Iceland 2022 – Day 2

May 29: Reykjavik

I managed to stay up till about 10 PM working on yesterday’s blog and then fell deeply, deeply asleep. The next time I woke, I thought I’d been out for a good four or five hours, but discovered it was only just past midnight! After another four or five hours, I woke again at 2:30 AM.

Technically, sunset is at 11:20 PM and sunrise is at 3:30 AM, but we’re so far north it never gets darker than twilight!

It took me a little while to get back to sleep in the wee hours of the morning, but once I did I slept soundly till about 8:30 AM and woke feeling refreshed and pretty much on schedule. Trish snoozed for another 90 minutes while I cleaned up yesterday’s blog and showered.

We headed out to grab a coffee but no breakfast because our activity today was a food tour of Reykjavik. We stopped at a Te & Kaffi near the meeting point for our tour. I actually think they are a local coffee roaster and supply the coffee at Sky Lagoon. The cups we got at Sky Lagoon had the same logo as the Te & Kaffi sign.

We absolutely lucked out with the weather today! 55 degrees F and not a cloud in the sky. We met our tour guide, Stephen, at the entrance of Harpa concert hall and embarked on our five-stop tour. It was funny to hear him describe this weather as “hot.”

Our first stop was Fjallkonan, which is in an old building formerly owned by the King of Denmark. He used it to train falcons for hunting. The name actually translates to “The Mountain Woman,” in honor of the first restaurant opened by a woman in Iceland. An Icelandic woman is also awarded the title once a year for impressive contributions to Icelandic society.

Here, we had a duo of elegant dishes, probably the fanciest fare on the tour. We had

  • Lightly cured arctic charr served on a chickpea flatbread with horseradish sauce, roe, crispy lentils, and yuzu elderflower dressing
  • Slow-cooked lamb served over Icelandic flatbread from the Westfjords with carrot purée, pickled red onions, and horseradish sauce.

A fun tidbit our guide shared is that Iceland is strangely good at growing wasabi. Their cheap geothermal energy allows them to sustain large greenhouses for tomatoes, potatoes, and, last year, 12 whole bananas.

En route to our next stop, we passed by the tiny parliament house and a statue of Jón Sigurðsson, who is hailed as the man who got Iceland their independence from Denmark in 1944. Today, for reasons unknown, the base of the statue was decorated to celebrate 420.

Our next food stop was Messinn, famous for having the best fish in Reykjavik.

That’s our guide, Stephen, telling us that his tip for getting the best meal of your life in Reykjavik is to avoid any restaurant actively trying to draw you in and instead look for the understated places.
The inside is supposed to resemble the mess hall of a ship (“messinn” translates to “the mess”)

Messinn did not disappoint on the culinary front! Here, we also tried a duo of dishes served family-style and brought to the table in hot skillets. We had:

  • Pan-fried arctic char sauteed with butter, lemon, honey, and cherry tomatoes and served with toasted almonds and potatoes
  • Icelandic “Plokkfiskur,” for which there is no word in English. It’s basically fish mashed together with potatoes, onion, garlic, and celery. Everyone’s grandmother claims to make the best Plokkfiskur in Iceland, but Stephen confessed he prefers this version, which is sauteed in white wine and served with hollandaise.
  • Sweet Icelandic rye bread with butter/skyr

The Plokkfiskur seemed like the Icelandic equivalent of Shepherd’s pie to me; comforting and hearty. I liked it a lot!

I’d actually considered making a reservation here, but given how fish-forward the menu is and Trish’s feelings on cooked fish, I decided to pass. I’m glad we got to try a couple of things off their menu without committing to a full meal because Trish thought the place smelled strongly of fish. I didn’t notice until she pointed it out, but I guess constantly bringing hot skillets of sizzling fish into the dining room will do that. (She actually did like the arctic char here and the sweetness the honey gave the dish.)

After this stop, Stephen told us that across the street was Reykjavik high school, which he graduated from three years ago during the pandemic. Just last night they held the first graduation ceremony in all that time so he joked that he finally “officially” graduated!

After a couple of fancy stops, it was time to go low brow: Icelandic hot dogs! We went to the most famous hot dog stand in the city. Apparently, the list of celebrities who’ve been here is too long to recount. But, no matter who you are, you wait in line like everybody else.

One celebrity’s visit to the stand has had a lasting effect on Icelandic culture. Former president Bill Clinton ordered his hot dog with only mustard and that preparation is now known as “The Clinton.”

Most Icelanders get a hot dog (“80% lamb, 20% we don’t talk about” to quote Stephen) with everything: pylsusinnep (sweet brown mustard) and remoulade on top of the hot dog and raw and fried onions underneath it.

The crispy onions were a game changer! So good!

Thankfully, there was only one more savory stop on the tour because, despite doing our best to pace ourselves, we were getting pretty full. The fourth stop was “The Icelandic Bar.” Despite the touristy-sounding name, the place is actually overrun with locals because they serve the cheapest beer in the city!

Here, the main savory dish was traditional Icelandic lamb stew, which was wonderful. (Mom, it was just like Williamsburg soup!)

However, at this stop, they brought out the dreaded fermented shark. Do real Icelanders eat it? Maybe like once every year or two. But they sure love making foreigners try the disgusting stuff!

A word about eating shark: it’s poisonous.

Yes, you read that right. Shark is poisonous. Sharks don’t have kidneys to filter out toxins. Instead, they just pee through their skin. So when you catch them, they’re full of toxins.

How has the nation of Iceland avoided death?

Through what I can only imagine was extremely unpleasant trial and error, they’ve developed a method of removing the toxins by putting big, heavy weights on the shark meat to squeeze out the pee, burying it underground to ferment for a while, and possibly other steps I tuned out because my brain was still stuck on “squeeze out the pee.”

I will say, it does smell worse than it tastes. But the ammonia after taste is… well, I tried it once and that was enough for one lifetime.

Having survived the last stop, we embarked on the longest walk of the tour to get to our dessert destination. On our way, we passed through the gayborhood!

Always selfie with the rainbow

For dessert, we went to Cafe Loki, which is right across the street from the famous church the Lutherans built just so theirs would be bigger (fine, taller – but look at how it’s shaped!) than the Catholics’ church.

Here we had traditional Icelandic donut twists and Café Loki’s famous rye bread ice cream. Trish and I were both big fans of the ice cream. The donut was substantial and Stephen recommended dipping it in our coffee.

We stopped at Iceland’s only flea market, Kolaportið, which only operates on the weekends. I wanted to look at traditional Icelandic wool sweaters. Wool is just so scratchy! I decided to stick with my Northface. However, I did buy earrings and a necklace made of old Icelandic coins that are worth much more as jewelry than as currency.

We stopped at a couple of small corner stores to pick up some groceries to pack for tomorrow’s adventure and passed by this lovely and soft Icelandic ambassador on our way back to our AirBnB.

Very soft. 10 out of 10 would pet again.

Tomorrow is going to be a big day so we decided to spend the late afternoon flopping and doing a load of laundry so we’ll be ready to embark on the road trip portion of our trip the day after tomorrow.

We *thought* about going out for dinner but were just so full from our food tour…

Instead, we had a quiet night in reading. I’m listening to Jar City, which is written by Arnaldur Indriðason, probably the Icelandic author most famous outside of Iceland. (Fun fact: 1 in 5 Icelanders will become published authors!)

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Iceland 2022 – Day 1

May 27-28: Chicago – Reykjavik

After three years of planning stalled by one pandemic, Trish and I finally headed out on our long-delayed honeymoon to Iceland. We [I’ve] planned a 16-day itinerary around the Ring Road that will hopefully show us all the incredible scenery, wildlife, and culture Iceland has to offer.

Trish is very impressed with the interconnected Google Sheet and Google Doc I’ve been using to keep track of everything. I also made a map.

Interactive version here.

Fun fact: Iceland is about the size of Kentucky but is way more interesting! (Apologies to any Kentuckians.) This route will take us through geothermal hot spots, glaciers, islands, national parks, barren wastelands, and cultural centers.

Day 1 started with our flight to Reykjavik, which actually departed Chicago at 11 PM.

The flight was only about 5 and a half hours, however, flying overnight is not my favorite way to travel. Arriving at 10 AM local time gives you a full day… but you’ve basically pulled an all-nighter.

Unfortunately, we were in front of an exit row and our seats did not recline. My back has learned that I am definitely too old to contort myself into unnatural positions in a coach seat. Trish was smarter and just watched a movie!

I “woke” up just in time to catch our first glimpse of Iceland.

Given how mountainous some of the country is, I was struck by just how flat this part of the Reykjanes peninsula is.

We grabbed our luggage and passed through an extensive emigration interview:

“First question: How long are you staying in Iceland?”

“Two weeks!”

“Have a great trip!” [Stamps Passport]

We had a little trouble figuring out where to meet the shuttle to get our rental car but finally figured it out. The very nice man helping us with our reservation gave us a free upgrade on our rental car (possibly, he felt bad he said, “Oh, you’re sisters,” when he looked at our driver’s licenses). At any rate, we now have a brand new (literally, it only has 55km on it) hybrid Peugeot something-something that he was drooling over.

Trish was brave and volunteered to drive us from the airport to our pre-check-in activity: lounging at Sky Lagoon. I think she just wanted me to deal with the directions.

We decided to go to Sky Lagoon instead of the more traditional and touristy Blue Lagoon on the recommendation of our AirBnB host. It’s closer to the city and less well known, so also less crowded. It does not have the mineral-rich blue waters (but we’ll get to experience those at a later stop). Instead, it brags about a seven-step “Ritual” process for relaxation.

However, our first stop was at the cafe for lunch (or maybe breakfast). After my first sip of coffee, I remembered just how much better the Europeans are at coffee.

Fortified, we were ready for the lagoon.

Europeans are so much less hung up on nudity than Americans! We knew showering in the nude was required before getting into the lagoon, but it was nice to be around a bunch of people who didn’t bat an eye. We were a little confused about what order to do things, so if anyone is planning a trip to Sky Lagoon in the future:

  1. Go to the changing room
  2. Strip
  3. Put your stuff in a locker
  4. Take your bathing suit and anything you want to have in the lagoon (like sunglasses or a waterproof camera) with you to the showers
  5. Shower
  6. Put your bathing suit on
  7. Get in the lagoon
  8. Enjoy!

The warm water felt lovely on our aching bodies. And you can’t say the scenery isn’t gorgeous!

Where the sea meets the sky indeed!

As usual, Trish enjoyed the waterfall.

I mean, I did too.

The Lagoon was lovely. I was less into the Ritual. These were the steps:

  1. Warm Lagoon
  2. Cold Plunge – aka freeze your butt off
  3. Sauna – aka melt your face off
  4. Cool Mist Room – just why? It’s like getting caught in a cold rain shower
  5. Body Scrub – rub sea salt and oil all over your body – OK I guess
  6. Steam Room – enter a room that makes Florida look like the Mojave – it’s so hot the oil melts off you
  7. Shower

Trish actually enjoyed the cold plunge and steam room. She stayed in the steam longer than I did and said the body scrub started to pop and fiz as it melted off.

I’m glad we tried the Ritual but I think I can skip saunas and steam rooms from now on…

The Lagoon was more my speed and I would definitely be into trying other geothermal springs.

After we’d soaked to our heart’s content, we traveled the last 15 minutes into Reykjavik to our lovely little AirBnB. We had some confusion over the road signage. “No Parking” looks an awful lot like like it might mean “Do Not Enter – One Way”!

Eventually, we found our accommodations and promptly fell into bed for a nap. Or I should say “beds.” Most rooms here come with two twins that you can push together if you want to, but we were too tired.

After our nap, we roused ourselves to go out for a nice dinner at Food Cellar, a popular date-night location just blocks from our apartment. They feature traditional Icelandic dishes, cocktails, and live piano music.

The place was very cool and everything we tried was extremely tasty!

To me, the particular standouts were the Slow-Cooked Cod, which melted in my mouth, and Trish’s Duck leg Confit, which married a mix of sweet and salty flavors.

Trish also enjoyed a very good Singapoor Sling cocktail. I failed to heed the “stay hydrated” signs at Sky Lagoon so I stuck with water.

The live piano music was lovely! It was just the right volume and the piano player was very talented. He specialized in songs that fit the description of “I know this song from the 40s/50s/60s because it was used in a movie in the 80s/90s/00s but I can’t quite place it.”

All in all, it was a great first day in Iceland! We’ll do our best to sleep through the midnight sun and get on schedule for our day in Reykjavik tomorrow.

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Great Western Road Trip – Day 10

Durango, CO – Ourey, CO – Aspen, CO

I got the short end of the driving stick today. Heading into Aspen (and looking out the window) I assumed all the driving today would be on twisty little mountain roads. I figured I might as well do my share in the morning while I was fresh and caffeinated. 

We stopped for coffee and croissants at a chocolate shop. The coffee was great and the chocolate croissant was a solid (in a light, flaky way) pastry.

After that, I got behind the wheel and we headed up into the Rockies. It. Was. So. Twisty. 

I’m talking driving along at no more than 35 mph, 20 mph around the curves, and 10 to 15 mph around the (numerous) hairpin turns.

We gained a lot of altitude. We hit a new high for the trip (10,800 feet). The scenery (what I saw of it beyond the yellow lines anyway) was stunning.

I drove up and down this!

It took a good couple of hours to get to Ourey, Colorado. Sadly, the Alchemy/Western Pharmacy museum I’d added to the itinerary wasn’t open. We decided to stop for another impromptu picnic lunch. Dad purchased a canned substance known as “potted meat” at one of the trading posts yesterday, a “food” (I use the term loosely) he remembers fondly from road trips of his youth.

It was… edible. However, the consistency felt like the unholy union of baby food and cat barf. 

Dad, however, loved it.

Potted meat aside, it was a nice stop for a picnic. The park had a large waterslide area and the delighted shrieks of children (and adults) wafted by on the breeze. 

Dad took over driving, even though I’d planned to get us to the winery stop on our itinerary. I don’t feel that bad about only doing 1/3 of the driving by mileage though because we discovered the Rockies have a flat plateau in the middle! Dad’s portion of the drive was almost entirely flat (albeit at 8,000 feet). 

The winery we stopped at made some lovely whites and had a lovely dog, Seamus, with an insatiable appetite for ear scratches. 

Again, we expected the drive into Aspen to be mountainous. It was to a certain extent, but nothing compared to this morning! After passing the Aspen airport, they’d poured money into a four-lane highway built on bridges. Demand and supply I guess.

Even in the summer, Aspen is popular for outdoor sports, like downhill mountain biking and rock climbing. Dad did manage to find a room at the Mountain Chalet. Cozily-worn out furniture filled the room. It even had a little kitchenette and dining nook.

Dad’s friend Ron recommended a casual 5-star restaurant for tonight, Element 47. They offered a five-course tasting menu with wine pairings. Dad and I each got a different wine pairing. His premium pairing won consistently but they did serve some interesting curveballs on my standard pairing.

Miles driven: ~250

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Great Western Road Trip – Day 9

Moab, UT – Arizona – New Mexico – Colorado – Mesa Verde – Durango, CO

While I napped yesterday, Dad did some more thorough route planning for the next few days. The oppressive heat has made him reconsider our original desert route. We’re still going to drive down to Four Corners for the novelty, but then we’re cutting back into the mountains and getting to Denver via Aspen and Boulder. 

The drive down to Four Corners was pretty boring after yesterday. Once you’ve seen one desert you’ve kind of seen them all.

However, we did find some fun stops along the way, including the aptly named Hole N’ The Rock…

A trading post with outdoor jail photo op…

And a truly excellent 1950s style diner, The Patio Diner, in Blanding, Utah.

We both got burgers and shakes. The shakes are three times too big but delicious and the burgers are everything you’re looking for in a diner hamburger.

All the states we’ve passed through have had excellent welcome signs, but, apparently, visitors are not welcome in Arizona. We crossed the Arizona border twice and neither had a fun sign. This was the best we could do.

The Navajo Nation (that actually owns that corner of Arizona anyway) did much better.

Believe it or not, this is a Welcome to New Mexico sign.

The Navajo Nation charges $5 per person to go into Four Corners, which is kind of steep for a photo op, but I think they’re entitled. 

After Four Corners, we headed north, back into Colorado for at least the third time on this trip. Dad remembers Mesa Verde from the road trips of his youth. He read me the Walker of Time series as a kid about the cliff dwellers who lived there so I was excited to see the ruins in person. 

I snaked us up to the top until we got to the parking area for the cliff dwellings. At first we thought they’d managed to restrict views to a paid tour ticket. However, with a little brazen attitude, I pushed forward and discovered there was a viewing platform accessible to everyone with a great view.

From there, you could go on a ticked tour down into the village. However, given all the emphatic “Bring Water” “Rough Terrain” “Hike not recommended for those with heart or lung conditions” signs confirmed we’d made a good choice to NOT DO THAT. 

Dad wound us back down the mesa so I could enjoy the views. For our accommodations tonight, he found a cool historic hotel in downtown Durango that will get us within about 250 miles of Aspen. 

The return to the mountains didn’t bring much relief from the heat though. Durango was still blisteringly hot. The hotel was charming but the elevator was out of commission. Fortunately, a wiry young man hauled our bags up to the second floor for us. The room is the smallest so far, with a queen and twin, but it’s fun. There are a lot of patterns on the wall. And there’s air-conditioning. 

There’s an old-fashioned narrow-gauge coal-powered train that drives by on scenic tours. It’s very loud. If it were actually for shipping I’d be worried, but I assume they don’t give midnight scenic tours. 

Durango is a really cute downtown. They’ve made a big effort to make the new buildings blend into the historic architecture. There are also a lot of excellent dogs.

We strolled a couple blocks to a gastropub, El Moro, with a really interesting menu.

We ended up just grazing on appetizers but they were delicious. The honey-sambal chicken drumstick had quite a kick! None of their desserts involved ice cream, so we decided to wander another couple of blocks for sundaes.

As soon as I saw the Unicorn Sundae on the menu at Cream Bean Berry, I knew I had to have it.

Dad actually had one too, but they turned out completely different due to our topping choices. (Also, the kid serving the ice cream told Dad he’d just run out of pink whipped cream and asked if white would be okay.)

Miles driven: ~275

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Great Western Road Trip – Day 8

Palisade, CO – Cisco, UT – Moab, UT

We got good news from the car repair place this morning! Although they would have to special order a $400 tire from Denver to exactly match the specialty tires on the car, they could supply a generic tire that would work by mid-morning for $150. Huzzah!

We checked out of our hotel and left our bags at the front desk while we went to a couple of tasting rooms within walking distance. We didn’t have anything mind-blowingly amazing but Colorado is definitely an up and coming wine region (thanks to Climate Change probably).

We summoned an Uber to take us back to the Grand Junction Firestone. Our driver turned out to be a font of information about the region. I think he must run a private tour company. When he found out we were headed for Moab he told us to get off the highway at “Danish Flat” (easy to remember since we’d just had one!) once we were in Utah and take the side road, Route 128, instead. He told us it was much more scenic.

We reunited with our car. Honestly, I can’t tell the difference between the $150 tire and the three other $400 tires.

Utah was the only state with two different styles of Welcome signs.

We hit the road again and our only mistake was not stopping for lunch in Grand Junction. We passed a point of no return about 20 miles out and suddenly there was nothing (literally nothing) till Moab. Thank goodness for granola, Bugles, and latte-flavored Oreos!

We found the Danish Flat exit and it took us past a ghost town called Cisco. A sign claimed it wasn’t abandoned and forbid trespassing and drones… but I find its assertion dubious…

The first part of Route 128 heading south wasn’t that much more scenic than the highway, but it may have been the only time (other than the ocean) I had been someplace where you couldn’t see any buildings, cars, or infrastructure in any direction. However, once we got to the Colorado River, which the road followed for the final three-quarters of the drive, it was stunning.

Steep red cliffs loomed on either side of the car. Rafters floated along next to us. Given the 107 degrees the car thermometer registered, we were jealous of the group who *accidentally* capsized their raft.

The scenery only improved when the road parted company from the river again. We drove through a field of impressive buttes that, honestly, were more impressive in some ways than Monument Valley (where we were seven years ago, almost to the day).

We’d planned to go to Canyonlands before settling into our room in Moab, but we felt like the scenery on the drive pretty well covered it minus all the other tourists. We opted to spend our afternoon at the two-bedroom condo with an in-unit washer and dryer we’d booked for the night. After the stress of yesterday, it was nice to relax and do a couple loads of wash. 

I took another nap and we went out to a lovely dinner at Desert Bistro a few blocks away. Dad and I had fun perusing their wine list, which was pretty deep. Dad asked the server if he should order the Boom Boom Syrah or a local Moab wine. Without hesitation, the server told him to go with the Boom Boom.

The appetizers and salads we ordered were fantastic and very refreshing. I didn’t think the entrees were quite of the same caliber but they were still very tasty. 

Miles driven: ~110

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Great Western Road Trip – Day 7

Jackson Hole, WY – Green River, WY – Flaming Gorge, UT – Douglass Pass, CO – Grand Junction, CO – Palisade, CO

The Parkway Inn breakfast spread was nice, though it was impossible to serve yourself anything without being in someone’s way. We wanted to hit the road ASAP anyway since we had a long way to go and no internet connection to speak of.

The interesting thing about today is that we weaved in and out of Utah on our way south. I didn’t realize how strict the liquor laws are in Utah until we reached the border and found a Saloon on the Colorado side with shot glasses that said, “Eat, Drink, and Be Merry, for tomorrow you may be in Utah.”

I brought a soft cooler and some picnic supplies with us. I actually wasn’t sure what the food situation would be like in Yellowstone, so I thought we might have to fend for ourselves more (little did I know the scarcity would be related to kitchen fires rather than remoteness). We finally put it to use today and picked up some deli meat, cheese, and a couple of spreads for a picnic.

We drove through Green River and realized though my grandfather was born in Colorado, he actually grew up in Utah. Dad matched up pictures from Grandpa Dean’s past to the scenery we passed on our way to Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area.

Dad found us a nice picnic ground. We were completely alone except for a New Zealand man who wandered through right as we sat down and then disappeared into the bush again.

As we kept driving through Utah, we were on the lookout for poorly-rendered and/or brightly colored dinosaurs. We found several photo-worthy specimens. 

The drive got greener once we crossed back into Colorado.

We made great time through a small range of mountains between us and were within an hour of our final destination when, all of a sudden, we heard a pop followed by a hisssssss. 

What’s a road trip without a little car trouble, right?

“I know how to use it. I’m just not excited about using it.”

We had a flat tire. A very flat tire. (Though, as Dad pointed out, it was only flat on the bottom…)

We’re still baffled how it happened. We’ve been on some bad roads on this trip but this one was actually pretty decent! 

We pulled off to the side and prepared to change it. We got out the jack, found the right spot, and finally even used one of the towels I packed to cushion our knees on the rocky pull out.

However, that’s when we realized the rental car company put special safety lug nuts on the car. They were twice the size of the wrench we had! Oops.

On the bright side, we had one bar of cellular service, which was just enough to call AAA. Unfortunately, it’s not like mountain passes have addresses you can share with your roadside assistance provider. And, once he was in the mountains and also didn’t have reliable cell service, it was like a game of telephone between us, dispatch, and him.

On the bright side, we had a good view.

Eventually, after about two hours, he found us at the top of Douglass Pass. He also didn’t have the wrench needed to remove the tire so he had to tow us 30 miles into Grand Junction. 

He was the kind of guy you’d never believe in a work of fiction. He was a crazy gun-toting conservative (word of advice folks, don’t lead with a story about the time you got into trouble in California with a Nevada concealed carry permit if your passenger is wearing rainbow sunglasses) but he’d also written part of an episode of Next Generation back in the 80s and canned his own jams and jellies to sell to benefit retired service members. Go figure!

He warned us they might need to drop ship a tire from Denver, so we might be stuck in Grand Junction for another night. We won’t know anything official till the Firestone opens tomorrow morning. We left our keys in the overnight drop box and a note pleading for assistance. 

We called an Uber to take us to our hotel in Palisade, the Wine Country Inn. Without car trouble, we would have arrived in plenty of time for dinner and a couple of tasting room visits. As it was, we rolled up a little before 10 PM and the lady at the front desk regretfully informed us every restaurant in Palisade was closed for the night, except for Papa John’s! They delivered till 1 AM.

Well, lemons into lemonade, right? I went to the hotel bar and told the woman to sell me a bottle of her finest Colorado red. She said, “I assume you have a price point in mind?” And I replied, “It’s been a long day.”

The wine wasn’t phenomenal but it did go excellently with pizza. However, never order a half-anchovy pizza. Their little fish carcasses stick to the pizza cutter and contaminate the rest of the pizza. They taste like Sealion Point smells at Seaworld.

Miles driven: ~450
(but 30 of them were on a tow truck and 15 were in an UberXL)

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Great Western Road Trip – Day 6

Yellowstone National Park – Jackson, WY

This morning, I was the early bird. I actually got up about 10 minutes before the alarm went off. I verified the previous night’s storm had blown away and we had gorgeous morning light for our photo ops. We threw our stuff together and headed for the car. I really wanted to get to an area where the bison often congregate in the morning (near the Mud Volcano). But we also wanted to see the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone near our hotel while the light was good.

We decided to go to the Canyon first and avoid backtracking. I’m glad we did because we had the whole place almost to ourselves!

The light was also beautiful on Lower Falls, which we saw from the North Rim Drive.

Having seen the real Grand Canyon, this seemed… small. Pretty. But small. We didn’t stay too long since there wasn’t any place easy to walk to and we had a date with some bison.

We got back in the car and headed south. Again, I had my eyes peeled for one or two bison (maybe a baby bison if we were lucky). Right as we entered the Hayden Valley and crossed Alum Creek we found THE ENTIRE HERD.

There were so many bison.

We could see the ones closest to the road very clearly but the rest disappeared into the morning mist, which lent the whole scene an ethereal quality.

The closest ones were right next to the road, and in fact, we kept having to shuffle back as they got closer and closer. Clearly, our presence did not disturb them in the slightest.

A couple of baby bison played with one another till they got shushed by someone’s mom. The bison also made a weird low, bellowing sound. I’m not sure if it meant “I’m hungry” or “I’m horny” or both.

A couple of males also got into a gentle tiff about 25 feet away. However, it didn’t seem like a very serious disagreement since neither of them stopped chewing during the “confrontation.”

We probably stood there for about half an hour admiring the bison. Mission very successfully accomplished.

We headed out before the morning heated up too much and made our last Yellowstone stop: Sulphur Caldron (stinky) and Mud Volcano. There’s a three-quarter of a mile path around the hydrothermal features there. It went up a bit but since it was still in the high 50s it wasn’t too bad. 

We had a guidebook so I was able to narrate our tour. We learned how quickly hydrothermal features can change. In the past 50 years, the formations and springs in this area had come and gone and changed temperature dramatically after several earthquakes.

Dad really enjoyed taking photos in front of the billowing steam. 

We also saw another bison up on the hill after encountering a fair amount of bison poop on the boardwalk (to be fair, there were lots of signs warning that the bison used the paths).

We didn’t have any more specific stops planned in Yellowstone as we headed toward the south entrance. We spotted several more bison and this very impressive elk butt.

The southern entrance road was definitely less scenic than the rest of the park, though of course by this point we’re pretty spoiled for stunning scenery. The temperature kept creeping up so we didn’t stop again on our way out of the park till we had a bathroom break right near the entrance. Even though this is only middling scenery as far as Yellowstone is concerned it’s still pretty beautiful.

From there, we had less than a hundred miles to get to Jackson Hole, Wyoming. In hindsight, we could have made it farther today since we didn’t need all day in the Park, but it was nice to have a restful afternoon. We booked the hotel a couple nights ago because we were afraid Saturday night might be tough. 

Mountains in Idaho great for skiing

We arrived in time for lunch. We tried to go to a good looking BBQ place since we haven’t really gotten our good BBQ fix on this trip, but they were serving a boring brunch menu. Instead, we went across the street and had serviceable if not stunning Mexican food at El Abuelito Family Mexican Restaurant. Dad ordered a jumbo margarita and boy did they deliver!

I ordered an extra straw.

We still had time to kill so we went to the art festival right next to our hotel. It was interesting to stroll through for about 20 minutes. Then we found some lovely grass in the shade to plan our next move. I think Dad would have been happy to stay there all afternoon though!

Eventually, we did get up and went to Cowboy Coffee Co. for some excellent iced coffee. Dad also needed a lens cap keeper so we found an actual camera store that sold them. I guess if any place can keep a camera store in business one that’s less than 100 miles from Yellowstone is as safe as it gets.

We checked into our room and, for the second time on this trip, thought we had a broken door. It turned out it was just very finicky. The room had two doors, one exterior and one interior. Odd, but, in this case, we figured at least there was another exit!

The early morning finally caught up with me and I took a nap to revive myself for dinner. Dad identified a couple of possible places in town. We ended up sitting at the bar at the most popular restaurant in town, Trio. We split two half bottles of good wine and had a lovely evening watching the chef in front of us cook chickens in an enormous wood-fired oven.

Tomorrow is another long driving day so we called it an early night. 

Miles driven: ~115

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Great Western Road Trip – Day 5

West Yellowstone, MO – Idaho – Yellowstone National Park

Breakfast was available till 9:30. I was pushing it a little, but it was still only about 9:20 according to the clock in the room when I got to the lobby. Someone was already cleaning up so I wrestled some eggs from his grasp and claimed the last slice of toast. It turned out the clock was 12 minutes slow…

We had decent wifi this morning so we dawdled a little bit at the hotel. I put two things on the agenda before returning to Yellowstone: visit the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center and cross the Idaho border.

The Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center lay directly across the road from our hotel so we started there. The website said if you got there early you could hear the wolves howl. Unfortunately, due to our later than anticipated start, it was closer to mid-day and already quite hot. All the wolves were napping out of view. However, our timing for the Grizzlies was perfect. 

They have a Junior Rangers program for kids up to 12 years old. Every few hours, they clear the bears out of the main habitat and invite a group of about 30 kids in to hide food in the enclosure. They throw apple slices in the water and bury carrots, dog food, and other treats under piles of rocks and logs. It’s a win-win for everyone. The kids get to feel involved, the bears get mental and physical stimulation, and the treats ensure the bears are visible to the guests.

We arrived right as the kids entered the habitat. We watched them hide the food and do their best Grizzly impersonation (most needed a lot of work).

They cleared out and about 10 minutes later two Grizzlies were invited into the enclosure. We saw two female bears, Spirit and the oh-so-imaginatively named 101. Both bears had been removed from the wild due to an over-reliance on human food.

They trundled out and started investigating the new smells. I’m not sure if they were more interested in the food smells or the kid smells though. It was neat to see them, but I’m just as glad we didn’t run into them in the wild.

After that, we took a 30-minute round-trip detour to the Idaho border. We missed the sign so we actually drove into Idaho and turned around. I think it counts.

After that, we got gas and headed back into Yellowstone.

Cleaning the windows is a theme on this trip due to all the bugs.

The main road basically makes a figure-eight through the middle of the park with entrances branching off at each cardinal direction. Last night, we covered the eastern entrance, the top of the bottom circle, and the western entrance. Today, we decided to start with the most touristy stop: Old Faithful.

It’s slightly less faithful than it used to be, but it still goes off about every hour and forty minutes, give or take fifteen. We arrived about half an hour after it had gone off. That gave us time to grab a bite at the hotel. Dad remembered it well, since it’s where he stayed with his family when he was 5 years old.

We moseyed out to the geyser a little early and it’s a good thing we did. As soon as we got to the viewing ring it went off! It’s an impressive geyser. Even in the extreme heat, a prodigious amount of steam billowed off the fountain.

So far, Old Faithful has lived up to expectations but the bison have vastly exceeded expectations. 

I grabbed some informational brochures and maps at the Visitor Center. There basically isn’t cell service in the park. I don’t mind being unplugged at all, but it does make navigating and answering questions a little challenging. 

We stopped at another large hydrothermal area close to Old Faithful. We got out and walked along the boardwalk. I thought it was someplace I had a guide to but it turned out to be Biscuit Basin. (I never did figure out where that other place was.)

I loved the color of the bacteria mats (delightful name, no?). The leather-like formations are much more delicate and well-formed than the pond scum I’m accustomed to in Florida. 

Biscuit Basin had its own little geyser that bubbled up periodically.

The most striking sight was Sapphire Pool. It’s deep, crystal clear, and an unnaturally bright shade of blue.

I tried sticking my foot in the river and expected ice water. However, the river was so wide and shallow that after a morning in full sun it really was just pleasantly cool.

After that, we made our way up the western side of the figure eight. The scenery to the north is spectacular. We gained even more altitude and drove past incredible rock formations. I knew Yellowstone was beautiful, but I never imagined anything like this.

Our timing was again good because we spent most of the hottest part of the afternoon in the air-conditioned car. We didn’t get to Mammoth Springs until late afternoon. To further cool things off, a storm rolling in kicked up a refreshing breeze. The storm clouds provided a stunning backdrop for our photos.

Lightning in the distance finally hurried us back to the car. The rain hadn’t quite hit so we stopped for a bathroom break in Mammoth. Bonus points: we got an up-close look at a deer grazing by the restrooms.

We flirted with the storm for the rest of the day. Every now and then we’d get a quick shower but we mostly stayed ahead of it until we were buttoned up for the night.

Coming across the top of the figure eight and down the side we passed through the Lamar Valley (good for wildlife but we were a bit too early). However, there was a huge back up of cars. I hopped out (since we were just sitting there) to see what had everyone so excited. It was a black bear!

Fortunately, he was at the bottom of a deep valley so it felt pretty safe. How cool to see a bear in Yellowstone! (Still glad it wasn’t a Grizzly though.)

We saw the petrified redwood tree from the car (at least we’re pretty sure that was it).

We didn’t stop at Tower Falls because we didn’t want to get soaked if the storm hit and didn’t want to miss dinner at the hotel since dining options are limited inside Yellowstone.

On our way to the hotel, we missed our turn thanks to some bad Google Maps directions. But there was a bison chilling right by the side of the road! We would have missed him if not for the inaccurate instructions.

We stayed at the Canyon Lodge, a very new addition to the park. So new they’re still working out some kinks. Including the fact there is only one dining room for the old Lodge, this new Lodge (which is BIG), and all the cabins. There really wasn’t an easy way to walk from our building over to the dining room (which seems odd for an outdoor recreational vacation destination).

Oh, there was one other small problem too, which was that the kitchen was on fire. As we approached, a security guard stopped us and told us the building had been evacuated because of a kitchen fire. Everything looked under control, but it was going to be all night (or possibly week) before that kitchen produced any food. That meant the entire population of Canyon Village was at the general store rooting around for something to eat for dinner. 

Pickin’s were slim. We had ice cream. I had graham cracker and moose tracks (with peanut butter cups), so that’s well balanced, right? It’s got grain, protein, and dairy 

We’d done such an efficient job sightseeing we didn’t have too much left on our list for the next day. The only trouble is without cell or LTE in most of the park, we’ve had to resort to old school methods: maps and guidebooks!

Given the midday heat we experienced at Old Faithful and Biscuit Basin and the fact most tourists are in the park between 10 AM and 6 PM, we decided to get up early and do our sightseeing before the park got crowded and hot. Plus, the animals are more active at the same time! So it was a win-win. Except for that part about the 6 AM alarm…

Miles driven: ~140

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Great Western Road Trip – Day 4

Custer, SD – Sheridan, WY – Montana – Cody, WY – Yellowstone – West Yellowstone, MO

We drove a VERY long way today. Fortunately, our early night meant we were up early. The Bavarian Inn provided a lovely breakfast spread. Obviously, many items were catered to young guests with a sweet tooth but there was also yogurt, granola, fresh fruit, and an espresso machine Dad fell in love with. My favorite novelty was the pancake machine.

We sat outside in a lovely garden and enjoyed our coffee and breakfast.

The woman who checked us out was extremely nice and gave us some recommendations for our route. Our goal was to get as close to Yellowstone as possible. Unfortunately, there was nothing to do along the way. 

I drove while Dad searched for something, anything along our route. He finally came up with a BBQ place for lunch. Killy’s Smokehouse Deli was… serviceable. It wasn’t the best BBQ I’ve ever had, but we got to try a bunch of their different ribs and their potato salad was perfect (just the way I like it). 

We took a short detour up into Montana. We thought that might be the only way to check it off our list, but on the (boring) drive toward Billings, we reconsidered just after crossing the border.

Instead, we decided to extend our day’s route through Yellowstone and stay in West Yellowstone (which is in Montana). It meant a lot of driving, but we’d be in Yellowstone in the early evening, so it would be beautiful. (It also opened up an opportunity to check off Idaho without a big detour.)

We turned around in the non-existent town of Aberdeen and crossed back into Wyoming and headed toward Yellowstone.

The scenery was gorgeous! Driving through Bighorn National Forest showcased fascinating rock strata.

Why does it bend at 45 degrees?

We stopped at Shell Falls and contemplated what it is about waterfalls that so captivates humans.

We reached Cody, the last outpost of civilization before Yellowstone’s eastern entrance. It has a few attractions, but nothing especially caught our attention. We wanted to keep moving. We just stopped for a photo op outside the Buffalo Bill Center of the West and a bathroom break at the visitor’s center.

Then, we pressed on into Yellowstone. The scenery did not disappoint! It was gorgeous long before we entered Yellowstone.

At the park entrance, I talked dad into purchasing a lifetime senior National Parks pass for $80 dollars. All he has to do is visit three more national parks to break even!

Our timing was perfect because the light was gorgeous.

I really really really really wanted to see a bison. I kept my eyes glued to the terrain as we wound through the eastern part of the national park. Suddenly, we saw a few cars pulled off to the side of the road. Lo and behold there was a stately bison grazing right by the road.

I was ecstatic. I considered my trip to Yellowstone complete. Little did I know…

Not many miles later we saw a whole herd of bison grazing!

And there were elk!

A bison crossed the road in front of our car!

And then a mother bison and her calf walked past us!

(I’ve decided they should really be called “bisonettes” instead of calves.)

It was magical. 

A storm on the horizon produced an incredible sunset.

It got dark just as we left the park and headed into West Yellowstone. Our hotel was very nice. It was either new or recently refurbished. The only weird thing about the room is that the sink was not in the bathroom. (This turned out to be a theme in the next couple of hotels so I wonder if it has something to do with skiing or extreme winter?). It was past 9 so we rushed over to the only restaurant in town still open, The Slippery Otter.

It was a cute pub/sports bar. The food wasn’t life-changing, but it was tasty and they offered a fun 5-beer pick-your-own flight. Dad got all the dark beers and I picked a more varied assortment of Montana brews.

Miles driven: ~525

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Great Western Road Trip – Day 3

Chadron, NE – Mt. Rushmore, SD – Custer, SD

We started today with another breakfast of champions: donuts.

Everyone knew everyone at the local donut shop, Daylight Donuts. The service was extremely slow due to friendliness. Without a schedule to keep to, the eavesdropping was delightful rather than irritating.

Plus, it gave me more time to study the donut display. I selected a smorgasbord of options: glazed buttermilk, lemon buttermilk, walnut swirl, cinnamon swirl, and an apple Bearclaw.

The glazed buttermilk was too sweet but, surprisingly, the lemon buttermilk was well balanced. I think my favorite was the walnut swirl. We didn’t get Chadron’s signature donut because it involved peanut butter (which I just learned Dad isn’t a fan of in baked goods).

After the long drive yesterday, we were able to take things at a slower pace and see more attractions. We drove into Hot Springs, South Dakota for our first stop at the imaginatively named “The Mammoth Site.” This place is really, really cool.

There’s a 10 -minute video presentation between the gift shop and dig site. It’s extraordinarily well-produced because while it is informative it’s never boring.

The Mammoth Site started life as a sinkhole. During the last ice age, it filled with hot spring water, attracting male mammoths for an easy meal and bath. However, the steep, smooth sides meant that if a mammoth fell in, it couldn’t get out. Over time, sediment built up over the bones and filled in the sinkhole. The sediment was harder than the surrounding limestone, so it actually turned into a hill.

In the 1970s, a developer bought the surrounding land, intending to turn it into a housing development. When one of the first bulldozers on the site hit a mammoth tusk, he recognized it and called in a paleontologist to confirm the find.

Once they’d assessed the magnitude of the find, he sold the land at cost so scientists could continue excavating.

The bones are technically fossils, but they’re extremely fragile because they haven’t yet turned to stone. All the organic material has been leached away by the hot spring waters, but the bone is still bone. That means they must preserve it as they excavate it. 

What’s really unique about The Mammoth Site is that they leave as many bones in situ as possible, only removing the most fragile. So far, they’ve excavated down 22 feet (about 1/3 of the way) and discovered 61 mammoth skeletons plus a couple of intact short-faced cave bear skulls (which are extremely rare). They’ve found numerous other smaller mammals, crustaceans, and a couple of fish as well. 

The walls are decorated with informative paintings to give you an idea how BIG these animals were.

You can also go downstairs to the bone lab where they work to preserve and study the fossils they remove from the site. I really enjoyed our stop and would highly recommend The Mammoth Site to anyone who finds themselves in South Dakota.

Our path to Mt. Rushmore took us past Rush Mountain Adventure Park, which looked pretty small (just a zip line, gravity-coaster ride, and some other obstacle course things). However, it also boasted a cave tour I thought looked interesting. I convinced Dad we should stop and see it since it was right off the road and hardly even counted as a detour. 

Once we parked the car we discovered, again, ADA has been completely ignored here. I’m pretty sure there was no way to get from the steeply sloped parking area up to the park facilities without climbing about four flights of stairs! At this point, Dad looked extremely skeptical (remember, we’re up at about 7,000 feet so the air is pretty thin). 

We made it up the stairs and bought tickets for a cave tour leaving in 15 minutes and the gravity coaster. I made another trip to the car and back (up and down all those stairs) to get our jackets since the cave is constantly 58 degrees. I should not have bothered (more on that later).

Our guide for the tour was knowledgable and a good presenter. He gave the standard spiel about not touching the rocks because the oils on our hands damage them and emphatically told us to use the handrails. However, he added an additional detail that in places where there weren’t handrails, if we started losing our balance we should grab a rock. This should have been a warning sign.

Spoiler Alert: this was the twistiest, steepest cave tour I’ve ever encountered. The path wound down through tight squeezes, required climbing steep grades or stairs while hunched over to avoid hitting your head, and went up and down and up and down! 

The review I read on Tripadvisor said it was “an easy walk” and that, “while there were a few stairs all but the infirm should be able to complete the walk.” That review was clearly written by a very fit person.

We did complete the walk but we definitely didn’t need our jackets since we continually worked up a sweat navigating the path. That said, I still had a blast. The *challenging* terrain gave a better sense of what it would be like to explore caves before they became tourist attractions. 

A local miner discovered the last chamber on the tour. The journey from where we entered to that point used to take 3 hours of crawling. The miner noticed a sloped line that indicated water used to flow down somewhere into the cave beyond what had been explored. However, the passage was completely blocked with dirt. This guy came back with enough food and fuel for two days and stayed underground to dig through.

When he breached the next chamber, I’m sure his jaw dropped. It’s by far the most impressive in the cave. Stalactites drip from the ceiling, thatching it in jagged spikes. Flowstone cascades down the center of the sloped floor. The edges featured some impressive stalagmites and columns.

Having discovered this breath-taking place, he could name it anything he wanted. He took a look around and decided to call it “The Big Room.”

Well… he wasn’t wrong.

We made it past the last hurdle to escape the cave (a 7-step ladder with a low hanging rock at the top nicknamed “Headache Rock”) and returned to a sun-drenched, flat (albeit staircased) landscape. 

On our way out, the guide told us we could come back for one of their “Adventure Tours” that requires squeezing through a 10-inch high tube. No thank you!

You have to prove you can fit through the tube in the gift shop.

The gravity coaster was a fun novelty. It twisted and turned all the way down the mountainside which gave you a great view while hurtling along the tracks. Everyone sat in an individual vehicle and had control of the brakes. A chain hauled you to the top, where you released the brakes and zoomed down the mountain.

The exit of the coaster was almost at the same elevation as our car (as long as you didn’t mind walking through a field). I was a good daughter and fetched the car to pick up Dad.

Our exit was temporarily blocked by a wayward cow crossing the highway.

We wound through some more twisty roads until we came upon Mt. Rushmore. Amazingly, the Mt. Rushmore parking garage has a new-fangled invention called “an elevator.” It was a relief.

Mt. Rushmore was pretty cool. We were a lot closer than I thought we’d be and it wasn’t an absolute zoo. Our stop at the cave pushed our arrival at Mt. Rushmore into the late afternoon, so the light was good for photographs.

We drove past Crazy Horse on our way into Custer, South Dakota. I used our limited cellular connection to find a couple of promising restaurants for dinner. I’m so glad we picked Skogen

The restaurant is run by a couple who started out in the midwest, lived in California for six years, and wanted to move back to the midwest. They fell in love with Custer and opened this restaurant. Everything was exceptional! 

Originally, we planned to press on through 200 more boring miles and stay in the middle of nowhere tonight so we’d be closer to Yellowstone, but the evening was so lovely we decided to stay and linger over our meal and a good bottle of wine.

We stayed at a really charming motel, the Bavarian Inn. Unsurprisingly, we had no trouble falling asleep!

Miles driven: ~140

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