Monday, November 29, 2010

The Capitol Building is Way Cool

Shawn and Sandi had invited us up for the very cool and swanky Pretentious Thanksgiving and Matt swore to them if he had to quit his job to come, he would be there. Sean replied appropriately that that would be very pretentious. So a couple of days after we came back from Montana, Matt and I flew out to Raleigh, NC. We visited with Luke for the night and borrowed their car to visit Jesse the next day. We were able to meet his new girlfriend which we liked quite a bit and hope to see more of her in the future. The next morning Matt and I needed to catch a train up to DC to get to Shawn's house and Jesse drove the car back to the Smithinger house. We lost some time on the drive an barely made it to the train, but all's well etc. Matt loved riding on the train and I have to say, there was an extreme feeling of leisure. Comfort-wise it seems the best way to travel.

We were warned half-way through the ride that Alexandria would be the best stop for us to get off on and I think I confused the lady who was counting heads when we got off too early. We took the Metro the rest of the way and Sandi and Merissa were nice enough to come and pick us up. We had the best time hanging out with everyone. Emmelyn, Shawn and Sandi's daughter is getting cuter by the day. Sandi is pregnant with her second and was a cooking and preparing powerhouse for the party. She was amazing.

As for the event itself, the food was amazing. The tobacco course was really enjoyable, the salad was perfectly light, the sweet potato souffle was flavorful and creamy, the smoked turkey was moist, and the desert looked and tasted great. The wine (and one pumpkin beer) pairings with each course were so fun and I really liked seeing so many of the girls from the wedding. One by one they went upstairs to get in bed with Merissa and we teased Luke about it. He tried to look brave enough for the task. Matt and I were piled on top by the end, Merissa's thigh makes a great pillow.

Shawn and Sandi were nice enough to let us stay for a few days after Pretentious Thanksgiving to see DC. We toured around with Kyle, a friend of the Gremminger family, and saw Arlington National Cemetery, the Lincoln Memorial, the White House, Lafayette Park with it's tame squirrels, the Vietnam Memorial, the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, The National Botanical Gardens, the Library of Congress, and the Capitol Building. I'm so glad I saw everything I did. It was all very interesting and I especially enjoyed the conservatory in the botanical gardens. Apparently when someone gets caught smuggling rare plant species into the states, the US just gives them to the conservatory. There were all sorts of amazing flowers there. I'm sure if I knew more about the different types of rare botanicals I would have been even more impressed. They had the very rare and endangered Ghost Orchid just sitting there, no big deal. You might remember it from the movie Adaptation. I'm thinking that instead of going through all that trouble to get it from the dangerous swamps, they might have tried sneaking it out under their coat from the conservatory. The staff was busy anyway setting up some sort of Christmas event they were shutting down for.

Poor Kyle had visited the Library of Congress' lobby before but it was an entrance that was not particularly nice looking. He assumed it all looked as institutional and drab so he wasn't so hot on visiting it with us. Turns out the Library of Congress has an awesome entrance and a not so awesome entrance. He was so surprised and pleased with the awesome Jefferson side. It was breathtaking. Pictures will be posted to do it justice.

The whole construction of the library was kind of interesting. Congress didn't see much of a need for a huge library but they had been basically forced to take on Jefferson's entire book collection. They kept it in the Capitol building. It didn't grow much until the librarian at the time tricked them into putting the copyright office in the library which adds a copy of every book that gets a copyright. The dude wanted his own building, you can just tell. So when the little library room in the Capitol was overflowing with books, he asked for money to build a larger building. Smart guy. But he died and someone else had to build it. They weren't given a ton of funds though. They really could only afford to build a decent structure. Any extra embellishment wasn't fitting in the budget. So they took a chance and went around to artists and sculptors of the time and said, "Look, we can't pay you. But we're building the nation's monument to learning and you want to be in on that. Do the patriotic thing and work for us for free. They really didn't expect it to work, but it totally did. The interior of that building is fabulous. It looks like there were loads of money thrown at it. Turns out the building finished under budget and ahead of schedule. The only national construction project that ever has, they said. So they used the extra to throw some money the artisan's way. Anyway, I liked the story and those rooms were breathtaking. I appreciate the hard work.

The Tea Party was near the White House.
We left a couple of days later for New York. We made last minute plans to have real Thanksgiving with Matt's family down in Atlanta, so we had time to kill. Sean and Sandi were amazing and we loved seeing DC. Thanks guys!

Friday, November 26, 2010

Montana Held Off on Snow to Welcome Us

We were sad to leave Tulum behind but we felt like we had finished there and were happy to come home to family. But we weren't so tired of travel that we didn't make plans a couple of days later to take a road trip to see the Bitterroot Mountains in Montana. Matt had heard once that even to Washingtonians, who are somewhat accustomed to fantastic mountain vistas, the Bitterroot Mountains will leave a stamp on your perception and every other mountain will be colored by your past remembrances of it. Or something.

We spent the first night of our road trip in Spokane on Halloween with a charming couple and their son. We had a fabulous pork roast dinner and enjoyed a long chat over wine. After their son was sent to bed we all watched Desperate Housewives together and went to bed ourselves. Great guys.

We arrived in Bitterroot the next day and set ourselves up in a Super 8 in Hamilton after doing a bit of bargaining. The poor guy had an empty lot and was willing to make a deal. I had a chance to talk with him the next morning. He was a really sweet and methodical kind of guy. We went out for a hike to see some of the mountains nearby, which were pretty much as advertised. I'm not sure what sort of optical effect it was but you would climb to a lookout and be assaulted by the sides of the mountains. I couldn't help but reach my hand out to touch them like they were some sort of movie backdrop. The ridges are so massive I was trying to imagine them as an intricate toy instead of a view of mind-boggling size. We were loosing light so we went back down into town for dinner and a beer at the brewery. I wanted to get a look at the local color so Matt and I moved down to the Rainbow Bar. A worn and washed out exterior guaranteed to have the dark paneled walls and ancient beaten down bar with the characteristic honey glow of something that has been there for a very very long time. We played some darts (still haven't lost it), chatted with Aly the bartender and then Solomon noticed us on the other side of the bar. He came over, introduced himself and asked us where we were from. When we told him we were here to see the Bitterroots, he loudly replied that he was pretty sure we had some mountains over there but was very pleased that we had come all the way to see his backyard. Aly set us up with a Rootbeer barrel: Jager bombed into beer on the house and we were treated to a whiskey from Solomon. We had an absolutely awesome time playing terrible games of pool and talking gleefully wry politics with Solomon. He let us in on the secret that he was high and we whispered back that we weren't too surprised considering he reeked of it when he came in. He pouted softly and said he thought he had been doing so well. It was the best welcome we could have received and Solomon gave us some advice on what to see nearby.

Every Montanan we met was very proud and still awestruck at their own country. There was a deep love when anyone we met talked about their surroundings. Except for Super 8 guy, Keno was more his thing.

Next morning we drove to Livingston and met with Rhonda who lives just a bit north from Yellowstone. We lived it up with her and her friends that night. It seems like everyone knows everyone. All her friends have worked for Yellowstone at some point in time. One of the fellas works as some sort of researcher in Antarctica. She introduced us and the first thing they said to us is, "Hey, that's Sasquatch country." Two of the fellas say they've seen Bigfoot. One from close up when he was young, and the other from a little further away when he was older. They seemed very certain and Rhonda seemed very certain that it was impossible. Matt and I maintained a diplomatic willingness to accept firsthand accounts but all the while wishing for that best of all worlds: proof. It's hard to not take these fellas at their word though, they were great conversationalists and honest seeming folks from varied and interesting backgrounds.

We drove through Yellowstone the next day and saw a ton of Bison, Doe Elk, a couple of Coyotes but no wolves and we hear the moose have mostly left since the last large fire in Yellowstone. The geysers and hot water pools were bizarre and beautiful. We had the park nearly to ourselves and got to amble along at our own pace. The longest waits were when the bison strayed onto the road. They don't seem to move for anyone. We were able to catch the Yellowstone Canyon at sunset before sleeping at a motel in Gardiner. We drove out back into Yellowstone the next morning to see Lamar Valley in hopes of catching sight of the wolf pack that lives there but no such luck.

We drove to Glacier National Park where we had hoped to meet up with a girl named Katie who wanted to host us but we couldn't seem to connect so we stayed in a cute cabin themed motel nearby the park entrance at West Glacier. Matt and I spent the night at a bar in walking distance and played a lot of pool and darts. We threw a buck into the video poker machine, but it wasn't really very fun. The taps were foaming all the micro-brews so Matt had a mixed drink but she eventually passed him a micro on the house later. I played a good couple games of pool and managed to pull off a pretty fantastic shot which Matt flattered me on all night. No complaints here. We drove as far in through Glacier as we could the next morning after a killer breakfast at a diner. The Going-to-the-Sun road was somewhat closed off so we hiked the trail to Avalanche Lake which was absolutely amazing. We had heard that the bakery nearby was a local favorite so we stopped and picked up some huckleberry beer bread for mom and drove to see Bowman lake which was beautiful but we really enjoyed the drive up through an old burned part of the forest that is slowly growing back. We stayed at the motel one more night and left in the morning to drive back to Spokane.

We had read in the Gonzaga newspaper that there was a haunted hotel in Spokane. Matt is on a mission to see a ghost so we thought this might be a good opportunity but they were all booked. We stayed at a motel instead and left early the next morning to drive north to see the Grand Coulee Dam. Matt will regale you with all sorts of information on the size and power of the Grand Coulee if given half a chance. There seems to be a bit of a rivalry between the smaller but more popular Hoover Dam and the massive Grand Coulee that no one seems to appreciate. I felt some definite barbs leveled at the Hoover dam during the tour. That being said, numbers-wise there is no comparison, the Grand Coulee is a heavy weight champion. We enjoyed the tour very much. It felt very nostalgic to me. The free tours that families take to marvels of modern engineering seem to me to be from another era. I enjoyed the time travel.

To save time on our way back to Battle Ground we took some state highways that sent us through the empty farmland of eastern Washington. With harvested fields as far as the eye could see, we felt confident that the speed limit signs were the barest of suggestions. It was interesting how the highways turned for seemingly no reason on that broad expanse only for us to come right up against a grain silo a mile down the road. I don't think I've ever followed a highway that intentionally shifts to hit certain loading spots before. We made great time but it was still a really long drive south and then down the gorge to Portland. I was driving at this point and it was raining heavily. Matt and I were getting cranky and hungry by the time we got to Portland. We were looking for a particular restaurant but settled for a hole in the wall downtown. It was good food though, and I felt much less grouchy after that. We were so happy with our road trip, but equally glad to get home for a couple of days before we were going to head out to Raleigh and DC for pretentious thanksgiving with Luke's brother-in-law Sean and his wonderful wife Sandi.