Saturday, July 23, 2011

Montana Part 3

You know how there are some people who are really book smart and yet not very street smart? Those people who can ace the SAT and then walk out and get hit by a bus because they forgot to look both ways? I am kind of one of those people. Except that I'm really not that book smart. I live under the constant threat of being exposed for the idiot that I really am. You are about to see why.

So... the bear spray. Let me tell you something about bear spray... It's um, well, it's kind of like pepper spray. You spray it at the bear when it's attacking you. Seems straightforward enough, right?

You might remember that we opted to forgo the bear spray when we went to Montana because I thought it was a waste of money. And the reason that I thought it was a waste of money was because all along I thought that bear spray was bear REPELLANT, like something you spray on your clothes to keep the bears away. Ha ha. Oops.

And so, in my state of paranoid idiocy, I agreed to let Brent pack along a different form of bear spray. And by this I mean that we brought a G-U-N. I know! Yikes! Scary, right? (And no, of course we don't have a G-U-N ourselves, but we have friends in high places who can get you a roof box or a firearm whenever you need one. Oh yes, good friends indeed.) Now you are probably smart enough to know that bringing along a G-U-N to ward off bears is a bad idea, but we are not, and so that was what we did because I was not about to fork over $45 for bear repellant.

(When we got to Glacier we noticed that EVERYONE had bear spray on their person AT ALL TIMES and we were even scolded by a BEAR ATTACK SURVIVOR for bringing our kids into bear country without any protection. Little did he know.)

Right. Moving on then.

You know how when you are stuck in the car for long periods you start to find unique and often stupid ways to pass the time? Brent and I tallied up all the roadkill and live animals that we saw on our journey. This is the Big Sky Brewery Dead and Live Animal Count (not to be confused with the Coors Light Deadliest Catch Crab Count. Remember, it was a loooong drive).

1 coyote
7 deer (sob!)
1 porcupine (?)
1 badger
1 squirrel

Live Animals:
1 bighorn sheep
1 falcon sp.
flock of magpies
1 great blue heron
1 moose (or possibly an elk- it's best to keep your eyes on the road rather than to know for sure)
1 red fox (!)
1 picture of a 200 pound mountain lion

We also retained our sanity on the drive to Glacier by doling out gummy Coke bottles whenever anyone saw an animal. Those kids stay pretty alert when there's candy at stake.

Oh, and just how many different license plate options do Montanans have? We counted at least 25.

And why is that sky so big? I mean, it's truly an enormous sky. Kind of like in Salzburg, Austria where those hills really are alive with the sound of music. How do they do that?

Obligatory tourist photo opportunity of kids drinking obligatory tourist huckleberry milkshakes.

And then there was Glacier...

I'm not going to lie- I was disappointed at first. It's all very sanitized and RV friendly if you stay on the main road and hit up the major attractions. Sure you have your dramatic landscape scenes, but you have to fight through the crowds to get your shot.

But Brent being Brent had another idea, which was to go up further on the western side of the park to Polebridge, which was supposed to be less touristy because most RVers are scared off by 20 miles of gravel road.

(Yes, I said 20 miles of gravel road. 20 miles of bumpy, windy, dusty gravel road. The kids were pretty much over the Dead and Live Animal Count by this point and spent that stretch of the drive fighting over toys and whining in unison.)

At last we arrived in Polebridge.

If you go, and you are about to see why you should, make sure you stop by the Mercantile for a huckleberry beer. We cracked that sucker open and drank it right there under that big blue sky. The kids had been confused by that whole National Park thing and after that treacherous voyage in the car, I guess they were expecting the park to be a playground. So they had been looking for swings and slides and so forth and did not seem to give a rat's ass about the dramatic landscapes. Lo and behold, there is a playground behind the Mercantile.

Some people came in behind us and reported that a 200 pound mountain lion had been spotted on the side of the road. We had missed it by ten minutes.

And then we drove up to quite possibly the most beautiful place I have ever seen in my life: Bowman Lake. Wow. Seriously.

We set up camp, hiked around, met some fellow travelers (all of whom were wisely equipped with bear spray), fought off mosquitoes, took millions of pictures, and I befriended a teenage photographer who had gotten an incredible shot of the mountain lion.

As twilight came upon us we heard some shouts and a scuffle and soon the park ranger arrived to inform us that a red fox was lurking around the campground and that, in fact, bear spray does not work against foxes. (Good thing we had our G-U-N.) Brent and Sawyer actually saw the fox but they reported that he seemed more like a playful dog than a blood thirsty predator.

(And in case you are wondering, I did have to pee in the middle of the night and it took me a good twenty minutes to work up the nerve to get myself out of the tent to go and do the deed. But I did, and I survived. So there.)

The next morning I took Sawyer down to the lake and we started chatting with a fisherman who was just putting his boat into the water. I told him that my husband fished and without missing a beat he invited Brent out on his boat and they fished together for a good part of the morning. So now Brent has a fishing buddy in Montana.

On the drive back to the cabin, we stopped in Polebridge once again and picked up some huckleberry bear claws, huckleberry macaroons, and a few huckleberry beers to take home as souvenirs. What can I say? We are fans of the huckleberries. We saw a crowd gathering behind the Mercantile and discovered a Bear Fair with free food and giant stuffed bears and all sorts of informative bear related booths. Jack went nuts for all of this, Brent got in line for a pulled pork sandwich, and Sawyer trolled around gathering up all of the freebees he could find. We walked out of there with full tummies, frisbees, coloring books, temporary tattoos, and the unneeded further proof that we are idiots for traveling to Glacier without bear spray.

Are you tired of seeing beer pictures? Sorry.

A pit stop on the way back to the cabin for Flathead Lake IPA and pizza. We ended up chatting with the pub owners who gave us the scoop on where to go in Missoula for good beers, convinced us that Montana is the best place in the world to live, and then they gave free cookies to the kids.

We spent one last restful night in the cabin and then packed up the next morning to head out. Brent had read about a bison range on the way to Missoula and so we arrived with two very excited kids and some binoculars and saw...

Bison horns.

Some family photo opportunities.
Another obligatory tourist pose for the kids.

And not a single bison. Maybe next time.

Missoula was hot. We spent the afternoon walking around and trying to placate two grouchy and overheated kids. Thank god for the carousel, which happens to be one of the fastest (if not the fastest) carousel in North America. Which meant that I was almost barfing by the time the ride ended, but the kids loved it and so I suppose a little motion sickness is par for the course at this point in the game.

Beautifully detailed horses aplenty and Jack went right for the only dragon.

We visited some relatives and walked around Greenough Park, checked into the Holiday Inn, swam in the icy hotel pool, and then hit up the Iron Horse for some local beers and dinner.

By this point the kids were well versed in brewery protocol and we all sat around as the sky grew dark and chatted with some other tourists. Missoula seems like somewhere we might like to live. We'll see.

Sawyer is a kid who requires a lot of sleep. He was constantly playing catch up during the trip and it took him about a week to get back to normal when we got home. Relatively normal, that is.

And thus concludes the epic tale of the Ross Family Montana Vacation of 2011. The drive home was fine. We camped another night at the mouth of the Deschutes and the only exciting thing that happened was that we had to move OUR ENTIRE CAMP over to another campsite because those campground hosts had made a reservation error. Oh, and Sawyer had a dance party in the tent which resulted in my glasses getting broken. Anyway, it was dumping down rain when we arrived back in Eugene and Brent and I were so disgusted with the weather that we almost turned the car around and headed back to Montana. Almost.

And as for the roof box, it was nearly decapitated by yours truly as I attempted to enter a parking garage downtown later that week.

So as I was saying, book smart maybe, but street smart? Definitely no.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Montana Continued

Where was I?

Oh yeah, here:

So the cabin pretty much totally ruled and we spent five days basking in the warm sunshine, swimming in the lake, reading, snacking on pounds of pistachios, splashing, sampling Big Sky Brewery beers, working up the nerve to jump off the dock (Jack finally did it!), trying to convince Lulu that deer poop is not dog food, canoeing, fishing, and just relaxing in general.

I rifled through the cabin's bookshelf and came upon a copy of The Glass Castle which I then read (devoured, actually) in less than 24 hours. I highly recommend this book. It's been entered into my top 5, and it took a lot of willpower for me not to steal it. But you should totally go out and buy it and then pass it on to somebody else. It's that kind of book.

Our time at the cabin was not without its share of difficult moments. Like me setting off the car alarm at 12:30 am, or Sawyer falling headfirst down a flight of stairs and giving himself a black eye and YET ANOTHER scar on his forehead. Just call him Harry Potter. Also, I took Lulu on her first run and let's just say there is some work to be done in that department. Like learning how to walk on the leash first, for example. As I mentioned before, I came within inches of being run over by two deer who hadn't seen me leaning over to scoop up the dog and came sprinting around the cabin at full speed. Yikes.

But really, for the most part, our time at the cabin was exactly what we needed it to be. I felt refreshed and relaxed. I have this weird thing where when I am on vacation I secretly count down the days until I go home. I don't know why, but I've always done this. I guess I am just a homebody by nature, but on this trip I never even thought about going home. We were too busy living in the moment and savoring each day. The boys actually played together, making boats out of pine cones, throwing rocks into the lake, and exploring in and around the cabin. Changing up the scenery did wonders for their relationship.

Sawyer did almost tip the canoe a few times. Brent really wanted to catch a fish in front of the kids and so we all four piled into the canoe at sunset one evening and set off in search of the fish. Jack is all about fishing and seems to have the patience that is required for fly fishing. Sawyer does not. His fidgeting and thrashing around nearly tipped us all into the water and certainly seemed to scare away any potential fish, but suddenly the line went taut and then our little fishy friend made a brief appearance on the canoe before he was set free and sent back into the lake.

Brent and Jack did some more fishing off the dock. No takers.

This is the only picture that we got of the cabin's inside. I find it fitting.

We usually avoid dining out with our children at all costs, but to be in Montana and not check out the local breweries would have been just plain stupid. So we spent plenty of our vacation time teaching the kids to be brewery connoisseurs by letting them sample root beers and each french fries and I entered every brewery armed with coloring books and lego sets. This system worked well and we managed to see almost all of the breweries on Brent's list.

Jack's first time drinking root beer. He was not too sure about it.

Christmas card photo?
But really the cabin was where it was all at. Jack wants to move there.

And the cabin is where we saw THE BEAR! We had spent the afternoon swimming and some thick, grey clouds were starting to roll in. We had heard that a wind storm was predicted for that evening and we watched as the water grew choppy and felt the air become heavy and humid. I had Sawyer out in the inner tube and we saw something swimming out in the water. I felt a little spooked and so we paddled back over to the dock and Brent grabbed his binoculars.
"It's a duck," he laughed as Sawyer and I toweled off.

The sky got darker and the wind began to pick up. As we started to head back to the cabin steps, I saw something else swimming out in the lake.

"Where are the binoculars? That is not a duck!"

It was, in fact, a bear bobbing his way across the lake, swimming at a surprising quick pace and completely oblivious to the fact that we were all freaking the eff out "A freaking bear! It's a freaking bear!" Jack kept yelling as he and Sawyer fought over the second pair of binoculars. I talked Brent out of canoeing out for a closer look and ran inside to get the camera.

Zoom in. Or don't, and just trust me that this is "a freaking bear" as Jack would say, swimming in Flathead Lake. We stood on the dock totally agog over this bear and watched as it emerged on the other side of the cove, shook its fur dry like a dog would do, and began to amble along the hillside behind another cabin. What amazed me was how graceful the bear was, especially for being so cuddly looking. They really do look like gigantic cartoons. And to watch that bear strolling along and a leisurely pace and see just how much ground he covered in such a short time made me realize that being chased by a bear would be a brief and terrifying experience.

And that was our encounter with the bear. Were you expecting more? Like bear spray? I'll tell you all about the bear spray next time.

Because we are dumb tourists we decided to walk down the road to the bridge to check out the wind storm. After we were nearly blown into the lake, Brent wisely advised me to GET THE KIDS OFF THAT DAMN BRIDGE ALREADY!

Up next: the truth about bear spray, the fastest carousel in the world, Brent's new fishing buddy Brandon, and the anticlimactic return to rainy Oregon. Oh, and all that other stuff I've been foreshadowing, too.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Montana, Part 1

Well, first of all I am happy to report that we all survived our encounter with the bear, and yes, in fact, there was an encounter with a bear (!!) but I'll be telling you about that later, since we have to wade through approximately five thousand pictures and an equal number of travel related anecdotes before we get to that part of the story.

How was Montana? That's been the big question, and it's not easy to answer. Montana was amazing. It was an epic adventure, a relaxing vacation, a brotherly bonding experience, a return to nature, a... what can I say? It was freaking awesome. Want to hear about it?

Let's begin with the drive. The drive from Eugene to Polson is, according to Brent's somewhat obsessive iPhone calculations, no less than 687 miles. We know some lucky people (hi Doug! hi Mary!) who drive this in one shot, but with kids and puppy and all of that trapped in the car togetherness we thought it would be a good idea to stop and camp along the way at the mouth of the Deschutes, just east of The Dalles.

Everything was just fine. The drive went smoothly, nobody whined or barfed or shed any blood. The dog was quiet. We stopped at Burgerville for an early dinner. We set up camp. Life was good.

The campground is... intimate? These sites are really close together, and I always feel kind of guilty when I arrive at a campsite and unleash a carful of noise on the nearby unsuspecting campers, but we did it anyway, and it was all good. We did have a minor run in with a paranoid neighbor who rushed over to warn/terrify me about all of the snakes in the area. It was one of those "You might want to keep an eye on your kids..." sort of warnings, which was ridiculous because those little urchins were leashed and tethered to my side, as usual. Also, I might want to keep an eye on my kids? You mean AT THE MOUTH OF THE DESCHUTES RIVER? Got it covered, buddy.

Anyway, the kids enjoyed the novelty of camping (this was our first campout of the season) and Lulu made friends with just about every single person in the entire campground (she is a prom queen, I tell you) and the sun was shining and it all started to feel like vacation.

As you probably know from reading this blog, I make no claim to having any "answers" or to being even remotely knowledgeable about anything related to parenting, but I will say this: I think we figured out how to get the kids to sleep when we are camping. I know a lot of people who lie down with their kids to get them to fall asleep, but my kids turn into martial arts trained ninjas when they are falling asleep and will kick my ass right out of the tent if I tried that. Also, bedtime is beertime and in my book, camping is not camping without a few beers by the campfire, am I right? So Brent and I devised a scheme which involves 10 minutes of freak out time followed by time outs in the car and lectures about quite time and the comfort of other campers and a few bribes for hot chocolate at breakfast and soon enough the kids are exhausted and pass right out in that tent. And mom and dad get to enjoy a celebratory beer by the lantern light since no fires are allowed at the campground.

Unfortunately for us, our tent was right next to another tent that was crowded with pimply teenage gamers who stayed up into the wee hours discussing whose wizard was more powerful and which warlock overpowered which spell and whose immortality was stronger than whose and MY GOD there is this whole crazy fantasy subculture that I totally could have gone the rest of my life without knowing about. On the plus side, it was all so incredibly dull that we were lulled into a deep and peaceful sleep.

We hung out a bit the next morning and enjoyed the sunshine and a teenage girl wandered over from the gamer camp and became our au pair, following the kids around and playing with them and protecting them from mythical campground snakes. Brent and I packed up the car and then just kind of sat around, wondering how we could convince our new nanny to come to Montana with us.

This day was our driving day and I had mentally prepared for 8+ hours with the kids in the car, well, as much as one can mentally prepare for an event like this. We were armed with a secret weapon: the mini DVD player, which I am now convinced is an ESSENTIAL part of any family road trip. Yes, yes, I know! I never had one either and I survived those car trips with my family and went on to become a productive member of society too. But what I've come to realize is that the mini DVD player is not about indulging the children, it's all about the parents. The peace. The quiet. The downright tranquility even! Oh yes, I am a fan of the mini DVD player.

So we let the kids zombie out and rot their brains in front of the DVD player and I also bought not one, but two packages of Silly Bands, a pack of bubble gum, two super soaker type water cannon thingies, and a big old bunch of candy. Because we were going to make it through four states in one day or die trying.

It was a long drive. Sawyer kept asking if we were in "Fontana" yet.

We stopped for dinner in Wallace, Idaho, and if you ever get the chance you should do the same. It's an old mining town with a cute restaurant, a window display of gigantic stuffed animals (I'm not talking teddy bears), a wild west playground, and, apparently, it is also home to the center of the universe. Or so the sign says.

Because we poked around Wallace and avoided the car until the sun was about to set, we got into Montana pretty late. We had already gotten into that vacation mode where you lose track of the days- oh hell, I never know what day it is during the summertime- and as the sky grew dark the 4th of July fireworks began. We drove the narrow two lane highway into the darkness and oohed and ahhed as the sky behind, ahead, and to the sides of us was periodically illuminated by patriotic explosions. We arrived in Polson just as their fireworks show was starting and the streets were filled with families and boats dropped anchor to watch the sky light up around us. Brent couldn't resist the urge to pull over at a roadside stand and stock up on a few "real" fireworks.

And then we were there. And I'll have to tell you about the Big Sky Brewery Wild Animal Count, the windstorm, Glacier National Park, the bison range, huckleberry milkshakes, the bear (!!), how I almost got run over by a deer, Missoula, and gummy Coke bottles later.

Here's a sneak peek of Jack at the cabin on Flathead Lake.

Stay tuned.