Roadtrip: Morristown and Surrounding Areas

Justtwomorethings arrived around mid-day on Thursday–and I felt bad about it since I was still at work and she had to spend 5+ hours wandering around doing god-knows what. So I let her pick the dinner place – the somewhat non-sensically named The Office Tavern Grill – and made it my treat.

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Roadtrip: Harrisburg, PA

I’m deliberately dragging my heels some, since I need to time my meet-up with entropyenator for when she’s not working.  Also, seeing as I’m only a couple hundred miles short of ten large, I’m going easy on the car.  I did take it in for an oil change before I started out on the trip, but I’m about a thousand miles past the next oil change due time, and the car is flashing a reminder every time I start it.  Harrisburg is right off the interstate, and is large enough so that I can kill some time tomorrow before finishing up my drive to entropyenator’s place.

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I located an Airbnb place in the oldest part of town, within walking distance of the Broad Street Market, which dates back to the 1860s.  The immediate area has clearly gone through some rough patches, but it shows signs of gentrifying, and they’ve done some neat repurposing of the larger buildings.  Across the street from Broad Street Market is the Midtown Scholar, a bookstore-cafe-art gallery housed in a historic movie theater, and down the street is The Millworks, which is a recycled factory that now hosts a restaurant and a number of artists’ studios.  What I really like is how these businesses have kept the original bones of the buildings (The Millworks in particular is ugly as sin outside) but have opened up the space so that those bones look striking, and not just industrial.  Rhode Island’s tried to do something similar with its old factories, but in comparison those buildings are dark and cramped and unappealing inside, and really don’t play on the vaulted airiness you can get with an industrial building.

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The Millworks is dedicated to sourcing its food from local farms and businesses, which is commendable, but the output is uneven.  The plates are gorgeous to look at, but they’re a bit lacking in flavor.  Charcuterie plate meats were amazing, with fat wisping away on your tongue, but the cheeses were bland and barely noticeable; my favorite part, though, were the pickled ramps, which went easy on the spices so the innate garlic of the ramp came through.  Smoked beef tacos were completely disappointing, desperately in need of salt.  I did enjoy the wlidflower cocktail (vodka, honey, lemon, lavender, cassis), though it tasted as if a bit of bitter pith had gotten in with the lemon; the honey rounded the vodka nicely, and the lavender was a light note instead of a perfumey blast.  And the dessert, a vanilla custard, was okay, nothing special, and it being made out of raw milk didn’t add much as far as I could tell.

Roadtrip: Ohio and Pennsylvania, return leg

I’m swinging back through parts of the country I’m familiar with, so it’s a bit harder to find things to visit along the way.  I’m also battling the fatigue that comes from switching locations every day, so I’m trying to go with more low-impact exploring.  The Serpent Mound in Adams County, Ohio, takes an hour and a half winding along several back-country state roads to get to, but it’s an eminently drivable tangent off the interstate (not particularly tricky to find the junctions, just have to navigate a lot of narrow roads and slow stretches through tiny town main drags), and it’s very walkable.  You can go around the whole thing in about fifteen minutes, including the short climb up the viewing tower.  It’s shorter than I thought it would be, maybe waist height on an adult for most of it, and that makes it all the more surprising that the thing has actually lasted so long, in such instantly recognizable shape.

I managed to straighten out the South Dakota cancellation with Airbnb, and even got a $25 credit from the very helpful customer service (but you do have to call them and wait out the “next representative will be available in over thirty minutes” message), so I can afford to break the remaining drive into shorter chunks than before and squeeze in an extra night’s stay.  Airbnb in Pittsburgh yielded up a house clearly decorated by a Star Trek: Original Series fan–although they were savvy enough to mix it with blocks of primary colors so the overall effect is a bit like living in an Andy Warhol painting.  Had dinner at the Airbnb host’s rec, Nicky’s Thai, which was tasty but not outstanding.  However, it had a green tea version of thai iced tea that I hope spreads elsewhere.  The green tea is less harsh–sometimes the black tea restaurants in the U.S. favor for thai iced tea is so bitter the sweeteners only heighten the nasty aftertaste–and has an understated floral note that pairs nicely with the creaminess of the evaporated milk.

Pad thai, chicken satay, tom kha soup, siu mai with green thai iced tea - Nicky's Thai, Pittsburgh, PA

Pad thai, chicken satay, tom kha soup, siu mai with green thai iced tea – Nicky’s Thai, Pittsburgh, PA

Animals: Juvenile fox running across the road. I know it was a juvenile because the ears and tail were enormously out of proportion with the rest of it.

Roadtrip: Omaha

Slow day today.  I was pretty exhausted after South Dakota and constantly running around to figure out hotels late in the day, so I took a short trip from Sioux Falls to Omaha, Nebraska.  Airbnb is back to having reasonable listings for the area, and I got a place a couple blocks from Gerard Ford’s birthplace, in a turn-of-the-century American Foursquare house.  A mile away is the historic Old Market district, which now hosts the usual mix of art galleries, restaurants and boutiques fronting the cobblestone streets. It’s a good nine square blocks, quite a bit larger and more intact than many of the historic districts I’ve seen on this trip, and notably missing any souvenir shops.

Old Market, Omaha, NE

Old Market, Omaha, NE

I got some eating recs from my Airbnb hosts and proceeded to leisurely stroll the district all afternoon.  Old-fashioned ice cream shop and soda parlor Ted & Wally’s had some borderline odd ice cream flavors (peppermint schapps sounds delicious, but anything putting Redbull into ice cream is wrong) and real, operating, old-timey ice cream barrels churning away in front of you.  I had a “green river phosphate,” something like a Sierra Mist flavored Italian soda, which was nice and sparkling.  Dinner was at the Upstream Brewery, with their Koopa Troopa Kolsch (a little more bitter than nutty), fish and chips (batter was too thick and tended to fall off the fish, disappointingly, but the cucumber salad side was a great summery twist on the usual coleslaw), and house-brewed root beer float, which was the highlight, very smooth and creamy even before the ice cream was factored in.

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Roadtrip: Badlands National Park and Wall Drug

South Dakota continues to be a little difficult.  Had to break the under $100 a night rule again for a hotel room, since it was hard just finding one (admittedly, it’s a weekend night during the summer).  And then I had the most annoying fellow tourists when I went to the Badlands National Park: one actually honked me for stopping briefly to take a photo (as others in the park were doing; also, we were the only two cars on the road within view and they could’ve just passed me), while the other, still parked on the side of the road, made “pay attention to your driving” gestures at me as I pulled out from behind them after taking my photo (which, again, was a matter of seconds).  For the record, I didn’t hit their car, come anywhere near to doing so, and didn’t put anyone behind me at risk (because there was no one).  Very annoying considering there weren’t too many people going around, and comparing it to Yellowstone, which might have been constantly jammed but where everyone was really quite surprisingly tolerant of each other’s sightseeing when driving.  Seriously, road rage in a national park?  Maybe you should take a deep breath and look at the park instead?

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Anyway.  South Dakota badlands are both less and more extreme than Montana badlands.  The hills aren’t as high, and the rocks aren’t so brilliantly colored.  But the canyons are much deeper, and they’re kind of inversions in that sense; in Montana, the rocks twist up from the plains, while in South Dakota, the canyons take deep, tearing dives into the thin green carpet of grass.  And the grass is a lot greener and more lush, so the contrast against the washed out pastel of the rocks is more startling.  Maybe that’s why it was here that I finally saw some bighorn sheep, one of which had a very impressive pair of horns.  The prairie dogs were cute, too, if not as fearless as the their North Dakota cousins; they have a funny way of hopping as they chirp-bark, starting out on all fours and then flipping their top half up and coming down on all fours again.

On the way out, I had lunch at Cedar Pass Lodge just within park borders.  Buffalo chili didn’t taste much different than regular beef.  The fry bread with wojabi (a Sioux-style berry sauce) was good, albeit misplaced in the appetizer instead of the dessert section.  The chocolate chip kuchen was really very delicious, being of the pie with custard filling variety, not cloyingly sweet and fun with the chips.

At the rec of a colleague, I also stopped at Wall Drug, in Wall, SD.  It started out as a drugstore and now it’s basically one giant, sprawling, Old West gimmick emporium, which is a bit odd considering it began in the Great Depression.  Overall, it’s a bit terrifying, although the bookstore inside is a hidden gem; I have never seen such variety of Western books (fiction and nonfiction) before.

Overnighting just outside of Sioux Falls.  Again, no Airbnb fitting my needs, so as mentioned above, had to scrounge for a hotel.

Animals not photographed: More pronghorn.

New Mattress…from IKEA?

This week was exhausting. I spent 3/5 days offsite (2 hr roundtrip–too close to justify a hotel, but enough to be a pain when the meeting is 8am to 6pm everyday) and logged in for a few more hours every night to keep my inbox from exploding. Then I had to get 3 cavities filled on Friday (fun, let me tell you, especially when 1 of the fillings fell out when I got home, and the office is closed until Monday). And this morning I took the melon to the vet for his yearly checkup, and my easy-going fuzzy face morphed into this angry, hissing, rage-drooling thing. Which made me feel bad for disrupting the kitty zen that is usually his life–especially when the vet next told me that he had lost nearly a pound in the last 7 months, making him a little too thin. A pound! How?? He eats more than I do!

I went home, stuffed his face and thought about collapsing in bed for a nap. Except my bed is awful. I got it five years ago, and being a cheap innerspring its been in a steep decline for the last two. It’s been really messing up my back, so I’d gone to Sleepy’s last weekend, but was gobsmacked by sticker shock. But a co-worker mentioned that he had an Ikea mattress that was pretty decent at an even better price. A little dubious, I decided to give it a shot.

The nearest Ikea is in Paramus (ok, actually there is one equidistant in Elizabeth, but everyone is pretty unanimous in its horribleness). Its, well, Ikea, and full of clean, white, Swedish modernity, though they appeared to have stepped up their in-store restaurant game–my lunch of salmon with dill lemon vinagrette, lingonberry juice and sweet potato chips was surprisingly good.

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Its very easy in Ikea to get distracted by all the shiny at reasonable prices, so I set my face and made a beeline for the mattress section. I also didn’t like Sleepy’s because of the dizzying number of options –Ikea was refreshingly simple. On the floor, there is innerspring or foam/latex, and only 3-4 options of each. I bounced around and narrowed it down within about 10 min.

The next part was tricky, and what I had been dreading…how to get it to the car. But Ikea helps there too. They vacuum wrap all mattresses into tight rolls that include straps to haul away–it was very easy to fit my final choice (Sultan Morgedal, $299, Firm, Foam, Queen) into the trunk of my tiny subcompact as long as I put the back seats down. And the roll-packing with straps made getting the mattress up the stairs of my 2nd floor walkup much easier than anticipated (a neighbor eyed me dubiously when I declined his help)

I made it!

I made it!

Ikea has a 90 day return policy along with their complimentary 25 year limited warranty, so I’m going to give it a test week. Its about 1/2 as thick as my old innerspring, but feels much more supportive for my back and pretty comfortable so far.

Roadtrip: The Old West And Other Tales

Today was a comedy of errors.  I had one Airbnb booking fall through, then had another accepted, only to have the host tell me when I showed up that she was too sick to have me.  I declined her offer to stay with a friend of hers (nice enough, but not signed up to Airbnb and I have a rule that I only stay with hosts with multiple reviews–a proven track record) and went driving around for a hotel, but everywhere I went, there was some sort of music festival–I say “sort” because while Deadwood’s Wild Bill Day weekend had a bandstand set up and live music, the posters indicated the real draw was the temporary exception to the local open container law that allowed you to wander around the streets with a beer in hand, rather like every day in Memphis–or a rodeo, or some other thing that was maxing out every single hotel in locations that you wouldn’t possibly think would draw that many people.  I ended up driving into Rapid City and breaking, for the third time, my rule about $100 a night or less.  In a Days Inn.  And I had such a good streak going, too.

But anyway, I started the day winding around the backroads of Wyoming before I reconnected with I-90 near the South Dakota border.  US 16 was another unplanned scenic drive, and it’s a good one for taking you through the various geographies of Wyoming.  You go from flat grasslands, into the mountains, then down into the badlands–slightly different flavor from Montana’s version, since Wyoming’s has smaller, more regularly-shaped outcrops.  As you get into the Black Hills, these odd little cone-shaped hills start to pop up, sometimes with the tips worn through the green grass so you can see the brilliant red rock underneath.  The rock gets redder and redder, and then you’re into South Dakota.

However, I took two short breaks before getting on I-90: one to eat breakfast at Crazy Woman Cafe in Ten Sleep (food okay, had to stop for the name), and one to visit the Jim Gatchell Memorial Museum on the rec of the previous night’s Airbnb host, and I was glad for it.  Jim Gatchell was a local pharmacist who, by virtue of his connections with the local Native Americans, amassed a good collection of artifacts from them.  He also seems to have been something of a history buff, as the museum that now houses his collection has an excellent section on the Johnson County War, as infamous in this region as the Hatfields and McCoys are in the Midwest where I was born and raised.  Sadly, they don’t allow photos inside.

After my Airbnb mix-up, I stopped off in Deadwood to try and collect myself, and hopefully get some fun out of the afternoon.  I gotta say, though, I’m not really big on the place.  Like a lot of Wild West towns, they’ve kept the old, movie-ready buildings on the main drag, but they’ve commercialized the place way past charmingly quaint, beyond gaudy, and right into parody (Cody compares very favorably).  All the historic buildings seem to house combination saloons and casinos, and it’s just weird seeing slot machines crammed in amid the Old West decor.  I wandered around for an hour and then hopped out to find a hotel.

Deadwood, SD

Deadwood, SD

Roadtrip: Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks

Since they’re both huge, I devoted an entire day to Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Park(s).  Grand Teton curves around Jackson, a bit like Pac-Man, if you imagine Jackson as the pellet being eaten, and you can drive a fair way into the park before you hit the fee booths.  Not that that mattered to me, with my annual pass, but it’s really a very lovely drive for free.  The road parallels the Grand Tetons and the Snake River, with plenty of overlooks along the way, before it finally curves into the body of the park.

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I knew that I’d be pushing alongside other tourists all day, so I did my best to get up early to try and beat the crowd.  I was in the park by 7 am, although out here, it’s practically full daylight by then; I think the sun rises around 3 am or so.  Still, it was early enough so that I caught quite a few animals roaming around.  Pelicans and an elk hiding in the tall grass (no photo, even at that time other cars took up all the space on the nearest overlook) at Oxbow Bend, chipper little ground squirrels running in and out of grass tufts, and even the classic bison road crossing.

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Grand Teton had so many nice animal shots, I was a little later than planned getting into Yellowstone.  The two parks are only a handful of miles apart, and US 89 runs right from one park to the other, so that at least was easy.  But after that, it was a bit of a madhouse.  Driving around was fine but finding parking at nearly every attraction was a nightmare.  I circled the Old Faithful lot for nearly ten minutes–at least I did end up getting there in time for it to go off.  But even something like the Fountain Paint Pot site was jammed. And you did run into “critter jams,” where cars would block off the two-lane road by stopping to photograph some animal by the side of the road (usually a bison, they seemed to love posing, and I even saw one roll onto its back and kick up its heels).  The worst blockage was when someone spotted a bear.  After waiting for a half-hour to crawl by, I got up close enough to pull over and did, since at that point I wanted to see if it was worth it.  We were at the bottom of a steep hill, a couple semi-skeptical rangers supervising the traffic, and way up near the top was a brown speck that the people with binoculars swore was the bear.  I’m still not sure myself.  Whatever it was, it held me up long enough so that I had to cut out about a third of my planned drive, or else I’d have been arriving at my nightly booking after dark (as it was, I cut it pretty close).

Supposed bear, Yellowstone National Park

Supposed bear, Yellowstone National Park

The geyser and related sites were beautiful, at least.  They come in such extreme colors: the crusts around Old Faithful were so white that in the sunlight, they made my eyes water, the paint pots are soft Southwestern pastels, and the sulfur is a lurid yellow against the deep turquoise waters of the hot springs.  And then you juxtapose that against the cartoonish  blurping and popping sounds, and you’re trying not to snicker without quite knowing why.

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After leaving Yellowstone, I stopped off in Cody, WY for dinner.  There was a country western concert somewhere, spilling into the air, and the main drag featured the Irma Hotel, built by founder Buffalo Bill Cody himself.  It had costumed servers, the original wooden bar, and most importantly to me at that moment, a delicious prime rib dinner, with a crisp seasoned skin that crackled off the meat, which was tender enough without coming in a (much-welcomed) pool of juices.  Roasted red-skin potatoes with cracked black pepper and mashed potatoes rounded out the meal.  I was starving, and you can tell because I actually ate two-thirds of the prime rib all by myself; normally, I barely make it to a half.

Prime rib with mashed and roasted potatoes, Irma Hotel, Cody, WY

Prime rib with mashed and roasted potatoes, Irma Hotel, Cody, WY

Airbnb is a “bunkhouse” on a ranch outside of Basin, WY.  Not a lot of choice in WY, but this is a pretty luxury bunkhouse as they go, with a private shower, a desk, portable heaters and an A/C unit.  I can occasionally hear cows lowing in the distance.  It’s just plain fun.  And while the drive out was a bit long, I finally was able to snap a photo of pronghorn!  Benefits of having the highway basically to yourself for ten miles in either direction.

Pronghorn outside of Basin, WY

Pronghorn outside of Basin, WY

Animals seen and not photographed: That elk, a deer, various waterfowl.

Roadtrip: Colorado National Monument and Jackson, WY

A coda to my last post: my Grand Junction Airbnb host threw in a free hot, homemade breakfast, which was delicious: an omelet-type thing with ham and veggies, local peaches and peach juice, hot tea, and a buttered bagel with strawberry jam.

Omelet with veggies and pork, local peaches and peach juice, buttered bagel and strawberry jam

Omelet with veggies and pork, local peaches and peach juice, buttered bagel and strawberry jam

And it was a good thing, too, since I ended up driving nearly seven hours before I ate lunch.  Not intentionally–the day started out well, with a slight detour through Colorado National Monument.  It’s right outside of Grand Junction and the scenic drive was heading north, the way I wanted to go anyway.  I liked it quite a bit, as it has a lot of variation in rock formations packed into a small space, and it’s a less traveled spot than, say, the Grand Canyon, so you don’t have to shove in between other tourists to get a look.

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But after leaving Colorado National Monument, it got a bit tricky.  Yellowstone National Park was my next stop, and it’s in the western corner of Wyoming, but the major north-south interstates run towards Denver, which is very much east of the park.  My GPS ended up stitching together a zigzag across the Colorado-Utah border (fun fact: Grand Junction’s streets are numbered according to how far they are from the Utah border, so 29 1/4 Street is 29.25 miles from Utah), until I could pick up US 191, which runs up and nearly through Jackson, WY, the nearest decent-sized town to the bottom edge of the park.  Utah was dusty and going hot again, and I opted not to stop at Dinosaur, UT, despite my love of dinos, so I could try and get into the mountains to get cooler air.  However, US 191, while a beautiful, scenic drive–and also mostly lacking guardrails, but way less crazy to drive than US 550–doesn’t have any convenient combo picnicking areas/scenic viewpoints.  I ended up driving out of the Uintas Mountains and up onto a gigantic plateau.  Which was interesting, cruising across a flat grassland but seeing hints of steep canyons to either side, every now and then, but which did mean I got well into Wyoming before I could even settle for scarfing leftovers at a turnout.

Outside of Dinosaur, UT

Outside of Dinosaur, UT

I finally rolled into Jackson, only to discover the crazy, crazy hotel prices.  North of $300 for Hampton Inn, for example (no Airbnbs either, unless you want to rent out an entire ski lodge).  Luckily, I stumbled on the Virginian Lodge, which is really an entire complex consisting of the motel, a “convention center,” a saloon, a liquor store and a restaurant.  It’s enormous, the decor is stereotypical Western, and while I broke my rule about staying under $100 a night for the second time this trip (the first being Seattle), I think it’s worth it just for the lobby.  And then the restaurant turned out quite good, too.  Chicken-fried steak with deeply crunchy, non-greasy, black-pepper-spiked breading, genuinely tender and juicy beef inside–slightly pink, even!–and a sausage gravy that looks like white cement but which actually was creamy and soothing when paired with the black pepper bite.  And the mashed potato gravy was yummy, too.  And the strawberry rhubarb pie, nice and tart.  Made up for the crap lunch.

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Animals seen and not photographed: Western whiptail lizards (sunning themselves at Colorado National Monument and too quick, brown mottled bodies with bright blue tail tips) and pronghorns all along US 191.

Roadtrip: Grand Junction, CO

Driving day.  Northern New Mexico is just completely a postcard–I passed one rockface that had been shaved away to show a “rainbow” of reds and oranges and browns and whites in the sediment layers.

Outcrop north of Albuquerque, NM

Outcrop north of Albuquerque, NM

I’m mostly skipping Colorado as I’ve been here before and as I want to spend the time up in Yellowstone.  I initially thought I’d overnight in Denver, but the interstate, while running directly up from New Mexico, actually bends away from that corner of Wyoming, so I’d have to backtrack a fair bit after leaving Denver.  My go-to on this trip for these situations has been to just see which cities on the route have a decent Airbnb selection, and Grand Junction popped up as one. So I booked and drove, without really researching the route.  Turns out it’s mostly US 550, and I’d inadvertently set myself up for a gorgeous, if rather nervous (90% of the road doesn’t have guardrails, and the drop-offs are nearly vertical sometimes) drive through the mountains.  It’s not a route if you’re in a hurry, or don’t trust your driving skills, with the hairpin switchbacks and the meanderings through the old-time mining, current-resort towns (Silverton looked like a movie set), but man, it’s pretty.  The green of the forests with the blue/brown and white of the mountains, and even the rust-red streaks where the old mines leached out tailings is kind of lovely.  I turned off the GPS clock and stopped on top of Molas Pass (10,000+feet), and ate lunch and looked at all the glazed mountaintops around me.

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The Airbnb I booked is in another mobile home community, not quite as nice as the one in San Juan, but the house I’ve in is spotlessly maintained, and shows the fruits of fourteen years of considered decorating in intensely cowboy-Southwestern style.  And Grand Junction has a pretty four-block main drag with clothes stores and art galleries; I ate at Rockslide Brewery, mostly because Colorado breweries are supposed to be good and the last few times I was in Colorado, I wasn’t drinking age.  They had some interesting brews listed–Kokopelli Cream Ale was light and sweet, with a nice roundedness that wasn’t overly rich–but the food was forgettable.

Brew list at Rockslide Brewery, Grand Junction, CO

Brew list at Rockslide Brewery, Grand Junction, CO

Animal sightings: Two deer standing on either side of the highway, pointed towards each except their heads, which were turned towards the oncoming car (me).  I actually thought they were statues at first, and then they ran off.  And some sort of ground squirrel up on the top of Molas Pass.