Going To The Sun Road to Logan Pass and hiking part of the Highline Trail. This was a personal challenge for me, since the trail is cut into the side of a mountain and features some narrow parts with slippery, loose rock above sheer dropoffs. There's a safety line, which I made good use of, and soon the trail mellowed out and became quite lovely. It was bordered with tons of wildflowers and looked out over many snowy peaks. We were treated to up close views of a marmot and a group of bighorn sheep (who let us know that we were a bit too close for their comfort).

Back at the campsite, we put together our last big cookstove dinner. This one featured a product we found in a supermarket along the way and couldn't resist. It was Loma Linda/Worthington Foods Vegetarian Burger in a can! We opened it up, sliced it into burgers, and fried them up in a skillet. Surprisingly, it was a thumbs up all around. It's tastier than other fake burger products I've tried, and I'm kind of hoping to find it back home so I can experiment with making a fake meatloaf.

I think the high point of our campsite cooking was Friday night, when I made a soup/stew that used up our fresh veggies and canned products. I sauteed onions and garlic, added a diced potato, canned tomatoes, veggie stock, canned green beans, canned corn, white beans, and some quinoa. It all simmered together until everything was tender, and I liked it well enough to make it again at home (though strictly with fresh vegetables).

One night, as we ate around the picnic table, the boys talked about how much they miss the convenience of microwaving foods, and we decided that, on our next hotel night, we'd have a microwave meal. Sounds kind of weird, I know, but we kind of got into the idea, and tonight was the night. We got some microwave mac-n-cheese for the boys, along with some vegetarian nuggets. They were deliriously excited. Armin and I went for some healthier choices: microwave rice and a couple of packets of Indian food (tofu/corn masala and kashmiri spinach). Delicious! It was perfect comfort food after a long drive.

Speaking of long drives, today's was actually much less horrid than we'd feared. The boys were in good spirits, and we listened to an excellent audiobook that ended just as we reached our destination. The book was Ruth White's The Search for Belle Prater, and we all thought it was terrific. We've listened to a fair amount of sci-fi and fantasy on this trip, and this historical novel (set in rural Virginia in the 1950s) was a change of pace.  (On a side note, Armin wants me to make sure to mention that we passed the Oscar Meyer Weiner-mobile at one point in our drive. He was so excited we nearly kissed the guard rail.)

Anyway, as we drove and listened, I thought about one of the things I've most appreciated about this trip. As we've gone to different parks, we've made a point to seek out evening ranger programs as well as ranger-led hikes and activities. Last night we listened to a presentation about ravens, and Ranger Lee was a terrific speaker. The rangers we've encountered have uniformly done an excellent job teaching about different aspects of their parks--I think I've learned a ton about teaching from watching them. They have all been extremely sincere and enthusiastic, without a trace of self-consciousness about their passion (whether it's ravens, the pine beetle, or the preservation of resources like Arches National Park). I think that, as a teacher, I need to let more of my geeky, earnest enthusiasm show through. I've got some good plans brewing for the next school year.

Tonight, though, we're enjoying the Olympics and some comfy beds before we drive to the Badlands tomorrow. It'll be hot (100 degrees!), but the boys can score one more Junior Ranger badge. Then on Tuesday we'll push eastward. I think some cooler weather is heading to Ithaca ahead of our arrival!

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Midnight Madness Reprise on Going to the Sun

Last night the weather was perfect, albeit a little cold, for a last midnight bike ride up Going to the Sun. This time I started at the Avalanche parking lot, hoping that I would see others and have some bear scaring company for the first part of the hill climb. Unfortunately it wasn't to be, so I headed out solo at around 11 pm, with late fall clothing. I was wearing thermal tops and bottoms, my jacket, hat and gloves, and I really needed every stitch of clothing, since it got really cold.

Before the tunnel I encountered a frantic man looking for his wife who started the hill climb from the other side at 7:30. He stopped me to ask if I had seen a woman riding solo, and told me that he was deathly afraid of heights. Fortunately just as I took off again, she showed up. She miscalculated when the moon would be high.

The moonlight wasn't quite as bright as on Tuesday, but it was still an amazing thing to see the celestial high beams come on as I turned a corner. It's both eerie and serene to ride this hill in the moonlight.

Last night I encountered around 20 cyclists going from east to west and less than 10 going in my direction. I was significantly less nervous, and the climb was uneventful except for a few clueless drivers who forgot to turn off their high beams.

I had two animal sightings last night, both in the car. On the way to Avalanche I spotted a bear cub near the water, and on the way back to the campground just before 2 am I saw a fox in the middle of the road. What a beautiful creature!

Today we're taking the shuttle to Logan Pass and will be attempting the high line trail. Gail is gung ho about testing her limits, but I promised that we'd turn around if she had mixed feelings. It's another beautiful day at Glacier, and that's lucky because it's our last day here. Tomorrow it's off to Sheridan, Wyoming.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Glacier continued: whitewater rafting and Avalanche Lake

We're really getting into the Glacier groove now, and yesterday was the big splurge of the vacation. We had to choose between horseback riding and white water rafting. We chose the latter, and  unanimously feel that we made the right choice. Leo was more than a little bit worried at the start, but after plenty of reassurances he quickly got into the spirit of it. We glided down the middle fork of the Flathead river and encountered some exciting rapids along the way. At one point I was launched right out of the boat, but no harm was done. Matt, our terrific guide and all-around renaissance man quickly yanked me right back into the boat, though I really wanted to climb in unassisted. I guess Matt was a little worried about the giant rock that we were about to collide with. Matt has been leading whitewater rafting adventures for more than 15 years, works as a carpenter, and does large format photography. He is currently studying to be a bush pilot, so he really has a lot going on.

By the end of our adventure Leo was screaming more out of joy than fear, and was regularly calling for paddle high-fives. It was great to see the way he grew in self-confidence, and we've been seeing this pattern quite a bit with our boys as we have faced minor adversities and somewhat challenging hikes. There's no question that the boys have been benefiting in many ways from our great adventure, and now they can speak at length about what they learned about each National Park that we've visited, thanks to the junior ranger programs and all of the helpful rangers and signage.

Today we hiked the lovely and quite popular Avalanche Lake trail, and were rewarded with stunning views of mountain waterfalls and glaciers. The hike started off with temperatures in the 40s and heavy clouds and fog. By the time we reached the lake, the sun was breaking through the low-hanging clouds and the views were amazing. I couldn't help but think about the 19-year old hiker and Lake McDonald seasonal worker who has been missing for over a week now. Over 50 people have been searching for him on foot, with helicopters, and with high-tech infrared equipment to no avail. I can't imagine what his family is going through, and hope that a miracle occurs, though at this point it doesn't look good at all. We see his face on posters everywhere. He was travelling from Logan Pass, bushwhacking down to Avalanche lake by himself.

As we come to the end of our Glacier visit, it's finally time to do our giant load of laundry and plan for our next drive on Sunday, which will probably land us in Sheridan, Wyoming. I kind of like these quiet afternoons. Hopefully the clouds will clear and I'll have one last go at Going to the Sun road tonight, this time starting from Avalanche.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Glacier Paradise

Gail writes:
Glacier National Park is certainly a breathtaking place. The views of the mountains from our campsite across Lake McDonald are lovely, and the water is bracingly cold. Yesterday we took the shuttle up to Logan Pass. The Park Service is really encouraging use of the shuttle, since Going To The Sun Road is undergoing construction and they’re trying to minimize traffic. The shuttle driver was knowledgeable and provided good commentary on the way up. I’m sure the road is stunningly beautiful (Armin & the boys told me so), but I spent most of the ride studiously examining the seat in front of me and the rocks on the mountainside. I sneaked a few peeks at the sheer drops on the roadside and had to shut my eyes.

I was glad when we reached the top and had our feet on solid ground. We did a 3-mile hike that was one of our most challenging because of the snowy conditions. The boys absolutely LOVED the fact that it was the end of July and they could throw snowballs at each other. We slipped and slid on the snowfields and were rewarded by a close-up look at a mother and baby pair of mountain goats. They were not more than 5 feet away from us, calmly munching on grass. The father goat tried to join them, but the mother gave him a stern warning to keep his distance. We hiked past them to the Hidden Lake overlook, where we enjoyed the spectacular views. On the way back, we saw the goats again. This time they were lying on the snowpack, licking at the snow. A crowd had gathered to watch and take pictures, and everyone was very amused.

The shuttle trip down was a bit slow, and we finally got back to our campsite at around 5. We made a tasty dinner and then headed out to the amphitheater for the evening program. Usually it’s a ranger talk, but this time we were in for something different. It was a one-woman play by an actress from Boston who portrayed early settler Josephine Doody, a working girl who certainly had some wild times in the late 1800s-early 1900s. She spent some time addicted to opium before she got straight and became a bootlegger. The play was very entertaining, and I learned a lot about the struggles of life on the frontier.

Armin set out after the program for his midnight bike ride. I was glad when he came home safe and sound at 2:30 this morning!

We had a leisurely morning before we set out to find a hike that a ranger had recommended. It started at a little-visited area of the park, near the town of Polebridge. The ranger had told us that there’s a good bakery in Polebridge, so I was excited. The town is miniscule—barely more than a wide place in the road. But it boasts the Polebridge Mercantile, a store/bakery that’s been on site for nearly 100 years. We enjoyed huckleberry bearclaws, brownies, and cinnamon rolls, all of which were made from scratch and very tasty. Next door to the store was a saloon/restaurant. The menu even featured a quinoa salad and vegan burrito! There was a poster for an upcoming show at the outdoor stage, and another poster at the store invited folks to meet on the porch for an ongoing discussion of Plato’s works. What a trip! I wanted to hang out there all day, eating pastry, people-watching, and maybe enjoying some quinoa salad.

We tore ourselves away and headed out to find our hike. We couldn’t find the one we wanted, but then found another trailhead and had a short (2.4 mile) meadow hike that was just full of butterflies.

We’ve made reservations for a whitewater raft ride tomorrow. I’m really stretching the edges of my comfort zone for this activity, but everyone else is up for it. I’m sure the guides will make sure that everyone is safe and sound—you’ll get the full report tomorrow.

As our time in Glacier dwindles, we’re starting to make plans for the drive home. We’d budgeted 10 days to get back to Ithaca, but I think we’re going to push it and get home sooner. The boys are itching to see Poe and their friends, so they’re willing to have some long driving days. We’ll leave here on Sunday and aim to be home on Friday. We’ll be road-weary but glad to see our yellow and red house.

Going to the Sun Road midnight moonlit hillclimb

The weather has been perfect here at Glacier, and even though July 31 wasn’t the full moon, I decided that it was close enough to do my first moonlit Going to the Sun hill climb since the last time 21 years ago, just before I met Gail. I was incredibly nervous and filled with self-doubt in the hours leading up to last night’s ride. The climb itself isn’t dangerous, but it takes on a completely different dimension at night. There’s wildlife, illumination, and the road construction to take into consideration, as well as dipping temperatures and sheer drop-offs.

I arrived at Lake McDonald Lodge at 10 pm. The lodge is 21 miles and 3,430 vertical feet away from the Logan Pass summit and my turnaround point. I nervously took inventory of my gear and waited for other cyclists to show up. Surely there would be others on such a perfect night.

In addition to the leg warmers that I wore for the whole ride, I packed arm warmers and lightweight winter cycling gloves, as well as an additional long-sleeved layer. For illumination I had my trusty Cat Eye Opticube headlamp and a blinky taillight. I took two spare tubes and a Clif bar, and wore my clear bike glasses and favorite wool socks.

At 10:55 I still didn’t see any cyclists approaching, but was hopeful that maybe there were others who started further up by Avalanche, so I hit the road. The moon was bright and was finally above the tall pines, so I thought there would be plenty of moonlight to guide me for the first 11 flat miles, but I was very much mistaken. This section of road is densely forested so the moonlight was largely obscured. A number of cars were passing me west-bound, and at least two of them didn’t switch off their high beams, which was more than a little scary, since I had a hard time seeing where the shoulder was. My biggest concern at this stretch was an unwelcome chance encounter on some bears, but fortunately I saw no wildlife until later.

After Avalanche was startled by what I thought to be a bright headlight from a car. I turned around and instead saw an awe-inspiring moon illuminating the road brilliantly, and my spirits soared. From that point forward I had ample moonlight, and in fact I set my light to its low setting so that moonlight would be my primary source of light for the rest of the trip.

Shortly after Avalanche the climb really started, and the average grade for the 11 miles to the summit was 5.3%, a very manageable climb. Just past the only tunnel, I passed a couple on mountain bikes, which buoyed my spirits. They started at Avalanche, so I figured that there might be others.

As I passed The Loop, the only switchback on the west side of the pass, I noticed a bunch of people in the parking lot as well as some other cyclists, so I was hopeful that I would encounter others. My next encounter was with wildlife—a mountain goat was nibbling grass on the edge of the cliff, but skittered down the mountain as soon has it heard me.

Next up was the road construction, and the road surface went from smooth pavement to hard-packed dirt. The dirt sections were completely manageable for the ascent, though they proved a bit trickier on the descent. There were sections where the road narrowed to one lane and I encountered a few ridiculous traffic lights on long timers. Dear reader, you might guess what I did.

With about 2,000’ to go, I encountered a lively group riding at a leisurely pace. It was a party on wheels, with about ten cyclists having a blast, listening to music and joking around. I think I scared some of them as I passed, though I tried to made sufficient noise. It felt good to occupy the whole road for a minute, but I wanted to continue at my pace to the summit.

The rest of the climb was serene and uneventful, as the sky got ever brighter in the other-worldly moonlit mountain range. The summit was a bit anti-climatic, and after a quick minute break to eat my Clif bar, I headed back down, this time with arm warmers on, since it was getting much cooler. When I reached the big group, I turned around to join them for a short bit. They were from Kalispell, and even though they had to work in the morning, they were really enjoying their adventure. This group started at The Loop, so their climb was a bit shorter. They had some good advice about how to find others for a possible second time up the mountain and were exceedingly friendly and filled with good cheer.

The descent was very slow—my mantra was that it’s better that it’s a slow descent than my last descent. Managing the road construction was much tougher on the descent, and I was riding the brakes quite a bit, which left my shoulder and neck muscles really tense. I was actually relieved when the road finally leveled out, and just powered my way back to the safety of the car.

On the way back to the campground, I stopped by Apgar Village briefly to upload my ride to Strava. I was pleasantly surprised that I snagged the KOM for the HC climb, and with that happy thought I hopped into the tent at around 2:30 am in hopes of getting a little sleep before the morning arrived. I hope to do the climb one more time, maybe on Thursday starting from Avalanche.