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Archive for August, 2009

Weather is not always cooperative on trips, but I was in luck this past Tuesday when I headed through Yellowstone National Park and, turning right just past Lake Yellowstone Hotel, aimed for the park’s east entrance. The skies were clear and crystal blue and sunlight shimmered across the surface of Yellowstone Lake. Crowds of onlookers lined Fishing Bridge, watching a gathering of bison along the side of the road. Others pulled over to observe lakeside geothermal activity or to savor the views from the winding road through Sylvan Pass.

I had kept an eye on area vacancies for days and managed to land the last available cabin that particular night at Shoshone Lodge and Guest Ranch, just three miles east of the park entrance. I found the lodge easily and followed the driveway to the main office, where I was given a key to the Cougar’s Rest cabin, located a short distance up a hill beyond the lodge. A sizeable one-room cabin, it offered two queen beds, a spacious private bath, and a host of modern amenities, including TV, refrigerator, microwave and wireless Internet access. Hardly roughing it, there was still a rustic feeling to the cabin, thanks to the wood-paneled walls, lodgepole rocking chairs with cabin-themed tapestry and beige, brown and hunter green quilts.

A private front porch looked out across the property, where I curled up in a twig-design chair and soaked in the sound of a nearby creek. Though there were families with children staying in other cabins, a hush seemed to have settled across the land.

I was determined to get a feel for western living during my short stay, so I wasted no time in getting signed up for a trail ride. Given a horse named Thunder – an amazing coincidence, the same name as my wonderful corgi-shepherd mix back home., I was one of seven ranch guests to follow Jeff, our guide for the evening, up a trail that bordered the creek and then wound its way up into the hills. Over a narrow and occasionally muddy trail, my horse remained sure-footed and very obedient to my commands.

A hearty dinner followed, offered up in the dining room of the main lodge.  The menu was filled with a wide variety of temptations and I chose the fresh vegetables with pasta and pesto sauce, which was excellent.  Though I had no intention of ordering dessert, a nearby table of locals had a birthday celebration in progress and passed around plates of cake to everyone in the dining room.  It was a festive atmosphere and added to the overall experience of feeling like one happy ranch family.

Hospitality, warmth and welcoming friendship are all outstanding at this lodge.  Four generations of family have owned and operated the business and the consistent, solid management shows in the many return customers the lodge sees.

After some peaceful porch sitting, a good night’s sleep left me ready for more exploring.  I took a walk down to the stables to thank Thunder for the previous day’s trail ride – a fist of hay did the trick – and then headed west again for a full day of Yellowstone adventure.

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I sit next to the levee in Fort Benton,MT, known as “The Birthplace of Montana,” because it was the northernmost point that steamships could dock in the 1800’s. Spent the night at the Grand Union Hotel, built in 1882 and restored in 1999.

The fur, buffalo and gold trading activity of the early years along the Missouri River has been replaced here by a beautiful stretch of walkway – The Levee Walk. Benches, tables, historical markers and exhibits. Very well done.

It’s so peaceful that it’s hard to pull myself away – soft breeze off the river, quiet clattering of leaves in the trees. But I have a lot of driving to do today, so I have to move on. Southbound.

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I sit on the upper floor of Canyon Ferry Mansion in Townsend, MT.  I’ve spent the night in Lil’ Gloria’s Doll Suite, where I’ve been surrounded since check-in by an assortment of antique dolls, bringing back memories of my own mother’s wonderful doll collection. Through the window I watch a freight train climb the steep grade of a mountainside.  I am energized from bread pudding and coffee served at breakfast.

Along with the opportunity to do seasonal work in a Jackson Hole lodge this month, I gain the freedom to travel on days off.  This week offers the perfect schedule:  four days of part-time work (done for the week now) and three days to wander and explore.  It makes for an ideal paid vacation.

I drove north, through Grand Teton National Park, and stumbled into a magnificent scene.  A grizzly bear was guarding the carcass of an elk, apparently killed by a wolf pack two nights before.  At least that is the background the park rangers (who were carefully monitoring the situation) offered.  The bear had buried the elk and stood proudly on the mound, chasing approaching magpies away.  Apparently she was not about to share.  I say “she” because the rangers believe the bear to be one of Bear 399’s three cubs, a legendary park bear whose cubs are now three years old.

I hung out with the sizeable crowd of onlookers for awhile and then headed up through Yellowstone, waiting out road construction both south and north of the park.  The park road between Madison and Norris is closed for bridge repair, so I drove west from the Madison junction, out through West Yellowstone and up to Bozeman via Hwy 191, a breathtaking drive through the Gallatin National Forest.

An hour past Bozeman I pulled into Townsend, MT and grabbed a bite to eat at the Cowboy Cafe and Steak House, sliding in just before the cafe – and the town – closed up at 8PM.  A few more minutes up the road took me to the “Boutique B&B” where I spent the night. 

Though the antiques, furniture and even the dolls are for sale, I’ll leave those behind for future guests.  With just my overnight bag, laptop and camera, I’m headed up the road again today.  Northbound.  Destination?  We’ll see.

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Jackson Hole

I fell into Jackson Hole last Wednesday and have spent the last five days getting adjusted – to the altitude (6200 ft.) and the routine I’ll have here for the next few weeks, part work, part travel and exploration. 

A quick drive up into Grand Teton National Park last Thurs. reassured me that the magnificent mountains are still there.  Crowded with tourist activity, it was still nice to wander along the lakeside trail at Jenny Lake.  I popped into Signal Mountain Lodge for lunch, where my favorite red pepper hummus wrap is now being served on pita bread, still with the same delicious sweet potato fries.

The next few days are open for meandering.  We’ll see where they take me.

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I drove north on Interstate 15, leaving the lights of Las Vegas behind and replacing them with the rich, red geology of Southern Utah. I passed through St. George, followed a little while later by Cedar City, with plenty of time left in the day for driving. But eventually the day wore on, as did the driving fatigue. I called ahead and found an available room at Johnson Mill in Midway, UT.

I’d had my eye on Johnson Mill for a few years, since visiting a handful of restored gristmills in Kentucky and Georgia. I turned off the Interstate in Provo and followed Hwy 189 through Provo Canyon and around Deer Creek Reservoir, pulling into Midway just after seven in the evening. The office was closed for the evening, but a welcome letter and key waited for me in the front hall. I followed the innkeeper’s directions and made my way around the side of the building to an exterior entrance to the Courtyard, my room for the night.

Described on the inn’s website as “cozy,” I found it to be spacious, especially for a solo traveler. The high queen bed with step-up stool was flanked by oak nightstands bearing colorful Tiffany lamps. An oak dresser and a small sitting table with two chairs rested against one wall and an armchair was nestled into a corner by the front window. A rock wall opposite the bed held a gas fireplace and TV. The entry area offered a large closet to one side and a private bath to the other, complete with jetted tub. For a “cozy” room, it felt like a castle. High ceilings, luxurious bedding – including an exquisite duvet with embroidered birds, flowers and squirrels – and dried floral arrangements all added to the overall impression.

The grounds of the inn were equally impressive, with picture-perfect gardens, vine-covered arbors, a pond with canoes and paddleboats for guests’ use and small decks and sitting areas tucked away in various places on the 30 acres of property.

Midway is a small town and dining options for dinner were limited, but I found a comfortable table and a good individual pizza and salad combination at Café Galleria, a casual eatery with butcher papered tables and framed artwork on the walls. For a very small upgrade fee, the basic cheese pizza included in the combo was replaced with a more exotic variety, mine having roasted mushrooms, fontina cheese, caramelized onions and pine nuts.

Being the night owl that I am, I returned to Johnson Mill and sat outside well after midnight. Having a room just around the corner from the front porch turned out to be convenient, as I easily slipped into the cushioned rattan chairs by the inn’s front door and breathed in the cool night air. Garden lights illuminated the steps leading up to the front porch. A few cars cruised by on the highway, but they were infrequent and the tumbling of the inn’s waterfall upstaged the sound of the vehicles passing by.

A clever sign in the office announces that “Breakfast is served from 9:00AM to 9:10AM.” It made its point: there is one seating for breakfast, at nine. I set an alarm, to make sure I wouldn’t oversleep and woke up early, anyway, taking a seat on the outdoor patio behind the inn. Ice cold juices and coffee were available for guests to serve themselves, while the hot entrée was brought out from the kitchen, in this case French Toast stuffed with strawberry cream cheese and topped with blueberries, blackberries and whipped cream. Fresh melon slices and strips of bacon accompanied the main dish.

Over this morning meal, guests chatted with each other, coffees were refilled and plates were finished and removed. Beyond the breakfast seating area, the morning sun beamed down on a gazebo, surrounded by a pond. Swans floated across the water. Birds hopped along branches of nearby trees, chirping morning greetings. The waterfall provided background music to it all. Cliché as it sounds, it was idyllic.

Johnson Mill was a working gristmill originally, though it operated with a flat wheel in the basement area, as opposed to the decorative water wheel now found in the yard. Lani, the manager, pointed out that flour still seeps out of the exposed original beams inside the inn. The evidence was right in front of us both, in tiny white specks on the floor.

Two albums in the lobby detail the extensive renovation the owners did to turn the old mill into the elegant inn that now greets guests. Clusters of concrete were pulled from the blocked waterfall area. Retaining walls were built with bricks from the town’s old courthouse. Much of the mill was gutted and rebuilt, with decks added for larger suites. A tree trunk was inserted in the middle of a circular stairway that leads to a lower lounge area and common space. The gazebo was built in the center of the pond, with access provided by a wooden walkway. The waterwheel was brought in and extensive landscaping was done, making Johnson Mill a premium location for weddings now.

As I briefly mentioned in the last post, I couldn’t resist stopping in, on my way out of town, at The Spicy Lady, an old saloon from the 1870’s, located in Heber City, just a few miles from Midway. I’d seen a copy of their menu at the inn and I just had to find out if they really did serve kangaroo quesadillas, as their menu stated. I’d been traveling for years and had yet to see kangaroo of any sort on a menu, but it turned out to be true. The meat is flown in from Australia and touted as high in protein and low in fat. I stuck with a conservative order, though, and had the lunch special: fish tacos and green salad.

There’s more to see and do in the Midway/Heber City area, including a visit to the Heber City Railroad, which offers excursions through scenic Provo Canyon, among other areas. Hiking and biking rate high on the list of area activities, too. I wouldn’t have minded venturing out on a local trail just to explore the area a little more. But it was time to move on.

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I’ve been fortunate on this trip to find two great inns.  Both had been bookmarked for a long time, but skirting around Salt Lake City dropped me into the right area for overnight visits. 

First on the list:  Johnson Mill, a beautifully restored gristmill in Midway, UT.  Gorgeous, peaceful grounds –  pond with canoes and paddleboats, gazebo, vine-covered arbors, rustic birdhouses, quiet outdoor spots to sit, visit or read.  Elegant, beautifully decorated rooms.  This inn is the site of many weddings.  One look at the garden areas and it’s clear why.

Second, only 20 miles north:  Washington School Inn, a restored schoolhouse from 1889, built from native quarried limestone.  On Park Ave. in Park City, just one block off Main St., allowing easy walking access to shops, galleries and cafes.  Park City is mountain territory, 7,000 feet in altitude (doing some huffing and puffing here…)  Home of the 2002 Winter Olympics and a top skiing destination, drawing outdoor enthusiasts from all over the world.  Excellent dinner last night at Chimayo, a southwestern style restaurant – not inexpensive, but worth it.

Much more to explore in this area, but today I need to move on.  Am Jackson Hole bound.

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I’ve seen a lot of unusual items on menus during my years of travel, but it took a stop in the middle of Utah to find a Kangaroo Quesadilla. I kid you not. The meat is flown in from Australia and served up at The Spicy Lady in Heber City, UT, one of the oldest saloons in the state.  And, no, I didn’t order it.

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