I woke up on this morning with my mouth practically sticking shut. We'd broken into a bit of a bottle of whiskey the night before, as we huddled around the campfire and looked for ways to keep warm. I was paying for it this morning, and we were extremely low on water.
But I knew there was a long walk ahead of us. Lela and I were up well before Joey and Sarah, so we walked around the nearby grassland and took some pictures. Our site was right next to Grebe Lake, which offered us plenty of nice views - but was a little too wide for us to attempt a walk all the way around.
Okay, so backcountry camping was a bad idea. We simply weren't equipped for the task. We were all terribly weighed down by dangling balls of gear, and our water supply was bordering on dangerously low. Joey went as far as to collect some water from the lake and bring it to a boil over the fire, and drank it down to Sarah and Lela's chagrin. Thankfully he didn't get sick.
The walk back was terrible, even worse than the day before because this time the sun was beating down on us from directly overhead. Once again, Lela and I got way ahead of Joey and Sarah, and once we reached the car we dropped our stuff and turned around to meet them with some water we got from the car. The whole endeavor was something that I was glad to have done, but would think very hard before trying again.
We drove to the South entrance on our way out of the park, which of course leads directly into Grand Teton National Park
, also in Wyoming. This might have been the wrong way to go about things, because after two days in majestic Yellowstone, there wasn't much about the Grand Tetons that was so spectacular. The place was beautiful, don't get me wrong - but especially given how exhausted we all felt from our backcountry experience, we made our visit to the park a short one.
From here we drove through Jackson, Wyo. and the small part of the state that remained before Idaho. Wyoming is such a strange place - the state is about a five hour drive from one side to the other, and has a lower population than any other state in the nation, even lower than Washington, D.C. I don't doubt that the people out here prefer it that way, but I wonder what it is that keeps so many people away from Wyoming. I'd go back in a heartbeat.
The notion of being in Idaho was just completely ridiculous to me. All that this place has ever been, to me, is a place very far away where they make potatoes and kids like Napoleon Dynamite. I knew we could find one of those two, hopefully without much trouble - and as we drove into Idaho Falls, we did a quick sweep on Yelp
for a good place to eat a hot meal and a hot potato.
We found one with the word "brewery" in the name, the Brownstone Restaurant and Brewery
, and merrily galloped in the door. I know this is a predominantly Mormon town, so the notion of finding good local beer was one I certainly hadn't considered.
The beer was decent, nothing to write to Grandma about. For me, the main course was the potato, with a cheeseburger on the side. But aside from the zig-zag cut, there was really nothing special about this potato. It was good, but it was a potato. I get the feeling that if they had shipped this potato across the country and eaten it a month from now, it would have tasted pretty much the same. Still, it was one of the better meals I'd had for a few days and it was welcome in my stomach.
After dinner we ran around and snapped a few photos of the nearby scenery, which included this Mormon temple across the Snake River. I thought for a moment that, based on his pose, the statue on top might have been another Vulcan
, like the one we saw way back in Birmingham, Ala. Upon further research, I discovered it's actually Moroni, one of the many ridiculous characters in the Mormon
faith. It takes some crazy people to make Alabamans look like the sensible ones, but leave it to those Mormons.
Better hold my tongue, though - Lela's flight was the next morning out of none other than Salt Lake City, Utah. We conquered the drive south at night, to avoid hurrying in the morning. More on the next day's adventures coming soon.
We all woke up freezing cold several times throughout the night. We had packed for a summer in America; though we had extra sheets and blankets, we didn’t have nearly enough for the temperature. Yellowstone has a dramatic temperature swing from day to night.
As we crawled out of our tents and warmed up in the sun, I threw something out there that, given the previous nights’ sleeping conditions, would get traction immediately: “I don’t know if we should go backwoods camping tonight.”
Tom, seeing his prized Yellowstone event—and the good time he was planning on showing Lela—in jeopardy, immediately disagreed. He used the “where’s your sense of adventure” argument as effectively as I had, back when insisting that we drive through the night to get to Carlsbad Caverns early. My “it was cold and we didn’t prepare with the right sleeping gear or camping backpacks” argument didn’t have any traction. The “lets take a long hike but camp in a parking/camping spot” suggestion did no better. Sarah, in the spirit of entertaining our guest, wanted to do whatever Lela wanted to, and though Lela didn’t ever come out and say that she was especially gung ho about backwoods camping, wanted to make the most of the couple days she was there. She deferred to the three of us for the decision-making even though we had told her earlier that her vote was as valid as any of ours.
So we were going backwoods camping. After we packed up our camping gear and loaded the car, we had to stop by the ranger station at the north entrance to the park. Tom and Lela watched the informational video on bears and scheduled our camping location, and jumped back in the car, informing Sarah and I that the site was three miles from the road. Having already aired all of my objections, I waited for someone else to say that this wasn’t the best idea. It didn’t happen.
I got over it. Sarah had picked up a whitewater rafting pamphlet the day before and we had made reservations; we were off to do one of the things that I wanted to do somewhere in America since the beginning of the trip. This was a top ten item for me, and we were all excited. We stopped at a camping store that was having their “end of season” sale and they were out of sleeping bags, an item that I was sure to need if we were planning on any real camping. The lady behind the register explained that these were the first thing to go every year at the clearance sale. It was the only camping store in town.
After a little questioning, she informed me of a supermarket that might have a sleeping bag. I was skeptical but had no choice, so we headed for the supermarket. I headed in. After having a clerk tell me where they might be and canvassing the majority of the market, I returned to the front. It wasn’t looking good. A manager directed me towards a corner. I looked for the bags; it was thirty degrees out the previous night, so that was the rating I was looking for. I went through the five bags that they had. The vast majority of the bags were mere nap sacks, but there was a single bag rated for exactly thirty degrees Fahrenheit. It was like finding the Holy Grail.
After driving for a bit to find parking, we realized that the supermarket lot that we had just left was the closest available parking to the white water rafting office. We circled back, parked, emptied our pockets of everything but a few keys and headed for Montana Whitewater.
Once there, we filled out some paperwork, waited for a bit, suited up in lifejackets, helmets, and for Tom and I, water booties (Tom had flip flops that would have gotten lost and Sarah borrowed mine). We jumped on a bus and headed upstream. The driver announced what we would be doing and seeing, went over some instructions and safety precautions, made the obligatory bad jokes, and then left us to chat. I was a little suprised that he skipped the cheer twice routine: the “Is everyone excited to be white water rafting today… You must not be that excited because I could hardly hear you! Is everyone excited to be white water rafting today?!” We arrived and I got over it quickly.
We helped carry the inflatable boats to the water and got a couple final instructions and we were off. Tom and I volunteered to sit up front, where you had to row harder than everyone else and keep time with each other, and Sarah and Lela took their places right behind us. We hit some rapids within the first few minutes and were immediately soaked but comfortable; the air and water temperature was agreeable during the day at this lower elevation.
The guide steered by dragging a stick on the shallow bottom to change the direction of the boat, and yelled “all forward!” to get everyone rowing and direct us towards the best rapids or away from the sides of the river or other hazards. The vessel was like a big, boat-shaped inner tube with floatable cylindrical seats. The bottom was a taught heavy duty tarp attached with gaps left in the corners so that water that got into the tube drained out.
Courtesy Montana Whitewater
There were two young sisters with one of the families in the boat. The guide and family were trying to get the girls to sit on the front round, inflatable edge of the boat and “ride the bull” through the rapids. They both shyly said no at first, but the younger sister was soon excited to be kneeling in the front. It looked like a lot of fun, and with more encouragement she was soon sitting with feet dangling in the water. While going over some rapids, the water was entirely over her head. Before long, the older sister took a turn and, on a larger rapid, was thrown into the boat on her back, her head to the left of my feet—this rapid was even over our heads so she didn’t have a chance. Tom and I wordlessly broke from rowing long enough to each grab a lifejacket shoulder and put the girl back in place. The sisters continued to rotate between the middle spot in the back and the best seat in the boat.
We kept going and had a great time. The whole trip was several hours and we were all happy and sore by the end. We stopped back at the supermarket to buy dinner, used our yearly national park pass to get back into Yellowstone at no charge—and headed towards our backwoods camping spot. Here are some pictures from the ride:
Once we arrived, we packed up our gear in the best way we could. We each were carrying different stuff and had a different strategy. Tom had a bunch of heavy duty bags and cloth coolers, for a total of five items strapped over his shoulders. I had a backpack with a stomach strap. Several carabineers held tents, covers, and other items to the waist level strap. Sarah and Lela had variants on these two themes.
Walking was awkward. The path was mostly even and easily navigable, but we had clearly not prepared properly to backpack three miles. It seemed like ten. Each step came with my thighs hitting bundles of covers. Tom belt, which we had used to bundle the covers together, kept coming undone. I had to stop three times to repack myself, and Sarah had to stop twice. Tom and Lela took off ahead of us. Sarah and I walked together but talked little. The hike had little social value and would have had no scenic value either if I had not insisted on walking at a pace that I could enjoy myself. This was not leisure. Once we finally got to camp, everyone more or less agreed that this had been a bad idea.
After collecting wood and starting a fire and setting up camp at dusk, we cooked dinner and drank the beers that we had brought, exactly three each, and had shots of whiskey. We had pasta and sauce to eat, a vegetarian option (for Lela) that everyone enjoyed.
While we were sitting around enjoying the fire and each other, we heard an animal lapping water in the lake next to our campsite. Tom got serious look on his face and said “maybe we should go in the tent.” Lela and Sarah immediately agreed. I laughed at all of them and said “I’m staying by the fire.” Chances are it wasn’t a bear, and all of my urban companions were overreacting, but on the small chance that their paranoia-inspired reaction was correct, there was no way I wanted to isolate myself and not see anything around me or have the fire as a last-resort defensive mechanism.
An hour or two later, we walked the leftovers and garbage down the trail and went to bed. It was warmer out this evening and we were sore and tired, so we all slept well.
A short drive from Bozeman, Mont. brought us, this morning, to the North entrance of Yellowstone National Park
. This tremendous area comprises the first National Park, established way back in 1872 by the U.S. Congress. Our drive in led us shortly to a visitor center, where a pack of elk were casually relaxing on a large island of grass surrounded by road. They're a great welcoming committee, and they work for next to nothing.
Now when we set aside two days for our visit to Yellowstone, we did so with the size of the place on our minds. This place is tremendous. The roads winding through the park stretch for many miles, but still leave huge parts of the park shrouded in privacy and mystery. On our way in we flashed our handy America The Beautiful
pass and picked up a map, which we simply could not have done without in this particular park. We were quick to inquire as to the availability of a campsite, and were informed that they were filling up rapidly - but if we booked it south to Indian Creek campground, we'd hopefully be able to grab a spot.
We made it just in time, picking out one of the ten or so spots that were still available in the campground. From here, it made sense to continue our initial southward drive down to Norris Geyser Basin, the hottest geyser basin in the park. Before we could even get out of the car, we were all party to some of the strongest odors of sulfur that I can remember.
Scattered all around the walkway - from which we were absolutely not allowed to deviate - were clear blue pools of water, steaming at the top and bubbling from the bottom. The water in these springs comes up from beneath, having been heated by the extremely hot rocks under the ground. In some cases, as seen on the right, instead of gently bubbling to the surface, the water is shot out of the ground and into the air. This was Steamboat Geyser, splashing away like a kid in a bathtub.
I had expectations that this park would be thick with majestic woods and forest. While there were trees covering a large area of the land, many of them were felled, charred black or both - and by many I mean huge sections of them, acres worth of trees that had been scorched by flame. This, apparently, was the product of a series of fires in 1988 that began small and collected together, closing the park to visitors for the first time and affecting more than a third of the park's area. Many of them are still standing today, stark reminders of the months worth of fires more than two decades ago.
Further south, we came to the stop for Old Faithful Geyser. This feature of the park is isolated from other thermal areas, which allows it to erupt on a surprisingly regular and predictable schedule. When we arrived we had almost an hour to wait before the next expected "show", so we took a moment in the lodge for a pit stop and some ice cream.
A circular walkway and two rows of seating surround the geyser, much of which were occupied by the time we came out from the lodge. We found a seat away from the center of the crowd and watched for an increase in activity. The geyser is constantly emitting a steady cloud of steam, even now in the summer months when the steam shows less than in the winter. Right around the projected liftoff time, the geyser abruptly started spewing a stream of water high into the air. This was accompanied by a much larger cloud of steam, which made the spectacle that much more impressive. And it wasn't just a quick spurt or anything - this lasted for a good two or three minutes before gradually dying back down. The whole experience was just as impressive as I'd heard it would be.
At this point the road began to cut back east, and we began to work our way back in the direction of our campsite - with plenty of time to spare, of course. The roads in the park are very long and the speed limit is usually around 35 miles an hour, which meant that we had a long way to go before we got back.
But there was no hurry. We pulled over with a gaggle of tourists to shoot pictures of a caribou-looking critter, as my sister snapped shots of various birds in the trees. Eventually we came to Yellowstone Lake, which covers a significant portion of the central-to-southeast portion of the park, and got out to touch the water and snap some more photos.
One of the things that makes this park so special is the abundance of animals here. We'd seen a handful earlier in the day, but as we made our northward ascent toward camp on Grand Loop Road, we had our closest encounter of the day, with this fantastic bison walking along the side of the road. He had traffic backed up for quite a while, not because he'd been walking in the road, but because every passing car slowed to a near stop for a few photos before continuing on. As you can see, so did we.
In a hilarious turn of events, however, as soon as we'd passed this tremendous creature, he decided he'd had enough of using the shoulder and hopped in front of the car behind us - so we slowed down and documented the interesting scene. The fellow directly behind the bison was honking his horn like there was no tomorrow, and the bison was ignoring him in spectacular fashion. We all got a good laugh.
We got back to our site with plenty of daylight still in the air. The park allows campers to collect as much firewood as they please, provided this wood is dead wood that was already on the ground - no cutting anything down to throw on the fire. This policy, I would assume, helps them prevent the kind of buildup of dead material that fueled the massive wildfires here back in the '80s. We stayed close to the fire, and huddled closer as the night progressed, the temperature dropping into the 40s and even the 30s after we went to bed.
Would we survive the night? Would we freeze to death, or possibly encounter a gory demise at the paws of one of Yellowstone's hundreds of bears? Find out in our next post, coming very soon.
There have not been many times over the summer when we here at A100 have had any kind of time restrictions or deadlines we have felt we have had to meet. This is good. This makes thoughts of professional life seem… distant memories of a past that none of us are yet ready to revisit. However, sometimes in life other people who operate under a normal mode of being expect you to be on time to things and prepared to be on schedule. Since this is rare in our general mode of operation this summer we never minded when someone from the outside “real” world needed us to be “on time” or “at the airport to pick them up so they could enjoy a few days with us on our trip.”
Tom’s sister Lela – unfortunately – had to spend a few hours dealing with our simple lazy summer outlook as she waited at the airport for us to pick her up. Many apologies Lela – we were quite excited to see you and to have you with us for the few short days you were able to come out to visit- but we were well into our own schedule at the time and woke up when we woke up which was too late for the few hour drive to the airport to collect you. Poor Lela patiently waited for us to arrive after our slow departure from our log cabin – but once we did finally arrive to pick her up we were off to MontanaFair
If you’ve read our Where We’re Going page for Billings, Mont.
, you would know that MontanaFair is the biggest annual event within 350 miles of Billings, Montana, drawing in over a quarter million people. So that means that everyone within 350 miles comes to MontanaFair. We arrived midweek so it was slow and we were able to see the sights without being too overwhelmed. We started with a bite to eat; Joey tried a tasty treat called “fried Pepsi” (shown here) which turned out to be dough – which, rather than being made with water was made with Pepsi… and then fried…and was mediocre at best. Tom tried a “Viking on a Stick” which almost made him ill (it was some ground meat-like substance, deep fried and shoved on a stick… so it was about as appetizing as that description makes it sound).
After this round of questionable Midwestern food stuffs we headed over to see the livestock shows. We walked into a building where little piggies were running around squealing, cows were being displayed to a small group of uninterested onlookers and the most hideous-looking chickens were set out in cages after being judged in an ugliest chicken category.
We walked around and saw all kinds of animals penned up in cages waiting to be displayed in one way or another. Sheep in sleek jumpers lay confused on the hay ground, llamas looked pissy like llamas look, pigs lay around in giant pink and black spotted blobs and roosters strutted in their foot-and-a-half length of cage. It amused me greatly to see a diagram of each animal and the parts it could be broken up into (and subsequently eaten) hanging on the cages where the animals were penned in. It made it seem more like being at a butcher shop than at a livestock show. There is nothing too “live” about a piggy’s body being considered in sections which are labeled not using words like “pig body parts” but rather in words like “pork meat cuts.” I rest my case. And our lovely guest, Lela, happens to be a vegetarian. Welcome to road life Lela!
We saw many things here at MontanaFair besides the livestock show – things like a vegetable canning contest kids could enter, fair rides we didn’t go on, lots of questionable sounding food stands, and probably the best participant in a comedy hypnotist show ever, ever. A young girl, maybe 10 years old, hustled her round, pink-suited frame up on stage to volunteer for the hypnotist. What a ham! (That’s not a fat joke; I’m referring to her love of the spotlight here) This little girl was stretching her arms way up in the air when the hypnotist told her she would feel her arms floating way up in the air, she slumped over in her seat onto the next participant when he told her she would be tired, she reacted strongly to the suggestion that the person next to her smelled bad, and reacted as strongly again when she was told she would see something scary.
I can imagine that you could feel so much in a trance that you might be susceptible to outside influence – take what happens during college parties for instance. However, I draw the line at believing that you would be able to ham it up on stage with your eyes closed and have anyone expect that you don’t have any idea what’s going on. This little girl enjoyed the spotlight so much I really felt she deserved a featured spot on our little claim to fame here on the great internets. Here’s your fifteen minutes sweetheart – ham on, my young friend.
We rounded out the fair by sauntering by the largest tractor I have ever seen and the only tractor I have ever sat in, before we headed towards a park that was supposed to have hieroglyphics painted on the sides of the mountains from a time long, long ago. We had the place to ourselves, aside from a gentleman up the trail who was shooting video for the park service.
It was a very exciting prospect, but as it turned out it was just a nice walk and having a big imagination was extremely necessary in order to see anything painted on any of these rocks. Oh well. We were about to see amazing rocks regardless of the paint job because we were on the way to Yellowstone National Park. We wandered around this faux-hieroglyphic park to our hearts content and then made tracks to our hotel room outside of Yellowstone in anticipation for an amazing few days ahead.
Until next time America.
In response to the challenge I posed to Joey back in Amarillo, he presented me with an eating endeavor of my own, with advice from our friend Chris – I had to consume three orders of Rocky Mountain Oysters at the Buckhorn Exchange in Denver, Colo., which of course are not oysters at all, but deep-fried bull testicles. We’d driven by here yesterday to take on the challenge at lunch, only to find they weren’t open for lunch on Sundays. No matter, though, because we made the drive back down on this early Monday afternoon to try again, at a time when we knew they’d be open.
This place is famous for a menu that boasts meats from many strange and exotic animals, with the mounted heads on the walls to prove it. It was really an unusual spectacle, to have all these long-defeated animals staring down at you as you eat them or someone close to them on the wall. It added plenty of character but it just made me more uncomfortable at the thought of what I was about to do. Note the zebra in the back.
Our server took our drink order and sent it to the bartender. While our drinks were being poured, she came back and informed us that they were OUT of the “oysters” today. Oh man, was Joey mad. Just the other day, we’d seen a restaurant called Black Eyed Pea, and I commented on how they’d better have a steady supply of black eyed peas in the kitchen with a name like that. Joey felt that this was a similar situation – the Buckhorn is known for their exotic meats, but the “oysters” are their signature item.
But with drinks on their way to us already, we weren’t going to get up and leave (even though it looked like Joey wanted to). We stayed and ordered off their bizarre menu, trying a few things I haven’t seen elsewhere. I got an elk steak, which was juicy and far more tender than I expected it to be. Sarah got a sort of meat medley, with elk, beef and bison, and Joey got a dip made with cheese and rattlesnake. My steak was fantastic, but they totally skimped on the meat in Joey’s dish. None of this was cheap, either – possibly our most expensive lunch yet.
Soon, we were in the car driving toward Cheyenne, Wyo., and I was on the phone locating a restaurant that served Rocky Mountains Oysters, which took a shockingly small amount of time to do. And pretty soon, we happened by a fun center along the highway, where Joey pulled in and we all enjoyed a good round of mini golf – the great American pastime. I’d really been pushing for mini golf back in Roswell, N.M., but there was nowhere offering such a service. I found this to be an egregious oversight on Roswell’s part. They could totally have the coolest mini golf course in the world. Think about it.
We finished the drive to Cheyenne and went straight to the restaurant that would be serving up my discomfort and disgust for the evening, a place called the Albany Restaurant. The place was a normal restaurant, no wildlife hanging on the walls, no cultish vibe in the air. And their menu was very straightforward, as if someone might be confused by a name like Rocky Mountain Oysters. No such confusion here. After getting a giant mug of dark beer in front of me, I groaned my order at the waitress – three orders of bull nuts. She chimed it back to me and jotted it down without batting an eye, as if three orders of bull nuts are a popular choice.
Soon they were finished and presented to me thusly. The waitress needed help running all the food, giving me another person to feel humiliated in front of. They weren’t quite what I expected – I was anticipating whole, intact testicles that had been breaded and tossed into the fryer. Apparently, it makes more sense to slice them up and prepare those slices individually. They came with cocktail sauce, which I quickly replaced with ketchup, and tried to drown out the flavor by chasing every bite with a sip of beer.
I was absolutely miserable. I’ve had food in the past that tasted much worse than this, but usually that food was made with normal, non-testicular ingredients. I just couldn’t get past the knowledge that I was eating the balls of an animal. I can throw down a half dozen hot dogs without batting an eye, knowing full well that I’m eating the least desirable parts of the animal, all the way down to its anus. But there seems, at least for me, to be comfort in ambiguity. I would have given anything in the world to be eating hot dogs right now instead of bull nuts.
After a refill on my beer, several fresh-air breaks and a few small temper tantrums, I was running out of drive. I bit down on one of the larger pieces and was met by a warm burst of juice inside my mouth. I don’t know that I’ve ever been so close to vomiting in a restaurant before. In a summer that’s been blessed with gorgeous parks, iconic museums, and great times of all kinds, this was by far my least favorite experience of the entire trip.
I did not finish my challenge. I successfully consumed two out of the three orders of bull nuts that were my original task. Joey acted surprised when I threw in the towel, even though he spent the entire meal taunting me and reminding me of the disgusting activity I was engaged in. But I finished everything I could, kept it all down, and suffered through an experience that will no doubt haunt me for the rest of my days.
I’d heard good things about Cheyenne, all of which had fled from my mind during our visit to the Albany Restaurant. We climbed into the car and drove clear across Wyoming, knowing we were on a time limit the next morning on our way to Billings. The sunset lit the sky aflame, and the fields stretched endlessly in every direction. I hope that someday, I can come back to this beautiful land under more amicable circumstances.
Continuing our exploration of microbrews here in the Denver area, we decided that before we left town for Boulder, an hour away, we'd like to sit down for a beer and a bite. We chose Breckenridge Brewing Company
for this task, unaware that this establishment is located across the street from Coors Field, home of the Colorado Rockies. And this being Sunday, a day game against the Cubs was beginning in about an hour, which meant the place was obscenely overcrowded - with notably more Cubs fans than Rockies fans. We all slugged a pint, and having fulfilled half of our endeavor, went to knock out the other half.
We dropped into the Denver Diner
on Colfax Avenue, where I filled myself with eggs, bacon, hash browns and a side of biscuits and gravy. As much as I miss my cream chipped beef, biscuits and gravy are a worthy substitute. The plate shown is Sarah's, which was so massive it doesn't even look like fun anymore.
Arriving in Boulder, we drove into town and directly to (surprise!) a local brewery, called the Mountain Sun Brewery
on Pearl Street. The restaurant was on the smaller side and almost every seat looked to be occupied. We approached the counter, and a bearded guy with a big smile said, "Hey guys! I've got room, come this way!" or something to that effect. He walked us over to a table and dropped a big basket of fries onto the table, saying they'd made an extra order by accident and they were on the house. This is a town I could get used to.
We ambled down a few blocks to Old Chicago
, where we were promptly met by some good friends of mine from home. Chuck, who has terrific taste in hats, is a buddy of mine from high school and one of the most talented bartenders the world has ever seen. Chuck and Melissa, both pictured, met some years back and produced little Brody here, who is destined to be the greatest Phillies fan in the history of the world. This was my first time seeing him since game one of last year's World Series, so he'd grown a bit since our last meeting.
Also joining us was my good friend and fraternity brother, Clay, shown in the back next to me. He and I went to rival high schools, met in college and spent way too much time together for our own good, sharing a house off campus during our senior year. Clay and Chuck's families have known each other since before any of us were born, and they were all in Boulder for Chuck's sister's wedding. This lucky coincidence made the evening much more enjoyable, because once little Brody was home for the night, there were six of us instead of three.
While Chuck and Melissa were putting Brody to bed, the rest of us wandered off to insulate our stomachs for the evening, doing so at the Lazy Dog Grill
. I devoured a burger smothered in BBQ sauce, while Joey ate some kind of veggie-filled pita, apparently not yet ready to go back to beef. On tap, and in our glasses, was a savory local beer called Hazed and Infused
by the Boulder Beer Company
, which I'd sampled months beforehand back east and eagerly anticipated to this day. Hit the spot.
Soon we'd all collected together again and found our way over to the Boulder Draft House
on 13th Street. This city was getting more and more fantastic with every passing restaurant; it seemed like about half of them brewed their own beer. This place was no different, boasting a slew of multicolored taps amounting to about ten different selections. And this being a Sunday, we were finding the bars to be comfortably underpopulated, so we were generally finding seats at the bar without any trouble.
Shuffling down the street, we piled into one establishment where practically nobody was inside, but there was still a kid at the door checking IDs. Half of us got in before the kid got to Chuck, and notified him that his license had expired the day before
. Clay ran in and stopped everyone from ordering drinks, which was funny because we would have doubled the bar population inside if we had stayed, but instead we all left and didn't spend any money there.
Finally we got to a comfortable Irish pub called Conor O'Neill's
, where we were met by the serendipitous sounds of traditional music. There were fiddlers, flautists and a lad on the banjo, who came together without lyrics and really livened up the atmosphere in the place. Aside from this mighty band, we were, once again, the only other people in the establishment.
Chuck was able to record a sample of the encouraging sounds on his phone:
And we all know how things go from there. Irish Carbombs are a terrific drink - correctly served, it's 2/3 of a shot of Jameson's Whiskey, floated with 1/3 of a shot of Bailey's Irish Cream, then dropped into a half pint of Guinness and chugged before the cream curdles. However, this isn't a drink that authentic Irish people take very kindly to, for the fact that car bombs have been a reality to some people in Ireland, and there's nothing funny about it to them.
Here in Boulder, they had them pre-mixed. And after a few of these, there was nothing to do but hit the hay. I don't know who drove but it sure wasn't me.
Cheers to Boulder, and to Clay, Chuck, Melissa and Brody for coming out and helping us enjoy our last day in Colorado.
Upon arriving in Denver after Fort Collins, we'd left ourselves little time or energy to go out and see this bustling city... and we were starving. A trip to Enzo's End
took care of that, which might have been a shorter visit had we not noticed the drinks on the menu. We hit our hotel, we hit the pillows and we were up in time for lunch the next day.
We agreed that an eclectic city like this should be enjoyed as such, and that we shouldn't just settle for pub food or sandwiches. We drove around downtown, passing by one place after another until we found the Samba Room
, a classy Latin American restaurant that looked almost totally empty. We were in, and wasted no time in placing a drink order. This was my first taste of a Caipirinha, a delicious, sugary concoction that's apparently very big in Brazil.
We all took turns slurping out of a bowl of seafood chowder before our meals hit the table. They were all so strangely creative - Sarah had a Palomilla sandwich, which came on flatbread and was overflowing with steak and vegetables. Joey's was a filet of salmon over vegetable stir fry with teriyaki sauce and lime. Mine is pictured, one of the most original plates I've ever had put in front of me, the Cuban Blue Plate Special. It featured ropa vieja, a traditional shredded flank steak in a tomato base that was reminiscent of pulled pork. It came alongside rice, black beans, and topped off with baked and fried maduros, or plantains. I gobbled it up gleefully, basking in every unfamiliar flavor that crossed my palate.
One of our top priorities was to finish out the trifecta of the American megabreweries; we'd done Budweiser back in St. Louis, Miller in Milwaukee and today was the day for Coors in nearby Golden, Colo. We were met by an unusually large crowd waiting in line for the shuttle to the brewery, which looked like a fifteen minute wait at the least. But someone told us we were only about a five minute walk from the main entrance, so we marched past the bus lines as I ripped on them for being lazy (hopefully not out loud, but maybe).
It must have been our lucky day, because there were another twenty minutes worth of line-waiting in our near future. We had chosen to come in the early afternoon on a gorgeous summer Saturday, so maybe I shouldn't have been all that surprised. Eventually we made it up front for the tour, which turned out to be a self-guided audio tour.
At first this seemed like a good idea to me. I've never seen an audio tour used outside a museum, but Coors had tons of people coming into this place for tours, maybe so many that touring in groups with paid guides isn't a feasible option. And they certainly kept us moving, because with all the brew tours we've seen this summer, why bother listening to every step of the brewing process when I can just skip ahead to the free beer at the end?
Sadly, I was not the first to consider this option. Everyone seemed to have guided themselves to the end of the tour, leaving us with another massive line of people on their way into the lounge area. The line snaked down a hallway, a set of stairs, and around the room at the bottom - probably another half hour of waiting that suddenly became very easy to pass on. Screw that, we said, we know what Coors Light tastes like. What a waste of time.
We did catch a shuttle as it was just about to leave, and the driver got the same reaction from most of the people on the bus - most of whom had stayed for one beer and then given up (mind you, we were all entitled to three free beers, which I'd usually have much more trouble giving up). The bus driver told everyone there was a bar a few blocks away that sold it for about a dollar a glass, drawing groans from the crowd. Funny guy.
But we're motivated people, we are. There are a few areas of the country that are especially renowned for their multitudes of exceptional microbrews - notably, the one we moved from (Philadelphia), the one we're moving to (Portland), and this one, right here in Denver. Down but not out, we scurried over to Wynkoop Brewing Company
, where there was no stupid Coors Light on tap, but instead, a blissful spread of over a dozen styles of carefully handcrafted beer. We found three seats at the bar and proceeded to forget about the events prior.
We had big plans for the evening, which you'll hear about in a few more paragraphs. But for this reason it was in our best interest to keep ourselves full of food now, in case there was nothing good or reasonably priced later in the evening. We had an order of nachos, which came served as a basket of dry chips, alongside a dip comprised of beans, guacamole, salsa and everything else that would normally go on top. We also devoured a plate of mussels, which I might have sneered at a year ago, but not these days. They'd be a welcome guest star on my next pizza.
A few weeks beforehand, we noticed some familiar band names playing in Denver during our visit. Some evil genius had cordoned off a section of street for a small festival called Dancin' in the Streets
, and we'd wasted no time in buying our tickets. We showed up right around the end of Steve Kimock Crazy Engine
's show, but with plenty of time before our main event for the evening.
Inside there were dozens of vendors, with colorful arrays of clothing, artwork and food on display; even the Wharf Rats
had a tent, the group of drug-free concertgoers who gathered at Grateful Dead shows and hold AA-style meetings. A group of people were painting a psychedelic collage on the side of a wall from an elevated platform. And somehow, there was still room for a "B" stage, where we watched a local rock/hip-hip group called Stanky Pockets
for a while.
At about 6:45, we bailed and hurried back to the main stage. Tonight we would be enjoying a show by Dark Star Orchestra
, one of my favorite acts - this would be close to my 20th time seeing them perform.
Here's the gist. I was ten years old, on summer vacation when Kurt Loder came on MTV News and told me that Jerry Garcia, lead guitarist and singer for the Grateful Dead, had died that day. I knew this was significant (my mom had a Garcia/Grisman
album that she really loved), but I didn't know how significant until I started listening to Jerry's music.
Once I did, and grew to love the Grateful Dead and every note that came forth from their instruments, I began to realize what Jerry's death meant to me and so many others - that I would never see the passionate, communal phenomenon of a Dead show firsthand. All I have are the recordings, which, beautiful and uplifting as they may be, are lacking that extra feeling of being there
That's where DSO comes in. The band recreates the Grateful Dead experience by choosing a setlist from the 2,300+ concerts played by the Dead, and playing the entire show, song by song. They're like an orchestra that only plays music by one composer. Each performer sings and plays the role of a specific counterpart in the real band, and each does it so well it's uncanny. I've played DSO for people before who would never have doubted that they were listening to the Grateful Dead, not for a second. For someone like myself, who was never fortunate enough to see Jerry play with the Dead, this is the closest to that experience that I can hope for. And it's nothing short of amazing.
One of the fun parts of DSO shows is the guesswork. When they recreate a setlist, they do so with the same cast of characters as the Dead did at that show. For example, Lisa Mackey (pictured) plays the role of Donna Jean Godchaux, the Dead's female vocal from 1972-79. She won't be up there if the band's playing outside of those years, unless they're playing an original setlist, which is uncommon but not rare.
Clues like these are integral in deciphering when the original setlist might be from. Tonight, there were two drummers on stage, which only coincided with Donna's tenure on stage from 1975-1979. We're narrowing this down quickly.
Once they played "Cassidy" and eliminated 1975, I got a sense of 1976 and listened closely for any song the band started playing after that year. None came, and at setbreak, I got Lisa's attention and wrote the number 76 in the air. She smiled and said she didn't know what year it was from.
Sure enough, after a whirlwind of spacey jams and powerful vocals, lead guitarist John Kadlecik named the setlist - August 2, 1976 at Colt Park in Hartford, Conn. Lisa shouted to me that I was right and I blew her a big kiss for putting on such a phenomenal show.
Camera full and face melted, we called it a night a retreated to our room for the night. I have a special place in my heart for Denver now.
The atmosphere here in Colorado lent itself to relaxation. When I stepped outside into the dry mountain air and looked out at the purple mountain majesty that surrounded us, I felt a happy calm smooth over me. This relaxation seems to have affected everyone here however and “punctuality” is for the birds. We took our time in the morning keeping ourselves busy until Tom’s friend Geoff gave him a call. We started our day with a leisurely meal at the Super King Grocery Store. They had delicious prepared food for a reasonable price and a microwave so we indulged ourselves for awhile in their café style seating area and then met Geoff over at a bar.
The bar Geoff was waiting for us in, called Road34
, was pretty cool – we walked in to a ceiling full of hanging bikes – the bar was attached to a bike shop and apparently both were run by the same ambitious duo. Geoff explained that things get much livelier towards the end of the summer when the college kids come back into town, but we enjoyed a beer in relative quiet and then went out to collect his pretty dog Madison, who was patiently waiting by the outside fence. We headed back to Geoff’s house and met some of his roommates and eventually his girlfriend as well, and then after a long and much anticipated length of time we headed down to the dock to board a small boat that belonged to Geoff’s friend who he affectionately nicknamed “Drill Sergeant.”
Drill Sergeant loaded us all onto his boat and we lounged on the back end until we got out far enough into the water that he could speed up. He instructed us to go down below and sit in the kitchen/living room/ bedroom/ bathroom area so that the weight on the boat was distributed evenly until he was out in the part of the lake that he wanted to drop anchor in. We all squeezed down below with the Dave Matthews Band blaring and the motor on the back of the boat roaring - and minutes later got the “all clear” to come back up on deck.
The view was breathtaking. Of the places we have been so far on this trip, Colorado has stood out to me as one of the most beautiful states we have seen. I walked up the steps of the boat and looked out over the bow then slowly took in the panoramic view around me. Soft pillows in the shapes of clouds drifted lazily around the light blue backdrop of sky. Lush green covered mountains circled around the lake where the boat sat, the peaks of which basked in the hazy soft heat from the sun.
One after another we bravely dove into the icy Colorado water and as my head surfaced from under the deep, blue, frigid lake my breath quickened and my skin rippled into tiny goose bumps. Needless to say I was back on the boat enjoying the view from the deck before too long trying to wring out my shirt and shorts and warm myself in the last lingering rays of sunlight. Though I was chilly, I was as happy and relaxed as I can imagine ever being.
Soon, though, it was time to head back. We had a short drive to Denver yet to tackle and the soft pillows and clean sheets of a hotel calling our names. Drill Sergeant sped us back into the dock and we headed back to our car after a satisfyingly leisurely summer day. Thanks to him and Geoff for being our hosts here in Fort Collins, Colorado.
Until next time, America.
Sarah and I (but mostly Sarah) had driven us into Colorado after Joey's heroic attempt to conquer the big steak challenge in Amarillo - we really had no business there besides making a scene at a steakhouse. And as we drove, and the sun was snugly set beneath the horizon, the shadows began to rise out of the earth in every direction around us. A minor tactical error on my part put us in a motel in Garland City, Colo. for the night, which resulted in some backtracking the next morning to get back on our route. Good thing for that, because as the daylight revealed, we'd apparently missed a magnificent drive the night before.
Our southernmost (and therefore first) destination was the beautiful city of Colorado Springs, which was just about the most rural-looking city I've ever seen, sitting unassumingly beneath a towering cascade of mountains. I'd had my mind on a particular attraction here in town called the Garden of the Gods
- a name that, upon first hearing, stayed in the front of my memory. You can't just run around applying epic names like "Garden of the Gods" to just anything. A moniker like that can only be used on something that's truly out of this world.
Sure enough, the name was right on. This beautiful park was comprised of a collection of giant red rocks, jutting out of the ground and contrasting starkly with the tan and brown hues of the mountains. A series of paths surrounded the rocks, some of them paved, offering us a number of unobscured views of these strange edifices. The weather was perfect, even a little too hot - and coupled with the park's inexplicable (but awesome) lack of any admission cost, there were plenty of people out of their cars and walking around like we were.
A few shots:
As we continued our drive through the park, we came to what appeared to be the most popular part, which was a massive balancing rock that would certainly destroy anything in its unfortunate path. We would have gotten out, but there was nowhere to park, and there was a line of people waiting to have their picture taken in front of it. We drove on.
It was about this time that we noticed a slight fluctuation in the car's performance. Joey was behind the wheel, and kept it to himself at first because Sarah and I were enjoying ourselves so much, he didn't want to kill the vibe. But on our way out he mentioned to us that the engine had been running extremely hot, and seemed to have subsided for the moment. We cautiously continued, making note of how short and sweet the Garden had been, and browsed our GPS for our nest stop.
After not much discussion at all, we agreed to head to Seven Falls, which was practically around the corner. This place was not free to visit, which didn't really bother us, as we hadn't seen a good waterfall since back in Niagara Falls.
It was a beautiful sight, a thick stream of water pouring down the rocks for hundreds of feet. We got a view from an elevator-accessible observation deck and shot some photos before we made the big climb.
The walk to the top of the falls was extreme, with a few long, steep and narrow metal staircases leading up the side of the rocks. If anything in the world makes me uncomfortable, it's extreme heights, so I was a little less than comfortable for the majority of the experience. We were all pretty much gasping for air by the time we reached the top, but we were still smiling.
After the long descent and short walk to the car, we went for a scenic ride on a dirt road as we discussed our options for the evening. Clouds were rolling in and our outdoor options were looking grim; in the meanwhile, I'd gotten in touch with an old buddy from high school, Geoff, who was in Fort Collins, about two hours north of our current location. Our options were to stay in town here in C Springs, which I'd heard contained a somewhat nutty population that we might not get along with so perfectly - or to head up and hang out with Geoff for the evening. We nodded our heads and hit the road northward, utterly satisfied by our time in this beautiful place.
We pulled into town after dark but before Geoff was back from a run to Boulder, and at his recommendation we dropped into the Crown Pub
on College Street. The beer selection was more than ample, the crowd was right on our wavelength, and the menu looked great. We got a few plates to settle our appetites; Sarah got a burger topped with about half an avocado, Joey got a salad (no more meat for a while), and I enjoyed some kind of delicious BBQ sandwich. Soon I got Geoff on the phone and he told us to come find him at Pappy's
It'd been a long time since the last time I saw Geoff, a couple of years at least - and he was pretty much the same as I remembered him from high school. We talked for a while over some good local beer, helping comprise what turned out to be a good-sized gathering out on Pappy's back deck. The bar was pretty much dead inside, and Geoff's dog Madison was able to come out and join us for most of our visit. Thankfully Sarah was willing to keep her drinks in check and drive us home, as Joey and I were not in driving form.
We talked over some options for the following day, and Geoff enticed us into staying into the afternoon for some water activities before we trekked on to Denver. For now, bedways was rightways. Look for Sarah's thoughts on the next day, coming up soon.
Anyone who has been following this blog from the beginning knows how much we have been hyping up the free 72 ounce steak challenge at the Big Texan Steak Ranch in Amarillo, Texas. Our excitement was not at all artificial; for every one time the steak challenge, or buffet training was mentioned in the blog, I thought about the challenge ten times. After reading up on training techniques, questions like “where on the road can I cook and eat—as quickly as possible—a whole head of cabbage, or some other food with a lot of weight and few calories. Should I have a practice round with, say, a fifty ounce steak?” Ultimately, I decided to train through extreme water intake (at my peak I was doing three quarters of a gallon in four minutes or so), and eating about three piled plates of buffet food at every available opportunity, such as the one pictured above.
After experimenting with drinking and eating, I decided a good water chug three or four hours before the competition would expand my stomach and leave me ravenously hungry at just the right moment—not that “I feel starving but my eyes are bigger than my stomach and I am going to feel full in like five minutes” type of starving—no, this would leave me hungry and ready to go, lending endurance. After reading up on competitive eating, I decided that my best chances were to try to get everything down as quick as possible, before my brain knew what was going on and informed my senses that I was full. To do so, I would want my hands and mouth working full speed to cut and chew. The more I cut, the less I would have to chew, and I figured that the optimal speed for your mouth and hands to be working is just fast enough that neither ever has to stop. I enlisted Sarah’s help in this regard. I wanted to be focused on eating fast like in a machine-like manner: avoiding thought at all costs, just acting. I knew that in this single mindedness, I could lose some efficiency. As per my prior instructions, every time my mouth or hands stopped working, Sarah would yell, "keep chewing” or ”keep cutting” respectively.
We arrived at the restaurant; I had called before and asked if you had to “schedule” a 72 ounce steak challenge. “No,” came the reply, “yuh just com’in an order it.” So that’s what I did. While we waited, I put a Facebook post up from my Blackberry, “Watch me eat the 72 oz steak!” and posted a link to the Big Texan webcam. We also called a few people, and even with the short notice, got an audience of ten or so. When the steak was about done, they took me up to the table on a stage (I brought my two fingers of whiskey with me) and explained the rules. They are more or less what you would expect, finish the meal in the hour, no help, you don’t have to eat the fat, but the leftovers will be judged for meat, etcetera.
The monster sirloin was laid before me, with an optional side of au jus. The edges went over the side of the plate. I cut into the middle of the thickest part of the beef for a sample; it was done medium rare—the cut of meat was a little tough for an ideal eating challenge but it was cooked to perfection. I cut into feast and gave the "OK" on the doneness. I was instructed not to speak to anyone. Everyone wanted to talk to the steak guy but it guaranteed defeat. I went over my mental notes as I chewed: I had taken a vow of celibacy from water, the salty au jus that would make me thirsty, or any of the filling carbohydrate sides until the conclusion; it was just me and the steak. After these few last pointers, I said “ready,” the timer was started, and I was off.
I cut the first normal-bite-sized piece and started to chew. Immediately after swallowing I cut two smaller pieces and put both in my mouth, saving a chew or two and using my hands and knife to their full advantage. I immediately noticed that the knife was a bit duller than I would have preferred, but still well within the acceptable range for a steak knife. After swallowing again, I put four smaller pieces in my mouth. After cutting several more small enough, I stopped cutting and focused on chewing faster. I heard Sarah call out “keep cutting!” I gave a half smile and kept going, cutting more and smaller pieces to minimize chewing.
After ten minutes I was going strong. I was ahead of where I needed to be, and not slowing. My hands were getting sore, but not enough to stop. People came and went, but were irrelevant. Several of the ones that talked to me said “you’ve got this bud” and I felt good. I heard some adolescent boys say several times to each other, “he’ll never do that.” I know that their statements spoke more to the challenge than my progress, but for that moment I felt nothing but contempt for them. The moment was fleeting and I kept eating.
From minutes twenty to thirty, my hands were getting sore. I had to stop every once in a while to crack my knuckles, something that I am almost never able—or have an inclination—to do. At this point I hoped to have eaten most of the steak (before I felt full), but I had already realized that at my level of expertise it was impossible to do so. It didn’t matter, the water stomach expansion had worked and I had already eaten the equivalent of two meals, and didn’t feel anywhere near full.
Thirty minutes had passed, and for the next ten I was still in good shape. I noticed that parts of the meat were significantly thicker than others, and I focused on these; I didn’t want to get near the end and only to realize that I still had more meat left than I had anticipated. The meat was still disappearing at a reasonable pace and I was a little over half done.
The period from forty to fifty minutes was tough. My jaw was getting sore, something that I hadn’t anticipated or trained for. Had I known, I would have chewed gum or eaten more beef jerky as part of my training. I still didn’t feel full, but was realizing that even without the problem of feeling full, the mechanics of getting the steak down would still be an issue. Sarah again yelled “keep cutting!” I gave her a ‘who do you think you are’ look. She asked me if I was here to argue or if I was here to win. This helped me redouble my efforts, which in turn, gave me confidence that I could finish. I was still on track to finish if I could keep up my average pace and finish the sides quickly. The waiter that gave me the rules stopped, impressed by my progress. “Most people don’t get that far. If you finish, break the potato in two and eat it with your hands, like a hotdog eater.
Even with this encouragement, the last ten minutes was rough. Even at the beginning of this period, I was putting smaller amounts in my mouth, gagging some times when I swallowed. After focusing I continued and repressed the urge to gag. I still didn’t feel full mentally, but I was physically becoming unable to swallow. At fifty-two minutes, I was eating smaller bites: two or three tiny chunks that looked to have the collective footprint of a penny. Even these were too much; I would chew well and try to swallow. When I couldn’t, I would pinch half the meat in my mouth, swallow the miniscule amount remaining, and then finish the pinch in my hands. As a last ditch effort, at fifty five minutes I changed strategy. I put a slightly larger, around nickel-sized piece in my mouth and chased it with water, flinging my head back like I was taking an aspirin. I chomped on the much wetter lettuce to chase the steak. Nothing worked. At fifty nine minutes, I put my fork down, had a much-desired drink of water, and picked up my whiskey.
Five minutes after the buzzer went off, I looked down. The steak seemed smaller then when I had just finished. All that was remaining was an eight to twelve ounce sirloin. I ate a couple more pieces and watched another contender for the next half-hour, gauging whether I could finish. I was finally feeling full, I could not. I crawled into the car and slept while Tom and Sarah drove us into Colorado.
Given the circumstances, I honestly don’t think I could have done any better. If I hadn’t been on the road, I could have prepared more thoroughly, and with bigger bites and less chewing, I may have gotten a little farther, but it probably wouldn’t have been a game changer. If I ever try again I will conquer the steak.
*If you find offensive things to be offensive, don’t read the rest!*
To answer the most asked question, I did not have an explosive bowel movement that night or, for that matter, for the next four days. All of my BM’s were disappointingly small, until the steak worked its way through, at which point it gradually got better. There was definitely no explosion.
I apologize for including this detail, but answering the same question repeatedly was getting tedious.