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Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Short Cuts That Take Longer

View outside of Salt Lake City
Salt Lake City is such a beautiful city, nestled up against the mountains the city almost looks fake as we drove by this morning on our way to Billings.

Our intention was to drive north on the I-15 to just west of Butte, Montana where we would catch the I-90 east to our destination, Billings.

Intentions.  Sometimes they are unfulfilled and today was one of those days. We enjoyed incredible scenery on our way north through Utah and into Idaho.  The preconception is that a drive from Salt Lake City north into Utah would be through mountainous terrain and foothills.  Instead we drove through huge, flat valleys with mountains looming to the east and far off to the west.  Farmland and ranches dominate with a town sprinkled here and there.  The space is vast, the land fertile and the drive enjoyable.  After about 260 miles of it we stopped to "rest" and fill up the van in Dubois, Idaho.

Just before we left the Phillips 66 stop I Googled our Best Western Clocktower Inn, Billings, Montana on my Samsung Galaxy 3s to see about how much driving time we had left.

Hmmmm. This is interesting.  If we continue on our route of I-15 to I-90 we had about 348 miles and 5 hours of driving time left.  However....if we drove straight east out of Dubois on a county road or two toward West Yellowstone, then headed north to Bozeman, then east on I-90 the total distance was only 318 miles but the total driving time was estimated to be about 45 minutes longer.

"Hey, Les, what do you think...."

Leslie was all for the change in route and going through the western edge of Yellowstone.  I love my travel partner, she is always up for an adventure and exploring new places and routes.  This was definitely an adventure.

We drove through Dubois, which has no stop light nor stop sign, and at the edge of town hit county road A-2.  It was barely two lanes wide, no center stripe, and was not a black top.  It was somewhere between a gravel road and paved.  As we started down the road I began to have doubts, there was nothing in front of us, no cattle, no buildings, no traffic.  Being the intrepid travelers we are we pressed on. After about half an hour of driving down the very rough road we finally saw another vehicle, about two miles down the road a pickup was coming, but then turned off the road and started across a dirt track into the fields.
Beginning of our journey on the A-20

About 15 minutes later we saw another pickup with a horse trailer, I thought for sure we would pass this one, but he turned off  on another ranch road.  I was beginning to feel like I was in a C.J. Box novel (the Joe Pickett series, he is a game warden in Wyoming), driving alone through the wilderness with no one in sight.

Finally we saw a huge truck that was some sort of road repair vehicle, with a giant arrow blinking on top of the truck to pass to the left.  "Duh" but what the heck I knew we weren't alone.

Leslie calls this picture on A-20 the "God Picture"
About a mile after passing the county maintenance truck we ran out of hardtop and our road became a dirt and gravel track.  For the next twenty miles we were traveling through fields and forest on a gravel road seeing only one car that passed us going the other way.  It was wonderful. No people, a huge hawk sitting on a fence post watching us go by, mountains climbing in the distance getting nearer, travelling from open meadows to forests back to meadows.

Eventually we found black top again and entered the Gallatin National Forest to highway 20 north which took us to the town of West Yellowstone.  From there we drove into the western edge of Yellowstone, following the Gallatin river through the forests and into Bozeman.
View at Bozeman

Lunch consisted of some Cliff bars and trail mix in the car. After a stretch break in Bozeman we headed east on the I-90 to Billings, arriving about 6:15, which was when we expected to arrive had we followed our intended route.

The desk clerk at the Best Western told us about a couple of good restaurants within walking distance of the hotel and we ended up at Walkers Grill for a date night type evening.  We each had a cocktail and split pork-belly lettuce wrap and sauteed calimari appetizers (delicious, delicious) and then I switched to a locally brewed pilsner and Leslie to a Central Coast chardonnay for our main courses (Korean barbecued pork sliders for me and cheese pasta with lots of goodies for Leslie--again delicious, delicious).  As walk around downtown Billings and we are ready to tuck in for the night.
Appetizers at Walkers Grill

We are so glad we changed our route to head through the somewhat desolate wilderness instead of staying on the interstate.  As we drove the "short-cut" I said, "We may be the only people we know who will ever take this route."

"No, we probably know some people who would."

She's right, some of our friends and family who read this may put it on their future itinerary--you know who you are and so do we.  (Looks like some great trout fishing...).

Does a bear....seen in Dubois restroom

Does your home need this sign?

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

And Away We Go...

It's amazing how much faster we can leave for a trip when the kids aren't with us.  At 7:30 we had the van loaded up and were on the road.  Typical summer morning gloom and nice cool 63 degree temperatures saw us through Southern California and we made pretty good time to clear the area--going opposite rush hour traffic is a bonus.

Once we hit the I-15 we were clear of clouds and the thermometer climbed pretty steadily.  By the time we took a quick break and stretch in Baker (home to the former thermometer for Death Valley, it is still there but not operational) we were in 85 degree plus sunshine and grateful for the climate control provided by Honda.

We cleared Vegas around 11:30, as expected and continued on to Mesquite, Nevada for fuel, for the van and for us.  Making an executive decision I opted for Roberto's Taco Shop over Del Taco.  Myeh, two chicken tacos each that were very pedestrian--but quick.

As we headed out of Mesquite we wound through the canyons carved by the Virgin River and then slowly climbed up into high desert.  We spent the rest of the drive speeding across huge valley floors surrounded by mountains to our east and west.  Traffic was very light and we were able to easily maintain the 80 mph speed limit until we approached Provo and traffic increased and slowed us slightly.

We pulled off the I-15 and into our plush digs for the night at the Best Western Plus in Midvale, Utah (about ten miles south of Salt Lake City) at 6:30 local, 5:30 Long Beach time (we keep the van clock on the LBC time slot).  A word about the Best Western chain.  After experiencing La Quintas, Super 8's (which I have coined Okay-8's), and various other chains we have found that Best Westerns have routinely provided very clean rooms, the amenities we need and very good rates.  With the exception of our night in Williston, ND on the way home our hotel stays are all at Best Westerns.

Inquiring at the front desk for where we might grab a good bite to eat without breaking the wallet we were directed to the next block and the Midvale Mining Cafe.  It looks like it sounds with big counter, plenty of booths and diner food.  Leslie had a grilled chicken salad that was huge and I had a grilled chicken sandwich--both were very good and the chicken was seasoned much better than our lunch 350 miles earlier.

Our journey tomorrow is estimated at 560 miles and eight and a half hours by Google Maps, compared to today's almost 700 miles and ten hours that is a piece of cake.  Google maps impresses me with their accuracy in providing mileage and especially how long it will take to get to your destination--somehow it calculates stops for gas, relief and eating as the time it predicts is almost always how long it takes us.

Good night from Midvale.

Odometer at 7:29 a.m. Pacific

Monday, July 29, 2013

It's That Time of Year....

....for the Annual Smith Family Summer Road Trip To Minnesota And Back To Get The Girls From Camp(ASFSRTTMABTGTGFC), we'll just call it the Summer Road Trip (SRT?).

This is the fourth summer in a row that Leslie and I have shipped the girls off to Camp  Birchwood on the shores of Steamboat Lake in the beautiful woods of northernish-central Minnesota; and the third summer in a row that we hop into the Honda Odyssey for our own odyssey.  Our first SRT (is it working?) we managed to cover over two thousands miles from Long Beach to Camp in two nights, with stops outside of Salt Lake City and outside of Gothenburg, Nebraska.  Actually, there is no "outside" Gothenburg as "inside" consists of one McDonald's, two hotels used mostly by bird hunters in season, one stop light and a couple of stop signs.

Our route home for SRT I was via Mount Rushmore, Yellowstone, across the Tetons, through Zion National Park and home.  Kids handled the trip so easily we knew we had a summer classic and more road trips in the future.

Last year, SRT II, was a more leisurely pace eastward at the request of our Cruise Director Leslie with stops in Bishop, Reno to see friends Mike and Shelle, Pendleton, Oregon, up the Clearwater River in Idaho and across the Bitterroot Mountains to Missoula, Montana, to the High Line and Havre, Mt across the great northern plains to Minot, North Dakota and into Camp Birchwood. A beautiful journey that had us traipsing along historic routes.

Our trip home had us paralleling the Mississippi south from Camp Birchwood (it originates about thirty miles west of the camp) to West Des Moinse, Iowa through Kansas City (and Arthur Bryant's Barbecue for lunch) to my birthplace of Tulsa, Oklahoma for a few nights.  Then across the Great State of Oklahoma, across the Texas panhandle to Albuquerque for some green chili dinner and breakfast, onto Williams, Arizona on Route 66 and a train ride up to the Grand Canyon and back before pulling into Long Beach.  Our journey covered 14 states (the girls hit eight of them) and 4,998 miles.

This year's journey has Leslie and I going at a pace between SRT I and II with four days of driving and three stops (Midvale, Utah, Billings, Montana and Bismark, North Dakota) through seven states (inclusive of about fifty miles through the very northwest corner of Arizona).  Google maps has our outbound trip at 2084 miles.

After two nights at Camp we leave Sunday morning August 4th bright and early heading very much west as we pass through Grand Forks, North Dakota and head up the High Line we traversed last year heading East.  Our trip home will be seven nights (Williston, North Dakota, Shelby, Montana, Bonner's Ferry, Idaho, Seattle for two nights, Medford, Oregon, Novato, California to see Aunt Sharon and Uncle Bob then home) and cover seven states--the girls will get to knock Montana, Washington and Oregon off their list. Google puts the return at 2810 miles. For those who are not math whizzes the estimated round trip is 4894 miles. Last year I took some guff from some who felt I should have driven around the block to get the odometer to hit 5,000 miles, this year if our side trips amount to a mere six miles more than Google estimates we will surpass the big mark.

Our plan is to leave very early so we can get into Midvale (691 miles per Google) before dark and enjoy the happening scene there.  So tomorrow we are off, I will be trying to update this blog daily with our sights, tastes and sounds of the trip. I hope to be able to have readers join us vicariously as we see this incredible country we are blessed to live in.

Here is the map of our trip: