Why’s It Always Dairylea?

Original posted in London to New York blog, June 16, 2010

New Ulm, Minnesota

WARNING: This entry is long and contains some explicit references to cheese.

THIS entry was supposed to be extolling the delights of America’s National Parks and looking ahead to the final run through Chicago, Niagara Falls and on to New York.

It may, in the best tradition of this blog, have started with a quote from Blackadder about the final push.

Instead, there is little option than to open up with the latest in an occasional series of valuable travel tips which this blog feels necessary for anyone involved in a similar trip (particularly if that trip is led by a 6ft 4in snoring Kiwi with a penchant for smelly cheese).

New Ulm
Nick’s T-shirt shows the scars of the New Ulm cheese debacle

This tip is useful for anybody, no matter if they are travelling or not (particularly if they know a 6ft 4in snoring New Zealander… well, you get the drift).

And the tip is: Never agree to share a load of washing with anybody who has a penchant for smelly cheese (particularly if they are from New Zealand).

How different today’s recharge our batteries day in New Ulm, Minnesota might have been if somebody had bothered to pass on that advice beforehand.

For starters, we could have… hang on, let’s just consult the visitors’ guide.

Right, the 10 things to see and do in New Ulm, suggests dancing with a gnome; going cuckoo; dining like the Deutsche; sleeping late… but instead, the last few hours have been in the launderette.

New Ulm
Cheesy sock

That’s a touch unfair on New Ulm which seems a very pleasant place. Nick apparently wants to live here, but he has had a chance to get out and about.

Since we rolled in at Flandrau State Park in the early hours, it has exerted a certain charm – helped by perfect blue skies and sweltering heat, as well as some refreshing (ie cold) showers at the outdoor pool which dragged in crowds of screaming kids as we went about the task of tossing everything off the bus and repacking ahead of that final push.

Which is where it all started to go wrong as a plan was hatched to throw my half load of washing in with Nick’s T-shirt, Phoebe’s jeans and Phil’s… well, let’s just say some of his stuff.

Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
The quite simply stunning Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone – Best viewed from a few steps back

Little did anyone realise the packet of blue cheese which Phil has been fermenting in the sun at the front of the bus for the last couple of days was in among his washing pile – until opening the machine at the end of the cycle found it all over various items of clothing (Nick’s Mighty Mighty Bosstones T-shirt and one of Phil’s socks were the worst hit) and its scent over everything else.

Hence the delay in getting out to see the town as we wait for the second wash to end and it all to come out the dryer. We’ve even had to put the original machine through an empty cycle to get rid of some particularly offensive residue.

This is not the first time Phil’s cheese obsession has betrayed him.

In Riga, as we geared up for life on the Trans-Siberian train, he was particularly proud of his market purchases, which included a packet of containers into which he put some particularly stinky cheese and a pile of fresh coffee.

Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
And looking back down the canyon from the other direction

He was less than complimentary about our efforts in stocking up for the trip, prompting Nick, Mike and I to dash around the markets and get as much as we could before they closed.

And a successful trip it was too with our magic pepper rescuing many a meal and still adding that little bit of extra spice to dinner on the Green Tortoise.

It was made even sweeter when Phil left his precious cheese and coffee in the hostel in Riga and has been reduced to begging for our pepper ever since.

Yellowstone Falls
Yellowstone Falls does just that into the Grand Canyon

Whatever happened to that cheese remains a mystery. If anyone found it in Riga, hope you enjoyed it, along with a nice cup of coffee. The cheese in New Ulm is still making its mark in the launderette with a lingering smell – we are still here, courtesy of the need to send the wash through the dryer a second time to add a fresher fragrance. And dry it.

Ahead of us tonight is another drive which will see us awake in the suburbs of Chicago, our first big city since San Francisco 10 days earlier.

Since then we have been rattling through the American National Parks and those of you who have been paying attention will recall the mention of National Park Overdose Syndrome.

However, something of an epiphany means the prospect of hiking around these remarkable bits of countryside is met with enthusiasim (despite opting for the bus ahead of yesterday’s six-mile yomp through the sun-baked Badlands of South Dakota) and whiling away the evenings around the campsite – although we are all chomping at the bit to be let loose on the Windy City tomorrow.

Mammoth Falls Hot Springs
The weird and wonderful landscape at Mammoth Falls

The epiphany came at some point during our hike along the rim of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.

Having spurned the first day in Yellowstone in favour of watching football, inspiration was high on the shopping list and it certainly arrived – following a quick stop to watch bison and argue about the difference between them and buffalo – as we walked through meadows and barren moonscapes of the thermal springs and onto the dramatic sheer valley carved out by ancient volcanoes and the Yellowstone River.

Take a look at the picture and you will notice there is plenty of the path between me and the edge of the cliff in the pictures.

That was partially due to the discovery of a new fear – the sight of other people on the edge of big drops. While no great fan of heights, evidently seeing somebody else on the edge really puts the fear of God into me.

But the walk along the rim, overlooking the Yellowstone Falls, is pretty spectacular and worth the odd wobbly moment when you look down.

Mammoth Falls Hot Springs
The Hot Springs carve out a unique landscape

As is the walk through the Mammoth Falls Hot Springs which provides a cool, if slightly other-worldly, landscape of bubbling water, calcified cliffs and multi-coloured rocks, all set amid some spectacular Wyoming scenery.

The day was rounded off in the small town of Pray, Montana, where we passed a hugely enjoyable evening with hot springs, basketball, beer and live bluegrass before climbing aboard the bus. 

Devils Tower
Close Encounters of the OzBus Kind – Devils Tower

We awoke in South Dakota for one of the finest ways to start a Monday morning, in the shadow of Devils Tower (pedants beware: the apostrophe was left off the proclamation when it was made the USA’s first National Monument in 1906 and has never been added).

For those of us of a certain age, Devils Tower is the place where the aliens landed in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (and which Richard Dreyfus kept sculpting out of mashed potato), but for Native Americans it is a sacred site and for geologists it is a volcanic plug of huge interest.

For those of us who know very little about any of that, it is a spectacular, slightly eerie place and a walk round it provides a string of wondrous sights.

Devils Tower
A closer encounter with the Devils Tower

Via a short stop at a Prairie Dog Town – honest, that’s what they call the field where the cute little critters, or pests depending on who you listen to, hang out – we headed to South Dakota’s top tourist attraction.

And my verdict of Mt Rushmore – once we had driven through endless miles of signs for tawdry tourist cash-ins and the tacky, coach load-friendly town of Keystone – was largely ‘is that it?’.

Mt Rushmore
Mt Rushmore’s behind there somewhere

Yes they are a collection of quite impressive big heads on a mountain, but it really is a case of walk up (past the gift shop, the museum, the ice cream parlour and through the patriotic overkill of the corridor of flags, informing you when the US ‘acquired‘ the likes of American Samoa and Guam), take a picture, turn around and go home. And it is all surrounded by tawdry tourist traps and that over-the-top ‘America-the-Great’ propaganda.

Mt Rushmore
Aah, there it is

When the time comes to compile the list of great things we have seen on this trip, Mt Rushmore will not be featuring too high – certainly well below some of the other amazing things we have encountered in the last few days.

It did provide a moment of amusement when Duncan gathered a group together for the customary shot with his charity (RMHC) T-shirts and the mist rolled over the cliff top to obscure all four of the presidents.

Badlands
Sunset over the Badlands

There was no such problems the next day, which we spent in the Badlands of South Dakota.

Remote, tough and desolate they may be, but bad? Never.

They are strikingly gorgeous and provide some excellent walks through both the prairies and the cliffs which rise out of the ground like teeth.

One such lengthy set of cliffs gave its name to the town of Wall, where we whiled away a few hours in the baking sun.

Wall Drug
Jackass on a Jackalope at Wall Drug

There’s not much in Wall except the Wall Drug store, which has taken on epic proportions since its founders started putting up signs for free ice water to pull in passing motorists during the Great Depression in 1936.

Since then the store has ballooned from one shop to an entire block and the signs for Wall Drug now crop up all over the world (and on the variety of T-shirts we walked away with).

It also now includes a café, an array of amusements (tacky, but funny in a strange type of way) and a variety of shops selling just about everything you never thought you might want from a small town in South Dakota. You can even still get free ice water.

Badlands
The wonderful view over the Badlands

The Badlands Bar at least charges for its beer, but the World Cup (Brazil v North Korea) was free on ESPN, even with the annoyance of Ally McCoist as the excellent Martin Tyler’s co-commentator.

Why do television stations insist on saddling Tyler with irritating Scotsmen?

All irritations, except maybe the odd lost jumper, were forgotten as sunset in the Badlands saw Lukas guide a group of us out into the cliffs, via a climb up a wobbly ladder, to witness a spectacular view over the prairies.

A perfect end to the day.

NB If you were wondering about the things to do in New Ulm, and why wouldn’t you?, you can dance with the gnomes at all major festivals as they act as the city’s ambassadors; they appear to have a lot of cuckoo clocks on sale; there is a strong German heritage which is still reflected in the restaurants and there are comfortable beds in the B&Bs to sleep in (yes, that is one of their 10 things to do).

Badlands
A special moment – One final sunset over the Badlands
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He’s Simple, He’s Dumb, He’s A Marmot

Original posted in London to New York blog, June 12, 2010

Jackson, Wyoming

THE Abridged Unofficial Overland Dictionary a few entries ago has sparked a few unexpected consequences.

The reaction from my fellow travellers with some of the definitions put forward for end-of-tour T-shirts, while there has been a clamour for other phrases to make it into a second edition

And over the last few days, several other phrases have popped up which need some explanation.

Among the phrases hopefully explained in this entry are:

  • The ones shouted at us by our white-water rafting guide when we were called to the rescue of a capsized boat;
  • A warning that bears were on their way, while camped in the middle of a forest with nowhere to hide if one of them did decide to wander through camp;
  • The litany of drivel spouted by the American behind me at the bar during the England v USA World Cup match;
  • What I meant when calling for Peter Crouch to come on (actually no, scratch that. There really is no explanation readily available).
Sunset over Nevada
Sunset over Nevada

Let’s start in fairly sedate fashion as we roll out of California and into Nevada. Don’t ask me where exactly, it had a load of trees and mountains surrounding it when we woke up, but then so has pretty much everywhere on this leg of the journey.

Wherever we were, we couldn’t use our intended route due to a landslide, so we headed off instead for a walk around Angel Lake and then onto the town of Wells, Nevada – described by new driver/guide/cook/guru/ ballroom dancing expert Lukas as having nothing but “a gas station and two brothels”.

We stopped, briefly (at the gas station), and headed straight out to what the locals know as Twelve Mile Pool.

While our previous hot spring stops came complete with entrance fees, nicely-maintained pools and showers, this one came with a 45-minute yomp up a dirt track, open-air changing, nothing but stones and rocks on the floor and plenty of algae and slime on the wall, the one piece of interference from man in its whole construction.

You had to be very careful how you held your beer, but its rustic charm ensured a group of us spent a very rewarding couple of hours there before heading back down the track and if a vote was had, it would go pretty comfortably in at number one in the hot springs chart.

Snake!A swift return trip to Wells – still no sign of the brothels – and we headed into the night, slipping through Utah before arriving in the ski town of Jackson, Wyoming, and our first real sight of rain since Whittier.

Top of the agenda for the day was white water rafting on the Snake River, although the original dozen victims, sorry volunteers, was narrowed down to an intrepid six – Nick, Phil, Barry, Phoebe, Marilyn and myself – by the time we were hauling ourselves into wetsuits.

We had been warned the river, swollen by melted snow, was running fast beforehand, but it was nothing untoward as we paddled off and safely negotiated the first few lumpy bits.

It all started to go a bit haywire when, moments after our guide had helpfully pointed out where somebody drowned last year, the heavens opened, pouring rain and hail down on us and making us far wetter than the river could manage – or so we thought.

Having given up paddling and coasted down a fairly flat bit of river as we took what shelter we could – none, basically – and with thunder and lightning adding to the drama under leaden black skies, we bore down on The Lunch Counter, the biggest of the rapids on our paddle downstream.

Jackson
The antler arches in the town square, Jackson

With the river running exceptionally fast, it was more of a place for your lunch to return than a counter to order it, but we ploughed on into a series of waves more akin to walls of water.

The last one pitched us almost vertically before we crashed back down to the water and drew breath, only to look down river and see the occupants of our companion raft strewn all over the place as their craft drifted upside down.

For what seemed like an age, but was probably no more than five minutes, we were the emergency services – the real search and rescue squad having just sped the other way in the aftermath of an incident which made the front of the Jackson Daily News the next day.

Don’t think our guide said anything too complicated, mainly “forward”, “back” and combinations of the two in an increasingly frantic shout as we began to pluck people, including a couple of young children, from the water and got close enough for one of our guides to dive onto the upturned raft and pull those clinging to it out of the torrent.

We then headed past the stricken raft, including one stretch where we seemed to go nowhere despite our best efforts, to collect the flotsam and jetsam as it came our way and eventually both boats and all hands were safely secured on the bank.

As the other raft’s occupants headed up the bank to the road, we negotiated the last few bends as Nick and myself discovered our journalistic instincts were still in full working order as we began to mentally write our pieces on the drama.

Jenny Lake
Jenny Lake

Thankfully, with nobody hurt and the only real injuries to one or two guides’ pride (you’ve never seen anyone quite so relieved as the lead guide), our pieces are likely to go unwritten.

It was with some relief we pulled into Colter Bay Village in the Grand Tetons National Park – our base for the next three nights – and discovered a bar to sit and share our dramatic tales.

The next day was far more sedate, a walk around Jenny Lake with its charming yellow-bellied marmots (one of whom Phoebe christened Norman for some reason) about half an hour south of our campsite, followed by probably the final laundry before New York (hopefully not the final shower) and the invention of a new frisbee game which involves aiming at each other’s strategically-placed beer cans around the campsite.

Norman the Marmot
Norman the Marmot – The original Travel Marmot pops up to say hello at Jenny Lake

And so we passed a genteel evening eating and drinking by the campfire, interrupted only by camp security informing us “the bears are coming”.

We may be close to Yellowstone, but don’t think they meant Yogi and one or two faces were less than enthralled by the news. There was a distinct drop-off in traffic to the toilet, which was normally overloaded with charging iPods, cameras and laptops, once dark had fallen.

Yogi, Boo-boo and pals stayed out of sight, although the day’s early risers were treated to a dawn chorus from the neighbouring coyotes, prompting one or two to remain in their sleeping bags a while longer.

When morning did break, it was decision time – head off for the first of two days in Yellowstone National Park or get dropped off at the swish Jackson Lodge just down the road to watch England’s World Cup opener against the USA.

You only get few opportunities in life to witness the Old Faithful geyser, but a select band of us opted to a phenomenon just as reliable – England infuriating their fans in a major competition.

The decision to opt out of a day in Yellowstone was partly down to National Park Overkill Syndrome (which thankfully has been cured by some spectacular scenery in the last couple of days, of which more next time), partly down to the fact my legs were killing me after a lot of walking and largely down to my desire to watch the game amid the Americans.

If you want to get to know a country and its people, there are very few ways better than to sit in a bar watching sports with them and this was no exception.

Admittedly, many of the Americans there didn’t really care or know too much about the game or even who was playing and they only just outnumbered the initially noisier band of English fans.

But with the commentary in Spanish (a bit like watching football as dubbed by the Fast Show – ‘Wayne Mark Rooney, Scorchio!’), we had to fill in a few gaps in their knowledge.

It was us, however, who were left scratching our heads after the contribution of the American guy behind us.

He seemed nice enough, but quite what he meant by shouts of “Quarter It”, “Split It” and, every time the US won a tackle, “Good Midfield” remains a mystery.

His best came towards the end with the combination of “Possess, Possess, Possess…Triangle… Great Overlap”, followed by a round of applause as the Americans kicked the ball out of play.

Oh well, at least he wasn’t calling for Peter Crouch to come on…

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