Sunday, July 24, 2016

Chapter 19: The Final Chapter

7:00a. Hampton Inn. Janesville, WI

This is it! I'm loading up the Big White Van for the final time, while my boys make the Hampton Inn sorry that they offer free breakfast.

7:30a. Hampton Inn. Janesville, WI

We're on the road! The final leg! Home by dinner time!

7:32a. Interstate 90

I just got on the highway going the wrong direction. For crying out loud.

7:40a. Interstate 90

Heading home in the correct direction!

10:30a. Interstate 90

We've crossed into Indiana! (And into the Eastern Time Zone!)

3:00p. Interstate 90

We've crossed into Ohio! I've never been so happy to see the Ohio Turnpike.

The flat, flat, flat, Ohio Turnpike.

7:00p. Interstate 76

We are back in Pennsylvania!

7:30p. Home.

It's over.

Today’s stats:

  • States visited: WI, IL, IN, OH, PA
  • Miles traveled today: 577
  • Miles traveled on the trip: 5020.6
  • Today's travel time: 10 hours, 46 minutes
  • Total Travel Time (travel days only): 97 hours

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Chapter 18: Badgertown

9:00a. Hampton Inn, Janesville, WI

It's not clear what our plan for today will be, but one option is: just stay in bed all day and rest.

That is a perfectly fine plan and if that's how it goes, so be it.

2:00p. Madison, Wisconsin

Enough people woke up that we decided to actually check out Madison.

All of the "Things to do with kids in Madison" websites pointed us to an eclectic restaurant called Ella's Deli. This place is a sight to see: it's crammed from floor to ceiling with vintage toys and puppets and dioramas and mobiles and too much crazy stuff to count. (It's almost as if they hired Frankie Capri to decorate.)

Each dining table is itself a game of some sort -- my kids liked the 'Wooly Willy'-style table the best.

Flippin' magnets. How do they work?

The four-year-old surveys his teddy-bear French Toast,
while his oldest brother practices reading and thinking.

We enjoy playing "I Spy" and having lunch and especially the ice cream for dessert.

4:40p. Henry Vilas Zoo. Madison, WI

The torrential rain that crossed the city earlier in the day has mostly passed, so we have a chance to check out the free local zoo before it closes.

This awesome-looking playground was closed for the day :-(
It's a small zoo, but we have a good time getting close-up looks at seals, badgers, giraffes, and even a trio of bison.

But perhaps the most interesting creatures to watch are the North American Pale Hunchbacked Nerds, also known as Pokémon Go Hunters. They fill the walkways and trails of the zoo, oblivious to their surroundings. It's almost as overwhelming as the bison herd we passed on our way out of Yellowstone.

A giant tortoise

A badger

A Pokemon Hunter

A group of Pokemon Hunters is called a Basement. Here is a Basement of hunters.

7:00p. Culver's Restaurant. Janesville, WI

Ever since we passed into Minnesota, we've been seeing signs for "Culver's Restaurants." It was unclear what Culver's exactly was, but their billboards sported cheeseburgers and milkshakes. We're in Wisconsin, so it seemed like a shame to leave without a dairy-based meal.

We drove to the Culver's nearest our hotel and ordered burgers and shakes.

I mentioned to the boys: "Hey, they serve something called 'Cheese Curds' here. Should we order some cheese curds?" They all made faces and goofed on the word 'curds' and generally expressed disdain for the entire concept.

Then the Cheese Curds came.

OMG DO THE MUSIAL BOYS LOVE CHEESE CURDS! I had to head back up the counter to order more. Of all the things on this vacation: the escape room, the mountains, the geysers, the lakes, the wildlife, it seems like Cheese Curds might have created the most lasting memory of the trip.

The "Butterburgers" and ice cream sundaes were pretty tasty as well.

Before we head back to the hotel, I find that the closest Culver's to home is in Columbus, OH. Looks like I might be sending some of my kids to Ohio State.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Chapter 17: Every Step Takes Us Closer To Home

11:45a. Residence Inn outside of Sioux Falls, SD

Nobody was happy with the amount or quality of sleep they got, but we pile back into the van anyway.

Our hotel suite -- two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a living room, and a kitchen -- was probably the nicest (and most expensive) lodging we purchased this trip, and we only got to use it for a little over eight hours. Plus everyone had their eyes closed the entire time anyway. Kind of a shame.

12:15p. Falls Park, Sioux Falls, SD.

I had booked us into Sioux Falls in the hope that we could spend some time in the downtown park that contains the actual waterfalls that give Sioux Falls its name.

Unfortunately, we're already running late, and it's about nine thousand degrees outside today. So we make a perfunctory trip to the observation tower overlooking the falls, and then back in the van.

1:00p. Perkins. Sioux Falls, SD

We missed the free breakfast at the Residence Inn by about three hours, and the boys are starving. Right before we get onto the interstate, we find a Perkins restaurant. It's the first time in a Perkins for most of my family, and they have a hard time deciding which giant plates of carbs to order. We make a note to check out Perkins back in Pittsburgh some time.

1:15p. Minnesota State Line.

We pass into Minnesota!

5:45p. Wisconsin State Line

We cross the Mississippi River and we are in Wisconsin!

Every mile we travel feels more familiar: hills instead of mountains; green trees and fields along the highway instead of sandy desert plains; and restaurants and gas stations more frequent than every ten thousand miles.

10:00p. Janesville, Wisconsin

We reached our hotel about 90 minutes ago. We checked in and then made a beeline to the nearest Mexican restaurant. I developed a craving for a chimichanga somewhere in Wyoming a few days back and I'm excited to fulfill that craving.

I also fulfilled my craving for several beers.

Today was uneventful from a tourist perspective -- it was pretty much solely a travel day. The boys did great and after the nineteen-hour slog yesterday, nine hours in the van feels like nothing.

Looking forward to checking out the sights in Madison tomorrow.

Today’s stats:

  • States visited: SD, MN, WI
  • Miles traveled today: 473.6
  • Miles traveled on the trip: 4,456.9
  • Today's travel time: 9 hours, 23 minutes

Chapter 16: The Longest Day

7:00a. Best Western

There's a complimentary breakfast that the Musial boys are tearing into. Loading up and into the car goes a lot faster when you aren't folding up tents or packing away gear. We have a lot of things planned for the day so I'm glad we are getting an early start.

9:00a. Mount Rushmore

Thank goodness we didn't try to get to the KOA last night, because we would probably STILL be trying to set up the tents.

11:30. Mount Rushmore

The Mount Rushmore monument IS definitely a look-at-it-for-five-minutes-then-you-can-go attraction. But there's an interesting museum on site with lots of historical descriptions of how the monument was created. Plus, there's a chance for the boys to earn another Junior Ranger badge, so they spend a good deal of time working on the qualifications for their patches.

This would be a good time for me to talk about the Park Rangers we've met over the past week. Between Rocky Mountain National Park, Yellowstone, and now Mount Rushmore, we've probably talked to two-dozen or more Rangers. And I have to say, they've ranged in temperament from friendly and helpful to EXTREMELY friendly and helpful. Honestly, I want to get a look at the Park Ranger Human Resources training and development guide, because I've never met a more consistently positive and agreeable group of people in my life.

1:00p. Wind Cave National Park

We're on a mission to visit every national park, forest, or monument that we can possibly fit into our schedule. Wind Cave National Park was less than an hour from Mt. Rushmore, so here we are.

My oldest is pretty excited that after only ten days of growing a beard, you can start to see it.

3:00p. Wind Cave National Park

Apparently you need reservations to tour the caves, so we couldn't actually go underground during our visit. Yet somehow we've spent two hours exploring the small (but interesting) museum that abuts the caverns. I suspect the yearning for Junior Ranger badges is at the bottom of all of this. And the kicker: although my boys all "passed the test" for being a Wind Caves Junior Ranger -- THERE ARE NOT ANY ACTUALLY PATCHES YOU CAN BUY AT THIS LOCATION.

On the bright side, I did get to catch a short nap in the movie room.

5:15p. Some jackass dirt road in South Dakota

Our last stop for the evening is Badlands National Park.

Before we left Wind Cave National Park, I asked the ranger for the best way to travel between the two parks. He asked me, "You don't mind driving on dirt roads do you? I mean, tractor trailers drive on them."

It sounded like an innocent thing to say, but I feel like the underlying tone was: "You don't mind driving on dirt roads, do you? Or are you a big East Coast baby?"

I responded, "Oh yeah, dirt roads sound great!" and he gave me the directions.

Now I'm on some rutted washboard gravel-and-mud road, winding through random South Dakota backyards at about twelve miles per hour. Cell service is essentially non-existent, so I don't even have my phone-based GPS to tell me how much time I am losing. All I know is that the van and all the equipment packed onto the tailgate rack are being covered in inches of dust and dirt.

Also, it's almost 100 degrees outside, and despite the air conditioning, people are starting to get hot and cranky. (Probably mostly me.)

6:45p. Badlands National Park Visitors Center

We've finally made it. The Visitor's Center closes in 15 minutes, so we just have a few minutes to check it out. There's no chance the boys can earn their Junior Ranger badges in such a short time, so now they are kind of irritated. Nevertheless, we get a quick education on the geology and history of the Badlands, and we get to fill our water bottles with clear, cold water.

7:15p. Badlands National Park Overlook

After the Visitor's Center closes, we drive back towards to the park entrance, checking out the scenery as we go. My wife asks to stop at an overlook to take in the view and get some pictures.

I'm happy to oblige. Earlier today, we made a reservation at a hotel in Sioux Falls, which Google Maps tells me is four hours away. If we're back on the Interstate by 8:00, we should roll into our hotel by around midnight -- kind of late, but not outrageously so. So of course we'll stop at the overlook!

7:20p. Badlands National Park Trailhead

Here's a surprise. The overlook parking lot also serves as the launching point for a series of trails.

"Hey Dad! Why can't we take a hike through the Badlands? We never know when we'll be back!"

I can't argue with that, but I negotiate a compromise: We'll hike out 10 minutes, stop, then turn back around. We should be on the interstate by 8:15.

7:28p. Badlands National Park. 'The Notch" Trail

We've hiked eight minutes and now things are different.

Directly in front of us is a 150-ft wire-and-log ladder built into a hillside. We had agreed to hike out and hike back in a timely manner. But apparently you can't show a group of boys and teenagers a wilderness-style ladder and NOT let them climb it. So here we go.

One does not simply walk to the end of The Notch trail. You have to climb a ladder.

7:40. Badlands National park. "The Notch" Trail.

That wasn't too bad. It only took about 10 minutes for all of us to climb the ladder. We take a few pictures and get ready to head back to the car.

8:00p. Badlands National Park. "The Notch" Trail

Fun fact: climbing DOWN a wilderness ladder takes twice as long as climbing UP a wilderness ladder.
Climbing down the ladder requires some fancy footwork

I'm in the perfect position to be of no help if my four-year-old stumbles.

8:15p. Badlands National Park.

We still need some photos for some reason? Anyway, here are a few.

8:30p. Interstate 90. South Dakota

OK. We are back on the road. It's four hours to Sioux Falls, but a 12:30 arrival wouldn't be the worst.

The problem now is that everyone is starving. (Climbing Desert Ladders makes people hungry I suppose). A quick check of the internet tells us that we are about 1 hour from a town called Murdo, SD. According to the same internet, Murdo has four restaurants open until 10:00p. We should arrive in Murdo at 9:30, so no worries.

9:05p, er. 10:05p. Interstate 90. South Dakota


We were just tooling down the interstate, happy as can be, 25 minutes from Murdo, when suddenly a sign came out of the darkness reading: "Welcome to the Central Time Zone."

Confused, we glanced at our iPhones, then stared bug-eyed in horror as they switched from "9:05p" to "10:05p."


I have six starving boys in the van behind me and I have no idea what I am going to do.

11:00p. Murdo, SD. The Parking Lot of Prairie Pizza.

It's an hour later. Here's the good news: we found ONE RESTAURANT in Murdo that was still open: Prairie Pizza.

Here's the bad news: the proprietress of Prairie Pizza did not necessarily appreciate a raggedy band of easterners coming into her establishment twenty minutes before closing. She was nice enough, but made two things perfectly clear: (a) we couldn't order anything from the menu besides pizza [which is fine] and (b) she had already cleaned the dining room, so we had to order everything 'to-go.'

That's why my family and I are sitting in a high-plains parking lot in South Dakota at 11:00pm, eating pizza and trying to keep the paper plates from blowing away. This is not exactly how we planned for our vacation to go.

Completely random and bizarre fact: immediately next to the Prairie Pizza parking lot in Murdo, SD (Population 475) is a Tesla quick-charge station.

11:30p. Murdo, SD

Pizza is eaten and we've snuck into the hotel down the street to use the restroom. Everyone is back in the van and we're ready for the final leg. We are 200 miles from our reservations in Sioux Falls. I ask my wife to get on the internet and find 200 trivia questions to keep me awake for the next three hours.

3:00a. Sioux Falls, SD

I thank my lucky stars for such a wonderful family. My boys all kept it together and my wife fought through her own exhaustion to help keep me awake as we barreled through the South Dakota night. We arrived at the hotel a few minutes ago. I pleaded with the desk clerk to let us stay until noon instead of the normal 11:00am check-out time and she acquiesced to my sad sack entreaties.

The last four hours have been frustrating and trying, but we're safe and sound and piled onto various pieces of furniture in our Residence Inn suite. As I try to fight-off the tension and ease myself to sleep, I have only one remaining thought:


Today’s stats:

  • States visited: SD
  • Miles traveled today: 528.2
  • Miles traveled on the trip: 3,883.3
  • Today's travel time: NINETEEN HOURS

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Chapter 15: On the Road Again

6:00a. Madison Campground

Up early to get a strong start on the day!

9:00a. Madison Campground

It took us three hours to break down the campsite and pack the van. I thought we were getting better at camping but we really aren't.

10:00a. Canyon Village.

We have a long drive ahead of us today, and I promised myself a shower. I drop the wife and kids off at the Canyon Village diner and head to the Laundromat to clean up.

10:30a. Canyon Village

I meet my family at the diner and find my kids practically licking the plates clean. Apparently all of the hot dogs and spaghetti and pop-tarts and numerous other camp meals have not been nearly enough to fill the bellies of my growing boys.

We have a lot of miles to drive today, so we pile back into the van for the trip out of Yellowstone.

11:00a. Lake Yellowstone Hotel

We've driven 20 minutes and suddenly people need to use a bathroom.

We make a quick detour to the Lake Yellowstone Hotel. While the boys use the facilities, I check out the lobby. This place is pretty swanky. I make a mental note that, if I ever become rich, I'll bring the wife back here for a long weekend. (Maybe combine it with a week in Jackson Hole.)

11:30a. Entering the Hayden Valley

Back in the van on our way out of the park, we talk about what we liked about the trip so far. We loved the lake and the river and the hikes and the canyons and the mountains, but there's one disappointment so far: Although we saw a handful of elk and even some small groups of bison, we never really encountered the wealth of wildlife we expected. I guess it wasn't in the cards.

Five minutes later.

OH MY GOD. With little warning, we have suddenly found ourselves in a traffic jam caused by a herd of HUNDREDS AND HUNDREDS of bison crossing the road, and spreading out across the valley.

Check out this video of two Bison butting heads just a few yards from the van:

Yeah, that's a bison just strolling past the van.

Bison everywhere!

An hour later

It takes us nearly an hour for traffic to inch through the valley, but being surrounded by a herd of bison is nothing short of amazing. It took literally until the last hour of our time in Yellowstone, but thankfully we did get to see a display of wildlife that in inconceivable anywhere else in America.

1:00p. The Shoshone National Forest

Leaving via the East Entrance of Yellowstone, we are immediately in the Shoshone National Forest. It's another anxiety-producing trip up and down a mountain range and my nerves are just about shot.

More beautiful scenery. More inadequate guard rails.

5:00p. Bighorn National Forest

Another beautiful and majestic trip through yet ANOTHER mountain range. It's a good thing my hair is already mostly gray.

6:00p. Buffalo, Wyoming

We come down out of the mountains to the small town of Buffalo, Wyoming. There's a gas station adjoining a McDonald's, so I drop the family off to order dinner while I fill the van.

Twenty minutes later (the van has a big gas tank), I walk over to McDonald's to find the teenagers and middle kids standing outside, with no food. (My wife and baby are apparently still in the restroom.) When I ask what's going on, my teenagers say that they can't take the younger kids inside because of the bad language.

"That's a weird thing to say," I think as I head inside. As I approach the counter, I find that a patron has apparently had bad service at this McDonald's and she is SCREAMING at the staff with some of the most vile and vulgar profanities I've heard. And I've been to Steelers/Ravens games.

I manage to get the attention of a cashier and put my order in. While waiting for the order (it's a large order), the COPS SHOW UP. Apparently the McDonald's manager didn't appreciate getting cursed out, so she called the cops.

As the cops separate and interview the aggrieved parties, I stand quietley in the corner, trying not to attract any attention. The last thing I need is to be a material witness in a court case and have to travel back to Buffalo, Wyoming to give a deposition.

Luckily, a pile of bags, laden with nuggets and fries, is soon put in my hands, and we are back in the van and OUT of Buffalo, Wyoming.

6:30. Crazy Woman Creek, WY

We passed a sign for "Crazy Woman Creek." After the scene I just witnessed at McDonalds, it seems oddly coincidental.

6:50p. Interstate 90. Wyoming

My wife comments that the current geography looks just like the terrain in the board game "Life." She's not wrong.

7:00p. I-90. Wyoming

We have reservations this evening to camp in a KOA just past Mt. Rushmore. Between the late start and the Bison Traffic Jam, we are WAY behind schedule. Best case is that we make it to the KOA between 9:00 and 10:00. Worst case is that we don't arrive until midnight because my family DESPERATELY wants to take a detour to Devil's Tower.

I can't deal with putting up tents in the dark again.

I ask my wife to get on internet to see if she can find any hotels along our path. A few searches and phone calls later, she's secured us a suite at a Best Western just into South Dakota for a very reasonable price. (I mentally charge this to our "vacation budget"). I'm OUTRAGEOUSLY HAPPY.

We call the KOA to cancel our camping reservation. They tell us that we will be out $60 because we cancelled so late. I tell the woman that I will give her ANOTHER $60 if she can promise I never have to sleep in a tent again.

9:00p. Devil's Tower

This is another attraction that I thought would be five-minutes-of-looking-at-it and then we'd be off. But it's actually a very interesting and striking geological feature, and we really enjoy taking the hour-long hike around the tower, reading the guideposts and marvelling at the unique formation before us.

But here's the most interesting thing: As we pulled into the parking lot, we see a pair of young men filling out some paperwork in a small pavilion adjoining the (closed-for-the-evening) visitor's center. The men have ropes and picks and backpacks and helmets and helmet-mounted headlamps. They drop their paperwork into a mailbox and head towards Devil's Tower.

As my family unloads from the car, I check out the mailbox. There are some instructions printed there, and they lead me to believe that a person can just park in this parking lot, fill out a form, drop it into a mailbox, and then go CLIMB DEVIL'S TOWER.


This blows my mind. Devil's Tower is a national monument, kind of I guess like Monticello or the Washington Monument or whatever. But apparently it is perfectly OK to just GO CLIMB IT without getting explicit permission from anyone, as long as you've filled out a form.

I mean, I'm a comedian. ANYONE can just go into a bar on open-mic night and sign their name and then go on stage and tell jokes. But they still have to WAIT until the host TELLS THEM IT'S OK TO GO ON.

But for Devil's Tower, it's somewhat on the honors system or something.

So as we hike around the monument in the fading sunlight, we can see the pair of climbers make their way up the 867-foot mountain-side. And by the time we've returned to the parking lot, they've reached the top, where apparently they planned to camp for the night.

It's dark now and we're leaving Devil's Tower and it's definitely a place we wish we could have spent more time. Next time we're in Wyoming, we'll be sure to come back.

As the sun sets, Devil's Tower seems to take on a glow.
So yeah, there are some dudes just climbing Devil's Tower.
One of the teenagers starts planning his own Devil's Tower climbing trip
From the foot of Devil's Tower, we watch the sun set over comparatively flat landscape.

11:00p. Best Western. Spearfish, South Dakota.

I've never been so happy to see a Best Western sign.

Once in the suite, everyone lines up for showers, keeping up our pattern of making sure the kids get clean every four-to-six days.

There's one very large living room with two sofa beds and a recliner. Three boys climbs into one sofabed, two boys take another, and one boy claims the recliner. The lights are turned off and the boys are soon asleep.

Down the hall in the suite is a bedroom with a king-sized bed. It feels AMAZING after eight days of sleeping on the ground. I watch some cable TV, which seems like a tremendous novelty, while my wife gets her turn at a nice long hot shower.

Today’s stats:

  • States visited: WY, SD
  • Miles traveled today: 486.6
  • Miles traveled on the trip: 3,355
  • Today's travel time: Just under 14 hours

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Chapter 14: We Go North

7:00a. Madison Campground

The temperature dropped into the 30s last night. We all bundled up into our long johns and Cold Gear and extra sweat pants and made in through the night more-or-less OK.

There's a rumor that one family member took advantage of an empty Gatorade bottle to avoid night-time trips to the latrine, but that cannot be confirmed.

9:00a. West Yellowstone, Montana

We learned two things in the last fourteen hours

One: we are less than twelve miles from a town called "West Yellowstone"

Two: there is a camera store in West Yellowstone.

You may remember that my wife's trusty camera stopped working during yesterday's trip to Lake Yellowstone. Although my wife and I both have smartphones, the cameras are way too rudimentary for our needs. How is my wife supposed to build an attractive scrapbook or Facebook album with lousy smartphone pics? So we've come to West Yellowstone to see if we can have the camera fixed.

West Yellowstone is something of a revelation. We've been restocking our camping supplies at the general stores found throughout Yellowstone, all of which are at least 45+ minutes from our campsite. The town of West Yellowstone, however, is resplendent with grocery stores (and restaurants and hotels), and is only 20 minutes from our tents. If only we had realized!

I check in at the local photo store. Unfortunately, they don't do repairs; they only have new cameras and camera supplies. I ask the owner if there is anyplace else that can help out, and she notes that there's a repair shop "just up the road" in Bozeman. When I ask how far "just up the road" is, she replies: "Two hours." Like I said, things are far apart in the west.

I can't leave West Yellowstone without a way to take good photos, so I bite the bullet and buy a new camera, funding it out of my imaginary "vacation budget." This new camera has an optical 70x zoom and records HD video, both of which are an improvement over the old camera, so I guess that's good too.

I thank the owner for her help and hospitality, both because she was super nice and also because her establishment has way more pro-Second-Amendment posters on display than any other camera shop I've ever visited.

We take a quick drive through the streets of West Yellowstone just to survey the scene, and then we are off for today's adventure.

There is pizza and beer less than 15 miles from my tent!

11:30a. Mammoth Hot Springs.

We've driven to near the northern edges of the park to visit Mammoth Hot Springs. It's the hottest day of the vacation so far, and the siteseeing trail at the Hot Springs takes you over masses of sulfuric minerals that have been accumulating for thousands of years. My wife and the boys head off to explore it while I sit in the shade under a tree.

It turns out that the Hot Springs are not nearly as interesting as Norris Basin, Old Faithful, and the Grand Prismatic Springs, so before long, we've driven down to the Mammoth Hot Springs Inn and nearby visitor's center.

This is as exciting as Mammoth Hot Springs gets. Now imagine it's 97 degrees and kind of smelly.
The visitor's center has quite a few interesting exhibits (and it's air conditioned!), so we spend some time there. We also check out the Inn and the giant Elk that apparently makes itself at home in the side yard of the Inn. Then we are off to check out Roosevelt Arch at the North Entrance to the park.

Apparently this elk spends most of the day just chillin' next to the Hot Springs Inn.

Around noon. A roadside.

A few minutes after we leave Mammoth Hot Springs, I spy something moving on a nearby hillside. I pull over and, with the help of the new 70x optical zoom, we are able to spot a small family of Big Horn Sheep grazing on the cliffs. Take THAT, Sheep Meadow!

Two Big Horned sheep take a break in the shade

1:00pm. Roosevelt Arch

We reach Roosevelt Arch and take a few pictures. Just outside the park is a small town (Gardiner, MT. Population: 875) that is nevertheless big enough to have its own Steelers bar.

There is also a high-school football field with about a dozen elk grazing on it. You don't see that every day. (Unless you live in Gardiner.)

4:00pm. The Boiling River

In the valley below the Mammoth Hot Springs, a stream of super-heated geothermal runoff meets a typical snow-cap-fed mountain stream. Where the boiling hot water meets the ice-cold water, it forms (for a time), a small river of moderately warm water.

I thought this would be another example of a look-at-it-for-two-minutes attraction, but it turns out that (a) you can swim in the river and (b) my kids LOVE swimming in a lukewarm river.

So for more than an hour, my kids gallivant in the water, my wife wading behind them to keep an eye on things, while I stand on shore and explore the features of our new camera while getting sunburned.

The river, while not deep, does have a strong current, and I often see lost items floating quickly down the river, chased by their owner: things like flip-flops, hats, sunglasses, and my four-year-old. Luckily, we eventually collect everything we've brought with us and make our way back to the car.

How many Musials can you spot in the Gardiner River?

6:00p. A random hillside in Yellowstone

The park rangers have told us that there's a pack of wolves that makes its home on a certain hillside in this area of the park. After a few wrong turns, we find the designated parking lot and make a short hike to a knoll where a few dozen folks have set up folding chairs, cameras, and telescopes. We chat with a few people and realize that we neither have the time, patience, or optical equipment to have a chance of seeing the wolves. So back home we go.

7:00p. Driving back to camp

This is our last evening in Yellowstone. While today has had its moments, it's also been hot and stuffy and involved a lot of driving -- some of the white-knuckle mountain-pass variety. After having learned about West Yellowstone earlier today, we decide to treat ourselves to a restaurant meal. There were more than a few places that looked like good candidates for pizzas and beer. So off to West Yellowstone we go!

7:30p. West Yellowstone

In perhaps the oddest event of this trip, we find out that the entire town of West Yellowstone (and apparently other parts of Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming) has lost electrical power. None of the restaurants are open. And so we're sent, tired and hungry, back to our campsite.

8:30p. Madison Campground

Instead of restaurant pizza, our dinner has turned out to be "whatever is left in the cooler." This manifested itself a three-course meal of spaghetti, followed by hot dogs, with pop-tarts for dessert.

As for me, I was bummed that I didn't get the cold draft beer I was craving, so I used some ingenuity and invented this drink:

The West Yellowstone Disappointment
One packet of Lemonade Mix
One liter of water from the camp water pump
Jim Beam purchased from a Missouri gas station
Red Solo Cup

Mix all ingredients as desired
Adjust for altitude.