Roadtrip: Washington

Washington’s a pretty weird state, geographically speaking.  You go from lush woods near Spokane straight into very flat, very burnt scrubland, with stumpy little mini-buttes and mesas butting up, then into a sort of rolling desert (if you ignore the obviously heavily irrigated farmland), which eventually becomes a series of high, roasted ridges bookending valleys that look like they’re made of ironed cardboard.  It got nearly to 100 degrees near Yakima, which wouldn’t have looked out of place in the Southwest, for all that it’s nicknamed itself the “Palm Springs” of Washington.  And then you go up into the mountains and you’re back into dense pine woods.

Rock outcrop along Columbia River

Rock outcrop along Columbia River

Spokane is more or less right over the border from Coeur D’Alene, with a distinctive waterfall that’s only been somewhat smoothed out by a hydroelectric plant.  As the story goes, the waterfall is the result of a temper tantrum by Coyote over being denied a wife by the local Native American tribes.  The city smartly made it the centerpiece of the most extensive riverfront green area I’ve seen, with everything from ornamental gardens to an antique (working) carousel to zip cars you can ride out over the falls via overhead wire.  I really wanted to try the zip cars, but they weren’t going to be open for another three hours.  Not sure why they were running the empty cars out over the water anyway.

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Yakima is a long (and ultimately, not really worth it detour, since the local attractions are largely vineyards–I should have saved it for when entropyenator or my mother come along) tangent off I-90 on I-82, but just before the two interstates split off, there’s a really beautiful scenic overlook by the Columbia River.  Right across the river is the Gingko Petrified Forest State Park, which is worth a trip for the petroglyphs they’ve relocated to right under the visitor center.  The petrified wood trail is neat, too, but it’s encircling a hill and on a scorching hot day, I didn’t feel up to walking more than a third of it.  Also, they have the wood in locked cages, I guess so no one steals a piece; it’s a bit more fun to touch the samples in the visitor center.

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Ended the day scrambling around the outskirts of Seattle looking for a hotel room.  Airbnb didn’t pan out–two places tried, neither even responded to decline–and it’s only thanks to an extremely helpful front desk person at the Holiday Inn Express (who was willing to phone up competitors) that I got a room at a different chain for under $150, not including tax.  Graduation season and everything was booked up.  I was tired, so I sighed and paid.

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Roadtrip: Montana from Laurel to Missoula

Landscape hereabouts goes from mountains with snowy caps to flat riverlands, and I spent most of the day winding in and up and down and over foothills.  The grade on some of these roads is 15%, which my car did its best to handle, but a lot of people were passing me today.  Wildlife spotting also went down; for one, it’s no longer rattlesnake country:

Real rest area sign from SE Montana

Real rest area sign from SE Montana

But!  Dinosaurs!  I stopped for lunch in Bozeman, home of the top-notch Museum of the Rockies.  Its dinosaur displays were designed largely by Jack Horner, best known as the technical advisor for the Jurassic Park movies, and many of them focus on showing the progression from baby to juvenile to adult.  There’s a particularly mind-blowing display for Triceratops, which explains how the horns and the neck frill drastically change shape over time (which for a long time made people think there were multiple species).

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Bozeman also is an artistic/cultural center for Montana, and its main street had a lot of interesting little shops and art galleries.  I picked up some smooth, slightly fruity huckleberry vodka at Bozeman Spirits Distillery (free samples!).  Huckleberry (and chokecherry to a lesser extent) seems to be the Montana fruit, since it’s all over.  Back in Laurel the City Brew Coffee outpost was serving a huckleberry green tea granita thing, which was super-sweet and entropyenator would probably love it.

Huckleberry green tea granita, CityBrew, Laurel, MT

Huckleberry green tea granita, CityBrew, Laurel, MT

Next, I popped in for a half-hour at the Fairmont Hot Springs Resort, which is open to people who are not staying at the attached hotel, but which is very low-frills.  The hot springs pool looks like a regular swimming pool, albeit with warm and slightly cloudy water.  I didn’t really feel any “healing” properties, but a quick dip was nice for my calf muscles, still sore from the previous day’s hike.  I’ve been told it’s a bit pricy for Montana hot springs at $8.75 a person, but time is unlimited.

Stopping point for the night was Missoula, a university town with a strong artistic community.  Thursdays in the summer, they apparently have town parties down by the river with food trucks.  I got a pork and a chorizo-date-green chili tamale from one truck, which looked a lot better than it tasted, sadly; the fillings were dry, and the tamales had been boiled too long so the cornmeal was a bit tough.  Airbnb place was described as Victorian, but it’s had all sorts of customizations and art thrown onto it from all styles and folk/ethnic backgrounds, so now it’s this weirdly attractive, if eye-dizzying, bohemian retreat of indeterminate culture.

Pork and chorizo-date-green-chili tamales, Missoula, MT

Pork and chorizo-date-green-chili tamales, Missoula, MT

Roadtrip: Montana from ND border to Laurel

The Montana side of the badlands isn’t quite so eerie as North Dakota.  The spires and buttes are a bit more sedate, and the Yellowstone river (which I-94 and I-90 follow for several hours) flattens out a long stretch between the hills into a beautiful grasslands.  And again, dinosaurs!  Prehistoric stuff!

I started out in Glendive (no Airbnb but the Astoria hotel is quite nice and has a substantial AAA discount), which is right next to the Makoshika State Park.

Panorama of Makoshika State Park, Glendive, MT

Panorama of Makoshika State Park, Glendive, MT

Tons of dinosaur fossils have been dug up here, some of which can be found in the nearby Frontier Gateway Museum–free, not to be confused with the creationist museum next door, and with a very chatty docent–which also has a whole mini town of Old West stores in the backyard.  You can apparently still stumble across some; however, my sports car, which getting awesome mileage as a hybrid, was not built for the mostly dirt- and pebble, steep, scenic road.  I ended up parking it about a third of the way in, then hiking another mile in before running out of time.  Need to convince someone with a 4W/AWD vehicle to come back for me, since I believe I missed out on some of the best views.

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I will also say that Montana state parks have a pretty good deal.  You pay the day pass fee at one park ($6 for nonresident car) and get a permit, and it’s good for as many state parks as you can visit that day.  So I also managed to squeeze in the Pictograph Cave State Park.  Sadly, the main cave with most of the pictographs was closed due to a rockfall, but the whole area has a really lovely peaceful feel to it.  A ranger I ran into said that the ancient Native Americans considered it akin to a cathedral, and it does have that meditative feel to it.

It also has a lot of wildlife.  I spotted rabbits and birds, and the aforementioned ranger showed me a rattlesnake he had just removed from the trail (much smaller than it looks in the photo, maybe a couple feet long).  It was a good day for animal-spotting; I also saw some pronghorn next to the interstate.

And just before Pictograph State Park was the Pompey’s Pillar National Monument, where the Lewis & Clark expedition stopped and William Clark etched his name into a stone pillar (along with hundreds of others, including Native American predecessors).  The Pillar had a great view of the Yellowstone river.  It also seemed to be populated entirely by loud, chittering marmots, which are sort of furry sausages with a face.  Note: The federal government’s interagency annual pass ($80 covers all entrance fees to any federal area) is an awesome deal, too.

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Stopping point for the night was an Airbnb place in Laurel, an early 1900s Romantic house that has been restored with period fixtures by the owner (some being essentially “early whorehouse” in their words)  Host is amazingly knowledgeable about local history.  Also offered to take me fossil-hunting, but sadly, no time for that on this trip (all the cool spots in Montana seem to be hours and hours off the interstate, which I didn’t build in time for).  Next time.

P.S. What I dislike about roadtripping: having to constantly clean bug splats off the windshield.

Roadtrip: North Dakota

North Dakota is very sparsely populated.  The first two thirds of it is also relatively boring; I spent the drive wondering what was the big deal about the Badlands (which I’ll get to in a minute).  However!  North Dakota has a lot of fossils.  Every kid goes through a dinosaur phase, but mine actually was one reason I briefly considered majoring in genetics (and slogged through Michael Crichton’s writing–Jurassic Park is a thriller but God, is it dense and meandering).  So I hit up the fossil collections at the North Dakota Heritage Center (in the capital, Bismarck, and totally free!) and at the Dakota Dinosaur Museum (in Dickinson).  The Heritage Center displays were actually pretty creative, as they tried to stage the skeletons with scenery props to help you picture the living thing.  I also note, for entropyenator, that North Dakota is apparently rich with fossils of vicious prehistoric cats (which were probably fuzzy and cute behind the saber teeth).

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The Dakota Dinosaur Museum was a bit pokey in comparison, but they also have a neat mineral collection, and a really startling fossilized crab that looks like it’s lunging out of the rock at you.

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Once I got past Dickinson, the endlessly undulating pasture began to get hilly in idiosyncratic ways, with weird lumps and bulges and random buttes popping up.  And then the bulges got steep and high enough to show erosion on the sides, and then I understood what people talk about when they talk about the badlands.  It’s beautiful and it’s also otherworldly: the greenness of the grass makes you think flat plains, or maybe gentle hills, but then the landscape is constantly behaving in ways that defy that expectation.  You get sharply concave curves unexpectedly leveling off, and every so often you get a side of many-striped red-yellow-brown rock embedded in all the green.

I turned off the interstate at Medora, a town that seems to be built entirely as a Western movie set, to check out Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Even the post office has a log cabin look to it.  Not sure I’m into that.  Medora did have huckleberry ice cream, which tastes something like a sweeter blueberry.

The TRNP scenic drive is quite pretty, although I understand most of the best views require some hiking to get to.  And there’s definitely wildlife: the drive itself goes through several prairie dog towns, with the little rodents not terribly afraid of cars, and a few bison were randomly posing by the roadside (they held still for multiple shots, though I was sensible and stayed in the car to take them).  I even spotted some wild horses.

Panorama from Buck Hill, TRNP

Panorama from Buck Hill, TRNP

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Roadtrip note: You can drive 75 mph but the road conditions make it difficult to keep up at that speed unless you’re driving a truck or a Jeep.