Road Tripping in the USA: From Montana to Las Vegas.

It’s a well established fact that road trips are the best vacation.  100% of the people I surveyed agreed. The sample size of one may mean the results are not that reliable but still I love road tripping!

America does scenery! America does scenery really, really well! Geologically speaking, the American continent is very young. Its mountains are still forming and they rise abruptly, almost rudely from the surrounding plains. Let’s not worry about foothills…let’s just put a big mountain right here!  Active earthquake zones, hot springs and geysers pepper the landscape. Wide rivers fed by snow, race and rage across the landscape falling to one side or the other of the Continental Divide.

In comparison, Australia is old. The worn down mountains are not as spectacular. The stable continental plate is peaceful and slow. Rarely a rumble disturbs the solid ground. The dry climate means our rivers are mostly small and a bare trickle compared to the wide rivers of the US. What we lack in mountains, we make up in colour. The rich red of the iron laden soil surpasses the grey and browns that predominate in the US.

This short photo essay does not do justice to the more than 2000 km travelled from Montana to Las Vegas via Bozeman, Yellowstone National Park, The Grand Tetons, Jackson, Bryce Canyon and the Grand Canyon.

The camera can never capture the grand scale of the mountains, plains and rivers. Well at least not my camera! Photos of the boiling springs in Yellowstone with their slimy microbial mats look uninspiring and not majestic. The burbling creeks and rushing waterfalls do not freeze well  in the snapshot of time.

These vistas must be experienced first hand. A slow southward meander through five states surveying the truly amazing geology of the young American continent should be on your bucket list. I’d do it again in a heartbeat!

This series of photos were taken with my first “serious” camera. Most are SOOC and becasue they are in JPG rather than RAW,  I can’t do much to “fix” them.

Digging for Dinosaurs.

It’s July, in Hell Creek, Montana. The daytime temperature hovers around 45ºC (113ºF). Your lips crack, and the water you guzzle seems to evaporate before you get a chance to swallow it.

The barren landscape is speckled with low buttes, rounded striated mounds that rise abruptly from the otherwise flat landscape. Tufts of serrated grass struggle to grow in the grey popcorn-like clay that breaks easily under the pick.

Weather-beaten bone fragments are abundant under your feet and ignored by the experts. The real treasure is still underground. The dark brown, almost purple bones that have been encased for millions of years are not hard to find. Isolated fragments of skeletons are common. It’s the whole skeleton, intact and in one place – now that’s the mother lode.

To find these, the researchers concentrate on landforms they call washes. The remnants of watercourses; these are places where bones congregate in a tangle to form bone beds. Here the dead beasts became stuck and then covered in mud and silt in a Triassic flood. They have lain here undisturbed, the bones becoming fossilised as the living tissue is replaced by minerals. Hard and locked in time.

Fifteen long hours of bright sunshine makes sleep a problem. The extended twilight, a photographer’s delight. The six hours of darkness that finally comes is not enough to recover from the day’s hard labour, yet you press on. The heavy pick is replaced by a small hand pick and then a soft brush and dental pick. Your tiny little pick hits something that “tinks” when the metal hits it. You’ve found it! You’ve found the rib of a triceratops. More digging, slowly, slowly with painstaking tedium you brush away more dirt. Wait! Stop! Is that the vertebrae? YES! The joy punctures the eerie mood. You are the only human who has ever seen this bone.

No-one.

Ever.

The feeling of time stretched out behind you becomes unnerving. What catastrophic event lead to these massive creatures being nothing but a pile of bones? Will it happen again?

a women in a straw hat is kissing a dinosaur bone
Bec kisses the recovered rib bone

Dinosaur dig vacations

A dinosaur dig is not your typical vacation destination. It’s not glamorous. You actually have to do some digging!  It’s hot and dusty. Most “holiday” digs are part of research programs, and you become the cheap labour and pay for the privilege.  My dig was with a group called Paleoworld Research Foundation who operated during the summers from a ranch about 50 km out of the town of Jordan. The two women (Hannah and Jess) who ran the operation where both Masters students who were collecting specimens for their studies. We slept in an old caravan and ate simple meals with the family who owned the ranch.

A grren grassy hill in the forwground and a red hill with teh moon rising in the the left hand side.
The full moon rises over the Lervick Ranch at the end of another hard day.

I travelled to America with Bec, a friend I had met at a Science Teachers’ workshop a few years before. Our trip was 100% science-based. After the dig, we drove down through the Yellowstone National Park (geology) and onto the Grand Canyon (more geology)  and Los Vegas. From Los Vegas, we flew to Alabama to join an Educators’ Space Camp at the Huntsville Space and Rocket Center. (Maths and physics!) (Ok…. so Los Vegas wasn’t very scientific!)

Paleoworld Research Foundation are no longer operating. Some internet research shows that Judy Lervick, the ranch owner, sadly died in July 2017. There are other groups who offer a similar experience, although I cannot in any way vouch for them.

 

Maine: Closed for the Season?

a closed sign on a road

On the Maine Road

In April this year, I took a trip to the USA. I took two completely different routes: the Fast Lane and the Maine Road.  Three weeks in New York, a city that’s always open and humming, book-ended a five day road trip to Maine, which I discovered, was mostly “closed-for-the-season”.

My plan for Maine was to take in few hikes in Acadia National Park,  do some serious lighthouse spotting and sample authentic lobster rolls in their natural setting. I knew it would be a bit chilly but that didn’t matter after all, spring had sprung!

It should have twigged as I was tried to book accommodation. Most of the AirBnB listings said they were unavailable for the dates I was trying to book. I naively thought they must be just be very busy. I kept scrolling until I found someone taking bookings.  I ignored the small print; “We re-open on April 14th”  I would be there from April 7 – April 11th. A few days shouldn’t make that much difference? Should it?

some peeblesin the foreground and a small lighthouse in the background
Kittery Point – Whaleback Light

Being from the mild subtropics, I didn’t understand how comprehensively closed everything in Maine would be. The larger cities of Portsmouth and Portland were business as usual, but the small beach-side towns in between, were in fact, “closed” except for the local grocers and a few cafes. In the end, this only added to the appeal of an impossibly “Pinterest” worthy coastline which I enjoyed without crowds. My loves for quiet hiking, quaint architecture and lighthouses were well served.  The iconic lobster roll, on the other hand, was well and truly off the menu as a summer only delicacy.

Day 1: New York, New York to Kittery, Maine. (454 km)

Picking up the rental car from Laguardia Airport on a Saturday morning was a good idea. I missed the weekday traffic heading out of the city and I got a better deal compared to getting it in Manhattan. I caught the M60 bus  bus from Harlem and then the free shuttle bus from the airport concourse to the rental car office.

Once on the road, it was a compromise between the scenic coastal route and getting to Kittery before dark.  I headed east through Connecticut and Rhode Island, turned North on the I395 at New London up to Worcester, Massachusetts, then through New Hampshire and finally Kittery, Maine.

Six states in less than a day! Trying doing that in Australia!

My first attempt to photograph a lighthouse was foiled by a gated estate! I could see the Old Saybrook Breakwater Lighthouse on the headland, but couldn’t figure out how to get to it as it was surrounded by private homes and a large golf course with big warning signs!

Old Saybrook
Old Saybrook

The tiny town of Kittery, on the New Hampshire-Maine border is the oldest town in Maine. Already around 5 pm by the time I arrived, I just managed to snag photos of the sun setting behind a bridge that looked just like the Sydney Harbour Bridge (the Piscataqua River Bridge).  My accommodation for the night, a  stylish AirBnB was right on the banks of the Piscataqua River.  I chose to stay on the Kittery side because it was considerably cheaper than the Portsmouth side. An easy stroll across the Memorial Bridge took me into the commercial heart of Portsmouth within a few minutes so no harm done by saving money. I wandered around the quiet streets, looking for food and settled on Fat Belly’s Bar and Grill because it looked friendly and cosy. Turns out they make a mean veggie burger and serve nice cold wheat beer!

Day 2: Kittery to Mt Desert (360 km)

The next morning I headed out for the Whaleback Lighthouse on Kittery Point and  discovered it must be the chicken’s day off!

4 turkeys crossing a road
Chickens Day off?
Slow sign
Good advice – Kittery

My first attempt at a lobster roll was at Lobster Cove, York.

“No, honey” the waitress said, “NOT at this time of year!” Eyes rolling as if I should have known better. No lobster in Lobster Cove?

Empty car parks with massive capacity and tourist shops with boarded windows made it obvious that this town was used to big crowds. I was one of the few who braved the weak spring sunshine and the stiff wind that held squawking gulls in one spot, despite their flapping wings.

Meh…I am not much into shopping and the scenery was still open, so I was happy!

The Nubble Lighthouse at Cape Neddick was resplendent and Ogunquit quaint beyond belief with adirondack chairs chained to scenic spots. The main inconvenience? Closed shops = closed public toilets!

2 blue adirondack chairs near the ocean
Nice view!
a small white cottage and lighthouse
Nubble Light -Cape Neddick

As I headed further north the piles of deep snow became more frequent and I kept my jacket-gloves-scarf-hat combo at the ready.

Old Orchard Beach reminded me of an aging, overblown gigolo with its fairground, ferris wheel and tall-legged wooden pier. The temperature reminded me of Antarctica!

Once again – no lobster roll.

“No Ma’am” pffffft… “only in the summer!”

I made good with half a sandwich and soup. I’d been in America long enough to know a ½ sandwich would be enough!

I picked up groceries for my two night stay on Mt Desert Island and settled in for a frosty night in a old colonial cabin right on the edge of the Acadia National Park.

Day 3: Acadia National Park and Bar Harbor.

Another early start had  me crunching along the snow covered carriageway, past logs dripping in icicles and the rustling of turkeys hidden somewhere in the scrub. Acadia National Park had been described to me as one of the most beautiful parks in America but it was here that my (wilful) ignorance of the seasonal closures proved to be  the most inconvenient.

The Park has a loop road, the majority of  which was closed. I was restricted to a few limited sections. This did not deter me from a long walk around Eagle Lake after jumping a low fence. I had a lingering guilt  that I had not paid the entrance fee suspecting I should have, to someone,  somewhere, even though the booths were closed. I half expected to find my wheels clamped when I got back to the car.

It was sunny and  -6ºC. I was well dressed with thermals, fleecy hiking pants, a merino wool jumper, goose down jacket, woolly socks, two pairs of gloves, scarf, balaclava and beanie.

A woman in thick winter clothing sitting on a fence surrounded by snow
Rugged up in Acadia National Park

This Aussie knew there was no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes! I picked my way through the snow like the Michelin Man,  feeling a tad overdressed when some locals walked past in three less layers than me. After three hours walking around Eagle Lake, I headed into the town of Bar Harbor for lunch. This time I was determined to find the now elusive lobster roll. Haven’t they heard of a freezer up here? Five cafes and another hour later, I settled for – you guessed it – soup and ½ a sandwich.

Day Four: Bar Harbor to Portland. (260 km)

Today was the day for “THE lighthouse”. The Bass Point Light which perches on craggy, often snow covered rocks with frozen waterfalls bedecking the plinth on which it sits. On attempt No 1 I found the carpark alright, but couldn’t find a path down to the rocks below. I figured that you could only reach it by boat. The boat tours, were of course, “closed for the season”. Never mind, I thought,  next time I’m in Maine! I headed off to a nearby town for a warming coffee at Sips Cafe. I told the cafe owner about my predicament and she kindly explained where the path was:

“From the car park, look to your left.  Find the dirt path hidden behind the toilets and follow it down as far as you can go.”

At attempt No 2, THE lighthouse mission was accomplished. Tick!  Another photography subject off the bucket list!

a small light house high up on a rocky ledge
Bass Point Lighthouse

Next, another hike took me around Wonderland followed by the Jordan Pond Shore Trail (Acadia NP) before hightailing it back to Portland for the sunset. Low clouds and a pink sky gave a perfect backdrop for the Portland Head Light at Cape Elizabeth

a white lighthouse on a stony headland with pink sky
The Portland Head Light

My night’s lodging, an AirBnB in Preble Street, was a large, rambling early 20thC  Eastlake and Stick style home, with six bedrooms, several bathrooms,  a pool room, a music room, a huge kitchen and at least three cats. The owner had texted me from Mexico, with the code to open the door and insisted I make myself at home. So I did; by having  a good (but respectful) poke around looking at all the art and artifacts which covered nearly every surface. After a busy day walking and driving I was happy to snuggle up and read a book I had found on the shelf  eating Italian take away with one of the super friendly cats on my lap.   By this time, I had abandoned the idea of lobster entirely and was extolling the virtues of AirBnB via Facebook to my friends back in Oz.

Day 5: Portland to New York.

With a late flight out, I had all day to take in Portland and started off with a self-guided architectural walking tour around the Weston Boulevard neighbourhood before heading downtown to check out the Art Gallery.

Portland, Maine is a town full of beards and while apparently not as Hipster (with a capital H) as Portland, Oregon it certainly had a small h hipster feel to it. The Sisters Gourmet Deli, a case in point. Fabulous food with modern (retro) styling.

Three more lighthouses, the Bug Lighthouse, the Spring Point Ledge Lighthouse and the Ram Island Ledge Light finished things off nicely before I headed out to the airport for my flight back to New York.

You’ll be pleased to know, I finally got a lobster roll.  A mini one; as part of High Tea at the Plaza Hotel in New York. It was OK but I’m kinda glad it was only mini sized!

Over-rated; lobster, if you ask me…

As it turns out, the “season” re-opens mid-April, so perhaps it would have been better if I had gone a week later when the Park was fully open. But then I would have missed the ice and snow and the beaches which I shared with those squawking, stationary gulls.  

A large red carved wooden model of a lobster holds an ice cream
Closest I got to eating lobster – Bar Harbor