Saturday, August 25, 2012

End of the road, Chicago


The End for us

A sad day for the road trip, the last one! A short mornings drive from our campground in Kankakee, Illinois took us to the heart of Chicago, and to the starting point of Route 66, the end for us. Standing at the beginning sign seems silly but only one month earlier we stood at the End, our beginning, in Santa Monica. The tracks of all those that have traveled this route in the past lay behind us, now along with ours. A journey that strayed far from the original path for those original trans-American travelers. Our journey was full of adventure, discovery and the joys of the heartland of America at its best!

Chicago really impressed us, with a very impressive feel of grandeur walking beneath the towering sky scrapers. With this very famous skyline of gorgeous architecture the towering presence overhead made for a fantastic walking tour that our Lonely Planet book led us on. Taking us on a circuit weaving around tall buildings, elegant or modern, new and old, and under train tracks from decade's past. We also happened to stumble upon the city's memorial day parade with firetrucks, police, military, veterans, school bands, floats and all!

Chicago has a prominent arts scene, although we didn't have time for the Museum of Contemporary Art, the city still gave us great vibes. Nestled amongst the urban jungle were some amazing pieces of art. Our favorite, and most memorable sculpture we have seen yet was the "Bean". Completely amazing, this metallic sculpture reflects you, everyone else and the skyline at every angle and is just simple entertaining. You can walk right underneath it, touch it and as Amy did, take hundreds of photos.
The Bean-Can you spot Thomas?

Thomas at Lake Michigan with Navy Pier behind
 Our walking lead us right out to the shore of lake Michigan, to the very touristy amusement park Navy Pier. At the sight of the extreme holiday congestion there, we opted to just sit and rest by the waters edge taking some respite in the shade of a tree. Looking out over this enormous lake I was completely shocked at the vibrant, milky blue water. And god on a hot day like it wast, all I wanted to do was jump in, but unfortunately there was no where for swimming or paddling though. Chicago is famous for its super deep dish pizza so we couldn't pass on that. But sadly this leads us to the end, off to the airport with 5,500 miles traveled. An unbelievable journey, but we only just scratched the surface.
Follow us across America

Get your kicks on route 66

Finally off the mega highways, we had a day of relaxed cruising along America's mother road, and it was all that it's reputation lives up to be. Just like in the Pixar film ‘Cars,’ it was a journey discovering the places left behind after being bypassed by the Interstate road system.

Amy with the Paul Bunyan Giant

My favorite place was the small town of Atlanta, Illinois with the famous giant 'Paul Bunyon' holding a hotdog. We took some pictures and looked around a small display of motoring and historical memorabilia from the past. Also, we meet an old man, friendly as, chatting about the town's past and the history of the old route 66. Just like the movie, the bypassing of the town saw it fall from it former glory, which the nice old man measured in petrol stations, of which there used to be seven, now none! Not sure what his role was, but guess he was just a friendly old-timer hanging around talking to passers-by and sharing his town's story!

The Gemini Giant

 Lunch of course could not be anything other than burgers and lemonade in Pontiac, seconded by some classic ‘Launching Pad’ drive in diner food the next morning. With several ‘free’ museums there was plenty of nostalgia about. Another big man, the "Gemini Giant" also rocked our world!

Abraham Lincoln's Home, Springfield, Illinois
  In Springfield, Illinois we visited Abraham Lincoln's home and neighborhood, which has been preserved and made into a national park. Still right in town, most of the block has been preserved as it would have appear back in the 1800's. We got a tour of the inside of the house and were very impressed with our guide and his enthusiasm for the historic place.

Kankakee County Speedway
 Of course the day had several “where are we going?” moments on the poorly marked winding route, bouncing about on the cracked and potholed roads and “whoops did we miss that town?”moments as well.  But the day wasn’t done even when we had set up camp for the night. Just like in 'Cars', I heard the sounds of roaring engines, and after a little scramble to find out where it was coming from, we bolted down the road to the local speedway for some authentic hillbilly Illinois dirt track speedway. We instantly made friends with some lovely and friendly “hicks” in the grandstand, who bought us drinks, introduced us to some of the drivers, and even insisted on giving us their blanket to stay warm! The cars were fast and noisy and the only beer available was Busch light, but it was still a very memorable evening! Guess route 66 ended up leading us right into real America!

Getting our kicks on route 66

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Kansas & Missouri

This is Kansas
 Heading off from Denver we had a big day ahead of us. 1000km of driving on I-70 for the day, pretty much skipping Kansas other than than rolling our tyres across the whole thing and the odd toilet break. Ten hours of driving in all, pretty memorizing when there are no corners and many lanes while traveling at 70mph on cruise control. Did have a pool, basketball court and a mini golf course at the campground at the end of the day in Kansas City, Missouri though. Worst thing was we had another 400km the next morning to reach St Louis, Missouri!

The St Louis Gateway Arch

Driving into the city we found ourselves exactly where we wanted, parked right next to the river by the Mississippi river boats, right under the Arch. Made for an easy and fun few hours in St Louis. A beautiful and charming little but still big city.  The Gateway Arch, which symbolises the passage to the west for early American pioneers, is the most amazing sight and absolutely towers over the city and region. Underground right below was also an amazing museum with displays about the history of the westward expansion of America. We took a river cruise on the "Mighty Mississippi", but with a very industrial feel it was not the free-flowing, green, oasis one pictures. Was a stinker of a day, so after the days activities we definitely deserved a stop into the towns local brewpub (Morgan Street Brewery).

Mississippi River Cruise

Good times in Colorado

Colorado was a good time. We headed for my friend Phil's place in Avon, who I meet in 2009 at university when he was studying abroad and who I also visited last time I was in the US. Phils a good dude so I was looking forward to a chilled out time relaxing in the mountains, not worrying about long days driving, setting up camp, cooking or how I can cool down my beers! Again it was a nice drive through the Rockies and just as the drive was nearly complete only minutes away driving on the I-90 highway we had an exciting moment.

All of a sudden we hit a wall of rain and hail. So to my terror I suddenly had no control of the car while traveling at 65mph on a downhill gradient, so this was very concerning. The car slowly veered across the lanes, but I kept calm and slightly applied the breaks, but I stopped doing that because that was worse, put the car into a lower gear, and quickly undid that change, again not helping. Our only option now was to ride it out till we lost momentum and fully regained control. I'm not sure what was more difficult: trying to control the car or trying to reassure Amy as we slid across the highway.

Crazy Mountain Brewry
Phil's dog Keona

The good times at Phil's involved beer and pizza to catch up over on the first night. The next day a visit to the local brewery 'Crazy Mountain' for beer tastings and playing a fun American game 'corn hole' in the car park. We sampled their full range with a sampler 'flight' followed with a few pints of their delectable IPA. Wicked spot to chill out with a very local feel with the bar right within the brewery with tables and games right in the car park out in the beautiful Colorado sun.

We continued on the beer sampling theme with the bunch of us heading back to Phil's all with a different Colorado 6 pack in hand with beers right across the flavour range. A great medium for cementing old friendships and making new ones.  Phil's friend Chris, who says 'STOKED' alot, was super keen to meet us, so much in fact that he drove several hours from Denver to come party for the night. Also Phil's ladyfriend, flatmate and a chirpy dog`(who loves chewing bottle caps) made for a fun group for the night. 

Chris taking us on an adventure
Rocky Mountain NP with Chris, Amy & Thomas
Mr Chipmunk

Our new friend Chris then convinced us to stay in Colorado an extra night by offering to take us for a hike out in the Rocky Mountains National Park and checking out a local brewery in Estes Park. So off we went out to the park on another stunner of a day, perfect for a wicked little walk a few hours up then back. Some awe inspiring scenery getting right amongst some big mountains, barely another soul about, leading right up to a beautiful lake and getting into some crazy deep snow, shortening our walk as it was too deep to go any further up the mountain! Pizza and craft beer as a reward for the effort. Also, we finally spotted a elk with antlers just as we were driving out of the park when he decided to cross the road in front of us and I have to mention the new friends we made with the little chipmunks on the road side, awww! 
Elk with velvet antlers

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Elks & Bisons & Bears, oh my!

Yellowstone National Park
The following day we headed for Yellowstone, which boarders the Grands Tetons. Just driving casually stopping at any points of interest, just really enjoying being surrounded by mountains minus the potential presence of bears. Not expecting this sort of drama on our drive we were confused to come round a corner and see a big pine tree wobbling unusually and then a dust cloud rising from beneath. While driving slowly anyways as Amy was scoping the area for wildlife, we slowed down even further and Amy looked out to the right down the steep slope off the road to see a small workers truck completely smashed into a tree in the forest below. We didn't see the car leave the road, but only seconds ahead of us it had gone straight and flew into the ditch at a slight bend in the road. I jumped out and clambered down the five or so meter slope to find a guy sitting on the bank and a wrecked truck. Somehow this guy was lucky, only a few scratches. Amy was up on the road frantically trying to get a bar of reception only to made it through to 911 emergency once and cut out immediately. She eventually sent another passerby for help as I helped the man up the hill to the road and we waited for fire and ambulance. The man was very grateful for us stopping, and after waiting for help and making statements to the police, etc., we were off on our way, very cautiously.

That's a lot of snow for May!
Yellowstone National Park was a dizzying myriad of nature at its best with unbelievable landscapes, rampant wildlife and unique geothermal activity, making for a busy and absorbing three days. We were surprised to learn the road we used to enter the park only opened days earlier, understandably when driving over the pass with heaps of snow still present off the road. We spent three full-on days in the park in and out of the car journeying around from tip to toe and Yellowstone put on a show for us, as it would for any visitor.

The super volcano beneath really makes for some colourful and explosive hotpools, mudpools and gysers, and we saw everyone of them! We saw frozen lakes, snow capped mountains, beautiful running rivers and streams, the stunning Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, waterfalls, forests and rolling meadows. But what stood out even more was the abundance of wildlife. Herds of deer, elk and bison were everywhere! Heading to our campground on the first day, we managed to get lost on the one of two roads in the park andfound oursleves in 'Bison Country'. Impressed to see herds of bison, but more so the grizzly bear out for a walk. He traveled from a field across a river and then casually crossing the road and heading up to see some of the mudpools we were thinking of visiting too! We changed our mind!

Bison going for a walk!
Pulling out of the campground the next morning we ran into a herd of at least 30 bison walking down the road through a gorge. With them coming towards us, we were forced to stop to let them pass! There was a long line of traffic behind them, and eventually one car turned around and told us they had be slowly following the herd for an hour! They're not small animals, so they definitely got right of way causing some traffic congestion. We agree this was probably one of the coolest experiences we had in Yellowstone!

Bison and their calves

Making sure we didn't miss Montana, we nipped over to "West Yellowstone" just across the boarder, collected supplies, experienced a rustic mountain town and continued Amy's obsession of taking thousands of photos of bison, this time along with some cute little bright orange baby ones.

We managed to spend the next day running into hundreds of elk, just chilling out in front of stores, gyesers etc., a mum and two grizzly bear cubs, and a coyote! On our way to seeing the famous Old Faithful Geyser, we had the craziest "small work experience." We happened to run into a Canadian guy that one of our flatmates in NZ picked up hitch-hiking and ended up staying with us for a few nights in Christchurch, crazy!

"Forever West" Wyoming
 Making our way to Colorado we headed to Cody, Wy, named after 'Buffalo Bill' unfortunately not quite in season yet so we missed the rodeos. From there we had a beautiful two days driving on back roads through the heart of Wyoming, that meant a whole lot of nothing, but it was spectacular. Stopping in the middle of nowhere at a scody as cafe we ate along side some real life cowboys, spurred boots and all! Quick look around Rawlins where we stayed for the night. Found a wonderful little museum and met some super friendly townsfolk. Got a good recommendation and had a nice driving break, stopping at Saratoga springs, a super hot free pool that was too hot to withstand, but had a good  dip 
                                                                                        and met some friendly locals as well.
Campground in Yellowstone National Park

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Into the Mountains

Grand Teton Range over Jenny Lake, Wyoming
Clocking off three more states in the leg of the trip, we nipped into Idaho and Montana and really got amongst Wyoming. Really feeling the effects of moving north and getting back into the action of the mountains, this is where our lack of sleeping equipment really became noticeable. Also now starting to get really confused, we have moved from the coast through valleys to mountains to deserts and more deserts and now more mountains. Along with its expanse, comes an immense vastness in this county, and we were becoming very impressed!

Our drive north was really manageable, quite long but the way we planned it we had no destination so we just sort of kept thinking its not so far until we had managed 6+ hours and made it to Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Not letting a flat tyre or the police car tailing me or beautiful surroundings distract us too much. This drive was a bit like there welcome sign says, "Forever West" with rolling green pastures, tall snow caped mountains and sleepy towns to pass by, very similar to NZ in many ways. Unfortunately that night by poor judgment we chose our campsite on a late arrival right by the ice cold river deep in the valley with several thousand meter high peaks surrounding us. What I learnt in my Environmental Science degree at university slipped my mind that evening: mountains are cold, cold air sinks and mountains funnel cold air and did it ever!

After a bitterly cold night we visited the adventure town of Jackson, a home for climbing, kayaking, mountaineering, snow-sports and all sorts of fantastic things. We didn't get to play though, maybe another time. Right on the door step of the Grand Tetons National Park we headed that way and made inquires at a ranger station as to what to do in the park. Taken back a bit by the ranger that essentially assured us we were going to get attacked by bears, and should arm ourselves with bear 'pepper' spray (which we never bought), we cautiously headed in the proverbial bears den.

Thomas in Jenny Lake
Now living in terror, we made camp at the beautiful Jenny Lake Campground and tested our luck and went for a little walk along the lakeside. Startled by a deer, then thinking about the potential food source for some friendly bears, I was far too scared to be out so we headed back to the semi-safty at the campsite. To calm myself down I took an afternoon swim in the lake which was fantastically freezing. 

With the increased coldness I was able to improve my beer cooling system using some snow. We made our first campfire that night taking advantage of the firepit which every campsite we stayed at had. We also made friends with a Canadian couple and had some campfire drinks and stories! That night a terrified Amy was certain a deep breathing bear was lurking right at the tent, more likely it was me snoring! Off to Yellowstone the next day!!!

Thomas & Amy keeping safe from bears on the lake edge!

Monday, August 13, 2012

The week with Mom (Part 2)

Monument Valley

Flag in the Navajo Nation
Gosh it has been a wee while since this all happened so I'll try scratch together the memories. So a bit of a big day, driving over 500km or 300mi. Again as usual thought it was a beautiful drive with the rich red sand landscape of Arizona and Utah. The feature of the day, seeing the magnificent Monument Valley. This gigantuian landscape situated right off the main road within the Navajo Nation Indian reservation was a sight and wonderful experience of an American Indian place. Not falling within the National Parks system made this place a bit cooler really. We decided to drive around a burly sand road that took us winding through the buttes or 'big rock things.' A journey Diane was apprehensive taking our hire car on, but no worries I only bottomed out a few times. The very undeveloped feel, not the crowds seen else where and a few friendly Navajoes to talk to made it. One offering out a photo opp on a mustang horse for a dollar and another showing us a traditional desert mud hut, and plenty of others selling hand made crafts and jewelry. The buttes were pretty amazing, another natural wonder on a scale of nearly unfathomable history of creation. On just another pefrect day, this place was wicked.

Driving on we headed for Moab, Utah on the edge of the Arches National Park. Sighting our first arch just before reaching town. I decide looking from afar was not good enough so I ran right up and climbed as high up the arch as I could. Only on my descent I realised sitting in a car for hours then sprinting up hill at high elevation in the desert was unfortunately painful. A wildly huge American BBQ dinner left us extremely full with plates of food unbelievably huge and dense and a burger that was taller than my local craft beer.

Arches National Park was another treat, slightly congested and on a steaming hot day escaping the crowds was hard as walking was deathly. Again you wounder how such unique formations occurred, day after day a different completely amazing geological wonder. Amy and I took a little 30 min walk early in the park, deep between some long buttes capturing a little moment of isolation. On along to the long list of arches, some narrow arches in large rock formations and others standing on their lonesome standing so brittle as if they could topple at any moment. We ventured down narrow slots between buttes across sand so pure, even managing to find a sturdy accessible arch to summit!

Diane, Amy, Shannon & Thomas
Driving on that afternoon moving from the desert to mountains, its still hard to imagine such vastly different environments so closely adjacent. For the night we stayed in the picturesque alpine town of Park City, host to the 2002 Winter Olympics. A very adorable sleepy little mountain town in its spring off season during our visit. Still plenty of little shops for my ladies and a nice pizza joint with some local brews. The Winter Olympics museum and training centre was cool. The athletes don't get a rest even when there isn't snow though as we sat and watched while ski jump athletes practiced with an artificial ski ramp jumping into a pool! In skis and full winter attire too!

Can you spot the skier upside-down flipping into the pool?

On our last day with Mommy and Shan we headed to Salt Lake City where they were to fly out from. A few last sights of the Mormon tabernacle, the city itself and a look at the lake. I originally thought I was keen for a swim, but changed my mind once we got to the water. After covering a few thousand miles already we also had to return our car and get another as we had driven so far we required an oil change. So hoping for a more fuel efficient vehicle, the Mitsubishi Endeavor 4x4 wasn't exactly what we were thinking. Seeing Diane and Shannon off that night made me excited for one thing, a sleep-in the next morning, a casual start to the day with a swim, playing basketball and a spa. Man was this one nice campground!!!
Shannon, Amy & Thomas in Park City, Utah