Our trip from Pittsburgh to Cupertino
Surprise: I had to buy new pants. :-( I’m embarrassed to tell you this, but I figure it’s pretty funny, and if you didn’t assume it by now with all of our food descriptions, you clearly haven’t been paying attention. Our thorough research of all things beer and deliciousness has resulted in hopefully temporary puffiness. I am very excited to get back to normal eating and exercising as soon as we get to Cupertino, but for now, I’ll take the hit in the name of once-in-a-lifetime experiences. But, I wasn’t going to ride another 8 hours in a car in uncomfortable pants.
Before leaving Spokane, Evan and I spent the morning getting massages at Spa Paradiso just across the street from our hotel. These were welcome treats for us, as this much time in the car has not done good things for our backs. Post-massages, we were ready to again jump in the car and head to our next stop. Plus, we had people to see at the next stop! Evan’s cousin, Josh, and his wife, Caroline, moved to Seattle recently, so we were very excited to be able to spend some time with them and see their new home. In Seattle, we had booked the Honeymoon Suite at the Alexis Hotel. Let me tell you—divine. A palatial bathroom with a huge tub (built for two) and a beautiful canopy bed awaited us.
We came into town around 5 pm, grabbed a drink at the super cute Bookstore Bar in our hotel, and then jumped in the car with Caroline and Josh to head over to Ballard, their new neighborhood. They live in this fantastic house with their very loveable dog, Walker. Walker, a rat terrier/Chihuahua mix, provided us with hours of entertainment and took a special liking to Evan’s ear during their time together. After some champagne and munchies at their house, we walked over to La Carta de Oaxaca, a great local place with very yummy authentic Mexican food. Caroline and I had margaritas and the boys had beers. For dinner, we got an assortment of tortillas stuffed with delicious things in yummy spices and sauces. From there, we stopped by the Shelter Lounge on our way home so the boys could grab another drink.
I’m pretty sure we have yet to see an alcohol-free day on this trip (Reference first paragraph of this entry re: pants.).
We were ready to leave Yellowstone on Wednesday feeling as if we had really gotten a good sense, at least on the surface, of what Yellowstone had to offer. The 10.5-hour tour the first day was a great introduction to Yellowstone, and our mostly open schedule the next day had allowed us to choose a couple experiences that really interested us. With no internet or phone service for so long, we were also excited to get back on the grid and see what we had missed. After one last cowboy breakfast buffet at the Lake Hotel, we headed out of the North Entrance to the Park on our way to visit Evan’s cousin, James.
On the road, I dove into my new book, Death in Yellowstone. Now, some people might question my interests, but let me explain. Not knowing what Yellowstone was really like, my expectations I guess were more along the lines of a Disney experience—driving around, harmless animals coming up to the car, sparkling water features, etc. The National Park system has done a fantastic job at keeping Yellowstone wild, though, so the contrast of that against the average American tourist family had me wondering how often something goes wrong. No one is standing over you at the natural features making sure you keep yourself safe, and we kept learning more and more about how hot the water was and how some pools were more acidic than battery acid. There were also emphatic signs about not approaching the bison. Well, my assumptions were right, and the stories of man versus nature right in all those places we had just visited were very interesting! A highly recommended read if you can stomach it. I was just glad to be reading it on the way OUT of Yellowstone.
Evan’s cousin, James, goes to school in Bozeman, MT, which is a super fun town. Unfortunately we could only do a brief stop for lunch, but we got to see James’s new house, meet two of his three roommates, and take a stroll down Main Street. Driving in, I was excited to see The “Ellen” Theatre. My name in lights! I liked the town already. We chose a fun Mexican place for lunch with outdoor seating, as it was a beautiful day. The strong flavors of Mexican food were a nice change from the American food we had survived on in Yellowstone. I very much enjoyed the salsa bar! James and I had fish tacos and black beans, and Evan had a spicy burger with jalapeno fries. On our walk back, we stepped off of Main Street to get a feel for the residential area. The houses were quaint and cozy with all the streets laid out very neatly, and overall it seemed like a great town to live in. James, we’re jealous!
From Bozeman, we continued on up the western border of Montana, through the top leg of Idaho, and over to Spokane, WA. We’re getting very good about these long car trips. They don’t even seem that long anymore! I was telling my mom on the phone today that the lengthy driving has actually been a great way to ground ourselves as we move across the country. When you fly somewhere, it can feel like it involves a bit of magic in a sense, just being dropped somewhere after staring at a seat for a few hours. With all this driving, though, we’ve been consistently amazed at how easy it has been— it helps to make it feel as though our family and friends really aren’t so far from us.
In Spokane, we had made reservations at a wine bar, expecting that we’d be ready for a nice night out after Yellowstone. Mizuna was located just a few blocks from our hotel, Hotel Lusso. At Mizuna, we started with an ahi-mushroom bruschetta. Evan then had a grapefruit and fennel salad and I had a beet and chevre salad. For our main courses, Evan chose the steak over roasted asparagus and I had halibut over risotto. Of course, there was wine involved as well.
When we had checked in at Hotel Lusso, which is quite lovely by the way, we learned that our package included a $25 credit to the Ale House in the building. Never ones to waste beer coupons, we made an ill-fated decision, even though we were stuffed, to stop at the bar after dinner. We made an even more terrible decision to order two appetizers—fried pickles for me because those are my FAVORITE, and deviled eggs for Evan since it was an exciting low-carb option that you usually don’t see. Ugh, I feel sick even thinking about this again! Watching Evan eat the deviled eggs, I was afraid I was going to see them come up again at any minute because he looked a bit miserable while slicing into them. And the pickles? They were sweet pickles, not dill. Blech! I will say the beer was worth it. We’ve been “studying” northwest beers very thoroughly since we arrived. Evan had Manny’s Pale Ale and I had a Mac & Jack’s, and both were great.
South Dakota Pictures
After our hearty breakfasts, we were ready to see the famous Mt. Rushmore National Memorial. When you see pictures, you think it’s just four big heads on an open face of rock, looking like they go from ground to sky in height. The Memorial very much exceeded our expectations! It’s much higher on a cliff face than you think, and it’s so detailed! There’s a nice loop trail that takes you around to different vantage points, so we got all kinds of great pictures, my favorite being the one where the top of Washington’s head is just peaking over the trees, like he’s trying not to be noticed.
From Mt. Rushmore, we headed over to the Crazy Horse Memorial that is still under construction. Numerous family friends had mentioned this to us, known to many because its size when it will be done is gosh, maybe 10-20x the size of Mt. Rushmore. The original sculptor had been asked by the Lakota Tribe elders to construct this carving so that we would recognize that this land had other heroes too. Both Evan and I had assumed it was a newer project since it was still under construction, but it turns out it was started way back in the 1940s. Now, here’s the thing. All they’ve really carved out so far is the head. The entire memorial, when finished, is supposed to be Crazy Horse’s whole upper torso riding the front half of a horse. Oh, and on top of that, it’s going to be surrounded by a water formation, Indian Museum complex, and university. Our prediction: THEY’RE NEVER GOING TO MAKE IT. They have refused to accept federal funding and are funded solely as a nonprofit by their visitor base and other donations. We’re pretty sure the world will end before that thing is finished. Who knows, maybe when we’re in rocking chairs on our porch watching our grandchildren play, we’ll tell a different story.
Post Crazy Horse, we set out toward Yellowstone. A solid 8 hours away (if you never had to use the bathroom or eat), we settled in for a long trek not knowing what was ahead. We grabbed a quick lunch at The Old Mill in Newcastle, WY. We continued on into Wyoming and were thrilled to see some snow-capped mountains pop up ahead of us. Making a turn north so as to avoid the steepest of the Rockies in that area, we truly had no idea what was in store for us. We quickly ascended on a highway of curves and scenic overlooks. At our first stop, we looked across a vast valley (think Shenandoah Valley x 1,000). The information marker told us that at one point the whole valley had been covered by seawaters. Mind-blowing. We continued on, stopping every so often at the “Points of Interest” to get some photos that will never fully convey how spectacular the views were. At one point of interest, there looked to be a more developed visitors’ center. We pulled off to get some shots of a large rock formation that we had been driving around the base of. What we discovered at the visitors’ station was such a pleasant surprise. Shell Falls, formed by tectonic movement that suddenly left a stream 75 feet to fall into a crevice below, was an awesome sight. The force of the water tumbling over the sheer rock was amazing, and it tumbled into a deep valley of rocky rapids below, carving out deep curves as it came along.
From there, we continued across the top of the mountain range and down the other side. We had pulled off so many times for photo opportunities that our Yellowstone arrival time on our GPS had been pushed rather late, so we made a pact for no more picture stops, as we had plans for a 10 ½ hour Park tour that left early the next morning. We stopped in Cody, Wyoming, for dinner at the Wyoming Rib & Chop House. Evan had a buffalo filet and I had the ribs—more mountain food to give us the stamina we needed to continue on our journey toward Yellowstone Park.
Sorry for the delay in posts… we haven’t had internet service since the weekend! I actually wrote these next two posts in the car on the way into Yellowstone, but was unable to post until we got out of the Park. Expect a nice, long Yellowstone post from Evan in the next day or so!
We awoke in Sioux Falls thankful to be alive, quite frankly, and glad to have some time in the morning to catch up on things (like blog writing!). We took full advantage of the washer and dryer provided in the hotel, and then set out to find some lunch. On our way, now that it was light outside, we took in the sights of Sioux Falls, mainly malls and casinos. Seriously, in South Dakota, they will make a casino out of anything. Old Long John Silvers? A casino. Extra broom closet in a gas station? A casino. For lunch, we had settled on Bracco, a local chain restaurant that had been well-reviewed online. Well-reviewed by those who frequent Long John Silver and gas station casinos, apparently, because it was really not so good. With hope on the horizon for a tasty hunk of steak at our next destination, we got back on the highway and started our journey west to Keystone, SD.
We’ve been listening mostly to bluegrass via the satellite radio since we left Wisconsin. It’s proven to be a fun way to kill time, as we’ve enjoyed making up modern lyrics to replace the actual storylines. In the latest song, since the guy was singing about talking to an empty chair since his lady had left him, we instead made up lyrics about his clearly undiagnosed psychosis. Listen, it’s a long car ride, and Evan singing bluegrass is the best entertainment we have available.
We arrived in Keystone just before dinnertime. Coming down into the area and knowing we were so close to Mt. Rushmore, at every turn we were checking the mountain peaks to see if we could catch a glimpse. Well, when we checked in at our hotel, the K Bar S Lodge just up the road from the main street in Keystone, we saw a carved head off in the distance! It was all you could see, but still, it gave us a taste of what was to come for our sightseeing day the next morning.
The town of Keystone is clearly focused on tourists with that artificial old West feel, but it was so cute….just about a block or so of souvenir shops and quick dinner places. We had chosen Powder House for our dinner which was a bit off the main drag. Prime Rib was their specialty, so hello, of course we ordered Prime Rib. Delicious! The Powder House was so good that we came back for a cowboy breakfast the next day… steak and eggs for Evan and biscuits and gravy for me.
Sioux Falls is one of our sleeper stops, meaning we’re just using it as a place to break up the drive between our real destinations. Since we were in no rush then to get to Sioux Falls, we had planned a few fun touristy stops around Madison before heading west again. Our first stop: The House on the Rock. Words can’t even describe it. If you take a peek at the website, you see some kitschy stuff, collections of old things that make the place look like your great aunt’s living room. Well, let me tell you, it is mind-blowing. The back story is that this guy used to come visit this hillside area for picnics when he was young and then ended up purchasing the property. Slowly, he started to build upon it and bring things in. Between the world’s largest indoor carousel, a six-story high whale being attacked by an octopus, more dollhouses than you ever knew existed, multi-level music machines, a cantilever walkway that reaches out across the treetops (and creaks when you walk on it!)…. it was just so utterly unreal. You just have to go. There is no way to describe it, except to say that I’m pretty sure we saw everything that ever existed in this world. It was so absurd that it felt more like a dream than a place we actually visited.
After visiting The House on the Rock, we stopped for lunch at the General Store Café in Spring Green, WI. It was a very hippie/biker-friendly local lunch spot. The town of Spring Green looked to be a bit artsy, with brightly-painted shops all around. On the way back to the highway, we stopped to again load up on cheese curds. There seemed to be a lot of men clad in overalls as we traveled around Wisconsin. It is, after all, home of Osh Kosh, though I didn’t think Osh Kosh marketed to people in the 40-65 age sector.
Our second stop of the day was for a Ducky tour in Wisconsin Dells. The Wisconsin Dells area is like an inland Myrtle Beach—go-kart tracks, waterparks and mini-golf courses abound. Since we had limited time, we felt the Ducky tour (the ORIGINAL, not the ARMY duck tour, as we were advised by an Information Center Assistant) was the best way to check out the Dells. We traveled on our Duck boat through the state park area, then dropped down into the Wisconsin River. The tour was nice overall, though Pittsburgh’s tour is still the best.
And then…. the storm that nearly killed us.
We were heading on to Sioux Falls via I-90 West. We started to notice some dark clouds to the north of us (you could see for miles and miles because it was so flat), so I checked out the weather forecast. There was a storm above us moving east at a good clip. I also started to notice these strange clouds. Google research told me they were “mammatus clouds”, (yes, like “mammary”)… they were these billowy clouds with streaks of light shining through, unlike anything we had ever seen before. We were close to stopping for dinner, so I found a place in the town of Albert Lea called Green Mill Brewing Company. We headed inside and watched it get darker and darker on all sides but the easterly one. We could see other customers and even the wait staff starting to get mumbly about what was going on with the weather as word of a tornado warning that had been issued spread across the restaurant. At first we were told it was set to pass just north of us, but then our wait staff came around and told us the plan was to get in the back of the kitchen if it started getting worse. The cooks had turned up the radio in the kitchen area just behind us. We heard a tornado had been spotted about 15 miles NW of us, and hey, wouldn’t you know, the storm was headed SE now. Kids were crying, moms were sneaking off to talk amongst themselves, one family left to rush home because their dog was tied up outside. The wait staff made the decision to herd us into the back kitchen hallway around 8:50 pm. A cook came around the corner with the stereo and plugged it in so everyone could hear. Being outsiders, as city and county names were announced, Evan and I were looking them up on our phones to see where in fact the storm was hitting. Golf ball-size hail pieces were being reported and everyone was told to get off the roads. We found out there had been a rash of tornadoes in Minnesota just last week, with one person killed just west of Albert Lea.
Around 9:15 pm, we were released back into the main part of the restaurant. The storm had passed about 5 miles NE of us and the worst of it was now in the next town over. Taking a look at the weather, the tail end of the storm extended directly west over the interstate, so we sat around for awhile as we waited for the pink and red parts to drop below on the radar. We got back on the road around 10 pm and prepared for another 2-1/2 hours of driving to get us to Sioux Falls.
Though the radar had shown that the significant part of the storm was now south of the interstate, the lightning we saw was terrifying. Again, being able to see for miles and miles, we saw 3, 5, 7 streaks of lightning stretch across the sky before us every 15-20 seconds, lighting up the sky so bright that at times it looked like daylight. The brightness also brought with it the terrifying view of the cloud systems working their way over. On the very edges north of us, you could see the distinct border of the system, with a clear contrast between the darkness we were supposed to be in against the extreme dark overlay of the storm.
The worst moment came when a bolt of lightning struck in the field next to us not 30 feet away from the car as we were driving. It looked to be as big as a tree trunk, and we could hear the cracks and sizzles of burnt land as it hit. It hit a flat prairie!! Not a silo, not a light pole, but flat land lower than that of the car we were in. We both pulled out our phones and turned them off, and I sat clutching my pillow and trying not to touch the sides of the car as Evan sped up to try to get through. There was no place to stop. The lightning continued for the next two hours, eventually dying down to the point that we were able to release our white-knuckle grips and make it safely to Sioux Falls.
Minnesota will forever be in our memories for being the scariest state we went through. And here I thought 45-year-old Wisconsin men in overalls were going to be our scariest encounter!
We started out Day 4 slowly, taking our time to leave Chicago. We headed over to a breakfast place off of Michigan Avenue called Eggsperience. It’s a new place that we had walked/driven by a couple times during our trip. Evan had what is now starting to be his typical road trip breakfast, steak and eggs, and I had the nine grain french toast. Loaded up on plenty of coffee, we headed back to the hotel and packed up. Chicago traffic leaving was much worse than the day we came into the city, but we made it through the backups and continued north.
We decided to make a fun stop midway between Chicago and Madison at the Jelly Belly Factory for the factory tour. The Jelly Belly tour in Pleasant Prairie, WI, is a 30 minute small train ride around the warehouse with lots of stops by TV screens sharing information on the history of the company, how flavors are created and how delicious gourmet jelly beans are made. Do you know what makes a Jelly Belly jelly bean different? While other jelly beans just have flavor in their shell, Jelly Belly jelly beans have flavor in their cores as well. I was glad the tour was only 30 minutes because the sugar smell was starting to wear on me, but we did manage to spend some time on our way out in the retail store, where visitors could try over 100 samples. I tried pomegranate, kiwi (kiwi was apparently a very difficult flavor to recreate), birthday cake, and red apple, but my favorite by far was their new chili mango flavor! I decided to pass on the whole funny flavors section, as deciding whether a white jelly bean was “coconut” or “baby wipes” just wasn’t for me. Evan stuck to his low-carb ways and miraculously did not try a single jelly bean.
On our way out of the area, we stopped at White Castle in Kenosha, WI, for lunch. Neither of us had ever been, so we broke our no fast food rule to try it. Let me tell you, for those who have not been, the tiny hamburgers of Snow White Grill in Winchester are WAY better. The “burgers” at White Castle shared the consistency of a piece of Philly cheese steak meat. Very strange, but hey, we can check it off our list now.
We made a stop at a general store somewhere off the interstate about two hours outside of Madison. And guess what we found? Cheese curds! Evan got a bag to bring with us in the car. The store advertised that they were freshly made on Thursdays, so it was our lucky day and the curds were extra squeaky, which is how you measure cheese curd freshness. Evan very happily munched away as we continued on.
We arrived in Madison around 4:30 pm. Evan had found a fantastic room for us at the Madison Concourse Hotel right off Capitol Square. We were on one of the Governor’s floors, so we had access to a great bar and snack area. Good because it was free! We stopped in at the bar before dinner and met basically the nicest people in the world. Tim and Linda were an older couple who lived just 35 miles away and had decided to take a long weekend in Madison. They were very interested to hear what we were up to, and other people at the bar started to listen in as well. We got some great recommendations from both our bar mates and the bartender, who helped us solidify our plans for the Madison area the next day.
Post-hotel bar, we headed over to a French restaurant just around the corner called L’Etoile for our dinner reservation. We both started with the black kale salad, topped with a poached duck egg and accompanied by a tempura-fried squash blossom. It was awesome! L’Etoile is known for its baked goods made in-house, and true to its reputation, the rolls and locally-whipped butter were also very tasty. For our main course, Evan had the strip steak drizzled with béarnaise and I had a crusted halibut dish over polenta cakes and wild veggies. We were too stuffed to enjoy the cheese plate we were really hoping to have to close out our meal, which was a sad day in Wisconsin cheese land, but we did manage to have some local cheeses at the bar beforehand and at breakfast the next morning.
Also, Evan’s iPhone 4 arrived today. He had it shipped to our Madison hotel. This is a special shoutout to him because he was working on our reservations for Yellowstone, which I’ve been really stressed out about, when it was delivered to our door, and he showed incredible restraint in opening it, waiting nearly 30 minutes instead of ripping it open like a Mac fanboy at Christmas. I have inherited his old phone, which has come in very handy over the last few days. Yay for a zoom feature on the camera of my new/old iPhone!
It’s Evan again, reporting on our last full day in the Windy City.
We started our day a bit late, since our schedule was fairly open-ended in the morning (and because, as I mentioned, we had a few margaritas the night before). So, we converted breakfast to brunch at the excellent Pastoral. Pastoral is a neat hybrid of small restaurant, deli, and store, with a great selection of cheese, wine, beer, and bread. We shared a Spanish cheese plate, in honor of my sister Kara, who is in Barcelona, and then Ellen had the BLTA sandwich, while I went with the Health Nut salad. All were delicious.
After brunch, we walked up and down Michigan Avenue, taking a gander at the many, many stores. I was on a quest for the Levi’s Store, which I swore I had seen on our bus tour the day before, because I wanted to see if they had any raw denim jeans. Unfortunately, while I had done a map search on my iPhone to locate it, I found the one that appeared to be in Water Tower Place, and not at street level, and so we wandered around aimlessly for a bit in search of the phantom store.
Fortunately, right before Ellen killed me, we found it. It turns out that we had been accosted by some fresh-faced Greenpeace youth right in front of the store when we passed it the first time, and so we ran away without ever seeing that we were in the right place. But, while we did find the store, they did not appear to have any raw denim, which was sad.
The weather was a bit iffy all morning, but it had cleared up enough by the time we were done shopping that we decided to hop on a 90 minute Wendella boat tour of the Chicago River and Lake Michigan. It was a fun way to spend the afternoon, and gave us a different perspective on the city. It was also very hot and sunny, and we both walked away with slight sunburns.
In the evening, we met up with our friend Cari, who lives in the city, for a night of deep-dish pizza and comedy. For the former, we went to Gino’s East on Wells, which featured not only some pretty good pizza but a nice beer selection and permission to draw on the walls.
For the latter, we went to see Taming of the Flu at the legendary Second City. It was pretty much everything we’d hoped it would be, and more, with the first acts consisting of very funny scripted sketches and well-defined improv, with the last act being a more experimental improv workshop to help the cast write their next show. The only downside was the loud, drunken family in the very front, who didn’t seem to understand that one of your group being invited to interact with the actors doesn’t imply that all of your group is free to shout whatever you want. Happily, these folks were asked to leave before the third act, leaving everyone much relived.
We ended our night with an L ride back to the hotel. It was a great way to finish out our time in Chicago, but we were looking forward to the trip to Wisconsin the next day. And I have it on good authority that Ellen will be filling you in about that next.