Ben plays by the bank of the Clark Fork River during our visit with Glenn's aunt and uncle in Montana. Photo by Roni.

Roni and Ellen visit during our walk along the former Milwaukee Road rail line to the Clark Fork River. Photo by Glenn.

The grass is nearly as tall as Ben is as he walks near the barn at Steve and Ellen's Montana ranch. Photo by Glenn.

Glenn shares a photo with his aunt Ellen and uncle Steve. Photo by Roni.

The National Bison Range offered a chance for close encounters with a variety of wildlife, including this pronghorn elk. Photo by Roni.

Bison were tough to find at the bison range. This pair must have evaded the rest of the herd, which was in a corral. Photo by Roni.

"...And a river runs through it." Everywhere we went in Montana there was water somewhere. This was the view from along the drive at the National Bison Range. Photo by Roni.

Roni and Ben stand at the entrance to the Montana state capitol in Helena/ We couldn't have asked for a nicer day. Photo by Glenn.

The path to the entrance of Lewis and Clark Caverns was long and steep, but Ben handled it like a hiking pro. Photo by Glenn.

Ben gives a confident wave while touring the bowels of Lewis and Clark Caverns. Photo by Glenn.

An 8-second exposure helped capture the fireworks over Bozeman, Montana, on the Fourth of July. Photo by Glenn.

A giant amoeba? A view of Mars from space? Actually, this is one of the many unusual features at Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone national Park. Photo by Roni.

A snow-covered mountain peak is captured in this shot looking back through our rearview mirror. Photo by Glenn.

Roni poses for a photo in front of one of Yellowstone's many waterfalls. Photo by Glenn.

Thar she blows! Old Faithful lived up to its name, treating us to a steamy performance on July 5. Photo by Roni.

Ansel Adams could have made this look great in black and white. Unfortunately, this is mostly what we got to see of Yellowstone's vaunted forests. Photo by Roni.

Talk about unfortunate initials. Battle Mountain, Nevada, was not the most scenic spot on our trip, but it was worth a chuckle. Photo by Roni.

NASCAR driver Tony Stewart autographs a photo for Ben. Photo by Glenn.

Glenn videotapes part of the NASCAR race at Sears Point while brother Sean watches the action. Photo by Roni.

Our hero Jeff Gordon had a bad day on the track. He was already seven laps behind by the time we found our seats. Photo by Glenn.

Montana or bust

July 15, 2002

There's nothing quite like hitting the road for vacation, and our family took a well-deserved one this month as we packed our possessions and ourselves into Glenn's Corolla and embarked on a 9-day, 2,800-mile adventure that took us through five Western states. It was the first time in many years that we had planned such an ambitious trip, and the first time for Ben seeing any of the country beyond the Golden State.

Roni had the itch to explore Montana, having read about it in one of her favorite novels, while Glenn thought it would be fun to visit his aunt and uncle near Missoula and check out Yellowstone National Park. So after several months of talking about it, we finally put aside the hundreds of excuses and made it happen. Here is a much-condensed chronology of our trip:

Saturday, June 29 — Day 1

We left Oakley around 8:40 a.m. (close to on-time!) and cruised up Highway 160 while munching on breakfast pastries. At Sacramento we joined Interstate 80 and made good time into Reno. Ben eagerly awaited the moment when we crossed into Nevada, keeping a travelogue in his notebook for most of the day. We drove down Virginia Street to show him the glitter of the casino district, but it isn't quite the same in daylight. There was some street fair taking place, so we couldn't drive all the way through the downtown. We stopped for gas, then hopped back on the interstate to continue our trip east.

Nevada was just as hot and desolate as we remembered. Towns are far apart and offer few amenities. We stopped in Lovelock, where we ate a picnic lunch in the park behind the Pershing County Courthouse in what must have been 95 degree heat. We kept the car's air conditioner on high for the rest of the afternoon. We were making good time, so we decided to spend the night in Elko. We booked a room at the High Desert Inn shortly after 6 p.m. Exhausted from a nearly 500-mile drive, we had a buffet dinner at the Red Lion Inn next door and then headed off to bed, hoping for another early start the next day.

Sunday, June 30 — Day 2

We got on the road at 9:30, having gotten a late start and suffered through slow service at the motel's restaurant. We followed I-80 to Wells, where we got gas and then turned north onto U.S. 93. We stopped in Jackpot to phone Glenn's uncle and let him know our travel plans. (We hadn't planned any of the drive and didn't know where we would be staying until we got there, so we didn't know when we might get to Montana until this morning.)

After picking up some postcards in town, we continued north into Idaho and on toward Twin Falls. We hadn't considered that we would lose an hour crossing into the Mountain Time zone, so we began to wonder if we would make it as far as we had planned that day. It was 1 p.m. by the time we made Twin Falls. We checked out the spectacular view of the Snake River Canyon from the Perrine Bridge as we left town.

As it was getting late, we opted to take Highway 26 around the Sawtooth Mountains instead of traveling through them, which might have been more scenic but taken longer. Our route took us past the Craters of the Moon National Monument, where we decided to stop out of curiosity. It was very windy and warm, but the interesting lava beds and volcanic formations made the sidetrip worth it.

It was late in the day by the time we rejoined U.S. 93 along the Salmon River. This turned out to be one of the best parts of the drive, with the water running right along the road all the way into the town of Salmon. The trees and flowers were spectacular, and the traffic was surprisingly sparse. We checked into the Stagecoach Inn where the back door of our room opened out to a greenway overlooking the mighty Salmon. We ate our lunch at one of the tables there. Ben made friends with a few of the other kids staying at the motel, so it was tough getting him in for bedtime, especially given the fact that with the time change it was still light at 10 p.m.

Monday, July 1 — Day 3

We celebrated Glenn's 37th birthday with what was supposed to be a leisurely 160-mile drive from Salmon to Missoula along U.S. 93. We picked up a continental breakfast at the motel, then started north after 10:30 a.m. (still not used to the time change). Following the breathtaking views along the Salmon River, we reached the Montana border around noon, stopping at a rest area there to grab some photos. We were amazed that so few cars had passed us heading south. A few miles later we discovered why: a major construction project was underway on U.S. 93, and a 10-mile stretch of the road had been torn up. We had to wait close to an hour for a "pilot car" and then slogged along gravel for another 30 minutes.

By the time we reached the town of Hamilton we were pretty hungry. We picked up some lunch items from a Safeway store and headed out to a spot near the Bitteroot River that one of the clerks recommended to us. The mosquitoes were at least as hungry as we were, so we ate quickly and then finished up our drive into Missoula. The city resembles a little Berkeley, due largely to its being a college town. We found lodging to be plentiful but pricey for some reason. We booked a room at the Hampton Inn, hoping to make it our starting point for the next three days of our travels. We ordered out for pizza and spent the evening watching the Cartoon Network in our room, too exhausted to do anything more.

Tuesday, July 2 — Day 4

After starting our morning with the continental breakfast, we made the 15-mile drive east into Clinton to visit Glenn's Uncle Steve and Aunt Ellen. It was the first time for Roni and Ben seeing their ranch, and the first time Glenn had been here in 18 years. He got lost trying to find the entrance to their property, but as fate (luck?) would have it, Uncle Steve was cruising along the frontage road in his truck and had little difficulty recognizing the wayward Californians as we drove along aimlessly. We followed his escort back to the ranch, where it was time to get reacquainted and to see what things had changed and which hadn't since our last visit.

Ben had a ball checking out the chickens and playing with Steve and Ellen's two dogs, Mulligan and Alvin. We also got to meet a few of their seven cats, one of whom attempted to follow us when we all went for a walk along the Clark Fork River that runs behind their property. The river has shifted course a few times over the past two decades, creating an interesting terrain that is part forest, part meadow. The field grasses were up to our waists (or the top of Ben's head) and the wildflowers were blooming like crazy. It may be summertime, but spring still has its grip on the Northwest. Ben got a little too bold and received an up-close and personal look at the river, but Roni was close at hand to provide him an assist back to shore.

Back at the house we got to meet Glenn's cousin Matt and were treated to a barbecue hamburger and hotdog lunch. It was easily the best meal we ate on our trip. Our visit lasted until around 6:30. Aunt Ellen made sure we had an ample supply of mint chocolate chip cookies to keep us munching down the road. Ben had had such a good time that he didn't want to leave, and we all agreed that we hoped it wouldn't be another 18 years before our next visit.

Our only low point of the day was a mishap with our digital camera in which we accidentally reformatted the storage card and lost photos from the first three days of our trip -- just one of the hazards of using those larger capacity cards. Some of the scenes were also recorded on traditional print film, but a few were not. Ah well, we still have the memories...

Wednesday, July 3 — Day 5

Starting from Mi$$oula (which is what we dubbed it after booking a total of three nights in our motel) we drove north to the Flathead Indian Reservation and made our first stop the National Bison Range, where it was alleged that one could see lots of bison and elk up close along a 19-mile drive through the park. We did see a few elk that were close enough to fill a view finder, but our bison encounters were fewer and somewhat disappointing. The closest we got to one of the big woolies was the stuffed display in the visitor center. But the drive itself was very beautiful, with mountainous vantage points looking down on valleys and rivers, and acre upon acre of wildflowers, some with a fabulous rosy aroma.

After a two-and-a-half-hour visit, we continued up U.S. 93 to Polson and hugged the shore of Flathead Lake for a few miles until we found a lakeside picnic area to enjoy a lunch we had purchased. The weather was in the upper 60s and a bit cloudy, but it didn't interfere with our day, which was mostly spent taking in the scenery along our drive.

Thursday, July 4 — Day 6

This turned into a very nice day. We left Mi$$oula in the morning, first stopping downtown for gas and to check out some of the old buildings. We hopped onto I-90 and proceeded east toward our next destination, Bozeman. At 75 mph you can make pretty good time, so we decided on a 50-mile "detour" into Helena, the state capital.

We found the capitol building and spent at least half an hour checking it out. We were quite surprised to find it open to the public, this being a national holiday, but there was a guard in the lobby and a few folks like us were touring the halls, so we joined them. While in town we also visited the former Northern Pacific rail depot. Then we took I-15 south through the mountains and rejoined I-90 at Butte.

Next our drive took us past the Lewis and Clark Caverns, which we had been told might be an interesting diversion. It was 3:30 by the time we reached the park, and again we were surprised to find it open. Fortunately it was open until around 8 p.m., because we discovered that a tour of the caverns takes a couple of hours. Ben and Glenn decided to take the tour, which began with a 300-foot climb up a mountainside to the caverns' entrance. Ben had never been in a real cave before. He was impressed, but somewhat apprehensive of the cold and dark. With Dad's help he held up fairly well, making it through to the end. He was the first one in line at the door when our tour guide opened it to let us back out into daylight. Unfortunately, a late afternoon thunderstorm had descended on the park while we were in the cave, so the half-mile trek back to the car was a bit damp. Ben made the trip in record time.

It was around 8 p.m. when we checked into the Fairfield Inn in Bozeman, just in time to grab dinner from Burger King and eat it before darkness fell and the local fireworks shows began. We stood out in the parking lot of our motel and could look across I-90 to the south and enjoy the bombs bursting in air for nearly an hour. Bozeman puts on an incredible fireworks display and must have burned through half its municipal budget for the year in 30 minutes.

Friday, July 5 — Day 7

Leaving Bozeman, we continued East on I-90 to Livingston, where we headed south on Highway 89 to Yellowstone National Park. This was a part of the trip we looked most forward to, but we found it somewhat disappointing. First of all, you have to like crowds to want to go there on Independence Day weekend; there were cars everywhere. Second, the big forest fires the park saw in 1988 have changed dramatically the scenic splendor of it all. From the north end to the south there were thousands upon thousands of acres of blackened trees. Which is not to say that Yellowstone isn't worth the visit, but it sure isn't where you should choose to go if you want lots of pristine green forest in your vacation photos. Third, there were some major road construction projects (yes, even on the holiday weekend!) that created lengthy delays.

We stopped at Mammoth Hot Springs where we walked along the boardwalk and marveled at the colorful rock formations. We stopped for photos of elk and bison lingering along the edge of the roadway. We looked at waterfalls, snowcapped mountains and geothermal attractions such as the paint pots. Then it was time for the main attraction -- a visit to Old Faithful. We ate lunch in the park's cafeteria while we staked out our viewing spot with close to 1,000 other people. Ben worried about standing too close, not wanting to be showered with hot steam or lava or whatever would emerge from that hole in the ground, but we assured him that we were at a safe distance. The geyser erupted right on schedule, but it was an unimpressive display, even for Old Faithful. We stopped in at the general store/gift shop and called ahead for hotel reservations as it was getting late in the afternoon.

We continued south through the park, leaving Yellowstone and meandering through the Grand Tetons. It was late in the day and the sun created a harsh glare on the mountains, interfering with good photo opportunities. We stopped to observe a herd of deer that was close to the road. We were late getting into Jackson, Wyoming, but that was okay because there were no rooms available there and the town was packed to the gills with holiday travelers anyhow. We had chosen Idaho Falls for our accommodations, so that was where we continued our drive toward. We took the unpredictable Highway 22 with its 10 percent grades over the mountains and into Idaho, finally reaching Idaho Falls around 9:30 p.m. Glenn got lost trying to find the Best Western Driftwood Inn, so it was after 10 p.m. by the time we settled in for the night. Another pizza dinner.

Saturday, July 6 — Day 8

In daylight we had the opportunity to see all we had missed getting into town so late. Our motel was right along the Snake River, so after checking out we went for a morning stroll along the water and checked out the "falls" that were part of the city's hydroelectric generation plant. We drove around town for an hour just to look, and left generally unimpressed with Idaho Falls.

We followed I-15 south to I-86, continuing west to I-84, all the time thinking we would get a nice view of the Snake River and never finding it. The route was anything but scenic and the weather was hot, with temperatures approaching 100 degrees. Southeastern Idaho is a lot like Nevada, we discovered. Our only break in the monotony was when we reached Twin Falls, which by now was familiar territory to us. This time we decided to check out Shoshone Falls, which is billed as a 200-foot drop more spectacular than Niagara Falls in New York. We suppose it could have been spectacular running at full capacity, but being early July there hadn't been much rain, and the reservoir on the Snake River that feeds the falls wasn't releasing much water.

With patchy stormclouds dampening our drive, we retraced our course south on U.S. 93 to Wells, Nevada, and then followed I-80 back to Elko for another stay at the High Desert Inn. We were lucky to get a room there, as some Latino group was holding a celebration in the motel's convention hall and had booked many of the rooms for the evening. After dinner, Glenn made a $15 deposit at the bank of the Red Lion Inn casino. No big winners this trip.

Sunday, July 7 — Day 9

We were all eager to get home after a long trip. We left Elko by 9:30 a.m. It was nice to be back on Pacific Daylight Time. We drove straight through to Reno, stopping only for gas in Winnemucca. We were enticed by billboards for Boomtown Casino advertising a lobster buffet, but when we got there and realized it would cost $56 for the three of us to eat lunch, we decided to instead eat the three-buck sandwiches we had purchased before leaving Elko.

We made good time the remainder of the drive through the Sierras and Sacramento, arriving home just after 6:30. We were relieved to find the house still standing and the cats alive, albeit very hot and scolding us for our lengthy absence. We did a little unpacking and watered the trees in our back yard, which have been looking heat stressed. Then it was time to hook the digital camera up to the computer and view our vacation photos, some of which we are sharing with you this month.


* * * * *

While the Montana trip was easily the month's highlight, there have been other happenings.

On June 23 we traveled with Glenn's brother Sean and brother-in-law Tom to see our first NASCAR Winston Cup race at Sears Point Raceway. The day turned into a misadventure when we got stuck in a huge traffic jam at the track and were unable to find a parking space for more than two hours. We missed about a third of the action on the track, but what we did see was entertaining. Earlier that week, we waited in line with about 800 other race fans at Home Depot in Pittsburg to meet driver Tony Stewart and have him sign autographs for us.

Ben started third grade July 11. So far he is enthusiastic about his new teacher and classroom, but that's usually to be expected the first couple of days. He and Glenn enjoyed a day at the movies and Baskin-Robbins ice cream parlor last Sunday while Roni helped run the Oakley Chamber's information booth at the Brentwood CornFest.

Glenn's novel project has made little progress this month, due to the long vacation break and topsy-turvy schedules at work. Jury duty at the county superior courthouse this week won't help matters any. Currently the word count is at 116,000, with revision work on the way.

Roni continues to make quick work of the fiction shelves at the Oakley library and the local bookstores. She has been polishing off a novel every couple of days, doing most of her reading in the evening. She also found time to read during the less scenic stretches of our vacation.

That's it for this month. It will be pretty hard to top this with our August update, but with the lazy days of summer still upon us we'll give it our best try.

Glenn, Roni and Ben

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