Well we only have 10 days left now, so this will be one of my last blogs. It’s been a fast and furious couple of weeks and even though most of it has been spent in the car, trying to get further east, I still have a lot to tell you.
Yesterday was Independence Day in the USA and I had decided that Colonial Williamsburg would be the perfect place to spend it for a couple of reasons. 1) Virginia is where Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the Declaration of Independence, was from and 2) Colonial Williamsburg is a purpose built town that takes you back to Jefferson’s era so it seemed perfect.
So we knew that we had 2 weeks to get from Seattle to Williamsburg, Virginia (south of Washington DC) and seeing as it took us 4 weeks just to get from Florida to Vegas, we were obviously on a tight deadline.
We didn’t spend much time in Seattle unfortunately. The problem for us with big cities is that they are expensive to stay in. Hotels and motels in the city cost far more than in the suburbs but if you stay in the suburbs then you need to pay expensive parking costs to do any sightseeing. Therefore, we’ve had to keep city visits down to just a day. We don’t see this as an issue though because to be honest, when we come back to the States in the future we’re more likely to have more money and can then stay in the nice hotels in the cities! Plus, we’ve found that the country and smaller places are far more appealing and interesting than most of the cities anyway.
When we arrived in Seattle we drove past the Space Needle and pretty much decided that we had done Seattle. Driving through the streets looking for somewhere to park gave us a good idea of what it was all about and seeing as we have no money for shopping or having sumptuous meals, we’re really there just to see famous landmarks. We parked up, walked to the Space Needle and the Seattle Centre, got back in to the car and drove an hour east to find somewhere to stay for the night. Oh, and we didn’t think the Space Needle was all that anyway!
The next day was a boring but beautiful drive through the rest of Washington, briefly into and out of quiet Idaho, through Montana, which was filled with continuous gorgeous hilly countryside and down into Wyoming to visit the famous Yellowstone National Park. The park sits on the border between Montana and Wyoming and lives up to its hype!
Yellowstone National Park is famous not just for its wildlife but for housing half the world’s geysers and its geothermal pools and features. It was kind of like New Zealand’s Wai-O-Tapu but with bison and grizzly bears. We picked up a map from the visitor’s centre and started driving around the green and hilly park when suddenly we came across this huge basin of thermal pools! The whole side of the hill was mass of oranges, browns, yellows and greens. They have built boardwalks all around so that you can get up close, and while strolling through the basin, we felt like we were back in Rotorua NZ, not Wyoming USA.
Then, after a few minutes driving we saw a mass of cars that had stopped on the side of the road. I’ll briefly explain how the National Parks work so that this all makes sense. The parks are owned and run fantastically by the National Park Service. Every visitor must pay an entrance fee per vehicle or person and this money is used to help protect the environment and wildlife that live there, making sure that the parks are kept in pristine condition and that any endangered animals are preserved. Each park has at least one visitor’s centre where you can get information on various drives and walks/hikes that are on offer as well as purchasing various souvenirs or food, and there are usually 1 or 2 roads that you are allowed to drive on, slowly, through the park. These roads are either a loop road or a road that takes you from one side of the park to the other and you can stop anywhere you want to look at the various wild animals or stop to take in the views. So when you see lots of cars suddenly parked up on the road, you know either there is an amazing view to take a photo of or something big is going on. This time, people had stopped because there were 2 grizzly bears roaming around a mile or so away on the other side of the river. Seeing as we had just purchased some new binoculars, for this reason, we hopped out of the car and took a walk down to the riverside to see the bears. It may not sound that interesting, but there’s something wonderful about seeing animals in their natural habitat, just wandering free. Much better than seeing them in a zoo.
After seeing the grizzlies, we drove on through the park and stopped again when I noticed a couple of bison in a field. Bison are hugely endangered due to past poachers and so Yellowstone are desperately trying to increase their numbers within the park. They are enormous animals, weighing up to 2000 pounds, wildly unpredictable and dangerous, and can sprint at 30 miles per hour (that’s 3 times faster than a human)! You do not mess with these things, I’m telling you. The ones we spotted were literally 20 paces from the road, so we gently and quietly walked as close to them as we felt comfortable and took some fantastic photos. Even though they didn’t seem to even notice us it was still quite unnerving so we didn’t stay too long to find out what would happen if they did!
Feeling incredibly happy after our chance sighting we drove on more, past more stunning fields and thermal areas with sulphur smoke bellowing into the air and were then suddenly faced with a traffic jam. This wasn’t just a few cars slowing down to look at an animal type of traffic jam; we were in it for over an hour, moving at 2 mph the entire time. The cause? Bison taking a walk down the road! 4 adults and 3 babies were just taking a leisurely stroll down our road. Being used to constant vehicles, they weren’t bothered by the hundreds of cars trying to get past them, and took no advantage of the grassy knolls on either side of the road either. They must have walked 4 or 5 miles down this road before casually turning off into a field. It was wonderful to see but very frustrating!
After that there seemed to be an abundance of wildlife and we managed to see mule deer which look like elk, a female and 2 baby black bears, a couple of moose and lots and lots of chipmunks. It really was a truly magical day and with the incredibly varied environments around you, it’s definitely a one of a kind sightseeing destination.
The next day we drove a long, long way east across Wyoming and into the southwest corner of South Dakota to see Mount Rushmore National Memorial. The memorial to the famous 4 presidents is also owned and run by the National Park Service (NPS) and has just gone through a renovation to preserve the rock and to improve the quality of the original work. Apart from the walk around the actual rock face, there’s not an awful lot to do there, so it is a long drive for the sake of a 10 minute visit, but it is totally worth it. It’s not as big as I thought it was going to be and somehow not as jaw-dropping either, but something about it makes you tingle. It’s a little bit of everything – the memorial to the men and what they achieved for their country, the effort that went into the sculpting, the fact that it draws so many people to it and that you’ve seen and heard about it since birth and suddenly you’re there. It really is quite a sight.
Of course the 4 Presidents portrayed on the mount are George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt, but poor old Roosevelt did get a bum deal. His face is stuffed somewhere into the back and gets lost between the other 3. To give you an idea of its size here are a few facts. Each face is 60 feet tall with each eye being 11 feet wide, George Washington’s mouth is 18 feet wide and his nose is 21 feet long (the others are 20 feet long). It took 14 years to sculpt, led by Gutzon Borglum, took 400 workers using jackhammer tools and dynamite and cost just under a billion dollars to build. As well as the memorial there is also the Avenue of the Flags which leads you up to the monument. This avenue celebrates America’s 50 states and flies each state’s flag – all very American!
Our next stop was the Rocky Mountains National Park in Colorado, and for those of you near a USA map, you’ll notice this meant us going southwest and slightly back on ourselves. It was a last minute addition to the schedule but totally worth it. Think the complete opposite to Yellowstone and you’ve got the Rocky Mountains NP. Instead of miles of grassy mountains, all the peaks are covered in snow, instead of bison the park is home to elk, mountain lions and longhorns and instead of sunshine, the park is frickin’ freezing! The Rocky Mountains has the highest average elevation of any national park and even the main road climbs higher than most US mountains, to an incredible 12,183 feet! Not only is it unbearably cold for those of us wearing just shorts and a t-shirt, but the altitude makes you feel like you’ve just run up the mountain, not driven. Getting out of the car and walking 100 yards to a viewpoint, I felt like I’d just run the marathon and I had no idea why, until I read the survival tips in the park newspaper. Thank god I thought, I didn’t think I was that unfit after all the hikes we’ve done this year! We got out a couple more times in the freezing wind and rain to look at the views and animals, including a cute little marmot that I found licking a brick wall for creepy crawlies and then started our descent down to a more bearable altitude.
We stopped for the night and the next day popped into Boulder for a quick look around. Boulder is home to the University of Colorado and 30,000 students and is apparently renowned for being a party town/university. The town, even though it’s quite purpose built and new looking, has lots of character and charm and, maybe it was because it was Sunday, had a relaxed and happy vibe about it. We took a leisurely amble down the pedestrian promenade filled with shops and coffee houses, and even a Cheesecake Factory(!), stopped to watch a very bizarre and hilarious I might add Brazilian dance exercise class in a random tent and then started our drive east towards Chicago, one thousand miles away!!
After driving for 7 hours we stopped just outside of Lincoln, Nebraska for the night and spent ages driving around looking for a motel. We didn’t have a coupon book that covered Nebraska and couldn’t find a gas station that had any so we had to resort to trawling around town asking for rates and finding the cheapest. I was getting quite stressed and as we passed a dingy looking place advertising rooms for $30 Sally suggested we stay there as it was cheap and it was getting quite late. I wasn’t happy because it really did look awful but, as the old saying goes, don’t judge a book by its cover! The room was really lovely and had a great timberline feel about it with animal skins on the walls and hide lampshades. For $30 it was pretty amazing and we celebrated with a burger takeout meal (well, there was no microwave in the room!).
This might be a good point to tell you about some of the places we’ve been staying. You will have noticed that we’ve been staying in motels – not very ‘traveler’ you might think. But our lives were saved upon discovery of these fabulous coupon books that you pick up at gas stations, which I think I’ve talked about before. They have one per region or state and motel chains or privately owned motels place a coupon for a cheap price. We’ve found places for as cheap as $29.99 so it’s really paid off. The reason we’ve done it this way is because believe it or not for us it’s cheaper than staying in hostels. If you’re 18 and with mates, then hostels are the way to go, as your bed will be $20 a night. As a couple hostels aren’t nice and for 2 beds that’s $40 or even more for a private room - sometimes up to $60-$70. So, we decided to boycott expensive hostels and go with motels instead. For the same or even cheaper prices we get a room to ourselves with a bathroom, microwave and fridge, our own TV, and free Wi-Fi and breakfast. Wouldn’t you do the same?
The rooms vary in size and come with either 1 or 2 small double beds. We don’t sleep well at all if we only have 1 bed as it’s too small, and if we have 2 beds we sleep in separate beds and seeing as that’s our favourite way to go, we’re quite concerned that when we get home we’ll be sleeping in separate rooms!
After a second 8 hour day of driving we arrived in Chicago. The evening we got there we were tired and hungry and so I went in search of some dinner for us while Sally updated her CV – yup, it’s time to start looking for work now that we’re home in a few weeks. To her astonishment I came back with a traditional Chicago pizza pie! A pizza pie is a deep dish pizza, sort of more like a pie, hence the name. I randomly found a local pizza place, walked in and got accosted by the owner who spent 45 minutes telling me her life story, how she owned 3 pizza places in the city including one on the ground floor of the NBC building and how she got shot and so moved out to the suburbs. To be fair she was very sweet and was very friendly to all her customers.
The next day we drove into the city, parked the car and took an open aired bus tour which was great fun. It took around 4 hours stopping at various places like Millennium Park, Michigan Avenue, the Art Institute, Soldier Field, the Aquarium, Navy Pier, Magnificent Mile and Sears Tower. It also stopped at the John Hancock Tower where we got off, rode the incredibly fast elevator to the 94th floor (1000 feet up) and enjoyed a relaxing glass of wine and a 360° view of the city. We had planned to do something in the evening but we got back too late and we were exhausted.
After Chicago we drove south to St Louis. One of Sally’s all time favourite musical movies is Meet Me in St Louis so she was desperate to go to the city that was home to the 1904 World’s Fair. We drove straight to the centerpiece of the city, the Gateway Arch, right on the river front. It was completed in 1965 and symbolizes the city’s historical role as the ‘Gateway to the West’. It really is a sight to be seen and standing at 630 feet can be seen from almost anywhere in the city. Right opposite is the Old Courthouse and Museum so we took a quick look around the beautiful building. It’s going through a massive renovation at present but we still managed to see some exhibits showing St Louis through the years as well as a fascinating 15 minute video about the famous Dred Scott slavery case.
For lunch we popped into Charlie Gitto’s, famous for starting the toasted ravioli and it lived up to our huge expectations. Instead of using pasta the meat is rolled in breadcrumbs and then, typically American, deep fried and served with marinara sauce – just amazing, and also cheap!
I have once again written too much so am stopping here and will continue from Louisville, Kentucky in my next blog.
Bye for now.