Road Trip, Day 11 – Richfield to Las Vegas

Day 11 - Richfield to Las Vegas

November 10, 2012 – Saturday

Day 11 of our cross-country road trip took us from Richfield, Utah to Las Vegas, Nevada. Several years had passed since the last time we enjoyed a Vegas buffet, and Adventure 2012 seemed like a good opportunity to do it again. We woke up to a snowy morning, our car covered in snow.

Snowing in Richfield, Utah

All covered up.

As usual, JC went and prepared a nice breakfast plate for me. Not long after, we finished packing our things and checked out. Before we went on our way, we took in the experience of sitting inside a car covered in snow, something new to us. It got warm and toasty inside while it was still freezing cold outside. Slowly, the windows defrosted and we began the day’s drive to Vegas.

An embarrassing memory I have is that I took the wrong entrance onto Interstate 70. At the time, there was construction going on and the freeway entrances were not clearly marked. For some reason, I wasn’t sure which one to take and ended up heading east. Due to our being in a relatively rural area, it was a while before we were able to exit and head back west. Looking at the photo timestamps now, we wasted about 20 minutes. 🙁

Exit 40 - Richfield, Utah

Um, no. This is your point of origin.

The highlight of this day (other than the buffet) was the dramatic change in climate, from the blizzard conditions in Utah to the arid deserts of Arizona and Nevada. It was kind of cool that we passed through Arizona, a state we had never been in before. We were pretty close to the Grand Canyon, and the geology reflected it. We figured it was the closest thing to the national treasure without actually going there.

Snow Road, Utah

From blizzard conditions…

Still Some Snow

…and gradually, less snow…

Grand Canyon State Welcome

…to no snow at all.

Arizona Geology - Layers

Millions of years of sediment turned to rock, bursting out of the Earth.

Interstate 15 Canyon

Was this a natural canyon or specifically carved for I-15?

As we neared Las Vegas, we encountered a curious sight: vertical vapor trails. Rockets? Spacecraft? We figured we were probably near Area 51, but as we got closer to Las Vegas we saw the source of the vapor trails: fighter jets! They must have been from Nellis Air Force Base. The military might of our country never ceases to amaze me.

Vapor Trail Near Las Vegas

What could these be from?

Fighter Jets Near Las Vegas

Fighter jets!

Sysco & Fighters

Sysco, supplying buffets everywhere.

We checked into the hotel and were amazed at the size of the place. There was a full kitchen, a separate bedroom, and a huge living room, completely different from our previous stays in Vegas. There was even a washer and dryer in the suite. If we were so inclined, we could have gone to the grocery store to buy our own food to cook in the suite. It’s something that we would definitely consider doing now, but at the time our goal was the Bellagio buffet. We headed out for the resort and found the buffet. I made sure I enjoyed it and even ordered a Glenfiddich as an accompaniment. That night, I slept very well.

Bellagio Buffet

One of many plates eaten at the Bellagio buffet.

List of foods eaten at the Bellagio buffet:

  • Bacon And Potato Soup
  • Glenfiddich 15
  • Kobe Beef Roast
  • Asparagus
  • Mushrooms
  • Carrots
  • Au Jus
  • Shrimp Cocktail
  • Alaskan King Crab
  • Snow Crab
  • Mussels
  • Ceviche
  • Heirloom Tomato Salad
  • Prime Rib
  • Jasmine Rice
  • Chinese Broccoli
  • Beef Ravioli

Rest Stops:

Coming soon: Road Trip, Day 12 – Las Vegas to Santa Monica

Road Trip, Day 10 – Rock Springs to Richfield


November 9, 2012 – Friday

The tenth day of our cross-country road trip saw us depart Rock Springs, Wyoming and deviate southward. We still had 4 days until the rental car was due, and heading straight west would have taken us home before that time. We’ve always enjoyed Southern California, so a plan was made to go there by way of Las Vegas. But first, we would spend a night in Richfield, Utah, roughly a five-hour drive away.

The night before we had seen some rain clouds approaching, and by morning there was a pretty steady rain going. I remember feeling the cold and rain hit me while I stood outside refueling the car. We only needed about half a tank so I wasn’t out in the elements too long, and soon we were on our way.

Rainy Morning in Wyoming

Rainy morning

Turned out that the highlight of this day was the weather. As we headed out of Rock Springs it changed from light to heavy rain, then snowfall, and then, if I’m not mistaken, even a blizzard (I realize that what I consider a blizzard might actually not be one). We were lucky to have avoided snow back in South Dakota when we went through the Badlands and Mount Rushmore, and Independence Rock in Wyoming, and now we continued to be lucky since we didn’t have any scheduled sights to see on this leg of the journey, with the snow itself becoming the attraction, adding to the variety of things we saw on the road trip.

Snowy Morning in Wyoming

Snowy morning

Lyman Rest Area, Interstate 80, Wyoming

Lyman Rest Area

Continuing west on Interstate 80, our first rest stop was the Lyman Rest Area about an hour out of Rock Springs. We took some photos to commemorate our first Adventure 2012 snow encounter. I enjoyed crunching the snow with each step. JC liked the snow-covered plant-life. I also got a kick out of our car’s frozen license plate, something I rarely see.

Snow Shrub

Snow cover

Frozen License Plate


40 minutes later, we crossed the state line into Utah. The snow came down harder, and visibility decreased. Got a little hungry and stopped at the next available rest area, Echo Canyon. It happened to also be a Welcome Center so we were treated to a museum-like interior, with exhibits on various Utah attractions. A receptionist was present to answer questions. After taking a look around, I bought a Slim Jim and a Dr. Pepper, both of which I had not had in a very long time, which became a topic of conversation between JC and I. ? It was really pleasant sitting in the warm confines of the car, eating my snack, and watching the snow fall. Sometimes, it’s just about the simple things in life, isn’t it?

Welcome to Utah

Welcome to Utah

Echo Canyon Welcome Center Snow Bird

Just outside the Welcome Center – what is this bird doing here?

Up until this point we’d been taking some regularly-timed breaks so after Echo Canyon I wanted to drive a little longer and make some time. We continued on Interstate 80 and then US-189 through the mountains. As we descended into Orem and Provo, the snowfall intensified. It was the first time in my life seeing snow “falling” sideways, and the first time I’d seen it so heavy. While I was excited, I was pretty glad that we were out of the mountains as it was some intense driving with me not being used to the conditions.

Heavy Snow in Provo, Utah

Starting to really come down…

Sideways Snow in Provo, Utah

And now it’s sideways

Now, we were in Provo. We saw a sign that read “Welcome to Cougar Town” which I thought was pretty funny (due to this definition of cougar) before realizing that Provo is where Brigham Young University is located. Being from the Bay Area, my only knowledge of BYU is that it’s the school Steve Young went to. At that time, the only cities I could name in Utah were Salt Lake City and maybe Ogden. I never actually thought about it but I probably assumed that BYU was in Salt Lake City. I hadn’t even heard of Provo until Adventure 2012.

Anyhow, the snow died down a little while we were passing through the city. As it’d been a couple of hours since Echo Canyon, it was time for a stop. We saw a McDonald’s and went there, a great choice because I still remember how good the meal was: Southern Style Chicken sandwich and medium iced coffee while watching the snow fall outside. The hot, freshly fried chicken contrasted perfectly with the iced coffee and snow, a really memorable experience for someone who has never spent extended time in a snowy climate.

McDonald's Provo

It’s Mac time

From Provo, it was smooth sailing via Interstate 15, US-50, and finally Interstate 70. The snowing had mostly stopped, but we were still treated to a white-blanketed landscape until we were close to Richfield. Once we passed the snow, there was an ominous-looking fog phenomenon that crept alongside us on the highway. Very strange indeed.

Driving into Oblivion

Driving into oblivion, somewhere near Scipio, Utah

Mountains near Richfield, Utah

Out of the snow…

Creeping Fog

… and into the creeping fog

Once we arrived in Richfield, we decided to get gas immediately instead of the next morning. It had been one of the longer journeys of the road trip, starting around 11:00 AM and ending near 6:00 PM, and we wanted to save some time for the next leg to Vegas. After settling in to the hotel, we had one of my least memorable meals of the trip, from Arby’s. Richfield definitely seemed more remote than any of the other cities we had been to, and prospects for anything else weren’t great (no other major fast food chains nearby). Maybe it was because the Arby’s wasn’t quite a burger, and wasn’t quite a sandwich. I just remember being disappointed, especially after the long drive, especially after the mostly decent selections we’d had up until that point. Nevertheless, we enjoyed our cozy room and slept well that night after a long and snowy drive.

Next: Road Trip, Day 11 – Richfield to Las Vegas

Road Trip, Day 9 – Casper to Rock Springs

Day 9 - Casper to Rock Springs

November 8, 2012 – Thursday

Day 9 of our cross-country road trip took us across Wyoming, from Casper to Rock Springs.

First thing after our now-normal routine of getting free hotel breakfast and checking out was getting gas at the Common Cents market:

Common Cents - Casper, WY

Common Cents – Casper, WY. Both JC and I got a kick out of the store name.

For the next half-hour or so we drove out of Casper on Wyoming 220, passing through the outskirts of town. We drove over the North Platte River. We passed by a drive-in which is something we personally don’t see every day. As I often do when I pass by these residential areas, I try to imagine what life is like for the inhabitants. I wonder economically what it is out here that supports all these people. What is the daily routine? Do you see the same people around town all the time? Checking the population information in the Wikipedia link above, it looks like it would be possible to squeeze the entire town into a football stadium. Wow.

Shifters (E.B.T.) Drive In

Shifters (E.B.T.) – looks like it might be a cool place to go to

Red Buttes Near Bessemer Bend, Wyoming

Further out from Casper, we reached Bessemer Bend and the Red Buttes

Not long afterwards, we reached a turnout area with a sign that read Lake Ridge Estates and another sign that read Alcova Reservoir. Apparently there is land for sale here, with great views of the reservoir and surrounding geological features. Two houses had already been built, but otherwise it was completely empty for miles around. If you look at the satellite view on Google Maps, you’ll see a tiny patch of green around one of the houses. It reminds me of that Star Trek episode where an entire colony is obliterated, save for one house. Once again, I imagined what it might be like living here in relative isolation. I’d need electricity, water, internet, and storage for food, and each morning I’d wake up with the view of the reservoir. When I needed supplies, I’d drive back to Casper and stock up. I might try growing some of my own food. I’d probably need a firearm to protect myself and JC.

Alcova Reservoir with Lone House

Isolated living at Lake Ridge Estates

Continuing on, the next point of interest and highlight of this day was the rest area at Independence Rock, another geological feature.

Independence Rock State Historic Site

Welcome to Independence Rock

The history behind Independence Rock fascinates me to no end. For the early American settlers moving westward, it was a marker in two senses of the word. First, it let them know whether they were on schedule: if it was by Independence Day on July 4th, then most likely they would make it to the west coast before snowfall (which in those days of covered wagons was probably pretty dangerous). Second, it served (and still serves) as a historical record of the people who passed through because people would carve their names on it. As we walked around, we made out some carvings dating from the late 1800s to the early 1900s. There was one abbreviated date written as “’87”. We wondered whether it was 1887 or 1987.

Independence Rock Carved Name

J. F. Crawford ’87

Wyoming Plains

Imagine no roads, traveling in this environment in a covered wagon – sadly, if you were seeing this scene in November 150 years ago, it would probably soon be game over for you

I am always excited when I get a chance to experience something from the past, to walk the same path as someone who did so decades or centuries ago, to touch something that he had also touched (like these). The person is now long dead, and yet there is something of his that has survived. How did he live? How did he view the world? What was going through his mind as he carved his name into the rock?

Independence Rock Ramp

I can climb up here…

As we circled around the rock, we approached an area that looked climbable. I knew I had to climb up to the top despite JC’s concerns. As I stepped up each increasingly higher stone, I realized that it looked easier to climb from afar, when the distances between stones looked smaller. Up close, some of them were quite far apart, and the crevices between them looked nontrivial. With JC’s objections in my mind at the same time, I started feeling a little nervous and my heart started beating faster. I wasn’t in the best of shape, and with the camera strap around my neck and my clothes and shoes not exactly suitable for what I was doing, I realized I was in a clumsy position. I tried to keep going and pushed those thoughts to the side.

View from Independence Rock

It’s amazing how much more you can see from a higher vantage point

Once I made it up, it was a mix of relief and exhilaration. Wow! I made it! I could see the beauty of Wyoming in 360 degrees, being able to see for miles around. I could see our upcoming route (in photo above). I saw something white and reflective (photo below) and thought it was a salt field (looking at a map now, I’m guessing it was probably the Sweetwater River). After snapping a few more photos, I headed back, making sure to step on the rocks I used earlier to minimize the chance of accidentally stepping on a loose one. It was probably more difficult going down than it was going up, since I was mostly squatting in order to reach the next lower rock, and trying to balance myself with my hands. I met up with JC, who gave me an earful. It really could have been bad if something had happened. 😕

Independence Rock Panorama

A panorama from the top looking towards the east

We continued on our way, hitting 287 South, the city of Rawlins, and then, lo and behold, our old friend Interstate 80. As I am prone to do, I couldn’t resist cracking a joke and asking where the Bay Bridge was. We stopped at one more rest area (Bitter Creek) before arriving in Rock Springs less than three hours after leaving Independence Rock.

Rock Springs Sunset

Another day ends – looks like rain might be coming…

Rock Springs Chinese Food

Chinese delivery from Wonderful House

The day ended with laundry, Chinese delivery, and TVB dramas. Not sure whether it’s funny or sad how I still enjoyed TVB dramas back then, before we moved to HK. Also, the Chinese food was pretty good, so have to give a shout out to my fellow Chinese diaspora at Wonderful House. Another great day!

Next: Road Trip, Day 10 – Rock Springs to Richfield

Road Trip, Day 8 – Rapid City to Casper (via Mount Rushmore)

Day 8 - Rapid City to Casper

November 7, 2012 – Wednesday

Day 8 of our cross-country road trip took us from Rapid City, South Dakota to Casper, Wyoming by way of the Mount Rushmore National Memorial.

From the hotel, it took less than 30 minutes to go from developed city to rural area, and soon we reached the entrance to the Black Hills National Forest. After having my preconceived notions of national parks delightfully squashed by Badlands National Park the day before, I looked forward to going to Mount Rushmore (although one should note the differences between the national park Mount Rushmore versus the national forest Black Hills).

Discover Black Hills National Forest

Welcome to Black Hills National Forest

After another short drive (less than 15 minutes), we reached Keystone, South Dakota. Again, because it was out of season, the town was pretty much deserted. I imagine it must be pretty bustling during high season.

Entering Keystone, South Dakota

Keystone, South Dakota

Mount Rushmore National Memorial


The entrance to Mount Rushmore National Memorial is pretty much right next to Keystone. Once you see the sign, your alertness goes up; how much longer until the actual Mount Rushmore? When will we see our first glimpse of it?

The answer: only two minutes later, just around the bend.

First View of Mount Rushmore

There it is!

Even from this distance it was amazing to see it in person, to see those faces actually carved into the rock (well, mostly George Washington’s profile). We all know that it’s a carving, but there’s something about seeing it in person for the first time. It seems plenty real reading about it in a book or seeing it on TV, but after that first “wow” moment you realize that this is real, and what you thought was real before was just an impostor. There really is nothing like experience.

Mount Rushmore Profile View

A little bit closer now

Mount Rushmore Entrance

Only $11 for parking

United States Flag

A really beautiful day, just look at that sky

Mount Rushmore Closeup


Mount Rushmore

With the surrounding scenery

Flag of California

Representin’ California

One interesting thing about the memorial is the number of out-of-state cars in the parking lot. It’s as if Mount Rushmore is a pilgrimage site for people from all over the country (and Canada, too):

  • Alaska – the Last Frontier
  • California
  • Colorado
  • Idaho – Famous Potatoes
  • Illinois – Land of Lincoln
  • Iowa
  • Louisiana
  • Mississippi – Birthplace of America’s Music
  • Missouri – Show Me State
  • Nebraska
  • New Jersey – Garden State
  • North Dakota – Discover the Spirit – Peace Garden State
  • Ohio – Beautiful Birthplace of Aviation
  • South Dakota – Great Faces. Great Places.
  • Virginia
  • Wisconsin – America’s Dairyland
  • Wyoming

And Canada:

  • British Columbia
  • Saskatchewan – Land of Living Skies

There is definitely something to be said about American ideals that all these people want to come here and view this monument to some of the men who built this country. I was feeling particularly patriotic myself when viewing the memorial and the accompanying exhibits and storyboards in the museum. The story of how this country came to be is almost legendary, and these men are almost revered as gods, which while good for national pride and identity is also something we have to be careful of. One must not forget why this country was founded in the first place, and also remember all the ugly things that occurred along the way. As they say, those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.

There is also something to be said for the permanence of the memorial. It is conceivable that all the history, knowledge and accomplishments mankind has collected on the internet (or books) could some day be wiped out by a natural, planetary disaster (it’s difficult now even to access data from a floppy disk). Physical, tangible monuments like Mount Rushmore or the Statue of Liberty, on the other hand, will probably still be around in a thousand years, not unlike some other wonders of the world that have been left to us by previous generations. This to me is one of the most noteworthy aspects of these monuments.

Speaking of wiped out, we ate buffalo for the first time at the cafe to get some food before the long drive to Wyoming. JC had a buffalo hot dog while I had buffalo stew. Not unexpectedly, we couldn’t really tell the difference between buffalo and beef.

Cafe at Mount Rushmore

Yep, it’s definitely the off season

We headed back to Highway 16 via 244 and drove towards Wyoming. I remember JC falling asleep and me driving by myself for a while, just the two of us in our little rental car on an open road with the sun blaring above. That’s a nice memory.

Wyoming Highway 450

Just us and the road

Not long after that, we made it to Wyoming 450 for the long trek through the Wyoming plains. As this was just a regular state highway (as opposed to the interstate), there were no rest areas or service stations or anything. There was a place to stop 23 miles into the road at the Texas Trail Historic Marker. I used the opportunity to water the grass a little bit. 😛

Texas Trail Historic Marker - Wyoming Highway 450

The vast Wyoming plains

As we continued on, other than passing through the town of Wright and using the rest area there, it was just us, the road, and the setting sun. I don’t remember passing any cars at all. Again, it was as if we had that little slice of Wyoming all to ourselves. It’s hard to describe the feeling: maybe a mix of being at peace, contemplative, and feeling lucky to be alive. I would live in that moment if I could.

Wyoming Sunset

Saying goodbye to November 7, 2012

Coal Mine

A coal mine, probably this one

Probably because we stopped to see Mount Rushmore, we did a lot of night driving that night. It was on a couple more state roads (Wyoming Highway 387 and Wyoming Highway 259), and then Interstate 25 into Casper. It was really dark on the state roads. Once we got to Casper we somehow found a Thai restaurant nearby and ordered takeout. I never imagined that I would be eating Thai food and drinking Thai iced tea in Casper, Wyoming, but that’s what we did, and it was pretty good, too! A great ending to another great day.

Next: Road Trip, Day 9 – Casper to Rock Springs

Road Trip, Day 7 – Mitchell to Rapid City

Day 7 - Mitchell to Rapid City

So sparse that even Google Maps is bare…

November 6, 2012 – Tuesday

On this 7th day of our cross-country road trip, we traversed the state of South Dakota, again traveling mostly on I-90. We determined the night before that 4 hours of driving was just about right in terms of balancing between completely exhausting ourselves and making good time, so when JC mentioned taking a detour through a national park, I balked a little bit.

Even as we listened to election news on the radio, driving through South Dakota, my mind leaned towards staying on I-90 and traveling straight on to Rapid City. It was mostly uneventful and similar to the day before, pushing westward through the Great Plains. We didn’t know it at the time but we passed over another iconic river, the Missouri. As we closed on milepost 131 and the exit to the national park, we made stops at the Presho Rest Area (MP 221), 1880 Town (MP 170), the Belvidere Rest Area (MP 166), and a scenic overlook (MP 140). 1880 Town was closed for the season, a preview of things to come.

PDF: South Dakota Rest Areas and Ports of Entry (from

Missouri River

Westbound I-90, about to cross over the Missouri River

At this point you might be wondering why I haven’t referred to Badlands National Park by name. Well, back then I really had no idea what it was or what was there. I don’t think I even knew its name. In my mind, a national park was just a bunch of trees and nature (like Yosemite), nothing special and nothing we couldn’t go see once we were back in California. I couldn’t have been more wrong, though. After stopping at the super windy* scenic outlook and taking some photos, we soon approached MP 131. I don’t remember my thought process or if I even had one, but at the last second I decided to take the exit and head south towards the park. It ended up being the best (or luckiest!) decision I made all day.

*It’s the Great Plains after all, open space and nothing to stop the moving air

The Great Plains

Looking out at the vast plains from the scenic overlook

South Dakota I-90 WB Exit 131

This way to the Badlands

The road was pretty empty, and as we headed south on SD 240 (aka the Badlands Loop) we approached a gas station that also appeared to be empty. It would seem that the entire area was closed for the season. Luckily for us, the pumps here were still active (unlike the Shell station back at 1880 Town). We took the opportunity to fill up.

Next up, we passed by an attraction called the Ranch Store with a sign that read “Stop and feed the prairie dogs” and a big statue of a prairie dog. It was here that I finally made the connection between Great Plains and prairie dogs, remembering learning about the Great Plains in U.S. History class. Like some other things we experienced during Adventure 2012, it was pretty exciting to finally encounter something in person that we had previously only read about in a book.

Prairie Homestead Historic Site

Prairie Homestead Historic Site

Alas, the Ranch Store, too, was closed so there was nothing we could do but keep going. But, not too far down the road, there was another attraction, the Prairie Homestead Historic Site. Although this place was closed as well, the parking area was not fenced off so we stopped to take a look. We saw something moving on the ground, and lo and behold, it was a prairie dog! Soon, a whole bunch of them came out to greet us, one of them even coming up to our car and looking like it wanted to jump in. Unlike what we expected, these prairie dogs were white and not brown. They looked more like rodents than dogs to me. We spent some time taking photos and videos with them before continuing on our way.

White Prairie Dog

A white prairie dog holding court

Continuing on, we soon reached the Northeast Entrance of the park. Again, it was closed for the season and there were no people in sight, though there was a sign indicating that the visitor center was still open. We entered the park, and soon they appeared on our left side: mounds of eroded and exposed rock, dressed in horizontal bands of different shades of brown, stretching out as far as the eye could see. It was easy to see that these geologic formations used to be the ocean floor. With no cars around, we slowed to a snail’s pace to marvel. It was as if we had the entire park to ourselves.

Badlands First View

Whoa! What are those things?!?

When we parked and turned off the car engine, the silence hit us in the face. There were no people, no cars, not even birds, no ambient sounds at all. An occasional gust of wind broke the silence with the gentle sound of moving air. I don’t think we’ve ever been to a quieter place. I broke the silence with a loud “hellllllllo out there” towards the rocks. So this was what it was like for those early pioneers who came out here, seeing these wonders of nature for the first time. Pretty amazing.

Looking down at the peaks and valleys from our vantage point, I wanted to climb down and explore. They didn’t look that steep or tall. I realized there were probably rules that prohibited people from stepping on the formations, so I thought better of it. Still, the curves and pathways looked so fascinatingly intricate, like a little city or a model in some kid’s room, that it was difficult to resist the urge to explore. I made do with taking loads of pictures…

Low Sun

So silent, so bleak

Vast Badlands

You can see the vastness of the badlands here

Badlands Nooks and Crannies

Lots of nooks and crannies

Explore the Mounds

I’d love to go down there and explore the mounds

Crack in the Earth

It’s all plains and then a crack in the Earth, must have been amazing and problematic to discover back then

Continuing on the Badlands Loop, we stopped at various other sights along the way…

Grazing Herd

Afternoon snacking


A view from higher up


Some other people finally

Deer Crossing

Deer crossing


A closer look at one of the mounds – how many millions of years are we looking at here?

Brown Prairie Dog

A more “traditional” looking prairie dog


They were really close to the road, was afraid they might ram us


Waiting for the day to end


Some different-looking mounds now

Yellow Seabed

And some yellow formations, formerly a seabed

Lone House

A lone house as we exited the park – I wonder what life is like for the inhabitants?

As we left the park, we finally reached the town of Wall. For miles and miles before we reached the Badlands, we had seen signs for 5-cent coffee at Wall Drug and wondered what it was. We didn’t stop to find out, but at least we learned where it was.

Entering Wall

Wall, home of Wall Drug

As we drove the last hour to Rapid City with the last of the sunset in the background, we talked about how lucky we were to have gone to Badlands National Park when we did. Because it was the off-season, the park was mostly empty, and even though it was almost winter, the weather was still clear and not too cold (and actually the temperature would drop significantly just a few days later). If it had been the summer, there would have been so many more people and so much more noise and disturbance that it would not have been the same. It was unbelievable that for one afternoon we got this natural and national treasure all to ourselves. I didn’t mind JC rubbing it in a little about my not wanting to go in the first place.

South Dakota Sunset

A fitting end to a great day

We stopped at one more rest area (Wasta, MP 98) before reaching our hotel in Rapid City. Our good luck streak still intact, there was a steakhouse right next door so we finished off this great day with a couple of nice steaks before retiring for the night.

Next: Road Trip, Day 8 – Rapid City to Casper

Road Trip, Day 6 – Rochester to Mitchell

Day 6 - Rochester to Mitchell

November 5, 2012

Aptly for a Monday, the sixth day of our road trip was one of the more uneventful ones, a straight east-to-west drive on Interstate 90.

Starting off at the motel in Rochester, we had the first of many hotel-buffet-breakfasts. It was a novelty to me that most of the hotels we stayed in during the road trip offered free breakfast (of course, they weren’t really free, but priced into the room rate). Maybe we’d just never noticed before or had paid the rate that didn’t include it, but we had it now and JC became the official bringer of breakfast. She would go out each morning while I was still in bed and return with everything in the same Holiday Inn Express bag (from Cortland). It’s a sweet memory and one of my favorite ones from the road trip.

Bath Towel Elephant

Who would’ve thought that a couple of rolled-up towels could turn into an elephant?

There were two unique things that we encountered only at the hotel in Rochester. The first was a La-Z-Boy recliner. We took turns sitting in it and pulling the lever. It was a shock when the seat-back reclined with unexpected rapidity. What a roller coaster ride. The second unique thing was how the bathroom was arranged. Rather than hung from a rack or placed in a neat pile, the towels were folded into bows on one side of the bathroom and, even more elaborately, in an elephant shape on the other. The shower curtain was tucked neatly into the soap holder in the middle, creating something like a big top circus tent. When I mentioned this to the owner at checkout, she said that it was something the maids liked to do, a way to brighten up an otherwise dreary bathroom (and job).

Jackson County, Minnesota - Interstate 90, Exit 57

Jackson County, Minnesota – notice the road color; does it have to do with the fog? Or snow?

After checking out, we gassed up the car and went on our way. We used less than one tank of gas that day, stopping only to eat and go to the bathroom (at the Blue Earth Rest Area, at the McDonald’s in Luverne, Minnesota, and at the Beaver Creek Travel Information Center in South Dakota).

Near the MN/SD Border

From Scotland to NY to SD to CA, we never figured out what those rolley things were (we did much later)

Once we arrived in Mitchell, we checked into the hotel before going to Walmart to buy dinner and some other necessities, including thermal underwear and a bottle of Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey. The former was because we were heading into snowy territory and the coldest place we had been to so far was Niagara Falls where we had frozen our butts off despite maxing out our clothes; the latter was because we had been bombarded with Tennessee Honey ads while in London (especially in the Tube) and finally succumbed when we saw it at Walmart. Sadly, we ended up using neither of our purchases because the weather in South Dakota turned out to be great and the whiskey turned out to be so disgusting we eventually poured it down the drain (at the next city, wanted to try it a couple of times just to be sure).

Route Planning

Planning the rest of the trip

We spent the rest of the night in our cozy suite (with a nice couch and coffee table) eating a dinner of various packaged foods and planning the route for the rest of the trip. After driving for over 5 hours from Chicago to Rochester, we realized it was too draining so we planned a more leisurely pace going forward.

List of packaged foods (for the record, of course):

Lastly, here is the world’s largest bull’s head:

World's Largest Bulls Head, Porter Sculpture Park

World’s largest bull’s head at the Porter Sculpture Park, Montrose, South Dakota

Next: Road Trip, Day 7 – Mitchell to Rapid City

Road Trip, Day 5 – Chicago to Rochester

Day 5 - Chicago to Rochester

November 4, 2012

This fifth day of our cross-country road trip was a Sunday. I started it off with a swim in the hotel pool, the first of many swims I would take during the journey home. I remember a father and son throwing a football around in the pool. After I did my laps, I spent some time in the whirlpool before heading back downstairs to clean up and get ready to check out.

Since we were in Chicago, the last major metropolitan city with a sizable Chinese community that we would be in for a while, we decided to take advantage and enjoy an HK-style breakfast. A quick Google search revealed a place with decent reviews called Sweet Station in Chicago Chinatown. We finished packing, checked out, and made the quick drive down there, passing through downtown Chicago on the way.

We saw what looked like marathoners shuffling into a subway station, and later learned that they were runners in the Hot Chocolate 15/5k. Speaking of subway stations, there was a portion of the drive where we were parallel to the elevated tracks of Chicago’s famous “L” where I caught a glimpse of one of the trains. I thought about the movie the Fugitive at that moment, the part where the marshals were trying to figure out where Harrison Ford was calling from. Overall, downtown Chicago looked very much like how I had imagined it after seeing it in movies and TV shows.

We parked just outside Chinatown Square and noticed that the parking machines were the same as the ones used in Oakland, and then went inside. It was not unlike many other Chinatown malls that we’ve been to, though I would say it reminded me of Vancouver the most. There were two levels, and the restaurant was deep inside and to the left, on the first level. We ordered a couple of main breakfast courses (Chinese tamale for me, congee for JC), and added a couple of dimsum items for good measure (beef tripe and rice rolls). It was good to have milk tea after not having it for a while. Afterwards, we walked around the square for a bit before stopping by Walgreens (no more Duane Reade!) to get some supplies before getting back on the road.

When I pass through a new city or town, I always try to imagine what it’s like living there. I use references from the Bay Area that are familiar to me and compare them with the things I see. In this case, I thought of the relationship between all the cities in the Bay Area. To the uninitiated, the entire Bay Area could be “San Francisco” when in reality the city is only a tiny portion of it. Driving out, I wondered whether I was still in Chicago-proper or some other town near Chicago, like Daly City or Oakland is to SF. If I were a resident of Chicago, I’m sure I would know the difference immediately.

Sears (Willis) Tower and the Chicago Skyline

I think we’re still in Chicago…

Once again there were a lot of tolls. In the end we paid 4 tolls to the Illinois Tollway, even though we left the state pretty quickly before entering Wisconsin. I had not expected to pass through Wisconsin but of course when I did I just thought of some of the things that non-Wisconsin people think are attributed to that state: cheese, milk, and other dairy products, and the Green Bay Packers. In Wisconsin, we stopped at three different rest areas: the Belvidere Oasis, Rest Area 11 near Portage, and Rest Area 16 near Sparta.

Just before 17:00, we crossed the state line into Minnesota, driving on a bridge passing over the Mississippi River. Finally, after learning about it in school and hearing of its role in American history, there it was, the mighty Mississippi. We tried to imagine what it must have been like for the early settlers moving westward, discovering new lands and this new river for the first time. Even if we weren’t the first ones to be here, it was our first times here and the sense of discovery we felt was no less real.

Dresbach Sign

A sign from the Dresbach Traveler Information Center and Rest Area

Of course, unlike the early pioneers, we had access to plenty of information about where we were and where we were going. Right after entering the state, there’s a rest area (Dresbach Traveler Information Center and Rest Area) that you can go to to learn more about the state, the river, and the histories of both. We got a chance to just stand next to the river and observe for a few moments while the sun finished its descent into the horizon. It was quiet and peaceful, and difficult to fathom that we were seeing only a small part of a river that goes almost from Canada all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico.

Lone Fisherman on the Mississippi River

A lone fisherman ends the day on the Mississippi River…

We got back in the car and continued on our way. By that time it was night so there wasn’t much to see except for one thing: the sky. Between cities, the sky is completely dark from the lack of light pollution, and one can actually see that the night sky is actually completely filled with cosmic objects, from horizon to horizon. Being used to viewing it from the city, it is difficult to believe that the sky is actually completely filled with stars, just like how it is in those telescope photos you can buy at planetariums. It’s just that normally, civilization obscures the view. It kind of makes you wonder what other spectacular works of nature civilization has obscured or will obscure in the future.

We arrived at the hotel and settled in before heating up the leftover Chicago pizza for a nice reprise of the previous night’s dinner. Driving at night can be and was pretty tiring so I retired early in preparation for the next day’s drive to Mitchell, South Dakota.

A couple more interesting sights from this day:

A Crack in the Clouds

The sun comes shining through…



We saw a few of these double-deckers with round-bus-captain liveries and thought it must be cool to travel in them.

Next: Road Trip, Day 6 – Rochester to Mitchell

Road Trip, Day 4 – Farmington Hills to Chicago

Day 4 - Farmington Hills to Chicago

November 3, 2012

Day 4 of the road trip was mostly uneventful. We checked out slightly after noon, I cleaned the car windows again, and we gassed up the car before hitting the road. Spent the majority of the drive on I-94 in Michigan heading into Indiana, then spent some time on I-90 again (last time was in New York) before crossing into Illinois. In Indiana, we encountered Interstate 80, which of course is familiar to us San Francisco/Oakland folks. I don’t know what was more exciting, seeing I-80 all the way out here or traveling through three states in a single afternoon.

Something that was a little unfamiliar was paying tolls for regular, plain-old highways (in the Bay Area, we’re used to paying tolls for bridges). On this day we paid a couple of tolls to use the Indiana Toll Road, and one toll for the Chicago Skyway. The receipts stated “All time Central”, reminding us that we had crossed from the Eastern Time Zone into the Central Time Zone, gaining an extra hour to our day.

For the record, we stopped at the Marshall Rest Area 702 in Michigan and the Michigan City Welcome Center in Indiana. Note that the aerial photo in the latter link is wrong (it’s a photo of the airport in Michigan City). Here’s the photo we took of the center:

Michigan City Welcome Center, Indiana

The area just outside of Chicago felt a bit industrial and reminded me of driving down 880 in the East Bay a little bit (or maybe we were already in Chicago, the South Side to be exact). We arrived in the city in the early evening, passing by places that I had heard of such as U.S. Cellular Field and Soldier Field. Sears Tower (or I guess Willis Tower) was easily identifiable. Identifying the route once we neared the hotel’s vicinity, however, was another matter. Google Maps did not indicate that there were two levels of streets, and I think we ended up on the bottom when we should have been on top. Either way, it took some time to sort out how we could actually get to the hotel entrance.

Approaching Chicago Central

Approaching Chicago Central on the Dan Ryan Expressway

U.S. Cellular Field

U.S. Cellular Field

Soldier Field

Soldier Field

After an afternoon of driving (and a small peanut butter sandwich for lunch), I was ready for one of those world famous Chicago pizzas. I did some digging around online and found a place that had good reviews, then put in the order. When I gave them the hotel’s address, they said that we were just outside their delivery area. Darn. We ordered from a different place, and as luck would have it, this was the place that originated the stuffed crust pizza!

Chicago-Style Stuffed Pizza

Famous Chicago-style stuffed pizza

Buffalo and BBQ Wings

Buffalo and BBQ Wings

Chicago Night View

Chicago night view, Lake Michigan in the background

We gorged ourselves with pizza and wings and enjoyed some of the night view before winding down the evening. I had discovered that the car had a USB port, so I partook in my new nightly ritual, loading podcasts and MP3s onto a thumb drive.

Next: Road Trip, Day 5 – Chicago to Rochester

Road Trip, Day 3 – Niagara Falls to Farmington Hills

Day 3 – Niagara Falls to Farmington Hills

November 2, 2012

This third day of our cross-country road trip began with another visit to the hotel restaurant for a buffet breakfast. The things I remember are a chatty waiter and a made-to-order omelette that ended up going to someone else. The man in front of me ordered an omelette with peppers, I ordered one without, and somehow the chef got the two mixed up. It probably didn’t help that the man’s kids crowded around the omelette station and made a lot of noise. I didn’t want to wait again so I kept silent and accepted the omelette that wasn’t mine. Overall, the experience from the previous night spoiled us and we thought that breakfast was just so-so.

We still had a few hours before checkout, so we used the time to stop by Walmart to get some supplies for the road. One of the items we procured was a car charger for my phone; over the past two days I learned just how much using GPS navigation drained my phone’s battery (and actually, the charger only slowed down the drainage). The other things we got were just daily necessities like hand lotion and mouthwash, and some paper towels and bottled water for the car.

Once we checked out, we drove around and explored the parkway a bit before finally parking at the main lot for the falls. It was amazing to finally see the falls up close in daylight. The powerful flow of the water demanded respect. Standing just a few feet away, I imagined what might happen if I fell in…

A different perspective:

Niagara Falls

Clean and crisp

I suppose if I did fall in, I wouldn’t have long to enjoy the cool, crisp water – I’d either be smashed against the rocks below or frozen to death. Anyhow, here’s a panorama of the whole thing:

Niagara Falls - Canada Side Panorama

Depending on the weather and the time of year, the size of the mist cloud over the falls varies. At the time that we went, it was pretty cold with the remnants of Sandy still around (you can see the rain clouds in the photos/video above). This New York Times article suggests that the difference between the water and air temperature is what affects the size of the plume. If that is the case, then the water must have been a lot warmer than the air on this day.

We hung around for just under two hours before returning to the car for lunch. The timing was perfect because just as we started digging in to our peanut butter sandwiches, the rain started coming down, heavily. It turned out to be a pretty nice experience, eating food that we had procured for Hurricane Sandy, inside the cozy cabin of our car, while rain poured down outside.

We still had a long drive ahead of us, so we said goodbye to Niagara Falls and hit the road for Farmington Hills. After a few minutes on the highway out of Niagara, we passed by what looked like a pirate ship. Turns out it was a replica of a ship called the Grande Hermine, wrecked in that location since 1997 and burned in 2003.

Grand Hermine Replica Wreck

A pirate ship?!?!

The rest of the drive was mostly uneventful, save for one more stop at Tim Hortons in Brantford, Ontario. Since that day, it’s been 557 days since I’ve been to Tim Hortons. I wonder how much longer I’ll have to wait until the next time I enjoy an Iced Capp?

We crossed the Blue Water Bridge just after 1700 and once again entered the United States. Our car had New Jersey plates and we were driving into Michigan, so we definitely stood out, and our conversation with the immigration officer was probably a bit longer than usual. His eyes widened when I told him we were driving back to California. Once everything checked out, he wished us a pleasant journey and welcomed us home. That’s always my favorite part when entering the U.S., when the officer says, “Welcome home”.

After about another hour of driving, we checked into our hotel in Michigan. It was Friday night so there were some basketball games on TV. We ordered Chinese delivery (no chow mein this time) and watched the games while planning the route for Saturday. Got a chance to do some laundry in the hotel laundromat as well.

Next: Road Trip, Day 4 – Farmington Hills to Chicago