15 September 2014

Road Trip: The Natural Sights

The thing about a road trip through Utah and Wyoming is that every time you come around another bend, you gasp. It’s one incredible view after another. And even when it’s not slick-rock canyons or red-hued hoodoos or acres of siliceous sinter, it’s miles and miles and miles of sagebrush with a mountain in the distance. It’s a landscape like nothing in the Northeast.

We went to four National Parks (Bryce, Zion, Grand Teton and Yellowstone), and one National Historic Site (Golden Spike), and stayed in or traveled through at least six National Forests (Ashley, Bridger-Teton, Cache, Dixie, Targhee, Uinta-Wasatch). With each one I thought “This is why we pay taxes; I’m getting my tax dollars back in spades”. Great swaths of scenic land have been preserved so that you and I and a lot of elk can visit.

Bryce Canyon

Bryce Canyon

Bryce Canyon


Slick rock canyon, off Scenic By-Way 12

Moor (and cold child), off Scenic By-Way 12

Firehole Canyon, Flaming Gorge

Old Faithful

Excelsior Geyser

Thermal runoff into the Firehole River

Porcelain Basin

Gardner River

Gardner River (that green squiggle through the middle)

Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone

Dead trees

Jenny Lake

Part 1, The Hut, is here.
Part 2, The Campsites, is here.
Part 3, On Food And Cooking, is here.
Part 4, The Assignment, is here.
Part 5, The Animals, is here.

13 September 2014

Road Trip: The Animals

I should have had one of those hand-held counters for the cows. We saw a lot of cows. A cow walked through one of our campsites; there were cow patties in another. They walked across the road in front of us.

They grazed scenically all over the place.

But it wasn’t all cows, all the time. We saw bald eagles while white water rafting, and looked down on turkey vultures from the top of the Flaming Gorge dam.

We saw huge trout in the outflow of that dam, tiny baby Snake River cutthroats at the Jackson National Fish Hatchery, and little brookies on the Gardner River in Yellowstone (we were fishing for them, but we released all that we caught).

There were bison walking through a parking lot, big horn sheep causing a traffic jam on the way to Zion National Park, herons, bunnies, chipmunks, squirrels, wild horses, moose, a coyote (well, the kid was the only one who saw the coyote – it was pointed out by the fishing guide), one beaver, antelope, and Western jays.

Most of the bison were not in parking lots:

At that campsite that had an aviary, there were turkeys and peacocks begging for scraps of our breakfast baguette, after the rooster had woken us all up in the morning.

There was also an exceptional dog.

No dogs allowed
in building
No exceptions!

And I got to ride a mule named Tony, Tony the Ledgewalker.

I got a mule and his name is Tony,
he likes to walk on the edge of the trail.

And though we didn't see any wolves, we went to a ranger talk on the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone, bought two books about wolves, and came home with a burning desire to visit the Wolf Conservation Center that's not too far from our home.

Part 1, The Hut, is here.
Part 2, The Campsites, is here.
Part 3, On Food And Cooking, is here.
Part 4, The Assignment, is here.

10 September 2014

Road Trip: The Assignment

In order to make sure that the girl had at least a little bit of a focus, I assigned her a project. In return for being allowed to take a Monster High doll along as a companion, she was to do a photo essay: the doll's road trip out West. There were shots at the airport, and on the plane. Shots from inside the RV, and outside. The doll ate hotdogs (meticulously cut down to size), she ate s'mores (ditto). She was posed above Bryce Canyon, she swam in Jackson Lake, and she even chased wolves.

Part 1, The Hut, is here.
Part 2, The Campsites, is here.
Part 3, On Food And Cooking, is here.

09 September 2014

Road Trip: On Food And Cooking

Fourteen nights on the road in a small RV means finding a balance between meals out, and meals prepared out of the little kitchen. I’d guess that we ended up eating one meal out every day, usually lunch. Breakfast was easy – cereal, or pancakes, or bread & butter & jam, or eggs – all things that were easy enough to make using the one functioning burner in the tiny kitchen. [The other burner was missing one of the four legs that hold up a pot, so it was pretty much out of commission.]

Dinner was easy too: we’d make a wood fire out in the fire pit, and use it to grill steak or chicken or hot dogs, and sauté some onions & peppers on a cast iron skillet, and tuck some potatoes in a foil packet alongside the coals. That, and a salad, that’s a meal.

And because you’ve got that wood fire going, you make s’mores. I’ve decided, though, that s’mores are completely overrated: the bland insipid Hershey’s chocolate doesn’t get melty enough, and the graham crackers are way too boring. I had my sentiment corroborated when we invited a Dutch family in a nearby campsite to share our dessert. The children loved them, the parents, not so much. They were polite, but it got me thinking that it’s time to reinvent the s’more. The answer? Stash the good chocolate for that kind of emergency, and use Anna’s ginger thins for the cookie. Perfection.

Figuring that there were going to be nights when we weren’t going to want to cook a steak over a wood fire, we laid in a jar of tomato sauce and some dried pasta and a small block of parmesan. The cheese was the girl’s idea, and not thinking it through, I went along with it. Of course, when it came time to get the cheese into a form that could be sprinkled over a bowl of pasta, I was stymied.

The small serrated knife produced a better result, but the vegetable peeler was a lot easier.

Groceries were a bit of a challenge. We stocked up on good stuff in Salt Lake City before we left, and at a fancy Whole Foods clone at the midpoint in Jackson, but in between, the pickings were slim. I actually rejected a package of hotdogs in one Yellowstone convenience store because they just looked too gross for words. We did buy various things that we never buy at home, like factory-farmed chickens and cereal in single serve boxes. I also experimented: that roots-intact, hydroponic lettuce that comes in a clamshell does fine banging around on the counter of an RV for a few days.

Meals out were a mixed bag. We avoided fast food restaurants completely, but staying away from the predictable sameness of McDonald’s in favor of one-off eateries found on Yelp or Roadfood meant some indifferent meals, some mediocre pie, and one meal that I would happily fly back across the country for. Located on Scenic By-Way 12, a 100 mile road from nowhere to nowhere, and called Hell’s Backbone Grill, my husband thought it was going to be a biker joint. But no – it’s an oasis of calm, with blue flower petals sprinkled on the homemade limeade, unpretentious fabulously prepared food with a Tex-Mex veneer, a resident Maine Coon, and their own organic farm. They were exceedingly nice to our morose carsick 10yo and let her eat naught but a perfect peach and a fresh toasted biscuit.

On our first day in Salt Lake, we ended up getting great sandwiches at a place called Toasters, which I confess that I picked mostly because someone on Yelp dissed it with “overrated, expensive hipster sandwiches”. And on our last day, we drove up to Park City, and ended up having pizza at Vinto, splendid little wood-fired pizzas followed by some of the best gelato I’ve had in a long time. The girl had the butterscotch pudding with salted caramel sauce, natch, and that might have been even better than the gelato.

Eating in the National Parks – we ate in the lodge at Bryce Canyon, and in several lodges in Yellowstone – was a happy surprise: decent food, not outrageously priced. Also, there was something divinely mind-bending about encountering a bison in a parking lot near the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, and finding bison burgers on the menu at the Canyon Lodge Dining Room an hour later.

Hands down, the worst meal of the trip was the one we had at Mom’s Cafe. I found Mom’s written up all over the place, not just Yelp and Roadfood, and it wasn’t far from our first campground, so we went there for dinner our first night on the road. No, no, no. It was dreadful. Moral of the story? Don’t eat at Mom’s.

And by far, the best thing kitchen implement I brought on the trip was my plastic wineglass. Cheers!

Part 1, The Hut, is here.
Part 2, The Campsites, is here.

08 September 2014

Road Trip: The Campsites

In our epic journey through Utah and Wyoming, we spent 14 nights on the road, at 8 different campsites. A couple of them were somewhat awful, like, never go back again awful. Most were fine, a couple were special. All but one was in either a National Park or a National Forest.

In order of appearance:

Butch Cassidy Campground - Salina, UT
The first night was the only night that we stayed in a commercial campsite, one that wasn’t in a National Park or National Forest. It was hard by the road, so it was noisy, but it was rather endearing in other ways. The manager was an elderly Japanese woman, who bowed at me when I finished registering. She had an aviary on the premises, with some birds caged in a tidy meshed structure, and peacocks, turkeys and chickens wandering free. There were also a number of cats, a tame bunny rabbit, and free hot showers! Breakfast at a picnic table with turkeys and peacocks? A fight for the crumbs and an attack on my husband’s shiny wedding ring.

Full RV hookup (water, sewer, electricity)
Flush toilets, hot showers
No fire ring

Pine Lake Campground (Dixie National Forest) - Escalante, UT (three nights)
Our home base for excursions to Bryce and Zion was a lovely, small campground down a seven mile long washboard gravel road. On the first morning, a cow walked through the campsite.

No hookup, but running water with a hose connection was available
Pit toilets (in immaculate condition)
Fire ring, with cooking grate (firewood available for sale)

Avintaquin Campground, (Ashley National Forest) – near Price, UT
We’d made reservations for every night but the one we ended up at Avintaquin, but we’d identified two campsites that were in roughly the right spot, distance-wise, based on where we’d been the night before and where we were going. An error in navigation led us to this campsite instead of the other, and it might well have been our favorite one of all. It’s in the trees, on top of a mountain, and vehicles bigger than our 19’ camper probably wouldn’t make it up the hill. It’s also remote enough that it wasn’t full, so it rather felt like we had it to ourselves. There were cows on the other side of the fence from our site, but they didn’t cross the cattle grate to come visit. Views of the sunset and the sunrise were lovely.

No hookup, no water
Pit toilets
Fire ring, no grate (no firewood available)

Firehole Canyon Campground (Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area/Ashley National Forest) – near Rock Springs, WY
The Flaming Gorge is a huge reservoir that was created by the damming of the Green River. The hydro-power dam is in Utah, but the reservoir extends north into Wyoming, and this campground was up towards the north end. We were skeptical as we arrived: it was hot, and there was no tree cover and, except for the body of water, it seemed like a desert. We found our way to our campsite, and were pleasantly surprised to find that each site had an oddly handsome two sided adobe-like shelter, with a slat roof. It blocked the hot sun and the fierce wind, making the site really lovely.

No hookup, but running water with a hose connection was available
Flush toilets, hot showers
Fire ring, with cooking grate (firewood available for sale)

Colter Bay Village Campground (Grand Tetons National Park) – WY (two nights)
Honestly? This was hands-down the worst campsite. It was RVs only – the tent people were elsewhere – and we were surrounded by enormo-giganto RVs, the kind that are 50 feet long and have multiple pushout sections. The people next to us had a satellite dish, and had stuck a metal welcome sign with their names on it in the ground. Another RV was pulled by a full size tractor-trailer truck cab, with a small Jeep rigged up on the back on a diagonal alongside the obligatory dirt bike. Fires weren’t allowed (though they are in other parts of Colter Bay), so we had to buy a small charcoal grill in order to make dinner. Also, while showers were available, it cost $4.25 to take one – usury! I stayed in the hot water for at least an hour or so, just because. On the plus side, there was a nice tidy Laundromat (two washes, two soaps, one dryer = $7) and Jackson Lake was a short walk away, and not too cold to swim in, if you’re 10.

Full RV hookup (water, sewer, electricity)
Flush toilets
Hot showers available for $4.25
No fire ring

Madison Village Campground (Yellowstone National Park) – WY (four nights)
Madison was lovely in many ways. It’s well laid out, there was a mixture of smallish RVs and tent campers, and there was a dishwashing sink available (washing dishes in the RV got a little old). Every night, the park rangers do talks at the nearby amphitheater. The Madison river was a short walk away – and had hot spots in it (not wi-fi, but pockets of hot water) – and some elk ambled through on the last morning.

No hookup at site, but running water with a hose connection and a waste dump station was available near the entrance
Flush toilets, cold water sinks for dishwashing
Fire ring, with cooking grate (firewood available for sale)

Sunrise Campground (Uinta-Wasatch National Forest) – near Garden City, UT
Another lovely campsite – up the mountain from Bear Lake, which is an astonishingly blue natural lake, nearly 20 miles long, that straddles the border of Utah and Idaho. We were in the woods – aspens and pines all around – and could see a sliver of the lake. The campsite was quiet and well-kept, and true to its name, sunrise was beautiful.

No hookup, no water
Pit toilets
Fire ring, with cooking grate (firewood available for sale)

Anderson Cove Campground (Uinta-Wasatch National Forest) – near Ogden, UT
In some ways, this campground was nice – flat, and pretty, and right on a reservoir that was good for swimming. However, there were way too many motorboats and jet-skis in the reservoir (noisy), and the pit toilet was in terrible condition (smelly). Second worst campsite, after Colter Bay.

No hookup at site, but running water with a hose connection and a waste dump station was available near the entrance
Pit toilets – DISGUSTING
Fire ring, no cooking grate (firewood available for sale)

Part 1, The Hut, is here.

07 September 2014

Road Trip: The Hut

In a fever dream, we got this idea that we should rent an RV and drive around in the West, sometime before the kid got too big. I’d never spent any time in Utah, or been to Yellowstone, or seen canyons – and none of us had ever been in an RV. So we rented the smallest (19’ Class-C) RV from Cruise America, and quickly dubbed it “the hut”. Occasionally, we called it “the home”, or “the vehicle”, but mostly, it was “the hut”. The hut on wheels.

The hut didn’t really like to go too fast, and the hut didn’t really respond to steering terribly well. Let’s put it this way, it’s not a sports car. And given that many of the roads we were on were twisty switchbacks one after another, it’s too bad it wasn’t a sports car. After awhile, my husband got with the program: “I’m really grooving on driving this at 45mph.” Of course, when we ended up on the Idaho highway with a speed limit of 80mph, he was wishing for that sports car.

But! It had running water and a bed over the cab and the kitchen table turned into another bed. And it had a refrigerator and a microwave and a stove, though we never used the microwave for anything but storage because we are not microwave people and it would have meant turning on the generator to run the microwave.

It was a little long in the tooth and the medicine chest in the bathroom didn’t stay shut and one drawer in the kitchen had a tendency to fly open every time we stopped short. And the people who’d rented it before us had somehow broken off the storage tube for the poop chute, and because we had limited storage we made the executive decision not to use the toilet AT ALL so that we never had to empty the black water tank. Grey water = not as disgusting. Besides, not using the toilet meant that we could just use the bathroom as a storage closet, for things like dirty laundry and camp chairs.

In 15 days (and 14 nights) on the road, we logged 2280 miles, with almost no highway driving. The hut got lousy gas mileage – 12.32mpg – but at least it didn’t need fancy high octane gas. It also didn’t shake to pieces on the several rutted gravel roads we traversed, holding up like a sturdy beast of burden.

Would I do it again? Probably not. Despite a real charm and more than adequate comfort, it’s too inconvenient. Pulling into a campsite and then having to run an errand means taking your house with you to buy firewood. Staying in a campsite for four nights and doing sightseeing on the interstitial three days means taking your house with you to get to the next geyser basin. And it’s not cheap – when you add up the rental, the per-mile charge, the many gallons of gas and the camp site fees, we could have been driving a convertible and staying in nice hotels most nights, with hot showers and working toilets. Still, it was totally worth doing once – especially because not many hotels have elk walking through the lobby in the morning..

02 September 2014

Mrs. Gordon

I can’t remember anything about Kindergarten, or first grade, or second grade. The first elementary school teacher I remember was my third grade teacher, Mr. Loh. It’s a vague, watery memory, though I do know that his classroom was on the second floor on the southeast corner of the building and that the lockers were along the right hand wall. They were brown, a memory corroborated because I still have the class photo. Actually, I have all seven elementary school class photos, from Kindergarten through sixth grade. I even still know some of the people in the pictures.

Fourth grade was the year I was growing out my bangs and had them clipped back to the top of my head for months. We were supposed to learn phonics that year, and had a phonics workbook that we were supposed to complete. I did not put one single pencil mark in that workbook, ever, during that entire school year. But I was never found out because we never had to show our work, and in June, we had a “rip up all the paper and worksheets and anything that wasn’t a textbook” party and I ripped that workbook up and good. Mrs. Husch never knew, not that I thought she’d have cared, because I was a good student.

My fifth grade teacher was a nasty old bat, Mrs. Gagliotti, emphasis on the GAG.

And in sixth grade, they were trying some experimental stuff with bridge classes, so I was actually in a five-six bridge class with two teachers and twice as many kids. One of the teachers was the gag-inducing Mrs. Gagliotti, but the other was the completely divine Mrs. Gordon.

Mrs. Gordon. She was the kind of teacher who cheered when my mother took me out of school to go to dress rehearsals at the New York City Ballet. She encouraged reading and independence, and her first name was Selma, and she inspired five of us who were in her class to continue to see her after school periodically for years. We’d rendezvous at a little coffee shop near the movie theater and one of the five of us dubbed us the S.E.L.M.A.S.– Sentimental Education Lovers Meeting After School. Eventually, the S.E.L.M.A.S. stopped meeting but all of us* stayed in touch with her – through high school, through college, and on into our lives. Mrs. Gordon sent me a wedding present, and a gift when my baby was born. She lived in Queens, and we’d have lunch in the city; one day she told me all about a documentary that she’d been working on. Mrs. Gordon was a bit of an enigma: I know she had no children; I don't know if she had a husband. She died four years ago - long-retired, well-loved, still remembered.

Today, my daughter started sixth grade. The other night at dinner, I told her that of all of my elementary school teachers, my sixth grade teacher, Mrs. Gordon, was the one I remembered. I told her that Mrs. Gordon had sent her a little pink suit when she was born, and that I hope for her that one of her teachers this year is as memorable and wonderful and committed a teacher as Mrs. Gordon had been for me, and for so many others.

First day of sixth grade.
Ready to meet her Mrs. Gordon

*Well, me plus three that I know of for sure – the fifth S.E.L.M.A. died a few years ago so I can’t know anymore. And yes, I’m friends with those other three people on Facebook, because that’s how things go these days.