Friday, July 15, 2011

Road Trip: Pennsylvania Dutch Country and Home

We woke and left Blackwater Falls, West Virgina with no destination in mind. I steered us northeast as Amanda pored over the maps and finally we decided on Lancaster, PA and the nearby Pennsylvania Dutch Country. Five hours later, we arrived and tormented ourselves with a sweltering driving tour of the city in yet another afternoon of 95-degree heat and debilitating humidity. We briefly found comfort in the shade of a Lancaster park and delicious Vietnamese take-out.

From Lancaster we turned southeast, deep into the heart of Pennsylvania's Amish farmlands, but far from the tour buses and commercial sprawl of PA Route 30. We traveled through beautiful, traditional communities where we, in our VW monstrosity, not the dozens of families passing by in horse-drawn buggies, were subject to stares. I saw young girls in long dresses and bonnets happily hoop rolling in the dusty driveway of their farmhouse. Women plowed the fields with teams of horses pulling equipment that one might otherwise encounter in a museum of American colonial life. For a moment, we felt as if we'd been transported to the distant past.

But the scorching sun brought us back to the present and we knew that it was time to move on. We resumed the journey not knowing where we'd stop next, but again, as if lost in a desert, we found ourselves desperately seeking water. The Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, some 130 miles away on the New Jersey/Pennsylvania line, seemed an obvious choice.

After reaching the general vicinity, we pushed further to New Jersey's Worthington State Forest where we planned to camp for the night. Before settling in at the campground, we found an access point to the Deleware River and savored a cleansing, cooling, swim.

Feeling renewed, we entered the gates of the park for what would have been the last overnight of this four-week voyage. For reasons we can't explain, of the countless state, federal and private campgrounds we had visited, this was the first and only that did not allow dogs. With no alternative camping plans, and no desire to spend the last night of our trip sleeping at a New Jersey Walmart, we decided that it was finally time to end this epic adventure. By 3:00am, with 9,000 new miles on the Vanagon, we were once again enjoying the comforts of home, sweet, sweet home. It has never felt so good.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Road Trip: Thomas, West Virginia and Blackwater Falls

When you cross the state border, the sign reads "Welcome to Wild and Wonderful West Virginia."  We couldn't agree more.  It's a beautiful state full of lush forests and mountains cut by many rivers and dotted with lakes. For us, Blackwater Falls was just a point on the map as we steamed towards it from Kentucky.  We knew nothing about the campground, surrounding National Recreation Area, or nearby towns, but were pleasantly surprised by them all.

As we passed through the tiny town of Thomas, we spotted another Vanagon camper parked in front of Hannah Lee's Station, a gas station turned restaurant/bar.  We knew the campground wasn't far, and with nothing but rain in our forecast, we stopped to meet the fellow Vanagon owner and have a drink.  Jeff was reallly happy with the $1 PBRs, and we learned that the other Westy enthusiast was an itinerant masseuse. We also discovered that The Purple Fiddle, the venue next door, had live music later that night.

After chatting with the bar owner for a bit, we left to find our campsite, whipped up some sandwiches for dinner,and returned to Thomas for an evening of hip Americana/Bluegrass from the Starline Drive band. The band rotated through stage positions and instruments including the banjo, fiddle, guitar, Dobro, upright bass, and mandolin.  It was a talented, passionate quartet, comprised of two brothers, wife and college friend.  And the space was a great small-town gem.

The next day we rose early to check out the falls that give the area its name.  It was an easy hike down and while the falls were far from remote, we didn't see another soul at that early hour and it felt like a private viewing.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Road Trip: Kentucky, Not as Planned

Escaping the heat and making friends
at a Lexington, KY fountain.
We patiently waited for the freshest wild salmon in Seattle, the tenderest BBQ in St. Louis, and Kentucky was to be my mecca for Bourbon. At 9:45am we left the St. Louis area for the 5-hour drive straight to the Woodford Reserve distillery in Versailles, Kentucky. We were making excellent time and the GPS indicated that we'd arrive with at least 15 minutes to spare before the final, 3:00pm Sunday tour and tasting. Excellent timing, that is, until we crossed into the Eastern time zone and suddenly it was already 3pm with 45 minutes left in the drive. This was a very sad, very serious miscalculation that I'll never again repeat.

Crushed, I thought I might find salvation at the Bluegrass Bourbon Bar in Lexington, KY. There, I'd at least be able to chat with a knowledgeable bartender, learn about some obscure makers, and enjoy a well-crafted Old Fashioned or Mint Julep. But the misfortunes continued when we discovered the bar, described as lively on weekends, was actually closed. Lexington was a ghost town at 4pm on Sunday. It was 95 degrees, nothing was open, no one was on the streets, and bourbon country seemed to have dried up for my arrival.

Ale 8-1 or "A Late One" soda.  Apparently a Kentucky classic.
I couldn't find refreshment in a glass, but we were determined to find it in a lake. The next stop was Twin Knobs Campground on Cave Run Lake in the Daniel Boone National Forest of eastern Kentucky. We parked the Van, who, by the way, we've named Ruby, and headed straight to the water, Parker leading the way. We plunged in without even bothering to change into swim suits. The evening swim helped wash away the whiskey sorrows of the afternoon and we enjoyed a relaxing night at the campsite.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Road Trip: St. Louis, MO

Our drive across Missouri was hot and sticky, but we pushed through knowing cool showers and air-conditioning awaited us at the home of Melissa and Jeff, friends who recently moved to the St. Louis area from Boston. Their two adorable and lively children, aged three and one, were excited to have new playmates, and Parker found a companion in Buffy the pug. He especially appreciated her full basket of chew toys, methodically taking each one out to play with until late that night. After an afternoon of singing, playing house, and getting my hair adorned in fancy clips, we all went out for some St. Louis BBQ. Unfortunately we left the camera at the house, which is why this post is so lite on images.

Thanks for the photo, Melissa! At least we have one!
Pappy's Smokehouse has been voted best BBQ in St. Louis for many years running, and it did not let us down. Jeff and I split and devoured a full rack of ribs, testing all three of the homemade sauces, and also enjoyed baked beans and sweet potato fries on the side. It was the perfect meal to cap off our string of peanut butter and jelly lunch days. From there we went for a stroll around “The Loop” neighborhood at Delmar Boulevard, a few blocks of hip shopping, eating, and entertainment. We found a place to park the double-wide stroller outside of Snarf's sandwich shop and refreshed ourselves with local Schlafly Summer Lager and Fitz's micro-brewed root beer.

After getting the low-down on the important baby-raising topics of diapers and strollers, Melissa led us on an excellent driving tour through Forest Park and around the zoo en route to our final destination, Ted Drewes in the Dutchtown district. Since 1929 this historic establishment has been serving frozen custard, the creamiest of ice-creams, and famous “Concretes," aptly named for their thickness. The long lines moved quickly and we were soon enjoying these blended treats sitting tailgate-style in the parking lot. With full bellies, we went back home to enjoy a blissful night of air-conditioning before the 95-degree haul into Kentucky the next day.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Road Trip: Kansas City, MO by way of Hays, KS

After living large at the Boulder Best Western, it was back to Walmart for the next two nights. The first stop was Hays, Kansas. After cooking up some couscous and Trader Joe's palak paneer in the parking lot, we set out to see what Hays had to offer. We weren't expecting much but were pleasantly surprised in a couple ways. A quick Yelp search suggestd a true gem in diner/brew pub combo of Gella's and Lb. Brewing Co. On the brewing end, they've garnered many international and domestic awards for their beers, and after sampling a few it was clear why. I started off with their seasonal summer ale, the Summer Fling. It was perfectly crisp and refreshing for that hot, sticky Kansas night. Later, I tried their multiple award-winning Oatmeal Stout to go with the chocolate mousse Amanda ordered for desert. Again, it was excellent.

Combo sandwich at Arthur Bryant's BBQ
The second surprise of Hays, Kansas was the wonderful couple we met at the brew pub bar. They hailed from Purdue-area Indiana, he a professor and she a former administrator, and were heading west for a week in Rocky Mountain National Park. Our Vanagon was the conversation starter and we learned that he'd owned two in his lifetime and had enjoyed many VW road trip adventures over the years. After wishing each other smooth travels, we headed back to the parking lot for another night of asphalt camping.

Hays put us in striking distance of Kansas City, Missouri the next day. Our first stop was the Shawnee Mission Park, located a few miles south of town. The acres off-leash hiking and swimming opportunities were the major draws. There's a fee required for the official swimming beach on one side of the lake, but no fee required for the swimming area for dogs on the opposite side. I was perfectly happy joining Parker and the dozen other mutts. It was the same water!

Feeling slightly refreshed in the 93-degree heat, we drove into Kansas City to sample one of its iconic offerings: BBQ. Just as we'd waited until the pacific northwest to enjoy some sushi, we knew that KC and St. Louis would be the only sources for BBQ on this adventure. We simply wanted a small taste of the KC style in order to compare it to St. Louis's offerings, so we headed to the legendary Arthur Bryant's. Splitting one open-face sandwich, a combo of “burnt ends” and pulled pork, seemed like a reasonable approach. The “sandwich” turned out to be two heaping piles of slow-cooked, tender smoked goodness atop white bread, along with a side of beans and stack of pickles. It was a massive plateful and the two of us struggled to finish this single serving. Their variety of housemade sauces were equally delicious. Stuffed, we spent the rest of the afternoon and evening exploring other areas of Kansas City, from the City Market and Riverfront to the Power and Light disctict, finally ending the night downtown at the Penn Valley dog park. We'll visit KC's fantastic museums and jazz scene on another trip (without Parker).

Satisfied with our city tour, we drove east to the 24-hour KC Walmart Supercenter.

Next stop: St. Louis

Friday, July 8, 2011

Road Trip: Boulder, Colorado

A craggy start to the hike.
We left the noisy, crowded parking lot of the Rock Springs, Wyoming Walmart for the active, healthy, energetic college town of Boulder, Colorado. Upon arrival we were greeted by a violent lightning storm, with loud cracks of thunder peeling slowly across the sky while we sat sweating in the van researching nearby camping locations for the night. Parker, of course, was frantically circling, panting, and leaving puddles of nervous drool in the back. With the oppressive heat, humidity and storms weighing on us, we abandoned all thoughts of frugal camping and decided to splurge on the luxuries of air conditioning, a real bed, and much needed showers at the local, dog-friendly Best Western.

After checking in the storms finally abated. When Parker found calming safety in the cramped space beneath the table in our room, Amanda and I left to explore the lively shops, pubs, and bistros of Boulder. We made a quick happy-hour stop at Mountain Sun Pub and Brewery where I downed a refreshing red ale and Amanda a tall glass of ice water. From there we visited Pearl Street Pub for a few tasty wings, lightly coated in their homemade BBQ sauce (and a couple more local CO brews for me). We finally ended the evening on the roof deck of the West End Tavern where we split a delicious burger sourced from a small, local, all-natural cattle farm along with a fresh salad and sweet potato fries. We've lived a mostly vegetarian existence on this trip, living out of the cooler on cereals, hummus, cheese, bread, veggies, fruit, pasta and PB&Js, so these occasional burgers and sushi platters have never tasted so good!

16-week bump on the Sanitas summit!
We slept late the next morning (until 8:30!) to fully take advantage of the cool comforts our room, picked at the hotel's free breakfast, and finally checked out around 10am. By 10:30 we'd reached the Flatirons on the outskirts of Boulder and the Mt. Sanitas trailhead. The 3.5 mile hike is a favorite of locals and their dogs, offering great views of the city and surrounding mountains from its rocky ridgeline and summit. This relatively short but invigorating trek was just what we needed before the start of what I imagine will be two terribly boring days across eastern Colorado and all of Kansas. But I'll try to keep an open mind. Maybe Kansas will surprise us.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Road Trip: Jackson, WY and the Grand Tetons

We left the Caribou-Targhee camground for Jackson, Wyoming in the early morning. There's nothing like swarms of mosquitoes to get you up and out of the campsite in record time! Justin recommended a great hike just outside of Jackson in the Gros Ventre Wilderness area, overlooking the jagged Teton range. One of the unique elements of this hike is that the trailhead begins at 8,000 ft, climbing steeply out of Jackson on rugged, winding, backcountry roads. Before taking the fork to the trail, we continued another two miles on Sheep Creek Road until it finally ended in snow at close to 9,000 ft.

This small detour brought us to a breathtaking view of the Grand Teton mountains and an exciting wildlife encounter. Before turning the van around, Jeff got out to stretch his legs and enjoy the landscape. Just before the dense treeline, he stopped dead in his tracks at the sound of loud rustling and scratching from behind a tree no more than 15 ft away. A shaft of morning light revealed the thick brown coat and bulk of a grizzly. I had never seen Jeff look so scared as he said, “It's a grizzly!” He hopped back in and maneuvered us through the muddy, deeply rutted road down to the start of the hike, with heartbeats elevated before we even hit the trail.

Parker rolled over to enjoy some cold snow on his bare belly.
In a typical July, we'd have no trouble summiting the rocky Jackson peak, a ten mile round trip hike. But with the late winter and incredible snowfall this year, the feat would have required winter mountaineering gear. We decided to go as far as Goodwin Lake and still found that the last half mile was entirely buried in many feet of snow. Even though Parker couldn't swim in the still frozen lake, the bountiful snow was a good tradeoff.

Following more of Justin's recommendations, we returned to Jackson to enjoy some of its Western charm. Jeff sipped a local brew at the Cowboy Bar, straddling one of the saddles they use in lieu of bar stools.

We'd worked up an appetite and grabbed a late lunch at the Snake River Brewing Company before venturing into Grand Teton National Park. By this point, the weather was turning foul and dark thunder clouds were quickly making their way from Jackson along the Teton range. With storms nearing, we cut the driving tour short and decided to forgo camping in the park. We instead put in another few hours of evening driving in order to have more time at our next destination, Boulder, Colorado.

Double rainbows arced across the horizon for much of the drive.

Road Trip: Craters of the Moon and Idaho Camping

We left Mt. Hood to put in a few hours of evening driving across Oregon. We pushed east as far as Pendleton and rolled into the Walmart Supercenter for the second parking lot overnight of our trip. Our first Walmart camping experience was in Bozeman, Montanta overlooking the stunning National Forest just outside of town. The Pendelton Walmart was adjacent to the Pendelton Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison. Locations aside, why do we and other road trippers occasionally spend the night at Walmart? They are free; overnight parking/RVing is allowed, so you don't have to worry about police or security rapping on the window at 3am; they close late and open early (with some operating 24 hours), so their services and facilities are almost always available when you need them; and, of course, you can find them coast to coast.

Amanda's best mosquito defense efforts.
We set out from Pendelton by 7am for a very long journey into and across southern Idaho. The one highlight of this otherwise grueling, punishingly hot stretch was Craters of the Moon. President Calvin Coolidge established the National Monument in 1924 to preserve this “weird and scenic landscape, peculiar to itself.” It is indeed very peculiar, a lava-scape of black rubble, extinct volcanic cones, bat-filled caves, and dark, twisting monoliths. The 7-mile park loop—filled with plenty of pull-offs, short hikes, and vantage points—was just what we needed to break up the high-mileage day.

At 7:30pm on July 4, we pulled into the Falls Campground in Swan Valley, Idaho, part of the Caribou-Targhee National Forest. The camp is located on a beautiful branch of the Snake River. Hungry and excited to finally be out of the Vanagon, we celebrated with our most elaborate campsite dinner yet. We added garlic olive oil to the bottled pesto we'd been carrying to create a delicious sauce for the fusilli. While the pasta boiled, we grilled some sun-dried tomato chicken sausages. We then chopped up the sausages and added them, the garlic pesto sauce, and some fresh mozzarella to the pasta to create an incredibly satisfying fireside meal. This paradise, complete with exotic sunset, was tainted only by the vicious onslaught of mosquitoes as nightfall approaced. They eventually drove us back into the van to enjoy some reading (and beers!).

Fireworks could be heard in the distance, sending Parker into a few fits of nervous pacing and trembling, but this remote location was the best we could do for him.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Road Trip: Oregon Coast, Portland, and Mt. Hood

From Long Beach, Washington we continued south, hugging the coastline and shortly crossing into Oregon. Our first stop was Cannon Beach. We arrived nearing low tide, greeted by the stunning expanse of glistening, wet sand. The towering Haystack Rock dominated the landscape at one end, with gulls loudly circling its steep green slopes, which are also home to puffins and cormorants. Cannon was another salty wonderland for Parker. He romped up and down this beach with dogs of all breeds and sizes, excusing himself from the play sessions for brief swims in the chilly Pacific.

A new friend at Sellwood Riverfront Park
The next stop was Portland. We had a late lunch with Cynthia, a friend from Bates, and Parker enjoyed the company of her two dogs: Angus, the standard poodle and Kicks, a cute, little gremlin-terrier mutt. Cynthia, a baker, was off to bed early so we left to explore some more of the city (Southeast section) before meeting up with another friend, Eliza, for dinner. Parker indulged in yet another swim in this dog-friendly state, this time in the Willamette River at Sellwood Riverfront Park.

We are incredibly grateful to the Haas family for treating us to another wonderful dining experience, this time across the country at Bamboo Sushi. We couldn't have been happier with Eliza's selection. The restaurant is committed to serving only sustainable seafood, which made us savor every bite with additional appreciation. It's a good thing that Bamboo is over 3,000 miles from home because we'd be tempted to eat there far too often.

Mt. Hood in the distance, from the Ranger Station.
While I performed the second oil change of the trip in downtown Portland (Old Town), Amanda ventured to the Saturday Market on the waterfront (which runs on Sundays too). 

With the van freshly lubed, we set out in search of snow and had to look no further than Mt. Hood. Our launching point was the historic Timberline Lodge. The ski resort is still in full operation, with two lifts running and a number of trails and terrain parks open. There's more of a base there right now than east coast resorts had at peak winter season. 

Everything is above treeline at this elevation, so we simply headed up from the lodge on what may or may not have been the Mountaineer Trail, while Parker sprinted, bounded, and rolled his way across the deep snowpack. When we finally sought relief from the punishing sun of that shadeless, reflective glacial terrain, we returned to Timberline where I enjoyed a refreshing Mt. Hood Cloudcap Ale at the Ram's Head Bar while Amanda tried the local Rogue Root Beer on draft. I definitely look forward to returning to Mt. Hood with the gear and time to summit. Satisfied with this snowy July adventure, we again hit the road for a few more hours of evening driving.

A snowboarder dropping a large gap in the soft Hood snow.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Road Trip: Seattle and Olympic National Park

Rainier Cherries at Pike Place Market
We approached Seattle thinking that we would be on our own to explore the city. To our surprise and delight, we were wrong. While driving along a monotonous stretch of I-90 West through the flat plains of eastern Washington, I saw two familiar faces waving frantically from the left lane. Apparently it's easy to spot our vehicle if you've been following the blog. Jeff thinks I'm crazy for [claiming] to see Batsies everywhere I go, but this time he couldn't deny it. It was Erin and Andrew, making their journey to Seattle as well, as we later found out. Thanks to the miracle of technology, we quickly communicated through Facebook and made plans to meet up in the big city.

Not a bad view from our campsite.
Our first stop in Seattle was Pike Place Market, a true tourist attraction, yes, but one that can't be missed. It was everything that I hoped for in a market – food, crafts, flowers, and more food. We had been dreaming of a Seattle sushi dinner for many days at this point, so we made sure not to overindulge in samplings at the market before our much anticipated feast. As we wandered from Pike Place I received a message from yet another Batesie who we hadn't seen since her last trip to Boston. Meghan was also living in Seattle and twenty minutes later, the five of us were enjoying happy hour on the waterfront overlooking the Puget Sound. While the sun did grace Seattle with its presence, it was quite chilly sitting on the shaded deck. As my lips started to turn blue we decided to leave for dinner.

Beach at Salt Creek
It's not hard to find fresh seafood in Seattle, so you can't really go wrong with sushi. Andrew did a quick search and Wasabi, a restaurant in the Belltown area, had great reviews and was nearby. Although I was limited to cooked items on the menu, there were many creative and satisfying options to choose from, unagi and soft-shelled crab among them.

Erin and Andrew generously offered us the new home they themselves had not yet had the chance to enjoy. Parker found a friend in their dog Marmite and the two of them would have played all night if we had let them. Laundry, showers, and a roof to sleep under were additional surprises of our Seattle visit and the timing was perfect. We left early the next morning to explore the Olympic Peninsula and National Park.

We drove north up the eastern side of the peninsula, eventually winding along the northern coastline of the Juan de Fuca Strait. We found a campsite at Salt Creek, perched on a bluff overlooking the crashing waters below and surrounded by a mossy forest of towering Sitka Spruce and Red Cedars. We located an access point to the rocky, rugged coastline, and Parker didn't hesitate to dive in.

 Back at the site, a squirrel continued to torment him,  running along the fence line, sitting on a branch just out of reach, and finally dragging Parker's Kong under the van to feast on the peanut butter remnants within. With the sound of the waves below, we enjoyed a campfire and a savory grilled cheese before retiring for the night.

One of many intense stare-downs with the squirrel nemesis.
Early the next morning, we set out to continue our circumnavigation of the peninsula. Our first stop was the Hoh National Rainforest, twenty miles inland. A hike took us through towering Sitka spruce, lush mosses adorning every forest surface, gigantic ferns, and crystal clear creeks. As we continued on route 101, we stopped at the Kalaloch beaches. Because Parker so patiently waited in the van while we hiked the rain forest, we broke the rules and let him run wild on the beach a little bit.

The very long day of exploration and driving ended with some disappointment at Cape Disappointment. The last campsite at the State Park was taken minutes before our arrival and we were forced to find an alternative further inland at a private campground. Fortunately we were still on the Long Beach Peninsula, so water wasn't far. Parker enjoyed another beach run and swim that evening in the cold waters of the Pacific.  He's now added two Great Lakes and another ocean to his swimming check list.