Day 377 – Poster board is for wimps

If you’ve never had the pleasure of meeting my brother-in-law, Geoff, you’re missing out.  For Geoff, good is never good enough.  At Christmas his yard looks like the final battleground of Tim Taylor and Clark Griswold.  If the house needs to be repainted, you might as well replace the siding and windows while you’re at it.  If you throw a 4th of July party, you must also do a Revolutionary War re-enactment, complete with cannons that launch candy at the neighborhood children.

So when my sister wanted to make a sign to welcome us to their home near Portland, Geoff couldn’t possibly just use poster board and pens like normal people.

I knew my sister had something up her sleeve when she requested (multiple times) that we call when we were a few minutes away.  As we drove into their neighborhood, we decided to take a roundabout way so that we could easily park on the correct side of the street.  As we came around the corner, my sister was running down the street, gesticulating wildly and waving her giant straw hat at us.

“Go back!” she yelled.  “Go back the right way!!!”

Robbie looked at her and tried to explain that it would be easier to park from this direction.

“NO! You HAVE to go the other way!”

Robbie started to argue the advantages of our current trajectory, but I knew by the look of desperation on my sister’s face that resistance was futile.  I told Robbie to turn around and go back.

As we approached their house, we were greeted by a small throng of their neighbors playing some sort of “welcome home” march, complete with slide whistles, kazoos, various noisemakers and an out-of-tune guitar!  But before I could take in the magnificence of the band, I noticed the 14’ tall BILLBOARD in their front yard!

Poster board is for wimps

Poster board is for wimps

Astute readers will notice that the Twinkie is parked ON their front lawn!  It’s a good thing they get along well with their neighbors.

What a great welcome back to Washington State!

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Day 375 – Back in the Pacific Northwest!

After 3 solid driving days, we were all thrilled to spend a little time in one place…Bend, OR.  And a wonderful place it is!  We spent 5 nights camping in the mountains outside town, near a wonderfully cool lake.  Since temperatures hit the 90s during the day, we made ample use of the lake.  The best part of our stay was camping with some friends who drove down from Seattle to welcome us home!  We hung out and did as little as possible during their visit, a welcome break from our usual intrepid exploring.  We all really enjoyed their company.

After they headed home, we spent 2 days exploring Bend’s awesome network of mountain bike trails.  I was too busy riding to take any pictures, but the riding was so fun that we’ll definitely be back.

After leaving Bend, we headed to the Columbia River Gorge for a couple of nights.  It’s hard to believe that we’re only a few hundred miles from home!  Starting tomorrow, we’ll be staying with family until we roll into our driveway on the 31st.  Tonight is our last night of camping!  In fact, today was probably our last day of official intrepid exploring.  So we had to make it a good one.

We’re camped in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, home of Mt. St. Helens and all sorts of cool volcanic geology.  We came here because we’d read about a cave that has ice formations even in the middle of summer.  Because the cave is relatively small and we had a map, we decided to explore as much of it as possible.  We grabbed our flashlights, packed lots of extra batteries, dressed in our grubbiest clothes, and donned our bike helmets since we don’t have proper caving hard-hats.  The first part of the cave was fairly open and easy to avoid the icy rocks.  But as we worked our way into the deeper, narrower passages, we found that ice covered almost everything.  Not only would we have to shimmy on our bellies along the ice, but we risked being unable to come back up the icy inclines.

Robbie looks for a way around the ice

Robbie looks for a way around the ice

We went as far as we felt comfortable, then decided to head back and explore the warmer, easier part of the cave.  We’ll return another time with ropes and better gear!

The warmer, easier part of the cave

The warmer, easier part of the cave

While we set up camp, our campground host told us about the Cheese Cave, an unmarked cave not far from the Ice Cave, so we headed there next.  This place was well off the marked path, and we had it to ourselves!  After climbing a precarious ladder and scrambling down a huge rockfall, we entered the cavernous lava tube.

Can you find Robbie and C scrambling the rockfall?

Can you find Robbie and C scrambling the rockfall?

We could see where the surface of the tube had melted during the lava flow and seemed to be dripping from the ceiling.

Melty basalt

Melty basalt

The cave is allegedly named for a cheese making outfit that used the cave to ripen bleu cheese in the30s.  Toward the end, we found the decaying remains of the shelves that must have held the cheese and a giant staircase leading to the now-locked underside of the abandoned cheese house built directly over a natural cave entrance!

You can see the remains of the cheese shelves on the right

You can see the remains of the cheese shelves on the right

C really enjoyed exploring a cave all on our own, and we all had a great time.

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Day 370 – A whole lotta nuthin’

Want to know what’s between the Black Hills of South Dakota and Bend, Oregon?

A monolithic rock:

Doing schoolwork in the shadow of Devil's Tower National Monument

Doing schoolwork in the shadow of Devil’s Tower National Monument

A bunch of hilarious prairie dogs:

A bunch of hilarious prairie dogs

You lookin’ at me?

A giant coal mine:

That's a LOT of coal

That’s a LOT of coal

And a whole lotta nuthin’!

After a fun day at Devil’s Tower, we began the long slog back to the Pacific Northwest.  Along the way we stopped in Gillette, WY for a free tour of a coal strip-mine.  Despite the fact that I think coal is a really bad way to make electricity, the coal mine tour was totally cool.  We all boarded a little bus, and our driver (a former driver of one of those massive coal hauling trucks) took us onto the mine property for a close up look at the equipment used in the mine.  I never cease to be amazed at what humans can engineer!

From there, we drove and drove and drove some more.  With a few short exceptions (notably an overnight in Teton National Park), the drive was – in a word – BORING.  There simply isn’t much to see in this part of the world.  One might argue that the scrubby desert is beautiful in it’s own way, but to me it was just hot and dry.  The fact that we were driving 6+ hours a day probably didn’t help my state of mind.

The truck doesn’t seem to like all of this driving, either.  On our drive over Teton Pass we thought we might have to get out and push the truck over the 10% grade!  We were poking along at 20mph in 1st gear!  The A/C has been intermittently pooping out.  Of course it performed perfectly for the mechanic, but a couple of times it refused to actually cool the air during a long drive on a 95 degree day.  Unpleasant.  And lately the engine has been stuttering during high temperature and high altitude.  I’m afraid to even mention the thick coat of bugs on the radiator!

But we’re making good time, and we’ll be home in just over a week!

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Day 364 – To boldly go where no 8-year-old has gone before

C has found her calling…cave exploration!  We’ve visited quite a few caves on this trip, but after visiting Jewel Cave and Wind Cave she realized just how much she’s cut out for spelunking.  Caving combines her loves of climbing, exploring, getting dirty, and squeezing into tight spaces.  She especially likes the idea of finding surprises at every turn.  When she learned from a ranger that cavers are still discovering cave passages that have never before been seen by humans, that sealed the deal.  She so impressed the ranger with her knowledge of geology and National Parks, that he let her wear his “flat hat” and lead the way on the tour.

Ranger C

Ranger C

We also took a lantern tour of the historic part of Jewel Cave.  It’s amazing how different the cave looks without electric light!

It's a little dark in here

It’s a little dark in here

The Black Hills are surprisingly beautiful.  I had no idea they’d be so cool!  We did a great hike in Custer State Park through The Needles area.  Luckily we got there early and had the mountain to ourselves.  On the hike back down, the trail was packed!

The Needles

The Needles

After our hike, we visited the Crazy Horse monument which is a GIGANTIC, incomplete mountainside carving.  The original sculptor has long since died, but his family carries on the carving tradition.  Seeing the monument in progress is pretty impressive.  But the visitor center was just weird.  It’s a hodge-podge of poorly curated Native American artifacts and memorabilia from the original sculptor in a building that made me wonder if they bothered to pull permits!  But we got to watch a Sioux dancer perform, and we all enjoyed that.

That's the monument in the background

That’s the monument in the background

Of course we visited the most important road trip destination in the whole of the United States…

Mount Rushmore!

Mount Rushmore!

It’s more impressive up-close than in photographs.  The best part was seeing the underlying geology of the rock from which it’s carved.  We stayed for the insanely patriotic and surprisingly moving evening program.   As the sun sets behind Mt. Rushmore, a thousand people gather in what is arguably the largest amphitheater in the NPS.  A ranger shares the story of the writing of our national anthem, then shows a short movie about the presidents honored on the mountain.  As “America the Beautiful” plays, the mountain is gradually illuminated and the faces gaze majestically over the patriotism-infused crowd. 

It was a good way to end our visit to the Black Hills.

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T-20 days!

I’ve recovered from my end-of-trip meltdown last month, and I’m getting really excited to be home!  I thought I’d share with you some of the things I’m looking forward to:

My very own bathroom – For a whole year I’ve used public restrooms with the occasional break to use the bathroom in someone else’s home.  I’m not sure I can express just how excited I am to use my own bathroom with an actual door and thick, fluffy, soft toilet paper.  I’m also really excited to take a shower with reliable hot water, constant water pressure and a showerhead that neither spritzes nor pressure-washes and doesn’t require quarters or a button push every 30 seconds!

Crystal clear, cold, chlorine-free water – We’ve imbibed brown water, salty water, swimming-pool-levels-of-chlorine water, hot water, slimy water and potentially toxic water that ran through questionable RV park plumbing.  Sometimes I actually dream about having a cool glass of filtered water from my refrigerator.

Dishwasher – After a year of living with only one plate, bowl, cup, fork, spoon and knife for each of us, I’m looking forward to not only having a cupboard full of dishes, but the magic machine that makes them sparkly clean at the touch of a button.  I’ve decided that I will put EVERYTHING in the dishwasher from here on out.  No more hand washing for me.  Well…maybe not wooden spoons.

Kitties – Robbie and I have both been caught chasing reluctant cats through RV parks in an attempt to earn a little feline love.  This energy must be more healthfully channeled toward our own crazy kitties.  I wonder if they’ll remember us!

PCC and a fully stocked kitchen – In the absence of reliable, fresh, organic food, we’ve opted to stick with a few simple basics.  Oh, how I long for a little culinary diversity.  It might be years before I can purchase anything canned!

And last, but not least… friends and family! – It’s hard to believe we’ve been away a whole year.  I remember so clearly the day we drove away from our home.  The closer we get, the more excited I am to see everyone!

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