Wednesday, July 30, 2008


After a hot afternoon of driving, we finally arrived at Gardiner, a town at the northern entrance to Yellowstone National Park. It was very touristy.

The park had a suitably grand entrance, the Roosevelt Arch:

We had to drive all the way (30 miles each way!) to our campground first, to make sure we had one for the night. On the way, there was a huge traffic jam on the narrow, two-lane road. Everyone was stopping to look at something we couldn't see. The guy in front stopped, and refused to move even when Brendan got out of the car to ask him. Finally the ranger came and told him off, which was nice.

After securing our campsite, we went down to Tower Falls. Tower Falls is 132-137 feet high (height is debatable with waterfalls, it seems), and is named for the pinnacles around it.

Unfortunately the trail is now closed to get to the base of the falls, but we still walked down to the river which Tower Creek joins.

We stopped at the overlook - the canyon is sometimes called 'The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone'. The hexagonal-shaped rocks in some layers are from lava flows.

Then we returned to Mammoth Hot Springs near the entrance to the park. On the way back, we noticed the traffic jam was still there, two hours later! I asked one of the rangers what everyone was still looking at - apparently a black bear was sitting under a tree. We decided not to add to the fray.

The white calcite deposits of Mammoth Springs have created a huge, squat mound over thousands of years. The hot springs move every so often, so new springs appear and others stop working.

The blue colour means the water is close to boiling temperature! The calcite slowly seeps into the trees and smothers them as it solidifies inside the tree.

Here is part of the sign warning visitors not to step off the boardwalks. Every year, people die or are seriously injured when they step off the trails and fall through the thin crust.

In praise of rest stops....

State "rest stops" can take a variety of forms, it seems. They're very useful as emergency campsites for the night. Our favourite so far is one in Montana. It looks like a park, with restrooms. But any restrooms which are heated at 6am on a cold morning win, in our opinion.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

An afternoon in Liberty Lake, WA

The Fat Kiwi decided to break in several important places: the electricity, the water pump, the grey water and the sewage (especially worrying!). So it became a van for a few days, which was very inconvenient for us. In a small town just out of the city of Spokane, called Liberty Lake, we were holed up for an afternoon on a hot sunny day while the RV mechanics worked on it. Another couple we met had been waiting for parts for three weeks for their RV to be fixed!

Liberty Lake was a sort of Everynewtown, USA. There weren't many people about, and the town itself consisted entirely of the traditional strip mall pattern with an Albertsons, a Walgreens, Pizza Hutt, Starbucks, about five fast food places and various other chain stores. Another store was being built. It looked like a toy made of plasterboard. The air was hot, and dusty. It was a long walk between the RV place and the mall area. While someone had at least made an attempt at a pavement in some places, this wasn't really a town made for walking.

The houses had that cookie-cutter look when an entire town is stamped into being by the same developers in a matter of months, which can't develop 'character' with simply a coat of paint and some different lawn ornaments.

Lacking anything to do, we got haircuts. The hairdresser who did Brendan's hair was large, cheerful and had blonde highlights pulled into two small buns near the top of her head. She chatted away amicably to him. The hairdresser who did my hair thought we were from England, despite repeated statements to the contrary. She stopped at one point to take a phone call from her pre-teen son, suggesting if he was bored that there was plenty of garden out back which needed weeding.

With the Fat Kiwi back in action, we drove through the northern part of Idaho. The Fat Kiwi really didn't like all the hills here. This part of Idaho used to be one of the main silver mining areas in the States, as well as metals such as gold and lead.

On into Montana, which is mostly rural. A town called Rock Creek Lodge had just finished holding its annual "Testicle Festival". One can only surmise what goes on there!

Here is a typical roadside sign. All along the freeways, at each town the signs look like this. They show which companies offering fuel, food or lodging are available, and have been a real lifesaver for us many times regarding fuel. Sometimes you can see the petrol stations from the freeway, but often you wouldn't know they were there and have to rely on the signs for guidance. This sign is from Montana.

The girl in the gas station we stopped at was blonde, and couldn't have been much older than 18. She was taking out frozen doughnuts to drop in the deep fryer, setting them in neat rows on a metal tray. She looked at me. We had a short conversation about the doughnuts which wasn't really about the doughnuts. It was underpinned by the unspoken feeling that she was incredibly bored. Having worked retail, I could certainly commiserate.

I sat in the car and tried to imagine spending a lifetime in a small, bland city like this, a lifetime spent making doughnuts in a service station just off the highway. I wondered whether she had much option. I hoped it was simply her summer job for college.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Grand Coulee Dam, the largest dam in the US

After leaving Seattle we headed east. Along the way, a sign pointed to Grand Coulee Dam, the largest hydro-electric dam in the US and the largest concrete structure. Since we'd already seen Shasta Dam, the second-largest, we thought, why not? We were slightly surprised to find it was a 75-mile detour, but totally worth it.

Grand Coulee Dam blocks the Columbia river, a really wide river bordered by gorges in a desert setting. We stopped at the Wild Horses Monument, an iron sculpture above the river made by David Govedare. The actual title refers to an Indian legend, called "Grandfather Cuts Loose the Ponies", and is only half-finished. From the bottom, you could almost see the horses' tails blowing in the wind.

It was incredibly windy at the parking lot. The steep trail up to the horses was extremely slippery, especially in the hot wind. Dust swirled around and into our eyes. Brendan lost control of the Fat Kiwi's driver's door, which now needs a solid slam to close it.

The land here was desert, which had been tamed for farming by means of irrigation from the river. The small towns were a good example of rural America, with their little lettered signs advertising hamburgers or motel rates. (Click on the photo to enlarge it.)

The desert scenery on the way to Grand Coulee Dam was gorgeous. The rocky cliffs of the gorge loomed on one side of the road, and the blue waters of the Columbia River lay on the other. We saw tumbleweeds!

We arrived at Grand Coulee Dam just as the sun was setting, but left before the advertised nightly "light show" started.

Exploring Seattle.....

Pike Place Market in Seattle is rather famous as a large farmers' market, one of the oldest to run continuously in the US (about to celebrate its 101st birthday). It's situated along the waterfront of Seattle in a long, two-storied building with the front open. Stalls line the inside, selling fresh flowers, fruit, arts and crafts, and fish.

Pike Place Market as a whole is reasonably touristy, and has a slightly seedy grunge undertone. For you Wellingtonians, it's the Cuba Street of America! It also has the most worrying bathrooms I've seen so far, with each stall having only the bottom half of a door for modesty.

One of the Market's attractions is the "flying fish" performance. Essentially, the vendors got tired of walking to the front of the store and then to the back every time someone wanted a fish, so they invented a little song to sing as they throw the fish in question from the attendant at the front to the one at the back, who catches it.

Hopefully you can see the fish - it's a blur in the middle, just to the right below the lowest lamp.

Pike Place Market is also home to a lot of little shops, amongst them the first Starbucks. So we decided to visit. It was packed with people, most of them tourists like us.

Where it all began! Note their present logo has now tamed itself.

After some lunch we hopped on the Seattle monorail, which goes from Seattle's downtown area to the Space Needle and Seattle Center, a tired amusement area next to the artistic Sci Fi Museum.

The Space Needle is one of the most recognisable landmarks in Seattle, and was built in the 1960's along with the monorail for the World Fair. It was interesting, but we thought both attractions were slightly over-rated, and certainly not worth $17 each to go up to the top of the Space Needle. We did wish we had more time to explore Seattle - it seems to be one of those cities that only yields its best secrets after a lot of searching.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Mt Rainier, land of the wild flowers

The problem with knowing only approximately where you'll be at any given point, and also with the National Park Service operating campgrounds in national parks on a first-come, first-served basis, is finding a place to stay for the night in national parks. Unless you drive immediately to your campground (on the other side of the park!) in the morning and reserve it, you'll have to leave the park at evening to find a campground if they're all full. So in the morning, we drove back in to Mt Rainier.

Mt Rainier is the highest peak in the Cascades mountain range, which stretches from California to the top of Washington. It's also, like Mt St Helens, a sleeping volcano.

Christine Falls

Narada Falls

The Paradise area of Mt Rainier lives up to its name; that is, if you like snow in the middle of summer. Amazingly, the weather is warm enough for shorts and t-shirts only, an odd combination in the snow.

But the real attraction here is the wild flowers - hundreds carpeting the alpine meadows which were slowly appearing out from under a blanket of snow.

It was like walking in a wild rock garden....

We took the trail up to Panorama Point - it was beautiful!

A man coming down the trail told us to watch for marmoots. We found one really close in the lower meadows! It's changing colour here from white to brown for its summer coat.

Next, we drove to the Sunrise area of Mt Rainier, and walked along part of the trail. The weather was threatening to rain, and the mountain had closed in with cloud. But the views were still great.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Honey Bucket!

It seems that everywhere in Washington, all the stores and parks use portaloos. Lots and lots of portaloos. If you go to a gas station, they only have portaloos. The rest areas use portaloos. The campgrounds use portaloos. The national parks have longdrops (i.e. non-porta portaloos). I can only surmise that the frozen winters mean there isn't much water available.

Somewhat disturbing that the predominant brand of portaloo here is called....


Mt St Helens

We decided to rent some lanterns and explore Ape Cave in Mt St Helens. Ape Cave is essentially a lava tube formed when hot lava sank through the earth as it rolled down the mountainside, forming a tunnel as the rocks closed again over it. It's the third longest in the country.

(Here we are with our lantern. I'm looking a bit touristy here with my energy drink. Normally it's Brendan who has the energy drinks!)

We had only a few hours, so we decided to walk through the lower cave only. It's a long passageway about twice as tall and once as wide as a person in most places, so it's relatively easy to navigate. We also walked a little way up into the upper cave, to a place where the rock is actually only 8cm thick above another lava tube. The cave stays at a constant temperature of 43*F, or 6*C. Hence we have red noses.

One of the interesting features of the cave is called the Meatball - can you see why? It's a block of rock which floated on the lava 'river' until it became wedged in this narrow gap.

We also explored an area where lava had flowed around the trees in an old-growth forest. Because the trees were so large and old, it took them a long time to burn. During this time, the lava cooled, leaving tree-shaped holes in the ground.

One of the trees left a crawl-space where two tree trunks crossed. We crawled through it. It felt smaller than it probably was, since you could actually sit up in the middle. (I'm not good with small spaces, so this is an achievement for me.)

Here is Brendan in the centre of the two trunks...

and here I am....

After driving around the side of Mt St Helens (it was a long drive along a few winding roads), we discovered the road to the mountain was closed at Bear Meadows. When the mountain erupted in the 1980's, a man taking photos here managed to capture quite a lot of the spectacular first explosion on film at this spot. Then he and his friends realised just how fast the cloud of ash and rock was moving....

You can see where the eruption blew a huge hunk off the mountain on this side. The trees and vegetation are only just starting to recover.

On the plus side, Mt. St. Helens is probably the only place in the world where amphibians (e.g. frogs) are thriving, not declining, due to less predators.

Here is a bonus pretty waterfall we saw....

Friday, July 25, 2008

Snippet: Red, the Most Racist Hair Colour

Passing through Newport on the coast of Oregon (a town roughly the size of Masterton) we stopped to buy a new headlight (having been pulled over by the police, not realizing it wasn't working). At the same time I decided to check out "Dollar Tree", which is a super-sized version of New Zealand's 2-Dollar Shop. They stock enough food and housewares that you could reasonably do most of your shopping there. Providing you don't eat fruit, vegetables, meat or milk (to name a few key items). Attesting to this was a large sign outside announcing that they now accepted food stamps as payment.

As I was checking out* I met one of people to whom that sign was addressed. She was around 50 and was informing the woman at the counter that she would only buy her paint roller covers at Dollar Tree because they were 12 cents less than elsewhere, but that she would be heading down the road to Ace Hardware to buy brushes because they offered a 3-pack that worked out cheaper. She didn't actually need three brushes, but she apparently intended to store the other two. Presumably so that she could avoid washing the first one for reuse.

As I pulled up behind her she immediately turned and related the same set of details and cost comparisions to me. She then said "I love your red hair. You know that shows the most pure, um ... " she fumbled over the word, "... genetics. Yes, everything else has had brown mixed in with it." The way she said this made it quite clear that brown was not simply a colour but a whole concept that she found deeply distastful. After a pause she added "See, you know there were no black slaves in your past." And then, she took her bag of discount roller covers and departed, leaving behind one bewildered Kiwi tourist and a checkout girl whose face had turned a deep shade of mortified.

A birthday in two states

We woke up at the rest stop we'd parked at, and saw it in daylight. It was a little gravel road area next to a gorgeous inlet. Mist was rising along the right hand side, and scooting along the surface of the water in little flakes.

We wound our way along the cliffs of the Oregon coastline to Newport, where we stopped to buy two 5Gal gas containers to fix the problem of the dent in the gas tank, and a new headlight. (See the previous day's post for more on this headlight.) It was surprisingly cold.

The Oregon coast is gorgeous. It's a lot like California's coast, i.e. rocky with sandy golden beaches, but with a lot more lakes. The lakes have lillypads! I like this, for some reason. It seems so cliched for lakes to have lillypads, but there we are.

So many of the lakes we passed were small, and totally still in the early morning. They mirrored the trees around them. I wanted to stop and take photos but I was aware that we were already behind schedule and needed to catch up.

We also passed through many little sea towns which were a lot like California beach towns. Every so often there would be a warning sign for tsunamis. It featured a scared man running away from a huge wave.

Newport was the main town along the coast. A few miles north of Newport was the "Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area". An area has to be pretty outstanding for them to name it something like that in all the splendour of the Oregon coast!

The historic lighthouse was the main attraction. We stopped and waited in line for ages to climb the 5 small flights of spiral stairs which wound around the inside of the lighthouse. The stairs had been installed 150 years ago, for the use of no more than two people at a time, and had never broken. Until 5 years ago, when tourists were admitted. Now around 5 stairs break every year!

The lighthouse is still in operation. All the lighthouses along the Oregon coast have a different light pattern, so a traveller could tell their whereabouts on the coast by looking at the lights. It was very cold and windy at the lighthouse, even in the middle of summer. I wouldn't want to be there in winter!

Another attraction at the Yaquina Head area was Cobble Beach. Waves crashing against the shoreline roll basalt (volcanic) rocks around, until they become round and smooth. There's some local legend about how they check the cobbles for roundness daily. Larger rocks were on the surface of the beach, with smaller pebbles underneath. Walking on them made a sound like walking on a crunchy rainstorm as the cobbles moved around your feet.

We finally arrived in Portland around 3:30 pm. We spent most of the time (around two hours!) at FedEx doing paperwork for the UK. Afterwards, we grabbed coffee at the University of Portland. I really liked Portland, I could easily live there. Although it was too hot for Brendan's liking, and like most US cities, probably gets very cold in winter. It had tree-lined streets, with brick buildings and lots of green park space.

We arrived at Cougar, Mt St Helens, just as the sun was setting. We couldn't see anywhere to park for the night, so we decided to check in to an RV park and figure out this whole "hookup" business (i.e. water, sewage and electricity mains access). The RV park owners had the fattest cat I've ever seen. It didn't so much walk as drag itself along. I told it, "You must be the fattest cat in the world!" just as the owner walked out. He looked slightly annoyed.

It was Brendan's birthday. He really wanted steak, so we went to the little pub/ gift shop in the village. It was the only thing open out of a grand total of two eating places. It offered "chicken-fried steak". Brendan ordered that. The waitress went to get it out of the freezer in another building, and slipped over in the kitchen with a thump. She swore loudly. There was lots of muffled talking about how she'd cut herself and was it serious and did she need a doctor and more yelling for the owner to come. Eventually she reappeared with a huge bandage on one shoulder.

A random friend of the chef's walked in and was told off ("Don't be so loud, we have customers!"). We were the only ones in the restaurant, as it was about 10pm. My burger arrived with chippies ("potato crisps") next to it. Brendan's steak arrived, essentially a kind of minced steak in a long flat patty "the size of [Brendan's] face", covered in some kind of batter and deep-fried. It sat on a mountain of mashed potato. Brendan pronounced it odd, but nice.