Monday, April 27, 2009

Westward Ho!

Monday morning, January 5, we left Brian’s parents’ house and set off westward, back home to Seattle. One last time, we wiggled and jiggled, shuffled and crammed, and managed to fit everything in to poor Caroline, who was about ready to bust at the seams. In addition to all the stuff we’d been traveling with, we’d picked up items that had been stored at our parents’ houses as well as Christmas presents. Whew – it was amazing that it fit. The car hadn’t been that full since we left Seattle originally.

The morning was frigid but the skies were clear. Our first couple hours of driving were spent navigating around the southwest side of Chicago until we got to I-90. From that point, the way back to Seattle was all interstate; we’d be on I-90 or I-94 for the rest of our trip. We stopped for a late lunch and to stretch our legs in Madison, Wisconsin. We found a cute little Asian place on State Street named Chin’s Asia Fresh and split a plate of noodles. After lunch, we walked a bit before deciding we were freezing and it was time to be on our way. The rest of the day passed uneventfully and we spent the night in St. Cloud, Minnesota.

Tuesday, the weather continued to hold clear and very cold – good weather for driving with the heat blowing full blast. It was an exciting day – we made it to North Dakota, which for each of us was the last state that we hadn’t been in before. Brian had claimed when we got to Vermont that he had seen all 50 states, but in talking to his father over the holidays, he’d determined that he hadn’t actually ever been to North Dakota. There’s not a whole lot of scenery driving across most of North Dakota in the winter. It was pretty flat and windy. Nonetheless, we were excited to complete our lifetime tour of the U.S.

Since Tuesday was a short day of driving, we stopped for several hours in Bismarck. Our first stop was the North Dakota Heritage Center. The Heritage Center is a sizeable (and free) look at North Dakota’s history, from the Cretaceous Period through the early 1900s. Some of the most interesting exhibits were about the various Indian tribes who once inhabited North Dakota and their way of life as well as the exhibits depicting life for the early European settlers. The museum was light on exhibit cases and instead had numerous full-scale recreations of scenes from various eras. It was quite fascinating.

We’d worked up an appetite while at the museum, so we asked at the front desk where we’d find restaurants nearby. We were excited to discover a BW-3. We got our last good wing fix for a while (Seattle doesn’t have any great wing places like BW-3) and eventually continued on our way to Dickinson, where we planned to stop for the night.

We choose Dickinson because it is conveniently located just east of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Since the park is practically on the highway, we figured we’d stop for one last national park visit of our trip. Unfortunately, the weather forecast for the next day didn’t look as nice as the previous couple of days had been.

The next morning, we were up bright and early and the skies still looked good, so we decided to chance it and stop at the park despite the ominous forecast. We got to the visitors center in the South Unit of the park just as it was opening. The place was deserted except for a couple of rangers who pointed us to the 13-miles of the south scenic drive that was open.

The best light of the morning was while we were still on the highway, but as we drove along the scenic loop, the sky still had hints of pink.

IMG_1138 by PunIntented
Here’s Sarah, fiddling with her camera and freezing:

IMG_1140 by PunIntented
We saw lots of buffalo along the drive.

IMG_1143 by PunIntented
IMG_1147 by PunIntented
And some more snow-covered badlands:

IMG_7273 by you.
IMG_7287 by PunIntented
There was also a field full of elk.

IMG_7290 by PunIntented
This bird was perched by the road. We couldn’t identify it, but had fun watching for the few minutes he stuck around.

IMG_7299 by PunIntented
IMG_7303 by PunIntented
Near the end, we saw more elk just barely visible on a hill. It took a lot of zoom to tell them from the trees.

IMG_7304 by PunIntented
Though much of the park was closed, it was fun to experience it in the winter. We saw a grand total of two other cars our entire time there, which is practically unheard of for a national park. The scenery was good and the wildlife was abundant. Grudgingly, we left the park behind and continued west.

Shortly, we cross the border into Montana. At that point, the weather deteriorated rapidly, which was particularly unfortunate since we still had a long way to go for the day. The wind was howling and snow was blowing – not much fun for driving. It definitely made for slow going. Eventually, visibility improved but the roads remained snowy for the rest of our trip into Missoula. The mountains in Montana are stunning in the winter, but you don’t really want to be driving through them during or right after a snow storm.

It was early evening by the time we finally reached Missoula and we were both beat. We checked into the accommodations for the night, which were significantly nicer than the unexciting cheap chain motels we’d been in the previous couple of nights. We were happy to discover that there was a MacKenzie River Pizza place just a few blocks away. We’d eaten at a MacKenzie River Pizza in Bozeman earlier in the year and had hoped to stop there on the way to Missoula. The weather had deterred us though and we’d continued driving straight through to Missoula.

Refueled with pizza, we headed back to the motel where we discovered that massive storms and flooding had turned Seattle in to a virtual island. Of all the aspects of our trip back across the northern U.S. in the middle of the winter, Washington had not been the part we were concerned about. Eventually, we decided that we’d better get some sleep and we’d check conditions again in the morning and figure out what to do then.

The next morning, all reports were that both east-west passes were still closed due to flooding, mudslides, and avalanches. Nobody seemed sure of exactly when they’d reopen. We decided that we should cover some ground early in the day though, in the hopes that at least one pass would open in the afternoon.

We got to Spokane in the late morning and found a Starbucks so we could check the conditions. The passes were still closed, so we spent a couple hours hanging out there then went to Applebees for lunch to use a gift card we had. Still unable to get home, we decided to go shop the REI super-clearance sale. That was good fun – we found a couple of new three-person tents and some other random stuff. Periodically, Sarah would call the traffic hotline and hear that the passes were still closed. We’d driven 1750 miles from Chicago and were now stuck in Spokane with a mere 250 miles to go, over 100 miles of which was closed highway.

Eventually, we decided to get a place to stay in Spokane for the night. When we arrived at the motel and checked in, we discovered Highway 2, over Stevens Pass, had reopened a couple of hours earlier. We were annoyed that the website had been updated but the phone message hadn’t, though it was probably for the best anyway because it would have been quite late by the time we made it back to Seattle if we’d left when the pass opened.

The next morning, we got up around 4 AM, hoping to beat the rush of traffic we expected over the pass. With both passes closed since Tuesday, it seemed like traffic could be a nightmare. Surprisingly enough, traffic was good until we hit the Monroe area, where it came to a grinding halt. It took us an hour just to get through Monroe. Ugh.

Finally, we arrived back home in Seattle. Our fifteen months on the road was at an end. All in all, we drove 38,648 miles, making nearly two complete loops around the country. We saw 32 National Parks, 14 National Monuments, 44 states, and countless National Forests and lands of assorted other “national” designations. What an amazing adventure it was!


We had a nice relaxing visit with Brian’s parents over Christmas. Brian got to play lots of games of pool with his dad, and many games of rummy with his mom.

Early on, the weather was a bit sketchy – biting cold and rain freezing rain, and Brian and his dad got to spend time bonding while breaking up the ice in the driveway. We started using the treadmill in the basement for exercise because it was just too cold to run outside.

Brian’s sister Christie came home a few days after we got there, and by Christmas everyone was ready for the big day. We woke before dawn and lit the tree.

IMG_1024 by PunIntented
Our stockings sat waiting for us to dig in.

IMG_1030 by PunIntented
Sarah curled up with a blanket while she waited for the rest of the family to wake up.

IMG_1025 by PunIntented
It wasn’t long before Christie was ready for her morning coffee, and of course we had to add a little Christmas spirit to it in the form of Bailey’s.

IMG_1029 by PunIntented
Before opening presents, we took a few family pictures by the tree. Christie and us:

IMG_1039 by PunIntented
Brian’s parents:

IMG_1045 by PunIntented
Then we opened our Christmas cards. Christie liked her card comparing George Bush to a monkey.

IMG_1051 by PunIntented
Finally, the time had come! Time to open the gifts! We’ve become more orderly in our gift unwrapping than we used to be – generally taking turns instead of all tearing into the wrapping paper madly. Brian gave Sarah a classic book of Washington hikes.

IMG_1063 by PunIntented
Christie got a package of “Christie”-brand cookies, which we picked up for her while we were in Canada.

IMG_1067 by PunIntented
Sarah gave Brian a book that perfectly fit our year of traveling.

IMG_7208 by PunIntented
Brian also got some Toasted Oats. We think there was a present inside the box, but we’re not sure anymore.

IMG_7213 by PunIntented
Christie was apparently a mad knitter in the months leading up to Christmas. She made golf club head covers for Dad.

IMG_7209 by PunIntented
A hat for Mom.

IMG_1088 by PunIntented
A sweater for Dad.

IMG_7222 by PunIntented
IMG_1097 by PunIntented
A sweater for Mom.

IMG_1098 by PunIntented
Here’s Dad with his ensemble of knitted items.

IMG_7223 by PunIntented
After we had opened our gifts, drunk too much Bailey’s, and eaten way too many Turtles, Brian’s grandparents arrived. Here’s Brian with his grandfather.

IMG_7227 by PunIntented
Brian’s aunt Pam and uncle Ron also came over.

IMG_7232 by PunIntented
IMG_1111 by PunIntented
Grammy enjoyed opening her presents.

IMG_1113 by PunIntented
IMG_7231 by PunIntented
And Grampy made out well, as always.

IMG_1120 by PunIntented
The unwrapping of knitted items continued unabated.

IMG_1121 by PunIntented

Sarah took advantage of breaks in the action to take some close-up photos of the ornaments on the tree.

IMG_7237 by PunIntented
IMG_7245 by PunIntented
After opening this second round of presents, everyone was famished when we finally ate Christmas brunch around 1:00 in the afternoon, so we all agreed it was the best Christmas brunch ever.

We stayed with Brian’s parents through the end of the month to celebrate Brian’s dad’s birthday. One day, we all drove out to Starved Rock State Park, where we were supposed to be able to see bald eagles. We did see a couple, but spent most of our time looking out over the flooded Illinois River.

IMG_1125 by PunIntented
IMG_1128 by PunIntented
After a restful stay in Illinois, we finally set out on Monday, January 5, to begin our final drive across the country to Seattle.

Saturday, December 27, 2008


On Saturday morning, December 13, we set out from Maine to begin the final cross-country journey of our long adventure, which would eventually land us in Seattle in January. The backroads driving through Maine and New Hampshire was beautiful and just a little sketchy, with some snow still piled on the roads. As we neared Canada, we drove through a couple miles of Vermont, which would have been unremarkable, except for the fact that Brian had been in all of the other 49 states at one time or another in his life, so now, after 30 years of occasional traveling and a bit over a year of constant traveling, he had completed his lifetime traversal of the U.S.! Sarah was close, with just two to go: Michigan and North Dakota.

The border crossing turned out to be a small-time affair, with only one lane. That’s one lane, total – not even one lane in each direction. We weren’t sure what would happen if someone tried to cross in the other direction while we were occupying the lane, but in the 10 minutes or so that we were there, we didn’t find out – no one else arrived to cross the border, in either direction. When we first arrived, we weren’t even sure what to do – there were no border guards in sight, just a little warming hut. Were we even supposed to stop? Should we pull in to the left of the stop sign or to the right? But as we slowly pulled up, a guard emerged from the hut to talk to us. He turned out to be very friendly and had a great French Canadian accent. We chatted for a bit, he scanned our passports, and we were on our way. It was actually a pleasant border crossing experience – a far cry from the major crossings where you wait in line for half an hour, only to be greeted by a gruff crossing guard who’s probably been trained to intimidate your deep dark secrets out of you. (“Oh, OK, you win – I really do have 26 cans of beer in the cooler, not my allotted 24. And fine, you can have the orange that I bought in Canada and was going to smuggle back to the States!”) The Canadian guards always seem friendlier than the American guards, but still, this small-time crossing may have been our nicest ever.

Covered in snow, Quebec was simply gorgeous, although its roads were even less well-plowed than those in the U.S. Eventually, we made it to a major highway and continued on our way, making faster time with lower-stress driving but without anywhere near the same scenery.

We were planning to meet Brian’s cousin in Ottawa at 5 PM, but we arrived a bit earlier than expected, so we decided to check out the Parliament buildings. As we drove through, we found that Canada’s government buildings look nothing like America’s – no white stone or neoclassical architecture.

IMG_1013 by PunIntented
IMG_1014 by PunIntented
IMG_1020 by PunIntented
We found a parking place and walked through the bracing cold to check out the buildings up close. Unfortunately, the Parliament building was closed to visitors for the day, but we stood inside for a few minutes anyway to warm up before making the trek through the cold back to our car.

Brian hadn’t seen his cousin Nicole in years, and he’d never met her husband Marcel or their two-and-a-half-year-old son Niko. Even better, Nicole’s father Ulysses was visiting from Greece for the holidays, and Brian couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen his uncle – Brian was probably only a few years old. We arrived at their house just after five to a warm welcome from all, especially Niko, who was clearly not at all shy around new people. Soon, we headed out to Nicole and Marcel’s favorite Greek restaurant for a fantastic dinner of many shared plates of Greek appetizers. Cheese was set on fire, much to Niko’s delight, as we all shouted “Opa!” It was a lovely meal in a cozy restaurant with warm company – a perfect antidote to the day’s disagreeable weather and long drive.

Nicole and Marcel took us out for breakfast the next morning as well. They were on a first-name basis with the wait staff at the restaurant, and when Niko’s favorite waitress showed up for her shift, she was carrying a wrapped present – a Tonka truck for Niko! We ate another good meal with great conversation, and learned that when you’re the guests of a Greek family, you don’t pay for anything. We thoroughly enjoyed our visit to Ottawa and wished we could have stayed longer, but after thanking Nicole and Marcel profusely for their hospitality, we headed back out on the road, planning to stay somewhere in Michigan for the night before finishing our trip to the Chicago area for Christmas.

The drive was long, but we did manage to take a few breaks. At a bathroom break somewhere in Ontario, we happened upon a Wal-Mart and decided to do some shopping for Canadian Christmas presents – Christie cookies (maple cookies) for Brian’s sister Christie and Caramilk bars for all. Some may think that the American version, Caramello, is the same thing, but Caramilk always tastes better for some reason.

When we arrived at the border, we crossed the Blue Water Bridge, from Sarnia, Ontario, to Port Huron, Michigan, and atop the bridge, we got a great view of Lake Huron. On the American side of the bridge, we wandered through the duty-free store and acquired a bottle of Bailey’s, then waited the requisite half hour or more in line before finally making it to the front of the customs and immigration line. We were a bit fearful when the guard asked Brian to roll down the back window so he could peer inside, and Brian had to warn him that our cargo, piled floor to ceiling behind the front seats, might spill out. The guard asked why we were carrying so much stuff, and Brian explained. Satisfied, the guard let us through. Whew! If he had decided to search our car, we could have been stuck there for days!

It was getting dark, but we still felt pretty good, so we decided to try to charge through to Illinois tonight, rather than staying in a cheap motel and finishing our drive the next day. We recharged with value-menu items at a Wendy’s and called up Brian’s parents to ask if we could arrive around 10:30 PM. They were surprised but said it was no problem. This day was much warmer than the previous one, so the roads were good, and the only hazard to deal with was rain, which got harder as we entered Illinois. But after a long, exhausting drive, we finally made it to Brian’s parents’ house and snuggled up in bed, happy that we wouldn’t have to get up and drive again the next day.