There and Back Again:
Our Trip West, June-July 2003

by Michelle Erica Green

We left Potomac around 2 p.m. on Thursday, June 26th after a hectic morning -- I had stitches out in my throat from having had a mole removed but my doctor didn't have the biopsy results yet, which meant having to worry about it on vacation -- given the family propensity for melanoma, not something I was happy about. We drove for about three hours to a lakeside KOA outside of Madison, Pennsylvania (sort of near Pittsburgh), beautifully wooded so despite being relatively crowded we had plenty of private space. We took the kids swimming, then made hot dogs and s'mores over the fire once the sun had gone down and the 90 degree heat dropped into the 70s. It rained overnight, so the temperature was nice and cool when we woke. There were rabbits in many of the open spaces and blueberries growing by the lake. I took the kids to the playground while Paul loaded the car.

Friday we drove through the tip of West Virginia into Ohio, where we had lunch at a rest stop built on Native American burial grounds that were being excavated by a local archaeological group, which was sort of neat but rather disturbing -- who's the genius that failed to realize this when planning the rest area? Then we headed to Terre Haute, Indiana, where I met my friend Deborah who had driven in from Bloomington. We went out for Chinese buffet (the kids' choice) and hung out comparing notes on our last trips; I had brought her stuff from England, she had brought me stuff from IU.

Saturday after breakfast with Deborah we drove through Illinois into Missouri, where we had lunch in Jefferson Park and went to see the Arch, though we didn't wait the more-than-an-hour to ride the elevator to the top. It was a gorgeous day, mid-70s, the Mississippi was muddy and beautiful. We really enjoyed the museum of the history of the West beneath the arch, which traces both the Lewis and Clark expedition and the history of conquest in a giant circular room filled with artifacts.

From there we drove to Springfield, where Paul's cousin Todd lives with his wife and three kids (12, 7 and 6). They have a big backyard with a swingset and basement playroom and the kids hit it off immediately by pulling out their Yu-Gi-Oh cards. We had a barbecue and then drove into Ozark, where Todd is the GM of the Ozark Mountain Ducks. The team was away so we got a complete tour of the stadium and the kids got to play on an actual minor league field. They played half the night and we finally threw them all into bed, though the dog, two cats and a bird provided plenty of late-night distraction.

I did have a brief moment of misery when my dermatologist called me on Saturday evening with the results of my biopsy from the week before -- which was abnormal but not malignant, meaning more surgery on returning home. We were driving through the mountains when he tried to call, so he left a message on my voicemail, and by the time I got it he had left the office. I called his emergency cell number which he sounded none too pleased about and he didn't remember my results at first but he said that if it had been melanoma he would have remembered. Just the kind of stress I do not want on vacation.

Sunday after spending the morning and having brunch with Todd, Stephanie et al, we drove into Oklahoma, stopping for lunch in a wooded rest stop and eating the rest of the chicken Stephanie had barbecued for us the night before as well as some of her cheesecake. We then headed directly for the KOA in Clinton/Elk City, with a brief stop at a Cherokee trading outpost where the kids were thrilled to find toy bows and arrows. So I had two people who thought they were Legolas shooting at plastic targets in front of our cabin. We took the kids swimming, heated canned spaghetti over a gas burner because there were no open fire pits, and I fell asleep ridiculously early while the rest were out taking showers.

I woke up at about 1 a.m., walked outside and saw a thousand times more stars than can be seen in the suburbs; I always forget what the sky looks like in the middle of the prairie until we're back there, and then it's incredible. I was afraid I would wake everyone if I went to get my binoculars, though, and something medium-sized was digging in front of the cabin next to ours, so I decided to go back to sleep and save star-watching for Devil's Tower. In the morning we saw the biggest grasshoppers I have ever seen -- at least four inches long, with legs another inch or so -- and the kids found lots of larva casings on the playground before we left.

We drove to Amarillo, TX for lunch, where we ate at a Subway that was less than a mile from Cadillac Ranch. We'd been following I-40, which follows old Route 66 and in some places covers where the older highway used to run, so many of the same tourist traps are still there. Cadillac Ranch consists of ten Cadillacs planted upright in the ground by a group called Ant Farm in 1974; the tail fins had been painted black in memoriam for artist Doug Michels, one of Ant Farm's founders, who died two weeks ago, but the cars were already covered with new graffiti and tributes to Doug. Besides this stunning display of Americana and the yellow soil for which it is named, Amarillo is best known for being the site of an atrocious battle between the US Army and the Comanche and Kiowa nations who were refusing to be sent to reservations in Oklahoma, though there are maybe 100 words about that on the proud Texas historical plaque by the Texas Trading Post.

The geography changed fantastically as we drove: from slightly hilly and grassy in Oklahoma to completely flat and treeless through the upper part of Texas, with only scrubby bushes and cows to break the monotony. Then as we entered New Mexico it became hilly and drier, until we were seeing huge mesas with red and yellow stratified rock covered by a variety of evergreen with which I am not familiar. There were antelope grazing at the side of the road as well as long-horn cattle, horses, and occasionally prowling hawks. The kids decided that we should watch Spirit: Stallion of the Cimmaron as we drove in honor of the landscape, so that was my soundtrack through eastern New Mexico.

In the car I finished Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix -- loved it, thought it was better edited than Goblet of Fire and while I didn't think it was either as tightly written nor as creative as Prisoner of Azkaban this is the first time I've wanted to read one of Rowling's books again immediately after finishing it. Am sure I will have more coherent thoughts on it when I have more time to think coherently. The day before I attacked OOTP behind my kids' back as I am supposed to be reading it aloud to them and not rushing ahead, I finished Dan Brown's Digital Fortress which was a good fun thriller but already dated and nowhere near as creative as Angels and Demons or The Da Vinci Code which was my last vacation read.

I got no writing done besides e-mail and these trip reports -- no fiction, no reviews. Heard about Katharine Hepburn's death, which made me sad, but she had a long, full life and will be long remembered, as will her films. I did get a phone message from my doctor telling me that he had my full biopsy results and that my mole was in the moderate range for abnormality, meaning that it likely wouldn't have caused any real trouble for 5-10 years but he still wanted to biopsy the surrounding tissue and take a closer look at pretty much every blemish on my body. Put me somewhat out of the mood to go to the beach in L.A. unless we got rain. We had a replay of our weather in England thus far on the drive west -- gorgeous, sunny -- so I was glad I did not complain about all the rain that D.C. had in the spring.

After a brief stop in Clives Corner for incense, taffy and beaded necklaces, we drove through to Albuquerque, where the overpasses are decorated in southwest colors and designs -- dark pink with blue trim, mostly. We took the kids swimming at the hotel and ate Thai noodles for dinner in our suite (suites pay for themselves on long trips by making dining out unnecessary!) I snuck out to get Paul an anniversary card for the next morning, having forgotten the one I bought him at home on the kitchen table, but could only find cowboy and cowgirl cards -- oh well! We talked briefly to my Uncle Mickey to make plans to meet up in Las Vegas in two days and then again in L.A. over the weekend, and wrote postcards.

I had forgotten that we would gain an hour crossing the timeline, so the sun remained up forever, it seemed. We decided to drive into Old Town Albuquerque, since we would have little time in the morning and it might be our only chance to see it. We went to the 1706 Church of San Felipe de Neri, walked through the courtyard and wandered by Mexican-looking storefronts with chili peppers hanging from the roof. I bought Paul a Zuni bear fetish as an anniversary present as we have lots of private jokes about bears (hence our master AOL account, ThePooh). We went to sleep quite late, then got up quite early on Tuesday -- our anniversary -- to drive through to Arizona.

Adam had to go to the bathroom in the middle of nowhere so we stopped in a tiny Indian town surrounded by rocky hills, about two miles from the highway off old Route 66, where I think I may have seen a roadrunner dashing between the rocks. The town had about four functional buildings -- a general store/post office/gas station/horseshoe fitting station, a bar, and a pottery outlet, plus the shed with the public restroom -- surrounded by ranches, ruined brick houses and huge desert rocks. We also passed enormous black lava beds before crossing the New Mexico border. Route 40 parallels not only Route 66 but the railroad, so we got to see eight or nine huge trains with double cars and multiple engines pulling freight across the desert.

In Arizona we headed to Petrified Forest National Park, which encompasses the Painted Desert, where we ate lunch under a shaded pavilion and admired the stratified rock. There are vast quantities of petrified wood all around on the ground, but we were afraid even to pick it up to photograph it as park rangers ask you both upon entering and exiting the park whether you know the rules about collecting ($275 fine and jail, at minimum). We bought the kids samples instead. The sky was so blue and the rock was so pink that it was hard to look at without sunglasses, and it must have been close to 100 degrees in the sun, though there was a nice breeze under the pavilion.

We decided to bypass the meteor crater, which is privately owned and costs a fortune, so that we could see Wupatki National Monument and Sunset Crater Volcano. Wupatki is an ancient pueblo in the shadow of a volcano that less than a thousand years ago spewed lava all over the nearby hills, leaving an enormous lava flow now being reclaimed by a pine forest (the only evergreens for miles around. Our feet ended up very black despite wearing shoes. From there we drove into Grand Canyon National Park, stopping at several of the lookout points and eating dinner at the watchtower before checking into Thunderbird Lodge, which sits on the south rim of the canyon. After sunset we walked in rapidly cooling temperatures under a crescent moon around the rim, where bats flew out of the shrubs and deer wandered across the paths. Later I walked out to see the stars and discovered more deer eating the well-manicured lawn of the lodge. The sky was perfectly clear and I saw the Milky Way as spectacularly as I ever have with the naked eye.

Wednesday we got up early to see the canyon in morning sunlight, though it was already bright before 6. There was a condor flying around just below the lip of the canyon which was my thrill of the trip. We had breakfast in one of the Bright Angel lodge restaurants, walked around the canyon rim a bit, bought sun hats which I should have done the day before, then packed up and drove to Kingman, Arizona where we had lunch en route to Las Vegas. The landscape changed from heavily forested to hilly to flat desert with cactus and yucca to barren rock as we briefly entered California, which is the most direct route to Vegas from the Grand Canyon.

We checked into Treasure Island and immediately went to the huge pool, where the kids spent most of the time on the waterslide. The hotel itself was beautiful, enormous and mobbed; everyone has to walk through the banks of slot machines and the shopping arcade to get from the elevators to the pool, front desk and everywhere else, and it feels very playful but at the same time high-energy and stressful; I don't understand why people I know in L.A. come to Las Vegas to relax!

My uncle Mickey, his wife Lesley and their son Garrett were staying at Treasure Island too (we were originally planning to stay at the Hilton, site of the Star Trek Experience, but switched so that we could all meet up. We missed each other at the pool, played phone tag and finally made plans to hook up for breakfast the next morning since they were going out with friends tonight. Treasure Island has a pirate show every hour, Mandalay has a shark habitat, plus there are about a dozen kid-appropriate shows in the neighboring hotels, so even though we couldn't go into the casinos with the boys, there were almost too many choices for evening entertainment (and a Ben and Jerry's right downstairs within Treasure Island as well as the ubiquitous Starbucks).

We went to Star Trek: The Experience at the Hilton, first eating dinner at Quark's Bar. Paul and I split a virgin Warp Core Breach, a massive fruity drink that I gather usually includes a lot of alcohol, and we had stuffed shrimp that were surprisingly good while the kids had corn dogs and we all watched Generations on the big screen. Then we went through the Experience itself, which was a total blast and I felt like such a fan girl. It's almost worth the price of admission just for the Trek museum at the start, a massive timeline which now includes Enterprise and dozens of props, costumes and documents from the films...then the ride, which is mostly smoke, mirrors and shaking floors but quite convincing and Adam was shrieking with glee (Daniel had his fingers in his ears, rather overwhelmed by it all, though upon leaving he announced that he wanted to see the Locutus of Borg episodes so we must have done something right!)

Instead of coming straight back to the hotel, we drove up the strip. I wanted to see the Flamingo and the fake New York skyline of New York, New York, which has replicas of the Brooklyn Bridge and the Statue of Liberty in front. Paris, meanwhile, has an Eiffel Tower, while Caesars Palace, Circus Circus, etc. just have phenomenally tacky displays of lights and colorful billboards. The Mirage, which is next door to Treasure Island, has a big fake volcano fountain out front which was "erupting" with fireworks as we drove by, and Treasure Island itself has a pirate show that can be seen from the street. We decided that we were sold on the Mirage Siegfried and Roy posters and that we would have to see the lion and dolphin exhibit after breakfast with my uncle the next morning. I began to suspect that I would get through Vegas without losing so much as a quarter to the thousands of slot machines; why waste money gambling that could be wasted on shows, food, and tacky Trek souvenirs like the Bajoran earring and Romulan Ale that I bought at the Star Trek Experience? An entire town designed for entertainment -- what a concept!

On Thursday morning we met my relatives for breakfast at one of the restaurants in Treasure Island, where we gorged ourselves on pancakes and eggs (mine were poached with hollandaise). Mickey and Paul chatted about relatives, Lesley and I played a couple of cards of Keno and Garrett and the boys discussed GameBoy and Yu-Gi-Oh, the universal language of children at present. Then we said goodbye to them for a couple of days, as they were off to a shark show with their friends who were in town, and we took our kids over to the Mirage via the tram connecting the two hotels so we could see Siegfried and Roy's white tiger and the huge gardens in the atrium. While there we decided that we really could not leave Vegas without playing at least a couple of slot machines, so I won -- wait for it -- $1.25, thus allowing us to break even. Lesley had lost about $100 the night before at the card tables so I was just as glad not to have gambled. We were still full from breakfast so instead of lunch we had Ben & Jerry's and wandered into a few of the shops in Treasure Island, where the kids bought pirate toys.

After one more ride down the strip, we headed toward L.A., stopping at the onetime ghost town of Calico which is now a restored tourist trap but at least didn't cost anything to visit. There's a good collection of artifacts and most of the buildings are original, though they now house shops selling contemporary Old West collectibles, candles, candy, etc. It was worth spending an hour visiting, but I'd advise anyone with more travel time to look up the locations of actual (non-renovated) ghost towns, which are surely much further off the highway than convenient Calico. In case anyone is wondering why there aren't more reports on Native American sites in this trip account, it's for similar reasons of time and accessibility during our rush down I-40 and I-15. Even at reservation visitor centers and at the Grand Canyon, the museums and shops are geared for tourists, and you don't get much of a sense of contemporary Native American life beyond what can be gleaned from conversations with people working there; real Navajo culture can't be assimilated at a roadside stand filled with beadwork and pottery, though we did enjoy what we saw.

We made it to L.A. in the early evening (yes, we were singing "Ventura highway in the sunshine..." as we drove in, though we watched The Fellowship of the Ring most of the way in the car). We went out for dinner at the mall in Northridge because we were too tired to look for anything more exciting. Driving to the Foleys' house felt like a sort of homecoming at this point, as this makes four times in three years we've stayed with them, in every season now -- first for family weddings and now to see the babies resulting from those weddings. Because we knew our friends had concert tickets for the evening, we drove around and did some sightseeing in the Valley near USCN. The kids, who were completely fried from staying up much too late in Vegas, became insanely rambunctious, so after awhile we went back to the house to throw in laundry and get organized for the Fourth of July.

We had a very low-key Independence Day. The Foleys brought in donuts for breakfast, the kids played Playstation and Nintendo together, then moved on to ping-pong and various other outdoor sports, during the course of which Adam broke a flip-flop. So we ran out to Target to get new pool shoes and a Thomas the Tank Engine outfit for my cousin Felicia's baby before going swimming in the afternoon. The Foleys took us out for Mexican food for dinner, then we drove over a bridge in the Valley where we parked illegally and watched fireworks launched at a nearby church. When we went back we watched a couple of episodes of Sci-Fi's Twilight Zone marathon.

Saturday we took the Foleys out to breakfast at a place with wonderful spiced buttermilk muffins among the usual eggs, pancakes, breakfast fries, etc. Lynda was packing to take their older son to a summer program in Berkeley, so we said goodbye to them early in the afternoon and headed up to Mickey and Lesley's house in Stevenson Ranch. We took the kids to a local park in scorching heat for awhile in the afternoon.

My adult cousins Felicia and Allison, their husbands and Felicia's baby Benny all came over for dinner along with Lesley's brother Jerry. Lesley and Mickey barbecued and the rest of us caught up while Garrett and the boys kept themselves entertained. In the evening we discovered Star Trek: First Contact on television and ended up watching the whole thing with Daniel, who is turning into a proper Trek geek, as is only fitting considering that his parents started dating after discovering mutual Trek geekdom.

Sunday morning Lesley made us breakfast and then drove us to see where she and Mickey are building their new house, about ten minutes further into the hills in horse country past Magic Mountain. Their new home is at the top of a rise overlooking a valley and looks like it is going to be spectacular when finished; whirpool bath, big walk-in closets, kitchen island, backyard pool and patio. From there we drove to my brother in law David's house in Sherman Oaks, around the corner from where Felicia lives. David's wife Molly made vegan hot dogs while we played with their baby Lukas and Molly's daughters Noelle and Maddie (Noelle, 16, is a Harry Potter and LOTR fan so we had lots to chat about; Maddie is Adam's age and they chased each other all over the house.)

We headed briefly for the zoo, which was very hot and very crowded, and when they gave us a hard time about accepting our reciprocal membership with the National Zoo, we said the heck with it and came back to swim. After a long delightful lazy afternoon in the pool, we went out for Mexican food -- David and his family ate vegan, I had a fish taco and the kids had steak tacos and enchiladas. Then we went to a local park where we all hung out with bare feet in the sand and played until it got dark. The kids got along in stellar fashion despite the fact that they only met once before, at David and Molly's wedding sixteen months ago. But Lukas is adorable, Adam and Maddie had a great time torturing each other (they slept in the same room and watched parts of Spy Kids together while Daniel took a bath), both being annoyed about being upstaged by babies and both wanting attention and more activity than any of us tired adults could provide in the late afternoon. Noelle has her room covered with photos of Orlando Bloom and various other LOTR actors; she and I discussed our mutual desire to see Pirates of the Caribbean when it opened that Wednesday.

Monday morning we drove into Hollywood, where we met my friend Shaolin for lunch. We stopped in a bunch of tourist shops and the store at the Hollywood Museum, then took a few pictures in front of El Capitan (currently showing Finding Nemo to huge crowds) and with Darth Vader's autograph and Harrison Ford's footprints in front of the Chinese theater (Harrison Ford has VERY big feet), but all the museums were quite expensive and we'd been in several on the last trip, so we decided to skip the Guinness Book of World Records museum and Ripley's Believe It Or Not in favor of going back to swim again and hang out with the cousins. Though it was very hot on the Walk of Fame, in the shade of the backyard it was cool and delightful, and I spent a lot of time just lounging in the pool on a noodle watching dragonflies. We had dinner at Maria's, an excellent Valley restaurant, with my Aunt Carol, her husband Jeffrey, and my cousin Felicia and her baby, as well as David, Molly and their kids. Carol took everyone out even though she had never met Paul's relatives before; I think she was impressed with my brother in law's credentials as a chef, as she's a caterer locally.

Though it was after 8 when we left the restaurant, we then drove to Santa Monica. Paul and I had never been there and wanted to see it before we left, since we weren't sure when we'd be back despite our track record of four trips west in three years. It was fully night by the time we parked and took about 15 minutes to walk to the pier. Once we arrived I immediately walked down the boardwalk steps to put my feet in the Pacific; no amusement park was going to tempt me away from the ocean, even at night on a beach where I doubted I wanted to know what some of the things stuck in the sand might be. It smelled strongly of ocean and boardwalk -- fried food, popcorn, sweat -- and the crowds were substantial even though it was a weeknight. I tried taking photos of the light displays from the pier, which rivaled Vegas in places. Santa Monica is a study in contrasts: expensive stores and lots of tourists alongside the largest homeless population I've seen anywhere outside certain sections of D.C. After we walked on the beach while David and Molly took Maddie on one of the rides, we stopped in McDonald's because Adam needed a bathroom and I got into a conversation with two very young, clearly homeless kids who said they had moved there (I suspect ran away to there) and found that none of their L.A. dreams came true. Really sad.

Tuesday morning we woke, at breakfast, packed, said sad goodbyes to Paul's relatives and drove out of L.A. toward the north. The landscape changed slowly from mountainous desert to less mountainous desert to farmland (we passed a huge cattle farm that could be smelled for miles before it could be seen) to green fields to hilly irrigated agriculture until finally, as we approached Sacramento, there were more evergreens than palms and large green bushes instead of brush. We continued on to Willows, where we checked into an interim motel, took the kids swimming and ate for dinner the lunch we had packed for a picnic, only to discover that the mid-state rest stops were closed. We found Star Trek: The Next Generation and then Star Wars: Attack of the Clones on cable for evening entertainment.

On Wednesday morning we progressed through Northern California into Oregon, watching a landscape of roadside cows and sunflowers with pink bushes in the highway meridian slowly give way to pine and spruce forest. By the time we could see Mt. Shasta towering over the road, the trees were taller than they grow in my part of the Mid-Atlantic. We drove along upper Route 5 through gorgeous, mountainous lake country, stopping to take photos of Black Butte (a dark volcanic cliff covered with small rocks that tumble regularly down the steep sides) and Mt. Shasta (snow-covered and gleaming against a painfully blue sky) at a rest stop in Weed, California -- possibly my favorite city name ever.

From there, after a thrilling *ahem* lunch at Taco Bell, we drove to Rogue Gorge, where volcanic activity over thousands of years carved caves and passages which now enclose a hidden river. We hiked from the 90-degree parking lot to the much cooler embankment where the river emerges churning from a cave, creating rainbows with the spray. From this lovely vista we went on to Crater Lake, housed in the collapsed cone of another volcano, with water that seems unnaturally blue, and astonishing promontories and rock formations ringing it. As we drove up to the rim to look down at Wizard Island and the Phantom Ship -- both creations of underground lava flows that pushed up rocks in the lake -- we saw snow on the ground sheltered by the trees from the July heat. So of course we had to get out and have a snowball fight.

After making several stops around the rim of Crater Lake to see the cliffs, the water, the chipmunks and the birds (including a turkey vulture), we drove alongside a churning river through deep woods for a long stretch until we got to Roseburg. Here we checked into one of the nicer roadside motels, took the kids swimming, cooked noodles in the microwave and downloaded nearly 100 pictures of scenery from the digital camera.

Thursday we drove toward Portland, where I had hoped to meet up with my friend Tanya, but she had to pick someone up from the airport and we couldn't get the timing right. But by sheer chance, my friend Julie with whom I worked at had read my post that we would be passing through Portland. I thought she was still living in Seattle and had planned to call her when we got there, but she wrote to tell me that she was in Portland and asked whether I wanted to meet for lunch. So we drove into Portland and met her at Papa Haydn, a restaurant with some of the best desserts I have ever seen -- after a big lunch of salmon and pasta, Adam and I split a big piece of mint chocolate mousse and Daniel and Paul split some kind of triple chocolate concoction while Julie had a chocolate square filled with chocolate mousse. We wandered a bit afterward in the "Alphabet District," where the street names begin consecutively with alphabetical letters (we were in the Glisen/Hoyt/Irving area or something like that). The city looked fun and funky and I wished we had more time to see both it and Julie. Since I didn't get to see Tanya, I called her from the car so that at least I could hear her voice as we waited in traffic to cross the Oregon-Washington border.

Once across, we drove to the most accessible of the Mount St. Helens information centers, five miles off the highway -- the national monument is another 40 miles in, so we didn't have time actually to drive up to the volcano. Still, it could be seen from the road (against yet another perfect blue sky, broken only by the clouds converging above the mountain) and we watched it over the tops of pine trees. Some of the lower hills had been hacked up by loggers; we would pass one green hill next to another barren brown one. We paused at the information center to take a few photos and read the history of the volcano, whose eruption Paul and I both remember vividly from the news.

Then we headed on to Seattle, dwarfed by Mount Rainier on the horizon. Paul's grandmother, Aunt Jean and Uncle Bob, and cousin Craig and wife Lisa live in Bothell, so we stayed in a SpringHill Suites five minutes away from them (the proximity, indoor pool, continental breakfast and most importantly the huge suite made up for additional driving time to visit Paul's brother Jon, his wife Brooke and their twins over the weekend). Paul's parents were staying at a campground nearby in their trailer and came over after we improvised dinner of tuna on bagels -- we were still full from lunch -- before we all headed out to see Granny, Jean and Bob at their house. The boys ran around like lunatics in the back yard with Paul's parents' dog Ginger, then chased Jean and Bob's two cats around the house. The western horizon was still light when we left after 10 p.m.

On Friday morning, Paul's parents met us at the hotel and we drove downtown. The whole area seemed very green, a more consistent forest green than Maryland, given the preponderance of evergreens ringed by high white-capped mountains. We parked near the Space Needle and took the elevator ride to the top. The sky was cloudless, though the unusual lack of rain had left some hazy pollution that somewhat obscured our views of Mount Rainier and Mount Baker. We had a great view of the water, the buildings, the peninsulas and the stadiums, though. We also walked by the enormous and bizarre museum of music, a multicolored twisted metal building, that I really wanted to go inside but it would have cost over $100. So we skipped it and took the monorail to Pike's Market, from which we walked to the waterfront.

We had Malaysian food for lunch in one of the food courts dotting the market area, then got fantastic macaroons at Three Girls bakery which we ate on a bench overlooking the water, where a boat was towing a guy on a parachute high in the air above. Then we walked to Ye Olde Curiosity Shop (where I got my inevitable sculpture of Mount St. Helens made from volcanic ash), Occidental Square and Pioneer Square, which houses the Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park as well as a lot of homeless people. From there we took the trolley back to Pike's Market, where we had lemonade and browsed a bit among the fruit and fish stalls. We returned on the monorail in the late afternoon and the kids ran around in International Fountain at the site of the Seattle World's Fair -- an enormous erupting dome of water that sprays over a hundred feet in the air and creates rainbows all around. I also wandered into the Seattle Children's Theatre, which is also in the vast Seattle center complex.

After an hour of getting drenched in the fountain, the kids were so tired and the adults were so fried from sitting in the sun that we decided to come back to the hotel and just have packaged macaroni for dinner. We made that while doing laundry for the first time in over a week -- an absolute necessity! -- and the kids watched Jimmy Neutron. Then we all watched Next Gen while eating dessert and collapsed after all the laundry was folded.

Saturday was beach day. After breakfast Paul's parents met us at the hotel and we drove to Jon and Brooke's apartment in West Seattle, which took us around the hills on another perfect sunny day. After meeting our new nephews/cousins Holden and Noah, we drove to the beach at Alki, where we had lunch at Sunfish Seafood (fish and chips, salmon), then walked through a boardwalk art fair to the rocky shoreline where the tide was coming in. We could look across the water and see the Space Needle, downtown and far in the distance the outline of Mount Baker before clouds obscured it. The kids played in the water and built sandcastles while the adults took turns wandering through the stalls of artwork and getting iced frappacinos and chai at Starbucks -- we were told we could not pass through Seattle without at least one visit to a Starbucks.

Late in the afternoon we went back to Brooke and Jon's and sat around talking until our boys began to get restless, so we took them back to the hotel to the pool. The sky opened up for about three minutes as we drove -- the only hint of the rumored Seattle rain since we arrived -- and afterward a rainbow lit up the city as we drove away from the shore. We had to visit a food store to grab supplies for dinner and I was delighted to find both decaf Stash's licorice tea and Sun Dog hemp oil lotion, which I haven't seen in a store since Bar Harbor two summers ago. As I have said in every city with a waterfront that I have ever visited, I would move to Seattle in a minute if I could live on Puget Sound. The sky remained light till nearly 10 p.m., one of the advantages of being in the north in summer.

Sunday morning we went over to Aunt Jean and Uncle Bob's house for brunch, along with Paul's parents, Jon, Brooke and the babies, and cousin Craig and his wife Lisa. Jean made French toast casserole and some kind of quiche as well as apple-chicken sausage and other goodies. We sat around eating and chatting while the kids played Legos down the basement. I rocked Holden to sleep, and when he woke up on my shoulder he promptly threw up all over me -- I tried not to take it personally.

In the afternoon we went to the Woodland Park Zoo, where I met my friend Chris whom I had previously known only online. We chatted about music (she's a singer), work, movies, and life in Seattle around Daniel and Adam's excited announcements about what the animals were doing. It's a small but very nicely laid-out zoo where we saw a baby gorilla, a houseful of bats and other nocturnal animals, elephants in a replica of a Thai village, an aviary, a collection of bugs, and lots of snakes which made Adam very happy. It was another gorgeous day, temperatures in the high 70s, overcast so no sun headaches with a nice breeze, and I think the people who told us it rains all the time in Seattle are as silly as the ones who told us it rains all the time in London.

From the zoo we drove to Paul's parents' trailer at Lake Pleasant campground near Bothell, where we had hot dogs and s'mores on the grill and watched ducks waddle to the water. It was another beautiful, clear, cool evening and though the boys had been invited to sleep at the campground, they opted to return to the hotel so that they could swim in the indoor pool one more time and eat a big buffet breakfast the next morning. So after a trip to the grocery store to pick up provisions for camping in Idaho and Wyoming, we went back to swim.

Monday we had to check out by 11, so we had breakfast at the buffet in the hotel and then packed up the van. We met Paul's parents at Jean and Bob's house, where we picked up Granny and all went out to a fabulous Chinese buffet in Bothell. Afterwards the boys walked Ginger -- my in-laws' dog -- and we said goodbye. We drove to Ginkgo Petrified Forest State Park, where there's a huge preserve of petrified trees, a wider variety than are seen in most petrified forests which they suspect is the result of ancient floods that dragged trees down-river from the mountains and through the area. The park is small but very informative, and there's also a collection of Native American petroglyphs that were rescued from a valley that was later dammed in to create a lake.

Then we drove to Coeur D'Alene, Idaho, where we stayed at one of the most beautiful campgrounds I have ever seen. The tent area is on the shores of the river and offers boating and fishing in addition to a teepee, miniature golf and a playground, but the cabin area -- where we were, as we had decided before leaving that tent camping over a month with the possibility of rain just meant that everything we owned could end up mildewed -- was high on a hillside with a fabulous view of the mountains and lots of open space. Since we'd had such a big lunch, we had turkey sausage and cheese for dinner and then did a little hiking, a little swimming, a little mini-golf, and a campfire for s'mores.

The stars were glorious but we were surrounded by trees on all sides so we couldn't see Mars as it rose, though it's supposed to be large and spectacular in the northeast sky this month. I didn't mind, as there's nothing like being surrounded by massive pine trees and forest noises. We didn't see a lot of animals, just deer and chipmunk in the hills and red-winged blackbirds and assorted sparrows by the swamp. It was quite cool at night, temperatures in the 50s, and though the campground was quite full it was absolutely silent after 10 p.m. except for birds and insects.

Tuesday we had breakfast, hiked partway up the mountain so Adam could see the stratified rocks, then packed up and headed to Montana through the beautiful Idaho panhandle, on a road that wound through a pine forest between mountains past the oldest building in the state and the Cataldo Mission, a huge old church on a hillside that looked like a model train design. The entire town of Wallace in Shoshone County struck us that way as well -- as something concocted by someone setting up an HO-gauge model railroad. We stopped after lunch at the site of the onetime Bear Mouth trading post, then visited the Grant-Kohrs ranch, one of the largest cattle ranches in Montana in its day and now a cowboy history museum. It's in Deer Lodge, also the site of the Montana Territorial Prison -- which appears to have been modeled partly on the Tower of London, at least the outer wall, and is truly atrocious.

After an ice cream break we checked into a motel in Livingston, Montana. I was a bit puzzled as to why Paul wanted to stay in a motel instead of camping so close to Yellowstone...until I realized that the baseball All-Star Game was on. Not that it mattered since we had plans to camp at Devil's Tower the next night anyway. The kids swam in the little hotel pool, we cooked dinner in the little hotel kitchen, and we watched the goings-on at Comiskey Park, which I hoped to visit in a few days when we reached Chicago.

On Wednesday morning we drove past the Beartooth Mountains in Montana, making me nostalgic for Yellowstone -- the first time we went there the Beartooth Pass was closed due to snow, and we could see snow on the peaks even under the 90-degree Montana sun as we drove through hills nearly as dry as the southern desert. We stopped to have lunch at Little Bighorn National Monument. Though it was a beautiful day with a spotless blue sky and we ate in the shade of a tree, it's one of the saddest places I have ever been.

The museum reminded me of Holocaust museums I've been in more than Native American cultural centers; it's a documentation of the extermination of the people who lived on those plains for centuries, though it was originally built in commemoration of Custer and the U.S. soldiers who died fighting there. Now there's a Peace Monument in tribute to the Indian guides, but the site is still biased toward the invading army and the U.S. flag looks all wrong. The kids, interestingly, recognized the similarities between the history and the movie Spirit -- when I learned about Little Bighorn, it was from the perspective of Custer and the westward expansion as the important history and the Indians as the impediment to American progress.

From this sad place we drove past the Bighorn Mountains to my favorite spot on the planet: Devil's Tower. For anyone who has never been there, photos don't do it justice, nor does Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The colors of the landscape -- red bricklike stone making up the low rocky cliffs, mottled gray stone higher up, and the browns and beiges of the vertical rock of the tower -- constrast gorgeously with the leafy green trees ringing the campground, the dark green trees on the cliffs and the lighter green-gold grasses growing by the river. The tower dominates the landscape, looking slightly different from each angle. In the open areas the sky looks enormous. It was filled with dark thunderheads when we arrived, and in fact it drizzled a bit as we wound around from Gillette, Wyoming toward the park. Then, as we pulled into the campground parking lot, a huge rainbow spread across the eastern sky opposite the Tower, above the horses and behind the American flag.

We stayed in a cabin next to the one where we stayed four years ago on our Yellowstone trip. The tent sites are right underneath the mountain, while the cabins are just behind those, separated by a circle of trees, backing up to the Belle Fourche River. Devil's Tower is high enough to be visible from every place in the campground, including the pool, the playground, the general store and the bathrooms -- all places we visited. Thunderheads continued to gather periodically but didn't storm while we made our campfire and toasted hot dogs and marshmallows. As the sun set, the sky turned a brilliant dark pink with spots of purple-gray cloud and a distant line of blue storm clouds flashing occasional lightning. The temperature remained in the low 70s through the night, and it was glorious; I sat outside on the laptop and downloaded photos of Little Bighorn and Devil's Tower as night fell.

Once the sky was fully dark, the wind picked up fiercely and we had trouble getting our things off the table before they blew away. But the wind was warm, and when it finally died down -- cooling off the cabin which had gotten rather stuffy inside while the kids were falling asleep -- the sky was clear and brilliant. We sat and watched the stars, including a few meteors and a couple of artificial satellites. The Milky Way was clear and obvious right over our cabin. The campground store was showing Close Encounters on their outdoor screen as they do every night, so in the distance we could hear the famous five-note alien theme over and over...making the whole scene rather eerie, as the spaceship landing was filmed on the site of the campground. When eventually we went to bed it remained very warm in the cabin so we left the windows open and I was awakened around 6 a.m. when the sun cleared the horizon.

We had intended to hike the circuit trail around Devil's Tower early in the day before it got really hot, but when we woke, after watching deer race across the campground, making pancakes over the griddle and taking the kids to the playground, we discovered that there was a puncture in one of the van's tires and it had flattened overnight. Someone on a neighboring campsite pumped it up enough for us to drive into Hulett, six miles away, to get it patched. We saw buffalo grazing the grasslands on the way.

Then we went back to the monument and walked the circuit trail that passes through the pine forest surrounding the remains of the volcanic cone. Many of the trees were destroyed by fire a couple of years ago, but the grasses and shrubs had returned. The guys on the campsite next to us were climbing to the top, and we watched the small dot-people creeping up the tower to see if we could spot them. It was 98 degrees in the park, according to the rangers at the monument, so the kids were completely fried after walking the mile-and-a-half trail.

After stopping for drinks, we drove through the grasslands in the park and stopped briefly to see the prairie dogs. Then we continued through Wyoming into South Dakota, parallelling the Black Hills, passing through Rapid City en route to Wall and the legendary/infamous Wall Drug. Thunderheads were gathering so we didn't spend all that long in the backyard taking photos on the jackelope, bucking bronco, etc. (and the lady of the night was nowhere to be seen -- Wall must be cleaning up its image) but we did walk through the newer section of animatronic history displays and get our free ice water. It's just as tacky as it was when I first visited in 1992, though somewhat expanded.

Our serious destination for the afternoon was Badlands National Park, which thanks to the thunderheads (which never did more than drip occasionally upon us) could be viewed in less than 90-degree heat for the first time in my experience of two previous visits. The kids had a great time climbing on the sandstone cliffs and we walked through the visitor's center, which has information about the Ghost Dance movement and the local reservations as well as about the spectacular rock formations which look rather like one thinks being on the moon must look, or maybe Mars with all the reddish layers of dusty rock. Like Devil's Tower, the Badlands really have to be seen -- photos don't do the area justice -- and I felt very lucky to have been there under cloudy skies rather than melting like the last two times we were there!

By the time we got to the hotel, we decided we should go out to dinner rather than wrestle with the microwave, so we ate in lovely downtown Kadoka at a Denny's-type restaurant and had an early night in preparation for heading out early to offset losing an hour to the time zone upon entering Minnesota the next day. We woke to a sight we hadn't seen in weeks...heavy cloud cover with ground fog! We drove in cool temperatures through South Dakota, passing roadside attractions like an 1880s town and a giant metal dinosaur. For lunch we stopped at the Corn Palace in Mitchell, the third time I've been to this dubious institution...a large stadium converted every summer into an attraction covered in tens of thousands of ears of Indian corn, arranged to illustrate South Dakota history, embellished with wheat and grain sheaves.

After a brief walk through the auditorium where we bought popcorn-on-the-cob to take home, we picnicked in the shade of the little park across the street and had ice cream. Then we drove into Minnesota, which is much greener than South Dakota outside the mountains; we drove by fields and fields of corn and other crops as well as many of the lakes for which the state is known. We stayed in Albert Lea, in a hotel with a nice pool and huge suites, where we made macaroni and cheese in the microwave for dinner and watched part of the Star Trek: The Next Generation marathon on TNN.

On Saturday morning we had waffles and lots of other good stuff at the big breakfast buffet in the hotel, then drove on through Minnesota, stopping to walk by the Mississippi River when we reached it and then crossing into Wisconsin, where we ate lunch at a rest stop near the Wisconsin River. (It was disappointing not to have time to stop at the Spam Museum at the Hormel factory in Minnesota but somehow we recovered.) I read seven of the last eight chapters of 'Harry Potter' to the kids while we drove to Chicago, arriving in Illinois in the middle of Dumbledore's lengthy explanation of How Harry Got His Scar.

Once in Chicago we met up with Deborah (the same Deborah we saw in Terre Haute), drove to Hyde Park and had dinner at a Thai restaurant that Paul and I used to frequent when we were students at the U of C -- and where we had dinner with Deborah four years ago, passing though Chicago en route to Yellowstone. Afterwards, as is traditional when in Chicago, we walked down 55th Street and through the tunnel to Promontory Point, which juts out into Lake Michigan and features bike trails, a castle-like structure that people rent out for parties and lots of grass, trees and rocks for boys to climb. We picked huckleberries and walked along the rocky steps by the lake. The Museum of Science and Industry -- the last remaining relic of the 1893 World's Fair -- was under renovation and surrounded by cranes, but the skyline looked beautiful under the clear sky and the evening temperatures were beautiful.

After a brief sojourn on 53rd Street to see the Hyde Park parrots, a flock of monk parrots that took up residence in the trees of a local park many years ago and have thrived through the cold winters, we walked back to the car and drove back to the hotel where Paul took the boys for a quick swim while I showed Deborah pictures of our last two trips. She had brought us truffles, so we sat around eating chocolate and chatting until the kids fell asleep.

Sunday was Adam's birthday. We had breakfast with Deborah and had planned to get on the road relatively early, but then we made a fateful discovery: the Museum of Science and Industry had an exhibit on monster trucks. Because it was Adam's birthday, he voted to go see them, so we drove back to Hyde Park once more and went to what was once the art pavilion of the White City -- the only remaining structure from the 1893 World's Fair. The museum has been expanded extensively since we lived in the area, and we saw the giant walk-through heart, a full-size walk-through Boeing 727, an enormous model train exhibit that spans an enormous corridor from a model of Chicago to a model of Seattle with the Rocky Mountains in the middle, and chicks hatching alongside miniature monster trucks.

The big trucks (including Gravedigger, Daniel's longtime favorite from Microsoft's Monster Truck Madness) were in a separate wing in an exhibit that began with a movie on the history of monster truck racing, followed by the dramatic opening of the wall on which the film was projected to reveal an enormous blue monster truck right there. The exhibit offered some science on how turbines work and how new alloys have permitted the building of lighter trucks, but the main points of excitement were virtual monster truck driving, a demonstration of acceleration in a spinning chair, and one of those carnival rides that twist kids backward, forward and upside down though unfortunately Adam wasn't tall enough to ride it, birthday or no.

After lunch in the museum cafeteria, we finally left Chicago, took one more trip down Lake Shore Drive and headed through Indiana to Ohio, finishing 'Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix' aloud on the way. We camped east of Toledo in Perrysburg. Our cabin was nicely surrounded by trees but also by mosquitos; however, given the ominous weather forecast, we were just happy to have relatively clear skies. We took the kids swimming, made s'mores and sang happy birthday to Adam (who had already gotten a Yu-Gi-Oh Game Boy game, and, of course, a model monster truck at the museum).

The clear skies, sadly, did not last through the night. We had pouring rain from about 10 p.m. all through the morning, when we backed the van as close to the cabin as possible so as to load it up with a minimum of soaked belongings. Unable to eat breakfast at the picnic table, we resorted to McDonalds for the first time all trip and drove through Ohio under miserable gray skies and heavy downpours. The spray from the trucks was terrible. This let up at least when we got to Pennsylvania, where we had a relatively pretty trip through the Allegheny Mountains and into Maryland and the Catoctin Range. Having read 'Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix' for the previous several days, we watched 'Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone' as we traveled.

We had saved our longest driving day for last...over 420 miles from Toledo to home. No time to stop for anything other than lunch (Sbarro on the Pennsylvania Turnpike) if we wanted to get home in time to pick up the cats. We got in around 6 p.m., unloaded the van, Paul ran out to get the pets while my mother took the kids swimming and I put in the first of half a dozen laundries. It was close to 90 and horribly humid...a typical Washington in summer welcome home!

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