I’m afraid it has not been a big month so far for going out and doing interesting, photogenic, blog-worthy things. I have been hatching plans, yes, but they are not ready yet, so in the meantime I feel almost guilty for displacing the nice Yellowstone & Grand Teton post down from its prime position into the slow oblivion of the archives. Oh well, so it goes.
A notable exception to this sad trend was Amanda’s boat-based birthday party on Saturday night. I spent most of my time perched at the front of said boat with Randi and our neighbours Joe and Julie – eating Ruffles, searching the horizon for Randi’s ghostly circus tents and wondering whether the captain was speeding up just to try and knock us off. Also, I finally understand what a lock is. (It’s a lift for boats! What a world.)
Otherwise I have been catching up with interesting people, like Zak (who took me to a mysterious cocktail bar), Karol (who has officiated more weddings than seems proper) and Zoe (a British friend-of-a-friend who was visiting Chicago and dropped by with wine and book recommendations). Last Friday night we had delicious tacos at Francisco and Carolina’s house with Robert, Julie, Poncho and – most importantly – Bernie, who is delightful despite his penchant for stealing phones.
And the weekend before last, while Randi and Amanda were off gallivanting in the cornfields of Ohio, I was delighted to meet some Young People In College at Catherine and AJ’s who answered some of my questions about what Young People do these days on the internet. (Certainly blogging is not one of those things, sigh.)
I do really want to recommend that you all go and see The Wife. Why? Well, admittedly the original reason was because my cousin Alix is in it, and you can’t really pass up the opportunity to go and see your cousin pretend to be Glenn Close’s daughter in a Hollywood film. But the three of us – Randi, Amanda and I – really enjoyed the whole thing! Go see!
This is it! It’s the big summer holiday record of our two-week roadtrip to Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks, on which Randi and I were joined by both of our mothers. (We invited them, it wasn’t like an episode of Sun, Sex and Suspicious Parents.) Since we are exceptionally proud of our itinerary, this mammoth post is designed to be something you can follow along if you are ever planning your own trip to these amazing places.
Behold, the map!
Table of Contents
A: Salt Lake City, Utah (hidden on the map underneath J)
B: Lava Hot Springs, Idaho
C: Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
D: Old Faithful
E: West Yellowstone, Montana
F: Gardiner, Montana
G: Bozeman, Montana
H: Lewis & Clark Caverns, Montana
I: Idaho Falls, Idaho
J: Salt Lake City, Utah
A: Salt Lake City, Utah
We landed in Salt Lake City, which is considerably cheaper than flying to a smaller airport, and were met by our mums who had already commandeered a rental Jeep in the brightest shade of lime green you can possibly imagine. It would be impossible to lose this car.
B: Lava Hot Springs, Idaho
Borrowing a trick from our Machu Picchu trek, our first night was spent in the town of Lava Hot Springs where (unsurprisingly) one can take a relaxing soak in the eponymous hot springs and ease into the holiday mood. As you can see we were also all very excited to reach Idaho.
Where To Stay: Bristol Cabins, a very sweet collection of little huts and space for RVs and campers. Spoiler alert to preempt any disappointment: there’s no camping at all in this trip.
C: Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
I don’t have good enough words to describe our four-night stay in Grand Teton. It’s an insanely beautiful place, and is where we found our favourite hikes of the entire trip. It’s also the place we discovered that we can’t leave our mums alone for five minutes without them getting lost or accidentally embarking on a nine-mile walk by themselves. It was also worth visiting the town of Jackson one lunchtime, where we all discovered Huckleberry ice cream for the first time.
Where To Stay: A cabin in Colter Bay Village. Book early!
Where To Hike: The Taggart-Bradley Lake Loop has exceptional views. We also really enjoyed String Lake (which has swimming and beaching options) via Hidden Falls and Inspiration Point. Probably my favourite hike, however, was the Cascade Canyon trail. The first half-an-hour is uphill, but this gets it all out of the way early while also leaving you with a fine feeling of accomplishment.
D: Old Faithful
The Old Faithful geyser is the most famous attraction in Yellowstone, and we got here early enough for a front-row seat to one of the regular eruptions. The Old Faithful Inn is also well worth seeing – and a good place to have lunch – and the surrounding walks to other geysers are cool, although after a while you may feel some geyser-fatigue. After hiking in Grand Teton, this is a lot more “touristy” and I am fairly sure that bringing my backpack and bear spray to a paved path thronging with families was overkill.
Hike Stroll: Aside from the Morning Glory Pool, we also walked the path to Lone Star Geyser. It’s a paved path, which was harder on the feet and definitely makes you feel less cool, but the geyser at the end was erupting at just the right time.
E: West Yellowstone, Montana
We spent three nights in West Yellowstone as a base for exploring this side of the park. As we started to discover at Old Faithful, Yellowstone does seem a little less orientated towards hikes than Grand Teton, although the rangers will get very defensive if you point this out. They exist, of course, they just seem less well signposted and the official maps are a tad… confusing. On the other hand, the park has a huge variety of sights to see, including animals such as wolves and bison. We got way too close to a bison for comfort as it suddenly marched towards our car and we struggled to find where Randi’s mum had gone.
Where To Stay: Hibernation Station treated us very nicely.
Where To Hike: The Fairy Falls hike begins with views of the Grand Prismatic and ends at the Imperial Geyser. (Well, if you squint at the map a little.) For awe-inspiring views of waterfalls, you’ll want Artists Point to Point Sublime, although it’s also well worth walking down to the Lower Falls for a closer view too.
F: Gardiner, Montana
Gardiner is home to the original entrance to Yellowstone – America’s first National Park – and an arch bearing the inscription “For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People”, which is a nice thing to find in a piece of federal legislation. Aside from a few more walks, we also went whitewater rafting on the river. The wetsuits were appreciated.
Where To Stay: A cabin from Black Bear Inn and Vacation Rentals, although staying in the ‘Bighorn Sheep Room’ felt unnecessarily uncool compared to the grizzly bear, wolf or mountain lion rooms next door.
Where To Hike: We walked a good circle to Beaver Ponds – a hike which also produced the loudest snake-sighting screams. There are also boardwalks around Mammoth Hot Springs with views of alien-looking landscapes.
G: Bozeman, Monatana
Bozeman! The town with a definite liberal vibe which my mother fell in love with and declared that she was going to move in and open a French bookshop in. Until this happens, top things to do include the Triple Tree Trail, the American Computer & Robotics Museum (a genuinely amazing place where so many things are packed into a tiny area) and Blackbird (hat-tip: Carolyn) which makes, amongst other things, the world’s most incredible bread.
From here on, we stayed in Airbnbs, which don’t feel quite permanent enough to recommend on here, but nonetheless were all excellent.
H: Lewis & Clark Caverns, Montana
Now this was a cool find! After the national parks I was expecting this state park to feature a couple of caves you could poke your head into. Instead, $12 will buy you a two-hour guided tour through legit caverns. Tours may or may not feature: bats, rat bones, a candlelit recreation of earlier times, that couple who just can’t follow instructions, much careful handrail holding and a rock doubling as a slide.
I: Idaho Falls, Idaho
After the caverns we headed back down south, stopping for a night in Idaho Falls. There isn’t a lot to write about Idaho Falls but it does have a nice waterfront and Japanese Friendship Garden, in which a team of volunteers were busy re-oiling the fence under the careful supervision of the head gardener. But the real reason we stayed in Idaho Falls was for easy access to the Idaho Potato Museum the next day. It features the world’s largest crisp! (Now slightly cracked. Not because of us.)
J: Salt Lake City, Utah
Voila, we completed our circle back in Salt Lake City. Not wanting to pass on exploring Salt Lake we left ourselves a day to look around, visiting the Utah State Capitol building (although the legislature only sits for roughly ten minutes a year), the Mormon Temple, the farmer’s market in Pioneer Park (props to the woman gathering support to expand Medicaid in Utah) and eating the world’s best carbonara at Stanza.
Slightly unexpectedly for a city of 200,000 people, Salt Lake seems to have amazing public transport. We saw buses everywhere, there’s some kind of ride-share scheme for scooters, and from the city centre we were able to catch a tram out to the airport. Good work, Salt Lake City!
OK, this was an absurdly long post, and I don’t begrudge anyone for just skimming through the photos. But we had an amazing adventure, and I highly recommend the parks to visit. Plus I knocked off three new states in the process 😉
P.S. I kept looking for an opportunity to shoehorn in the fact that we saw Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again with Amanda the week before we left, but it never seemed like the right moment. So here, without any context, I just want to pay tribute to the scene where a fisherman takes 30 seconds out of the film to deliver a monologue about the perilous state of the Greek economy.
Yesterday was the epitome of American civic afternoons. We were in the Portage Park area to visit our friends Erik and Ashley during their local neighbourhood block party. It’s a slightly more suburban feel than where we live, but still very convenient to get to – just ride the Blue Line up north and then take a short bus. All of the cars had been cleared from the street, and many people were sitting out in their front gardens. Wholesome activities had been organised for the children: musical chairs, a bike race, a two-storey water slide. Every so often someone would come to sell raffle tickets. Most people waved hello as they walked by.
We were under a tent, shaded from the sun, drinking lemonade and beer. And then the state representative comes by, introducing himself as the sponsor of the free snow cones. He recognises Erik from the school board. He is trying to promote his bill to turn Chicago’s school board into an elected body, and I argue for a bit about the virtues of endless elections, and try to persuade him to recast the Illinois state constitution in the parliamentary mould, and then we all agree about taxes for a while. I think he was with us for about 45 minutes.
It was a very lovely afternoon.
It hasn’t exactly been ‘quiet’ for the last few weeks, but it has been busy at work, and I am very aware that I’m about to disappear for two weeks for our upcoming (and incredibly exciting!) summer holiday. In mid-July I was actually back in Palo Alto for a few days for a large work gathering. It was much more organised than my usual visits, with fancier accommodation, and so having gone out of my way to pack my swimming trunks when I saw that the hotel had a pool I felt obliged to wake up early one morning for a quick swim.
On my (late and delayed) flight over there, my plans for sleeping or reading about Soviet computer networks (as you do) were foiled by the obnoxious headphone-wearing human to my left and his misunderstanding of the volume scale as a virility test. So I kept on the Soviet theme by watching The Death of Stalin a little more loudly than I wanted to. It was a bit odd. I mean, I did enjoy it, but not in the same way that I can really enjoy The Thick Of It which is able to propel itself into full-scale farce without having to slow down for any actual murder or torture.
A better option than a plane for engaged film watching is the Music Box Theatre. They even have a guy playing the organ as you arrive! Here I exchanged Katie’s generous birthday gift card for tickets to Three Identical Strangers, which is an excellent documentary about identical triplets who discover each others’ existence as young men. It’s a rosy human interest story… until it’s not, and becomes much more sinister. Check it out.
In the last few weeks I also saw Incredibles 2 with Amanda (at an equally incredible $5 movie night) and Terminator 2 with Toggolyn. Newsflash: Terminator 2 is better than the original film, mostly because it has more plot strands and I guess partially due to the liquid robot things, although at the same time John Connor is perhaps the most annoying screen child ever created and is exactly the type of hideous creature who would grow up to sit on a plane and leak sound from his headphones.
Recently we also splurged on giant sundaes at Margie’s Candies with Arielle and Amanda, spent a nice afternoon at Loyola Beach (hence the photo of me and my flip flops) and Devon Street (the Little India and Little Pakistan of Chicago, which I had long wanted to visit) and played a bunch of games with Joe and Julie and others as they prepared to head off for GenCon. For the record, our schedule was Sushi Go Party, High Society, Codenames and Quiplash. I thought I was doing well at High Society before realising I had forgotten one of the most important rules.
And finally, today we took advantage of another sunny Sunday to have a post-brunch stroll around Humboldt Park with Carolina and Poncho. Unless I’m misremembering, this is only the second time I’ve been to Humboldt Park proper, and the first time was during winter. It’s so beautiful, and almost Heath-like!
P.S. After being inspired by Julie, I have taken up Spanish on Duolingo and am slowly resurrecting my memories of conjugations and basic vocabulary. I’m writing this here so that everyone has licence to bug me as to whether I’ve completed my daily Spanish exercises or not. Gracias.
The World Cup! For a long time I didn’t care about football at all, and then in 2010 I decided I was going to care about football once every four years, and here we are in 2018 with an unusual number of England games to watch and esprit de corps and so on.
This country certainly doesn’t stop for the World Cup… indeed, it’s markedly less visible this time around compared to when I arrived in 2014 and the US team was doing unexpectedly well. But Randi and I have seen quite a few matches with a variety of people, including with Lauri (escapee from the suburbs!) in her swanky high-rise apartment, England vs. Sweden last weekend when Randi’s family friends Elana and Steve sportingly agreed to come over for a 9am kick-off, and this morning’s anti-climactic third-place consolation match at Karol’s birthday brunch-and-football gathering.
And yes, I am basically inclined to like international competitions. Most of us have these national identities, so we might as well put them to better use than trade wars/actual wars. It’s fun to learn about the fates of the Chilean and Argentinian teams with Francisco and Gonzalo over burgers at Au Cheval. (Side note: holy hell, those burgers are great. I had forgotten this lesson from last time.) It’s enjoyable to sit at the people-with-visas table at Robert’s 4th July party (America!) and have an immediate reference point for conversation which is not all about visas. It’s… well, it’s an experience when our seventy-something French landlord lets himself into our flat and starts yelling jaunty French propaganda at me when I’m trying to concentrate on a work call.
The point is: the World Cup has been great, there are much worse choices than football to be your national sport, and despite England’s exit I am looking forward to the final tomorrow. I presume my landlord is too.
Obviously I haven’t been playing any football myself (Years Of My Life Where PE Lessons Were Compulsory: 2000-2004) but I have been enjoying the type of game which you can sit down at a table to play. For example, with Chloe and Aaron we played Catan again (after far too long!) and Chrononauts, a somewhat tongue-in-cheek card game where you rewrite the historical timeline for nefarious ends. Kicking the nerd level up a gear, with Jason and Carrie we played Gloomhaven, which is all the rage, although it is essentially D&D for people without the time or energy to play D&D.
I have also seen a bunch of good things recently:
- Our flat has very much been enjoying The Marvellous Mrs. Maisel. (Sometimes we have been enjoying it with homemade ice cream, which is a great accompaniment.)
- On Wednesday night we made up for England’s semi-final defeat with a cheeky Nando’s and a movie, Ocean’s 8, with Ellen and Lou. Ocean’s 8 is a super fun comedy heist film, which has (per Wikipedia) a “routine storyline” because it’s a comedy heist film for goodness sake. Spoiler alert: they successfully steal things. The film also has an entirely female lead cast, and it is striking how much you notice that, as opposed to an entirely male cast which (for these characters) would not stand out. Recommended.
- Who should I blame for never having taken me to a Gilbert & Sullivan opera before? Isn’t this something my parents should have done? Or do I have only myself to blame, given that Sideshow Bob’s performance in The Simpsons has made it obvious for years that this was something to look into. Anyway, thanks to Catherine and AJ (mostly Catherine), this 29-year drought was ended on Friday night with The Pirates of Penzance. It’s so good! And so silly! +1 to the Victorians.
- Funny/pathetic story: a few weeks ago I decided it was high time to see a play at the Steppenwolf. So I bought tickets for a grisly two-hander about the legendary bloodshed behind the building of the Taj Mahal. And then about 30 minutes later I realised that I really didn’t want to see a grisly play, and successfully weaselled my way past their “no refunds or exchanges” policy to swap my tickets for a different play on the same day. The alternative on offer turned out to be The Roommate, an ungrisly two-hander about the “comical mismatch” between a “Midwestern nice” woman from Iowa and her new roommate from the Bronx. I’m quoting this intentionally vague description because I would probably not have paid for these Steppenwolf tickets other than through this accidental chain of events. Hooray for serendipity! The performances were amazing, the story took a sharp, unexpected turn which really paid off, and I can now tick the Steppenwolf off my Chicago bucket list with a feeling of satisfaction and no grisliness.
On the subject of Chicago bucket lists: I had already done the Ferris Wheel (sorry, ‘Centennial Wheel’) at the unfairly-maligned Navy Pier, but I was more than happy to do it again with Randi, Arielle and their cousins visiting from Philadelphia. Technically it was a new wheel anyway, which seemed much fancier than my memory of the old one.
On the subject of grisliness: I’m really good at killing flies now. I mean, really good. Our flat had a night of trauma, and as a consequence I can now stalk my fly-prey with the sleek hunting prowess of a big cat.
Last week was a busy one! It started with a relaxed and cheerful evening at Wrigley Field where I showed up to watch a Cubs vs. Dodgers game with Todd, Carolyn and Kevin (note, Todd, that no Oxford comma is remotely necessary) which was, to be honest, not really diminished at all by the cancellation – due to rain – of any actual playing of baseball. That’s not intended to be a dig at baseball. It’s more a tribute to the atmosphere and the company.
The next day I turned 29 (I know what you’re thinking, and yes, it is a prime number) and I celebrated with Randi and Amanda by going back to Red Square for dinner. It holds a special yet frightening place in our hearts because after meeting Amanda for the first time and showing her around her prospective apartment home, almost two years ago, we had all walked together along Division Street and decided to “get to know each other” over pierogi. As we walked in, the owner (or, if not the owner, an enthusiastic ambassador) put his arms around my shoulder and invited me (and only me) to the baths downstairs. I declined, somewhat fearfully, and we quickly retreated to the outside tables… but the pierogi were good! This time we escaped without any kidnapping attempts, and I returned home in one piece to enjoy Randi’s amazing homemade chocolate cake.
On Wednesday evening I grabbed a beer with Jonah, who had been sending stalkerish photos of Chicago over WhatsApp, and on the following night I was due for Birthday Dinner #2 at Spacca Napoli Pizzeria with Randi, Catherine and AJ. This was good pizza. If you’re looking for a place which is respectably fancy enough for a birthday dinner, but deep down all your heart desires is pizza, this is your place.
OK, enough prelude, let’s get to Virginia.
Charlottesville is a large town (sorry, an ‘independent city’) with a wonderfully pedestrianised downtown area, a historic university and the sort of vibe which produces colourful markets, boutique shops and RBG fridge magnets. So I was very glad we had a good reason for a long weekend visit, together with Villy, to see this for myself and undo some of the mental association between the words ‘Charlottesville’ and ‘murderous Nazi rally’.
The other famous association is with Thomas Jefferson and his plantation at Monticello, which we also visited. As with our visit to a plantation in Charleston, it’s difficult to square the workings of a tourist site (gift shop, shuttle bus, tour tickets) with the fundamental horrors of slavery. It’s even more complicated at Monticello since, whatever you think of Thomas Jefferson (and I am not a fan, for multiple reasons) he’s clearly a historical figure of huge significance and talent.
I can say that the presentation was more historically honest than in Charleston. We were probably lucky in our guide, a University of Virginia student. For example, during the tour of Jefferson’s house, and after giving equal prominence to Jefferson’s acknowledged and unacknowledged children, she shot down one man’s suggestion that Sally Hemings was Jefferson’s “mistress” or “special friend” with a firm “no, she was his slave”. It was a small moment, but a brave one, because it’s not an easy thing to risk a confrontation like that when your job is on the line.
Talking of workplace confrontations: in a Charlottesville taproom I caught up with Brett, a volunteer we met on the 2016 Hillary campaign in Toledo, for a non-hypothetical discussion about what to do when a colleague truly believes that the Earth is flat. True story.
The aforementioned ‘good reason’ for being in Charlottesville was the wedding of Chelsea (Randi and Villy’s middle school friend) and Daniel. Congratulations to them! The wedding took place outdoors at a winery which was both incredibly beautiful and very, very sunny. Fortunately, fans were provided. It was also great fun to hang out with Villy, who was very helpful and responsive to my emergency questions whilst doing last-minute shirt shopping at Charlottesville’s TJ Maxx.
Finally, on Sunday morning we got the early morning Amtrak to Washington DC and spent the day with Randi’s cousin Ben. Randi’s patience for taking photos around famous DC monuments has worn very thin in the current era, so instead I will use this photo of a much younger me outside the Washington Monument from 1999. At least the monument itself has greatly improved!
The highlight of this day trip – other than meeting Ben – was seeing the official portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama at the National Portrait Gallery. To build anticipation we counted up through the portraits of the 42 previous Presidential office holders first, passing a swift-but-fair judgement on them all in turn. FDR had a line drawing of Stalin in the bottom left, which seems a little unfair.
To conclude, here is a transcribed exchange between an elderly couple over breakfast: