Helloooo from Idaho my friends!
Well, we’ve got a leisurely day today, as this is our second of two nights in Idaho Falls, which means our biggest commitment today is… Well, nothing really. Hurray! It’s been a massive week since we left Lawton on Saturday morning, so if you’re here for a ‘what have the expats been doing?’ update, please strap yourself in for plenty of adventuring and lots of photos. I’ve thrown in a Google Maps screen capture of our travel to rafting (our final legs to Boise and then Stanley are on the cards for tomorrow and Sunday!) to show everyone just how far the adventurers are going. So far our odometer is at about 2300 miles (3700km for those who use the real system of measurements).
Saturday: Lawton, OK—Lawrence, KS. Our journey started Saturday morning after James’s three-hour stationary bike training session (endurance athletes, am I right?). Of course, the best and really only possible recovery option after biking 87km is to sit in a car for about six hours and allow your legs to cramp into one spot… Oops. We stopped for lunch in Wichita (and revisited our old friend Public at the Brickyard) before powering on to Lawrence. Well, James powered. I ended up napping: not really fair, as he was pretty tired from his ride! Co-driver fail.
We arrived in Lawrence and checked into our hotel before hitting Massachusetts street for our planned rendezvous with Nicole (from Thoughts Stained With Ink) which consisted of delicious shakes from The Burger Shack and some very, very animated writerly conversation. For the space of an hour I barely let anyone else get a word in edgeways because I was so excited to be with Nicole again and talking to another writer about writing! We had a wonderful time catching up and shooting the breeze before Nicole headed off to game night and we headed off for a rest, some dinner and an early night.
Sunday: Lawrence, KS—Sioux Falls, SD. We allowed ourselves a leisurely awakening on Sunday morning, managing to fit in a (truly average) complimentary hotel breakfast before hitting the road again. We made it to Omaha for lunch amid some sombre-looking weather and chilly rain—thus ticking Nebraska off our list—only to find out that our intended lunch stop at Elven Worth Cafe boasted a ridiculously long line. Off we went on a whim to the Culprit Cafe and Bakery where I ate a seriously delightful, vegetarian (I know, I’m shocked too!) lunch of crispy potatoes. We arrived in Sioux Falls in the mid-afternoon and checked into our colourful aqua and fuchsia Airbnb apartment before heading out to check out the falls amidst the blazing summer heat.
The bed was far too soft for someone with a dodgy back and I dreaded the thought of waking up sore and sorry the following day, so problem-solver James dragged the pillow top onto the wooden floor and we had ourselves a fun little camp out with Thai leftovers for dinner.
Monday: Sioux Falls, SD—Bismarck, ND. Sioux Falls did not disappoint us on Monday morning: despite being the day before 4th of July, which meant that quite a few places were shut, we had a peaceful and vibrant stroll through a few different parts of the city in search of breakfast. Flower baskets hang from lamp poles and, having been freshly watered, rained a steady sprinkle of crystal clear droplets onto the pavement. After a few misses, we ended up having breakfast at the beautifully rustic Queen City Bakery, feasting on buttery, crispy and flaky quiches and grabbing a few small treats to take on the road. If you ever visit Sioux Falls, visiting Queen City Bakery should be on the top of your list!
Afterwards, we saddled up and drove to Fargo, successfully making it into North Dakota. Fortuitously, Fargo is mere moments away from the North Dakota-Minnesota border, so we decided to kill two birds with one stone and jump across the river to tick off MN. In our search for a ‘Welcome To’ sign, we actually ended up taking a lovely walk along the river and strolled over the bridge that straddles the states. We did, however, finally get one!
It was a late lunch in Fargo before we continued north to Bismarck. Long drives through the country can be marked by some level of boredom, especially if the landscape is fairly uniform and nothing interesting ever happens, but luckily for us, Monday was not that day. At one point, we saw a man driving a quad bike on the side of the road with a tabby cat perched in the tray at the front (strange, to say the least), and later caught a glimpse of an albino buffalo! I found the Dakotas visually fascinating, so, inspired by seeing in poetry for the first time in a long time, I started putting together a new poem.
We got into Bismarck and hit the gym for James’s Monday session and my gymnastics training before cleaning up and heading out to look for some last rafting odds and sods. James had found Scheels on Google Maps, and when we arrived, we found in Scheels a new and special kind of happiness. It was huge, and they had everything… It was hard to leave without mortgaging the house we don’t yet have, but we somehow managed it (just). After another big day of driving, we were starting to tire out, but luckily, Famous Dave’s Bar-B-Que wasn’t far away, and we had a meaty feast there before heading back to the hotel and collapsing into bed.
Tuesday: Bismarck, ND—Rapid City, SD. We had an absolute devil of a time getting out of Bismarck on Tuesday morning. Having failed to plan ahead for the inevitable festivities surrounding Independence Day, we allowed ourselves a leisurely awakening and a very warm, very sweaty forty-odd minute training session on a nearby oval before saddling up for the day. It wasn’t our best plan. For a start, there seemed to be nowhere open for breakfast: rather than waste hours searching for somewhere open, we decided to just hit the road and find something on the way, only to be thwarted when our one way out of town was obstructed by a Fourth of July Parade. Amidst some cussing and some sharp swerves to make various turns—Google Maps wasn’t overly helpful, as it kept stubbornly trying to direct us back down that original street—we finally managed to get around the parade (in hindsight maybe we should have just waited for a gap in the parade… But as they say, hindsight is golden!) and out onto the open road… Where we realised that there was no fuel for the foreseeable future and we probably needed to fill up. Back to the outskirts of Bismarck! Fortunately we didn’t have to go near the parade again and we managed to get back headed in the right direction.
After that rough start, it was a long day of driving—James was an absolute legend and did all of it!—through somewhat monotonous countryside with very minimal opportunities for meals. We finally made it to Rapid City sometime in the afternoon to check into our grotty little motel (I highly recommend just shelling out the required extra cash in Rapid City to stay somewhere decent!) before heading out to see Bear Country USA.
Mt Rushmore was next on the list, and luckily for us, the impending inclement weather eased, and we were bathed in sunshine as we visited the different areas of the park and learnt a few great new facts about this historic site.
We decided to investigate Rushmore Tramway Adventures prior to finding something to eat, and on a whim, ended up doing a two-hour zip-line tour through Keystone Valley. I’d never done zip-lining before and it was incredibly fun: there was, of course, a lot of joyful shouting as we zoomed across the vast green spaces and got an awesome eagle-eye view of the valley. Nick and John were wonderful guides and with just James and I doing the 5:30 tour, we had plenty of time to get to know them, hear a bit about their work and generally have a wonderful adventure. It was only afterwards we realised that we don’t carry cash and had nothing to tip them with… So we broke with US tradition and bought them some booze instead. It was the first time they’d ever been tipped with a six-pack: Aussies setting trends everywhere they go!
We finally got to sit down for dinner at about 8pm. Having only eaten some ice-cream and some packets of chips for the day, we were more than happy to plough our way through the delicious food offered at Grizzly’s in Keystone Valley.
Sadly they were out of buffalo steaks, but other than that, we had a great time and rolled out the door to drive back to Rapid City (and our subpar motel room) for some desperately-needed rest.
Wednesday: Rapid City, SD—Billings, MT. After a pretty terrible night’s sleep, it was an early start the next day for my 4am uni seminar. I sat outside the motel office in the cool pre-dawn air and chatted about George Eliot’s Middlemarch for about an hour before we packed up and got back into the car. We hit the road not long after 5 and, determined not to repeat the eating mistakes of the previous day, stopped in at a servo for some readymade breakfast sandwiches to tide us over.
We spent the next few hours making our way into Montana and were lucky enough to (at the last moment) pull a u-turn and stop over for a walk through the Little Bighorn Battlefield-National Monument, stage of Custer’s famed ‘Last Stand’. It was fascinating to read about the battle itself—in which the Cheyenne Indians conquered Custer and his men—but also to learn about the events leading up to it and peruse the recollections of the Native Americans who participated in the battle (and their descendants), who tell of the tale of Little Bighorn as a desperate attempt by the Cheyenne to save their way of life.
As a sop to our experience from the previous night, Big Horn Resort in Billings, Montana, provided sterling accommodation for our stay. Another trip to Billings’ Scheels—even bigger than the one we visited in Bismarck, complete with a bear!—was on the cards, and a quick cafe lunch before visiting Candy Town USA (and leaving without buying anything: who am I? Their candy selection was incredible, and their ice cream looked delicious!) and buying some cupcakes from Tea City & Cupcakes.
When we got back to the hotel, we spent some time playing—and being the only adults not escorting children on the slides—in the attached waterpark and enjoyed the chance to relax for a while, as well as doing some of the more mundane administration associated with travelling: laundry! Dinner that night was at Billings’ Rib and Chop House, where I had the best steak I have had in a looooooong time (which certainly went some way towards making up for an average steak in the preceding few days), and fries with—wait for it—GARLIC AOILI, which is one of my favourite things in the world and thus, like most of my favourite things, decidedly unobtainable throughout most of the USA.
Thursday: Billings, MT—Idaho Falls, ID. We set off from Billings yesterday at about 8am, ready for a big drive and a lot of sightseeing, but I don’t think even we could have anticipated how big a day it would turn out to be. Why? Because we went to see Yellowstone! To start with, Yellowstone is huge. Like… REALLY huge: we ended up doing the Great Loop, which is a total of 149 miles through the park, and everywhere you look, there seems to be something to see. We entered through the East Entrance to the park, where our trusty National Parks Military Pass managed to get us in for free, despite the ranger telling us that ‘we really shouldn’t have it’ (James was not impressed), and were immediately struck by the pristine beauty of the park. Snow melt cascaded in glittering, murmuring streams down rocky outcrops by the side of the road, and we were constantly awash in the powerful scent of the countless wildflowers strewn in seemingly endless colour variations through the grass. We decided to follow the Great Loop and to just stop in at whatever took our fancy along the way.
Seeing a stream of cars ducking off to a side road, we followed along and found ourselves at Artist’s Point overlooking Yellowstone Grand Canyon’s Lower Falls. We took some stunning photos (which, of course, won’t do any justice at all to the truth of it) and it is evident why so many artists have tried to capture the majesty of this vista. It was breathtaking: though for different reasons for some of us! In search of the ‘perfect shot’, I climbed up onto a few rocks, then precariously balanced myself on a wobbling log, only to turn around and see a group of people, including one terrified looking woman, watching me do so. She was worried I was going to fall and was ‘ready to jump forward and grab me’: so it’s good that I’m leaving people terrified everywhere I go.
Afterwards, we ducked down a similar side road in an attempt to see the Upper Falls, only to discover that the vantage point offered pretty minimal visibility. Cue an off-trail adventure, complete with climbing (sliding) and almost falling, ducking and clinging to trees for some anchorage to see if we could get a better view. No dice, but a great adventure nonetheless!
We managed to find our way to all (we think!) of the must-sees in Yellowstone, including the hot (and stinky!) hot springs, the Petrified Tree, the Fountain Paint Pots and Old Faithful. No photo can do the vibrant Fountain Paint Pots justice. The colours were breathtaking… Although that may also have been the smell.
We had a long drive to Idaho Falls last night and having had another day of intermittent and less-than-fulfilling eating, we were more than ready for take-away pizza when we got in after 9!
But we’re thrilled to have added Idaho to the ‘seen’ list, and were well-rewarded for our patience, endurance and the inanity of other drivers on the road by a beautiful sunset and a gorgeous cosy little Airbnb for last night and tonight. We head off for Boise tomorrow to stay there for the night and pick up my older brother before we head to Stanley on Sunday, and start rafting on Monday morning! No doubt it will be an action-packed adventure and, especially after the beauty of the rivers in Yellowstone, we’re pretty excited to get started! No blog posts next week because we’re rafting (duh!), but tune back in the week after to hear (and see) how it all went for us.
Sadly, we found out via social media at some point near the Montana border on Wednesday morning that the wonderful and amazing Scott Waldrup, general manager of The Grey in Savannah, died in the early hours of Wednesday morning. We’d only met Scott once (anyone who follows this blog may remember him as our ‘American Ned Kelly’) but he was an incredibly warm and personable man, who made our evening at the Grey once of the most fantastic we’d ever had and gave us so many memories to look back on. I think it speaks to the kind of man he was that, having met him only once, hearing of his tragic death has left my heart very sore, and he has not been far from our thoughts in recent days. Rest in Peace.