Week TWELVE

The worthy author's original childhood home.
The valiant, heroic author bravely facing the terrifying Rocky Mountain Chipmunk.
The fearless, superhuman, mountaineering author taking photos from atop the Rockies.

Denver was the closest thing to civilization we'd seen in days, so we indulged in some P.F. Chang's for lunch. You really must try the Dan Dan Noodles. So good. Yum, yum. We took a quick drive by the original home of yours truly before we went to the Rocky Mountain National Park.

Not that Colorado made it easy. To begin with, not to slander my own home state, but Colorado drivers give New Jersey motorists serious competition for the Crappiest Driving in America award. I don't know what they're doing wrong in Colorado Driver's Ed courses, but everyone there seems to think you should enter the freeway at twenty miles per hour and accelerate very, very slowly, no matter how many fatal accidents this is causing directly behind them. They are probably just looking out for the bicyclists. You read that right. Colorado allows bicycles– regular, leg-powered bicycles– on the freeway. So the interstate is filled with insane Colorado drivers very, very gradually working up to speeds of seventy-five miles per hour, and even insaner bicyclists.

So we got the hell off the freeway and onto Route 36, which goes directly to the park. Part of the road was closed, but there were signs clearly posted giving the distance, duration, and reason for the closure, with directions to the quickest detour. Ha ha ha ha! I'm just kidding. There was none of that stuff. Just a patrol car parked across the street pointing people down an unlabelled country road. Forty minutes later, we somehow ended up back on Route 36, about one mile further toward our destination. Meanwhile, for all we know, the Colorado Highway Patrol was having a big kegger in the middle of the road.

We enjoyed the Rocky Mountain National Park under a thick blanketing of clouds which periodically drizzled on us, the elk, the mule deer, and the chipmunks. We set up base camp at the foot of the mountain and climbed to 12,236 feet. Ha! I kid you again. We drove up to 12,136 feet and climbed a foot path the rest of the way. By this time, it was starting to get dark, and threatening to rain, which for us means only one thing: time to drive over a mountain! So we headed down out of the park and over a few more mountain passes, in the dark, in the rain, complete with lightning and thunder, and as a special bonus, in the fog. Compared to driving over the Sonora Pass, this was like a walk in the park with an ice cream cone and a magical dancing puppy.

The Happy Cooker at 6th and Taos in Georgetown, Colorado. For people who want to eat, but not right now.
The Shark reaches seventy thousand miles. Hey, you try taking a picture of your own speedometer while driving through a canyon at seventy miles per hour.
Southeast Utah: a hundred miles of very beautiful nothing.

We've experienced a lot of bad, slow, indifferent, and/or incompetent restaurant service on this trip, but The Happy Cooker in Georgetown, Colorado, takes the top prize with ease. We waited a very reasonable fifteen minutes for a table, but they were just getting warmed up. Another fifteen minutes passed before the genial, which is not to say detail-oriented, snowboarder masquerading as a waiter came around to see if perhaps we would like to get food involved in the situation somehow. It was only a paltry ten minutes or so before the drink order arrived, which we enjoyed having in the intervening fifty minutes before food was seen. And I don't just mean our food, either. For the better part of an hour, not one person at The Happy Cooker received so much as a packet of Saltines. We'll never know if this was the fault of the half-aware young man waiting tables for bong money, or if the entire kitchen staff took a smoke break of French proportions, or if The Happy Cooker employs a novel new slow-cooking method of scrambling eggs. For those of you who don't do math, that's approximately one hour and thirty minutes between our arrival and any evidence that this restaurant actually had food in it. The food was actually very tasty, which makes it such a shame to have to rate The Happy Cooker as the worst restaurant we visited. It's just that it's hard to enjoy your huevos rancheros when prolonged starvation has already forced you to eat your own hand. The couple at the next table was practically in tears by the time their Caesar salads arrived. (They deserved it for their abominable– or should I say non-existent– parenting skills. These were the kind of parents whose kids yell the words "I hate you guys!" on a daily basis.) At the table opposite the unpleasant family were two men trying to see who could look more like Ernest Hemingway and a woman with an ass so huge and lumpy that it looked like she was wearing clown pants filled with butter. I was kind of surprised that she didn't simply kill and eat the waiter.

The interstate through the western half of Colorado runs through some lovely mountainous territory (and not coincidentally through some of the most popular ski towns in America). Then you enter Utah. Southeastern Utah is very beautiful in a stark, desert, cliffs-in-the-distance way. It is also completely and utterly without evidence of any life form. Between the Colorado border and the turnoff for Moab seventy miles later, the interstate itself is the only man-made object, and the other motorists (what few there are) the only living creatures that you will see. It's very scenic in a completely desolate way. We took that turnoff and went down to Arches National Park, which is very cool. Unfortunately, it began to get dark before we saw the entire park, but it was worth the fifty mile detour. If you plan to visit Arches, though, the walk to the "closer" Delicate Arch viewpoint isn't really worth the uphill hike. You don't get that much closer; either go hardcore and walk up to the arch itself (not the "viewpoint"), or just stick with the viewpoint right off the parking lot and get yourself a telephoto lens. The odd thing about the easy viewpoint was the trail sign which described it as "an easy five-minute walk." This viewpoint was no more than thirty feet away. It wouldn't take five minutes if you laid down on the ground and waited for a breeze to roll you to the viewpoint. I suppose if you were an ant, and you lost all of your legs in a tragic ant farm accident, and you had to drag your tiny ant body from the trail sign to the viewpoint using your antennae, it might take you five minutes. But then it would hardly be easy, would it?

We met this adorable little fellow at a gas station. His head is way too big for the rest of him. Is that not just the cutest thing you ever saw in your whole entire life?
Bella posing for the camera and Dylan at a time when he probably didn't want his picture taken.
I find it interesting that there are three women and four men on this billboard.

Driving through Utah, you don't get smacked in the face with Mormonism until you get near the cities. But on the interstate between Provo and Salt Lake City, you will see billboards that you would never see anywhere else. Some highlights:

  • More than One: Plural Marriage– A Sacred Pioneer Heritage
  • HotSaints.com– Chase and Be Chaste (online dating service for virgins?)
  • MissionaryMail.org (email for the proselytizer on the go)
  • Games So Intoxicating, the Beverages Don't Have to Be (baseball without beer? now they've gone too far.)
And in at least one Utah gas station, the sign at the register says you must be nineteen to purchase tobacco. You just have to be different, don't ya, Utah?

On the subject of billboards, I have to get this out of my system. We also saw a billboard for this new Discover card keychain credit card thing. Maybe this will be a runaway hit, I don't know; the consumer public is remarkably stupid. But this seems to me like something that was dreamed up after the inventor of New Coke had a lobotomy. Here's how I imagine the meeting that led to this monstrosity:

"Okay people, we need a new gimmick. What can we do to improve on the standard credit card?"
"Well, sir, I'm tired of credit cards that fit neatly into any wallet in the known universe, and are easily recognized by retail clerks. How about making it a nonstandard size and shape?"
"Good thinking Jenkins! But does it still have to be thin enough to fit comfortably in a pocket?"
"No sir! We could attach it to some type of pivoting case that will increase its bulk by six thousand percent!"
"Brilliant! But how will we explain that?"
"Simple, sir. We'll make it a keychain! That way, people can spend the day at the mall handing not only their credit card, but also their house and car keys to perfect strangers who work minimum wage cashiering jobs."
"I like it! And if you lose your car keys, the honest, law-abiding citizen who inevitably picks them up will know who to contact by the name on the credit card!"
...and so on and so forth. Thank you, Discover card. I've never applied for one of your cards for no real reason, and now I feel vindicated. Everyone involved in the credit-card-attached-to-your-keys-so- that-you-have-to-explain-what-it-is-to-clerks fiasco should be boiled in walrus snot and fed to feral cats for their stupidity. You are all a repudiation of Darwinism.

Frothing tangents aside, we got to SLC, where we stayed with Dirk's brother and sister-in-law. We had lunch at the colorful Ruth's Diner, and a delightful barbeque where we also got to visit with a very nice cousin of Dirk's, his equally nice wife, and their nice-by-genetic-predisposition little girl. A fine time was had by all, and I made two more new best friends, Bella and Dylan (even though Bella did bite my thumb by accident). Bella is so excited about life in general that she wags her entire butt along with her tail, whereas Dylan makes even your very sedentary author look energetic by comparison. Until you throw a tennis ball for him, that is. That shut me up good.

Utah is so repressed that you can get away with naming your Toyota dealership "Menlove" and nobody thinks that's funny.
A barn in Wyoming. I have nothing funny to say about that, just making the point that we were in Wyoming.

It was on Interstate 15 driving north from Salt Lake City that we saw something we'd never seen before: there was a construction crew using one lane of the highway, and every man on the crew was actually working. Six, seven– it may have been as many as eight men– all actively working on a road-repair related task. As if this weren't unbelievable enough, we saw this scene repeated many miles later. I guess they just do things differently in Utah.

Fun fact about Smoot, Wyoming! (That's not a typo. They named a town "Smoot.") As with most small towns with state highways through them, Smoot has a reduced speed limit. Instead of wasting energy braking, Dirk simply took his foot of the gas. When we reached the point where the highway speed limit resumes, we still hadn't slowed down as far as the town speed limit. In other words, you can coast through the entire town of Smoot, Wyoming.

Hotel reservations, road closures, and later on, Washington state's lack of pride would all came together to result in us having to drive into and out of Idaho five times. That's a lot of times to visit Idaho in an entire lifetime, much less in a week. We stayed in Driggs, Idaho, a town that's as empty at 10:30pm as most towns are at 3am. The following morning, we had lunch at the Miso Hungry Cafe, where a bunch of smelly hippies mangled the very definition of "sandwich" with their cruel toppings (cucumber?!) and their sprouts-on-everything mentality. Even if you ask for no sprouts, you get sprouts. Sprouts are compulsory. And if you're ever in the unfortunate position of having to eat at the Miso Hungry Cafe– say, under threat of having a Pomeranian crammed down your esophagus instead– don't order the ham sandwich. What you will get is nine inches of thick, gooey, hippie bread surrounding a whisper of lunch meat buried somewhere in the stack of salad-bar-reject toppings. I've gotten more ham at bar mitzvahs than I got from these art school failures. And don't even try to find the bathroom there. I suppose a swirly, multicolored sun goddess painting is the International Hippie Symbol for "restroom." This is the sort of restaurant experience that results when the owner's cranial arteries are completely clogged with bong resin. And who do they think they are fooling with their burning incense, anyway? Do they really think we're that dumb? I'm surprised the toilet even flushes, the tank must be so crammed with their baggy stash. Their food is an insult, their restrooms a secret mystery, and their lifestyle inexcusably smug and self-indulgent. I hope somebody slips a ground beef patty into their twelve-grain organic wheat germ pasta and they all die of Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease.

MOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOSSE!
Yellowstone has rivers, meadows, mountains, and forests...
...yet they choose to advertise boiling mud.

Grand Teton seems a lot less grand when you're seeing it from the inside of your sweltering car while you sit and wait for the interminable road construction to allow you to continue. Other places could learn a thing or two from Yellowstone National Park, which posted a map right at the front gate showing which roads were under construction, during what hours, and how long the expected delays were. Gold star for Yellowstone, and gold star for the ranger at the south entrance who told us exactly where we could find a moose. And what a moose! We spent a good hour just kickin' it with our moose buddy while he enjoyed some delicious lake plants. He let us get within thirty feet or so before he started to show any interest in us, and we left him to his gooey weeds.

Everyone except professional travel writers seem to rag on Yellowstone. "It's overrated!" is the most common complaint. This was my third trip through the park, and I'd like to make a recommendation to the underwhelmed, which is to skip Old Faithful and Mammoth Hot Springs entirely. Those parts of the park really are overrated, especially Old Faithful. When I went to see OF, I was shocked to read the sign that said it erupts every 40 to 90 minutes. That's faithful? I thought it was supposed to be regular like clockwork! Heck, I go to the bathroom every 40 to 90 minutes and nobody wants to see that! So, Yellowstone, lay off the OF and the Hot Springs and instead, highlight the good parts of the park, such as the "Grand Canyon of Yellowstone," the waterfalls, and the abundant wildlife. In just five hours we saw a coyote, several elk (two up close), many deer, one giant moose, squirrels and chipmunks, bison herds (both near and far), pelicans and egrets. But many people will never see all the good parts because they're too busy driving to smelly, sulfur-belching, steaming puddles of goo.

Flathead Lake in Big Sky Country.
Maybe we need to start having some rules about when you can use the phrase "World Famous."
Hmm. Needs ketchup.

It was approximately twelve degrees and raining when we woke up in Butte. We decided to eat at a "4Bs" restaurant, because we'd seen them everywhere in Montana and nowhere else; I had the 100% real dead ground-up Montana buffalo burger. (The buffalo burger at Granite City in Fargo was better, which is probably why they got Skid Row to play there.) Driving by a buffalo ranch later that day, I wondered if I'd eaten one of their buddies for lunch. We passed the Rock Creek Lodge in Clinton, where they hold the annual "Testicle Festival," a yearly celebration of Rocky Mountain Oysters that lures gonad lovers from around the country to eat bull balls. I could elaborate on the topic of big-necked ranch men scarfing down deep-fried reproductive organs, but I'm too genteel for that.

Kalispell is located near Flathead Lake, which makes it a way station for boating, hunting, and fishing enthusiasts. We fit right in. At the faux-Irish Bulldog Pub & Steak House we were seated next to a table of about a dozen men ranging in age from 16 to 40ish, some of them clad in Def Leppard t-shirts. Our waitress informed us in a conspiratorial whisper that this was a bachelor party. The hapless groom-to-be's final blowout of unwedded debauchery was the saddest thing to happen on August 8th since Jerry Garcia died. They ate burgers, drank a couple of beers each, and made the groom-to-be wear a plastic ball and chain. There were no strippers, no bottles of champagne or tequila, no embarrassing toasts recounting unfortunate sexual encounters from college. Or even high school. The "party" was over by 9:30. I'm sure it's a night he'll never forget.