Impressive natural and manmade wonders abound along Columbia River Gorge

There’s something I keep forgetting to tell you, my faithful readers.

Wait, let me think a minute.

Rodins The Thinker

The Maryhill Museum of Art, on the north bank of the Columbia River in Washington state, features an entire room of works by Auguste Rodin, including his “The Thinker.”

Oh, yes, this is it: Don’t miss seeing the Columbia River Gorge marking the border between Washington state and Oregon. While it may not be on list of the Seven Wonders of the World, it is worth a visit.

My Beloved and I traveled through the area in May, and we were awed with the natural beauty in many of the same ways other visitors have been. I remember descriptions of the place in Stephen E. Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage, the story of the Lewis and Clark expedition, and, more recently, in Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail.

Columbia River 2

When we visited, we stayed in the wooded and shady KOA Kampground in Cascade Locks, Oregon, which gave us nearby access to the Bridge of the Gods. The river crossing gets its name from an American Indian legend describing the strange and fantastic geologic changes wrought by the Earth’s moving tectonic plates.

Bridge of the Gods

Bridge of the Gods

The manmade version of the Bridge of the Gods was built in 1920, one of only 17 Columbia River Crossings along almost 300 miles of river in Oregon. At this point, the Columbia is wider and more ominous than say, anywhere along the Mississippi north of the Twin Cities.

It’s also quite lovely and astounding, surrounded as it is by the Cascade Mountain Range. The roadways on the both the south and north sides hug the river for the most part making for spectacular views as one drives along.

Further west, the river passes through treeless plains. “The face of the Countrey on both Side of the river above and about the falls,” wrote Meriwether Lewis in his journal, “is Steep ruged and rockey open and contain but a Small preportion of herbage, no timber a fiew bushes excepted.” Different, but no less beautiful.

Here, we visited the aforementioned Maryhill Museum of Art, a formidable architectural structure originally built as a mansion by Samuel Hill on the Washington bluff at the eastern end of the Columbia River Gorge. Besides the impressive works of sculptor Auguste Rodin, I was fascinated by the gallery of international chess sets on display in the basement. Every piece was a tiny objet d’art created by artists from around the world.

Maryhill Museum of Art

You can see the Maryhill Museum of Art on the left, overlooking the river and, in the foreground, acres of grape vines.

While we were there, my Beloved spent one day fishing for salmon in the Columbia River, and he landed a whopper, on which we are still dining, thanks to the wonders of the modern freezer in our RV.

Add a visit to the Columbia River Gorge to your bucket list. You won’t be disappointed.


What happens when it rains in Portland

I once visited a successful scrapbook saleswoman in a suburb of Portland, Oregon, and now after spending more than a night there, I understand why she was successful.

It rains there nonstop. No wonder people want to be indoors doing something—anything—to distract themselves from the constant downpours.

It’s no surprise Portland and nearby Vancouver, Washington, have the highest rates of depression among the 150 largest cities in the country, according to WalletHub, an online clearinghouse for financial advice and quality-of-life studies. I’d be depressed, too, if the only time I saw the sun was between rain showers.

Portland’s rain is a tease like the instructions on a bottle of shampoo. After a particularly violent downpour, maybe one that includes hail big enough to hear pinging on your camper but not big enough to damage your pickup truck, for example, you’ll spy a bit of blue sky the size of the eye of a needle, and you’ll think maybe the water will part, and the Promised Land awaits. But no. The sky clouds up, and it rains. Again.

Hope, rinse, repeat.

It’s not that it isn’t lush there. It’s like a rain forest. If rain forests had pine trees and moss. Turns out, coniferous trees, ferns and moss are characteristic of temperate rain forests like the one Portland occupies.

Cheryl’s on 12th, a downtown breakfast joint, was a bright spot in an otherwise gray place when we visited there in May. I enjoyed the special of the day, Eggs Benedict piled high with real, fresh crab meat (because Portland, being a port city, has access to good seafood) alongside a piping hot coffee and, to ward off depression borne of another rainy day, a spicy Bloody Mary that was worth the extra buck for “spicy.” Another food highlight (because food is a great comforter when the weather is drippy) was Dar Essalam, a Moroccan place in nearby Wilsonville that served lamb and couscous like it was high art.

We also took in Portland Saturday Market, the largest continuously operated outdoor market in the United States. Some salesperson did a great job luring vendors out in a place where it surely must rain every other weekend. Under blocks of tents, we found all kinds of interesting and beautiful baubles, handmade by inventive and talented people who were drinking a lot of Starbucks and eating hot snacks prepared nearby, possibly because they were hungry but more likely just to keep their hands warm.

These artisans had obviously been keeping themselves industriously occupied during rainy days.

Grand Tetons are mountain fresh

Have you ever purchased laundry detergent or air freshener that purports to smell “mountain fresh”?

Having grown up in a state where Inspiration Peak was a high point (1,750 feet above sea level, if you’re counting), I’m a sucker for that scent. Some ephemeral combination of pine, snow melt and wild flowers with a hint of loamy soil, “mountain fresh” is the definition of fresh in an exotic way to me.

When I get to smell mountain fresh in a real and natural way, I experience a little bit of paradise. That’s how most of Grand Tetons National Park smells.


My Beloved and I got to appreciate the park earlier this month in conjunction with a visited to Yellowstone National Park, which lies just north in the northwestern corner of Wyoming. I spied these wild flowers when I strayed from the walkway; the Grand Tetons peaks are in the background.

teton other side

Looking the opposite direction from the majestic mountains, this is the view at the top of Signal Mountain Summit Road in the park. Signal Mountain is 7,720 feet above sea level. As impressive the view, it’s more than 6,000 feet short of the highest point in the Grand Tetons.

Unlike the top of Grand Teton, this stop at the top of Signal Mountain is drivable. As lovely as it smells and as expansive as the view, it was the kind of mountaintop quiet where the only sound is the breeze and the flowers blooming in the sunshine.

12 days of buffalo

After spending 12 days in Yellowstone National Park earlier this month and reading what explorers, park superintendents and authors throughout history have had to say in roadside signs and interpretive exhibits, I’m fresh out of superlatives for the place.

If you’ve never visited Yellowstone, you simply must put it on your bucket list. There’s no place like it on earth.

So instead of trying to describe it or show it to you in pictures which simply cannot do justice to real life, I’ll tell you about our visit through a series of buffalo pictures. Though hunted to near extinction in the early 20th century, North America’s biggest mammal made a rebound and is literally everywhere in and around Yellowstone.

buffalo may 29

One: When we arrived in the late afternoon of Memorial Day at one of the KOA Kampgrounds west of West Yellowstone, Montana, we were greeted by this colorful statue, part of a public art installation by the Buffalo Roam Art Project.

The late Joe Halko, a Montana artist and sculptor, created the buffalo model from which a mold was developed and rendered copies in fiberglass by none other than Fiberstock Inc. of, wait for it, Buffalo, Minnesota (interesting trivia: I was born 50 years ago in Buffalo, Minnesota). Artists from four neighboring states painted 26 buffalo and 10 calves, and a dozen painted buffalo still exist in various locations around West Yellowstone.

This particular buffalo, painted by Jan Johansen, is titled “Now and Then” and features images of camping through history. “My buffalo celebrates America’s love of nature and the outdoors,” writes the aritst. “With the invention of the automobile, camping boomed. Nowhere was this more evident than in Yellowstone National Park.”

buffalo statue

Two: In order to get to Yellowstone National Park, we drove through West Yellowstone every morning, and this imposing life-size bronze statue by Mike Flanagan greeted us at the city entrance.


buffalo close

Three: More than once, we observed buffalo munching on grass just feet from the roadway. This majestic beast was eating breakfast in Hayden Valley, a fairly common sight if you’re driving around inside the park early in the morning or late in the day.

buffalo may 31

Four: One rainy day, we decided to skip the park and pay a visit to the Yellowstone Historic Center in West Yellowstone. It’s a nice little museum, if a little dingy, about Yellowstone’s history. Another painted buffalo from the Buffalo Roam Art Project stands outside the museum, and there’s a second one inside.

buffalo june 1

Five: Another drive through the park, another herd of buffalo (can you spy the calf? Most buffalo calves are born in April and May, and their reddish fur makes them stick out). In this shot, you can see the ground steaming—that’s not that buffalo’s breath. Of course, if you know anything about Yellowstone besides its large mammals, you know it is home to the largest concentration of thermal features on earth. The ground steams. The water steams. Geysers of steaming water shoot out of random holes. Steaming water pours over muddy steps of limestone. It’s a wild and beautiful place.

buffalo june 2

Six: Painters and bronze sculptors aren’t the only artists who’ve drawn inspiration from the bison. A skilled wood carver exhibits works at Send It Home yarn & quilt shop, 30 Madison Ave., West Yellowstone. You can also find all kinds of Western-themed and Montana-inspired quilt fabric and craft projects to take home and remind you of all things Yellowstone.


buffalo june 4

Seven: One day, we drove from West Yellowstone through Yellowstone park to Grand Teton National Park. If you have the time, I highly recommend this diversion. We headed back northish when we reached Jackson, Wyoming and chose to take the Teton Pass back through Idaho and Montana. The Teton mountain range is impressive, even from the back side in cities like Driggs, Idaho, where we saw this buffalo guarding main street.

buffalo june 5

Eight: We woke up at 4:30 a.m. one day in order to drive the suggested route for Wildlife Day in the Yellowstone Association’s Yellowstone In A Day book. That route took us through the “Serengeti of North America” in Yellowstone’s northern range from Mammoth Hot Springs nearly to Cooke City, Montana. The book recommended leaving from Mammoth by dawn, but the early alarm was worth it. This was our view while we enjoyed yogurt and granola in the cab of the truck. We saw nearly 1,000 head of buffalo before 9 a.m. (I’m not exaggerating), and almost none on the way home. We also saw a number of elk, mule deer and pronghorn. We hoped to see an elusive bear or wolf, but no. On other days, we spied moose, a coyote and eagles. We avoided a lot of traffic by getting into the park so early and did so another day, too.

buffalo taco salad

Nine: Didn’t expect this shot, did you? We enjoyed bison tacos, mine in the form of a taco salad on one evening. Bison meat is readily available in the small supermarkets in West Yellowstone and elsewhere. Try it! You’ll like it!


buffalo june 7

Ten: One of the perks of joining Yellowstone Forever is a tchotchke in the form of a hat or a “plush toy” (I called it a “stuffed buffalo,” and I was quickly corrected—see Image 12 for that).

Yellowstone Forever is the club for supporters committed to visitor education and park preservation. For a $35 charitable contribution, I got a 15 percent discount on two books I found at one of the park stores, both of which I highly recommend: Death in Yellowstone: Accidents and Foodlhardiness in the First National Park by Lee H. Whittlesey and Yellowstone in a Day, the field guide for tourists on a tight schedule I mentioned in Image 8).

My miniature schnauzer enjoyed playing with her miniature buffalo. The dog won.

buffalo june 8

Eleven: The buffalo has a high profile advertisers have seized upon. More than one motel and restaurant in West Yellowstone have buffalo or an allusion to buffalo in their names. After a day of observing wild life and taking in the thermal features in Yellowstone park, we enjoyed spicy bloody Marys and juicy burgers at the Buffalo Bar in West Yellowstone (which is also a casino and sells Ross Taylor Original items). Ross Taylor makes things like golf putters and canes from buffalo pizzles—not sure that that is? Look it up). My Beloved invested in one of Ross Taylor’s unique shoe horns.

buffalo june 9

Twelve: This stuffed buffalo is on display at the Buffalo Bar, and it’s probably the safest way to see one up close. Live bison are wild animals and can be dangerous, if you don’t know. Three people have been killed in Yellowstone when they got too close to angry and/or unpredictable bulls.

buffalo in front of hotel

A Baker’s Dozen: Why stop at 12 when I have 13 memorable buffalo images of our trip? I almost missed this lonesome figure when we were driving by the Lake Yellowstone Hotel. He was wallowing in a dust bowl one morning, so perfectly still and centered between the hotel and the lake when we drove by that he could have been a statue. Truly a majestic sight.

Tomorrow: Top 5 tips for seeing Yellowstone National Park

Meditation for sojourners


“Remember, we are all travelers. From birth till death we travel between the eternities. As you make the journey we hope that the days ahead will be pleasant for you, profitable for society, a help for those less fortunate than you, and a source of joy and comfort to those who know and love you best.”

~ Bonnie Yeo

I found these wise words from Bonnie Yeo in her book Montana Meanderings: A Collection of Recipes, Old Time Remedies and Montana Cartoons. The softcover was left in a Montana cafe for impatient diners to chew on while they waited for lunch to be served.

Turns out, her thoughts stuck with me longer than my meal.

California: A Tale of Two Sequoias

One of the most awesome things I’ve ever seen in all my travels across this amazing Earth is General Sherman.

tree general sherman

General Sherman, center

General Sherman is the world’s biggest tree (by volume) and is estimated to be more than 2,200 years old. That makes the tree older than Christianity and, quite frankly, most dirt.

Gazing on this beautiful tree makes one feel distinctly like a mosquito – an irritating little blood sucker whose life is a blink and whose death is a smear of blood that is wiped away in a single breath.

General Sherman is a sequoia, a genus of redwood coniferous trees, found only at a certain elevation in the Sierra Nevada mountains.

The Sierra Nevada is situated mostly in California, and it also boasts Yosemite National Park, where we observed first-hand the “tunnel view” of the park which features Half Dome, El Capitan and Bridalveil Waterfall. Breathtaking.

California is, of course, home to Napa Valley, too, where we spent nearly two weeks sipping on some of the best wine on earth, grown in the distinctive valley. We got there by driving across the Central Valley with an abundance of rich soil where most of the country’s almonds, olives, strawberries and celery are grown.

It’s a state rich in natural beauty and natural resources.

And it’s where 39 million Californians call home.

Including the well-rounded bleach blonde who, in dropping off her equally bronzed and perfectly coiffured friends behind the Boon Fly Café, managed to block the narrow passageway for a solid five minutes while she chatted with her buddies as they unloaded … something …. obviously important, but unseen … behind her vehicle. She was clearly the most important person visiting the cafe that day.

My Beloved and I were attempting to leave the premises (what’s the rule about elevators? Always let passengers exit before you board, right? Isn’t that wise advice for busy parking lots, too?). When Bleach Blonde eventually got back behind the wheel and looked as if she was finally ready to proceed to the parking lot behind us, my Beloved didn’t back up to make way for her. Instead, he inched our pick-up forward (I love him for his ballsiness), which forced Bleach Blonde to back up (which she should have done in the first place and certainly without hesitation once she returned to her vehicle).

Then she had the gall to stare me down as we passed. She! Was ticked! At us! For making her! Back up!

Oh, really!

She was driving an enormous, gleaming black Toyota Sequoia, pretty much the biggest sports utility vehicle on the road.

Of course.

Unfortunately, Bleach Blonde is Exhibit No. 1 in my book of Arrogant Californians, who seem to inhabit the state at an above average rate.

Have I ever told you about the visit I paid many long years ago to a bed-and-breakfast in San Diego?

Surely I have (because I’m still smarting from the glance two decades ago of the Californian looking down her nose at me as she marveled at my origin). But just in case you missed it, let me regale you.

Being a Midwesterner means sometimes defending one’s residence to people who aren’t from the Midwest.

I remember a conversation one morning at a San Diego bed-and-breakfast with a California couple. When I told them we were from Minnesota, they exclaimed, “Minnesota! Who would ever want to live there? You must be crazy!”

As Californians, they apparently thought they knew Minnesota to be a vast wasteland near the Canadian border where it’s always winter and residents rarely emerge from their igloos.

It’s cold in Minnesota, and winter is long, and that bitter season is one of the reasons I became a Minnesota transplant for a while living two states south.

But it’s not so bad that only crazy people live there (only some of the people who live there are crazy). And for the record, despite Illinois’ history of criminal governors and high interstate highway tolls, that Midwest state is also not filled with a bunch of rubes, and it’s a nice place to live.

In my limited experience in California, but certainly during my most recent visit, the only polite and deferential Californians we met were the ones we were paying. Servers, clerks, Uber drivers, the woman at the veterinarian office – all of them were pleasant, some joys to meet.

California drivers? If they weren’t passing us going 100 miles an hour on winding mountain roads, they were cutting us off in eight lanes of traffic. Some of them were borderline psychotic.

California RVers in the parks we stayed who apparently sussed us out by our Illinois license plates? Let’s just say they were cool. If they acknowledged our existence at all.

Most of the pourers at the wineries we visited were quite friendly (I’m thinking of you, Miner Winery, and Jean-Pierre at CRU. Impeccable). But as soon as you tried to hand over a 2-for-1 pass, we got the side-eye and anemic splashes of the vino. The message: Coupons are so low-class. Midwesterners use coupons. Therefore, Midwesterners are low-class.

Even as I write this, I am aware of my hypocrisy and error. By generalizing Californians as aloof snobs, then I am stereotyping just like I believe Californians do as they look at me and think “Midwestern hick.” I have many fine friends of California origins; immediately, I think specifically of two of my virtual friends, both former Creative Memories field leaders, who are among the hardest working, God-fearing and kindest people I know (and, let’s be honest, they friended me even though I’m quite obviously from the Midwest, where Creative Memories had its home office). So let’s be clear: Not all people who live in California drive Sequoias and behave as if they’re the biggest tree in the forest.


Some do.

Which is one of the reasons I believe California is a nice place to visit. But I wouldn’t want to live there.

Where the women are strong and the living is easy (and never the twain shall meet)

Land of 10,000 lakes.

State of only two seasons: Winter and road construction.

Where all the children are above average.

Minnesota is home to a few hyperbolic descriptions, and most recently WalletHub named it the country’s least stressed state, making it most relaxed, I suppose.

Who is WalletHub to make such declarations? WalletHub monitors credit scores, and its analysts compared the 50 states and the District of Columbia across 33 key indicators of stress ranging from average hours worked per week to personal bankruptcy rate to share of adults getting adequate sleep.

And Minnesota ranked as No. 51 on the most stressed list.

Are Minnesotans the least stressed people I’ve met in my travels around the country?

I don’t know. If giving a friendly wave or acknowledging the presence of a sojourner with a nod as one’s paths cross is manifestation of lack of stress, then yes, Minnesotans have the corner on a relaxed demeanor. (Frequently outside of Minnesota, I will acknowledge someone with a “good morning” or a “hello”—a fellow jogger going the opposite direction, a guy walking his dog, a woman washing her hands at a neighboring sink in the restroom—and it’s as if I’ve surprised them by having a voice. Or a smile. Some residents of the coasts go out of their way to avoid making eye contact.)

The Minnesota compulsion to greet strangers, some would attribute to the phenomenon of Minnesota Nice. Perhaps. I have heard residents of the state—both natives and short-termers—describe Minnesota Nice as passive-aggressive. I’m skeptical. Minnesota Nice may be passive—”After you.” “No, after you.” “No, please be my guest, go ahead,” ad infinitum—but it’s not veiled aggression. So maybe it is the result of being trusting and assuming the best and getting a good night’s sleep.

One of the factors in WalletHub’s stress index is health and safety related stress factors. Apparently, Minnesotans have among the highest number of psychologists per capita and get the most hours of sleep a night. I come from a family with a long history of cherishing naps and believing nothing good happens after midnight. And that’s to say nothing of the 16 hours of darkness in the long, long winter months. What else you gonna do but sleep? Well, there is something else, I suppose, which might contribute to one of the lowest divorce rates in the country (another stress indicator).

Minnesota also ranks No. 50 in money-related stress factors (only Wyoming is lower), certainly due in  part to the frugal nature of born-and-bred natives. Author Garrison Keillor slyly notes this in his book Lake Wobegon Days: “So the Council changed [the town’s name] one more time, from Lake Wobegone to Lake Wobegon. Businessmen didn’t order new stationery right away, however, not even those who favored the change, but used all their New Albion stock until it ran out.”

In any case, I can take some of my good habits like eating right and maintaining a good credit score with me wherever I choose to settle someday, and the index may offer some insight on where not to settle (let’s just say Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, West Virginia and Kentucky aren’t exactly calm and soothing places to reside).

If Minnesota is true to form, it’s not taking pride in its least-stressed status.

“Seldom has a town made such a sacrifice in remaining unrecognized so long,” he said, though other speakers were quick to assure him that it had been no sacrifice, really, but a true pleasure.

~ Garrison Keillor in Lake Wobegon Days