Saturday, January 02, 2010

Viaggio attraverso gli States

Hello dear readers--and welcome to the last official post of the 'Italian in the US'.

As I mentioned a few posts ago, I moved to Canada with Matt. I have a new job in Montreal, and we've been living here for the past 3 months. To get here, we decided to take a road trip from California to Montreal.

We wanted to take it easy, and have a relaxing trip to conclude our peripatetic summer. We didn't plan much in advance and packed as light as possible, leaving most of our stuff with the movers. We took just some clothes and two bikes, so we could bike around along the way.

The plan turned out to be slightly wrong: The day of the move the movers told us they wouldn't bring any of Matt's wine and liquor collection, because they thought they would have a lot of trouble with it at the border. So we ended up driving all the way with two boxes full of buzz, without knowing what we were going to do with it once at the border. We just knew we were not going to pay the crazy duties imposed by Quebec on alcoholic beverages, corresponding to 100 to 140% of the value of the bottles.

We left sans itinerary from Berkeley on August 30th. Here is a map of what we actually ended up doing.
As you can see, we didn't follow the straightest path, which would have been I-80, because we wanted to visit Matt's mom in Idaho Falls, and drive through Grand Teton and Yellowstone parks.

Our last picture from California was from the beautiful Donner lake.
Goodbye, California! We hope to see you soon again.

We arrived in Nevada at sunset, which was quite pretty, but didn't take pictures of the landscape. We spent the night in Reno, at my dear friend Fiona's. The evening with her was really nice, and the area where she lives is quite nice too. However, when the morning after we visited downtown Reno, I was somewhat disturbed by all the casinos and the consumerist traps. We decided to enter one of them, with the main purpose of changing a huge amount of coins that Matt collected over the years. This procedure turned out to work quite well--no fees, unlike the CoinStar machines at grocery stores!

After leaving Reno, we drove all the way through Nevada, up to Idaho Falls. Matt's mom lives there and we wanted to get there in the evening. It was a long drive, especially because most of Nevada is a big desert with just bushes here and there... I liked seeing these empty spaces for a while, as it's something that can't be found in Europe, but after 4-5 hours they started to get boring. When we saw the first mountains at the horizon, Matt felt more at home.

Before getting to Matt's mom's, we stopped to take a few pictures at Twin Falls canyon.

We arrived to Idaho Falls at sunset. I really liked the sight of the sprinklers in the fields in the evening and I got a few pictures from the car.
A rural, peaceful view.

We stayed at Matt's mom's for three nights--we kept delaying our departure as we were having a really good and relaxing time. We took our bikes out of the car, and we biked around a lot, among fields of grain..
.. beautiful sunsets...
.. and of course a few visits to the town of Idaho Falls, which hosts one of the most impressive Mormon temples I've ever seen in my life.

I really enjoyed visiting the places of Matt's childhood and young-adult life. For example, we tried the formerly known 'The Blue Room' burger place (the name changed with ownership, but people still call it by the older name). This dark dive makes the best hamburgers I ever tasted in my life. In fact, before trying them, I never knew hamburgers could be actually good. After this life-changing experience I even find myself craving hamburgers, and being really frustrated because I have yet to find a competitor. What is the Blue Room's secret? In Matt's opinion, a cheap, spongy bun (which emulsifies with the fat on the tongue), warmed on the grill before stuffing it, and very greasy meat.

We also tried Reed's ice cream. Made with fresh whole milk and huckleberries, it was a delight after a long day of biking around. All these things we had to try before leaving, and the possibility of enjoying of Matt's mom's company (and of her venison) made us delay our departure of a few days.

Before leaving, I took a few pictures of her house, made from stacks of logs, each cut to match the natural shape of the one underneath. It is really beautiful and unique both outside..
..and inside.

Back on the road, I took a few more images of these beautiful fields and immense blue skies, which open the heart and make you feel a sense of awe and infinite possibility, maybe similar to what hundreds of years ago some explorers felt.
Now I know why Matt from time to time says he misses the sky, here in Montreal.

After not too long, the road started descending through Swan Valley.
It's a beautiful, lush and peaceful valley..
..crossed by a river.
It would have been nice to stop the car and go for a walk, or even better, a bike ride (there's a nice little 'around the block', 126 mile loop starting here). However, we wanted to get to the National Parks.

So, here we are getting close to Teton pass. I just couldn't get over the vastness of these landscapes.

On the top of Teton Pass:
And finally, the Grand Tetons appeared.
We entered the park, and stopped at Jenny Lake.
The water was really clear, with green accents. A jewel.
Let me just show you a picture of happy Matt.

I took a few pictures of the giants while going away. Seeing them is amazing, maybe also because they are the only really high mountains in the area, and they dominate the landscape.
A detail of a glacier.
Grand Teton National Park continues into Yellowstone National Park, which by itself contains enough attractions for three or four national parks.

At the beginning, Yellowstone Park shows beautiful mountainous scenery.
.. and large, clear lakes.

But pretty soon, you realize that in this pretty scenery something really unique is hidden: gurgling hot pools of sulphurous water!

These are inhabited by bacteria that can survive really high temperature, acidity, and sulphur concentration. These amazing creatures create vivid colors in the water, so that a landscape that could seem taken straight from a medieval representation of hell actually becomes pretty and attractive.

These are called something like 'The paint pots'.

These weird pools filled with hot and smelly water are just a few meters from this beautiful bay.
The whole bay was actually created by a volcanic eruption, and quite a lot of activity is still going on.

As we drove, we spotted a huge geiser eruption on the opposite side of the lake we were on. I managed to get a picture of the last of it.
Our next stop was at the 'Mud volcano'. The way there borders this pretty, peaceful river in a valley.
But right before getting to the volcano, you start seeing something unusal: really colorful vegetation that borders a small bubbly lake.
Pretty soon some noises and a stink of sulphur makes you understand you're there:
I have a small movie of it, so you can feel a little bit closer to it.

We walked around the area for a while, and saw quite a few more of these hot sulphur lakes.
The area will keep changing, as some of these lakes will become less active and some more, unpredictably. It's quite impressive to see and think about, in the middle of the otherwise peaceful scenery.

In front of the 'Mud volcano' was the 'Sulphur caldron'. You would think no one would want to go close to a 'sulphur caldron', right? However, look at who was there.
A bison! I never saw one in my life before Yellowstone Park.

However, just a few meters after the cauldron, we entered a plain plain full of them. An amazing show.
Here's one close up:
Sulphurous lakes, geysers, mud volcanoes, bison. Just when you think you've seen everything, Yellowstone park discloses one of its most beautiful jewels: its own Grand Canyon.
It was almost sunset when we arrived there, and the reddish color of the rocks forming the canyons was very vivid.
We kept driving through the park in the evening, and left it at the East entrance. The landscape remained beautiful even at night: We saw lakes lit by the moon reflecting into their water, and going through Bighorn National Forest, the dark shapes of tall rocks towering over us. We wanted to get to I-90 and stop at some motel along the highway; However, around 1 a.m., we suddenly found out that the road we were on stopped, almost at the end of Bighorn Forest. We weren't the only ones caught by this sudden interruption: There must have been a hidden sign quite a few miles before, which nobody saw. We really didn't want to have to go back on the winding roads so late at night, so we stayed at a motel that fortunately (mm.. was it by chance...) was just there at the road interruption.

The morning after we saw few more towering rocks, although less dense than before--we had passed most of them at night.
We drove for about an hour still on the mountains, and then finally hit I-90. For quite a while the landscape in North Wyoming remained pretty flat and uninteresting.
It got better again in Black Hills National Forest, where some pretty lakes cheered us up.
At this point, we were looking forward to seeing Mount Rushmore. This is the most famous monument in the USA, a mountain where huge heads of four presidents are sculpted. A "symbol of freedom" according to every guidebook.

However.. I'm sorry, I know I will dissapoint and maybe offend someone by saying this, but I don't think I've ever seen something more kitchy, awkward and plain ugly!
They look like caricatures. What's with the tight-lip smile on Thomas Jefferson (second from left)? I won't comment on the others' expressions. Seeing these huge things in the middle of a forest is particularly weird. And they are surrounded, obviously, by the mother of all tourist traps. That's right, they actually trap tourists (in traps made from sticky caramel), and then sell their watches and flag lapel pins as souvenirs. (Good thing we weren't wearing either.) [last two sentences added by Matt]. I'm not sure why this monument is considered so beautiful and symbolic. It just ruins the majesty of the scenary, and I wonder if the presidents would have liked their faces dominating these forests.

We drove on, and for fifty miles we saw a billboard every half a mile advertising 'Wall Drug'--we were promised we could see dinosaurs, jewels, paintings, horses, and have delicious ice cream and 5-cent coffee! It was a difficult offer to turn down after miles and miles of the desert plains of South Dakota, even for those of us who pride ourselves in being resistant to advertising.

Indeed, Wall Drug didn't disappoint, with the quality of humor evident on its welcome sign:

It's a huge mall whose fortune started when Ms. Dorothy Hustead, the wife of the store's owner, decided to give out free ice water to attract the weary travelers through the surrounding deserts. It still attracts crowds disproportionate to the surrounding population. We got an ice cream from a Polish cashier, who was in South Dakota on exchange for the summer. We wondered aloud how she ended up there and asked if she liked it. She said that even though there wasn't much to do in Wall, at least she was saving money... Her suggested flavor of ice cream, chocolate, unfortunately didn't taste like chocolate at all!

On the other hand, we liked this reproduction of Mount Rushmore just about as much as the real thing:

We did enjoy the kitchy atmosphere of the store, and the free ice water. We left for a bike ride in the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands, aiming for the Badlands. However, the grasslands turned out to be a huge expanse of rolling hills swept by fierce winds. After half an hour of biking up and down the hills, we decided to turn back and get a final glass of free ice water at Wall Drug before driving away.

This stop was quite pleasant, especially because for the rest of the day the landscape was rather bleak. We spent the night at a hotel at Mitchell, South Dakota, where we were given an executive suite without any increase in price.

We continued driving the next day through similar desert. Luckily, however, I realized when I was in Mitchell that we could stop in Madison, Wisconsin, to stay with a friend of mine. Madison is known as the 'Berkeley of the midwest'. We arrived too late to discover much of it, but we saw a huge crowd of young kids leaving a football game, and visited some of the downtown at night with my friend.

We left her in the morning, and drove through Illinois and Chicago. We decided it wasn't worth stopping there, since both of us had seen this city already. However, here is a shot of the skyscrapers.

We stopped for a bike ride at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, an interesting park with tall sand dunes on the shores of Lake Michigan, crowded with families having a good time.

The day's highligh, however, was a stop in the small town of South Bend, Indiana. The part we drove through was full of Mexican businesses. We entered a restaurant and had the best restaurant food of the trip: authentic beef soup, tacos, refried beans.

Nothing too interesting happened for the rest of the drive. We saw Cleveland by night, which seemed like a nice city, and found a hotel quite late at night right after that.

The day after was really only driving, with almost no stops. We switched from I-90 to I-86 in order to avoid some tolls, and later followed I-88 and I-87. We stayed for the night in upstate New York, approximately 50 miles before the border with Canada.

In the morning, we decided to take it easy and drive on the smaller highway 9 instead of I-87 for a while. The Giant Mountain Park we went through was really beautiful, with quaint little towns, and roads surrounded by green and lakes.

Once in Plattsburgh, our travel through the USA was almost over. There was one more thing we needed to do before leaving the country: find a place to store our collection of alcohol! Matt had found some storage places in Champlain, a few miles from the border. We entered one of them, and rented a mail box so we could keep a US address. With the mail box, we got free storage for all of our wine and liquor: The border mail owner didn't seem surprised at all by our request--we probably weren't the first ones asking for it... We took with us four bottles, which we knew we were allowed to carry without paying duties, and hoped we would be able to get back to the border and bring the rest to Montreal a little at a time.

We crossed the border in the early afternoon and went through immigration and customs rather easily. What a relief compared to having to get a visa to enter the USA! No lines or appointment at the Embassy. Everything was done quite efficiently at the border.

We drove almost all the way to Montreal, but hit rush hour traffic going into the city; so we decided to stop at an Asian mall that Matt spotted, and had a delicious Korean dinner. We also realized right away that thanks to this huge Asian grocery store we wouldn't be missing our share of Chinese greens, one of our favorite foods back in the Bay Area. This discovery made us quite happy--it almost felt like a small welcome from Canada.

I will describe this mall in more details in a future post, because for now.. this is the end of the story! We entered Montreal with a beautiful sunset, ten days after we left California.
We found our hotel rather easily, and fell asleep in what was going to be 'our' city for a while.

I really enjoyed this trip. Even though driving through some parts of the US wasn't exciting, especially without a radio in the car, it was an optimal way for me to experience the extent and diversity of the country that hosted me for more than four years. Visiting friends on the way was wonderful, enough by itself to justify the trip. Bringing our bikes with us and going around every once in a while was a wonderful idea that allowed us to stretch our legs and do some exercise almost every day. It was also a good experience for me and Matt: we were in the same cramped space all day for 10 days, and we managed to arrive on (better than!) speaking terms.

Act I: An Italian in the US: Exuent stage north.
Act II: An Italian in Canada: [manuscript in progress]


Rosa's Yummy Yums said...

Happy New Year!

All the best and best of lucks in Canada!

Wow, I would love to see all those special places! Thanks for the dreamlike pictures!



Iron Chevsky said...

Very detailed and well illustrated blog - thank you for writing and thanks for leaving a comment on the Iron Chevsky blog! I noticed down below that you also blogged about your visit to Japan - I recently came back and documented some of the similar experiences. You might want to check them out here, to compare notes:

I am also very much into Italian food and wine - with emphasis on wine of course! ( Would love to see you talk about that a bit more.

Also, based on what I see in your blog, I highly recommend Michael Tucker's book "Living in a Foreign Language: A Memoir of Food, Wine, and Love in Italy"

Thanks for sharing your adventures!

Best regards,
Iron Chevsky

chemcookit said...

Hi Rosa!

Sorry, for some weird reason I got your comment only now! Thank you so much and Happy New Year to you too!


Hi Iron,

Thanks so much for stopping by. Matt (co-blogger on some of these blog's posts) visited your blog, and I followed him as well. Lots of interesting information. I liked a lot the part about Japanese fashion. :)

I would like to learn more about wine; you wouldn't believe it but I started drinking wine when I arrived to the US, even though I lived for more than 25 years of my life in Italy.

We're planning another trip to Italy soon so hopefully there will be more about Italian food and wine on this blog.

See you soon on the blogosphere!

Francesca said...

che spettacolo!!! che posti meravigliosi