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Trip Report Across the Wide Missouri and North to Alaska, a 26-Day Odyssey

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This trip has been in the planning stage for more than a year. It included my sister and her husband, celebrating their 50th anniversary; Brother No. 1 and his wife; Brother No. 2, single; and my husband and me.

Initally we planned to get a big van and all ride together from Kentucky to Vancouver, BC, to embark on an Alaskan cruise. Life intervened, however, as it usually does. My husband had kidney surgery last fall and doesn't do well on long distance drives, and my SIL has had breast cancer surgery this summer and is still feeling tired from the required chemo; so the three of them flew out to meet us in Vancouver on the day before the cruise departure.

The other four of us set off cross country on a nine-day driving/sightseeing adventure. We covered a lot of miles in the first two days to reach Estes Park on the second night, stopping in Lawrence, KS, as the halfway point on the first night.

We spent the third day in Rocky Mountain National Park. For years I have proclaimed this as my favorite NP and the prettiest I've visited. Alas, no more. The pine beetles have devastated the Park. There are thousands of dead trees all through it, with ugly brown needles far surpassing the green ones. It will be years before new trees are of a size to renew the forests.

We went out the other side of the park and drove on to Vernal, UT. We next visited Dinosaur NP, another disappointment because the huge glass building housing the partially dug out dinosaur skeleton and the reassembled ones has been closed for awhile and will be for another couple of years at least while it is repaired. The ranger said it wasn't built properly in the 50s and is very unstable. They did get stimulus money to go ahead with repairs now. We did a nature walk with the ranger, who pointed out some fossils in rock walls. We could see some of what he showed us, but some of it required the use of one's imagination.

On the road again to Jackson, WY. We drove through Grand Tetons NP, stopping at various points including the Jenny Lake drive, and into Yellowstone NP. That afternoon was the only day we experienced any rain, and that was not heavy. We had absolutely beautiful weather on the whole trip except for some fog one morning coming home.

We spent that day and the next in YNP, encountering a big herd of buffalo that was using the highway as its roadway. They brushed up against the car, and one big male stopped right in front of it and appeared to be debating whether or not to charge it. Fortunately, he decided not to. Video and cameras were clicking away, and there was quite a traffic tie-up. Of course, people were out of their cars taking photos and blithely ignoring all the signs about danger from wild animals. We also saw a lot of elk at the North Entrance when we stopped to see the calcified Terraces. Artist's Point is the highlight of the Park for me.

To be continued . . .

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    After Yellowstone, we drove through Montana (stopping in Missoula for lunch with a cousin) and Wyoming and stopped to spend a little time in Seattle. My sister and BIL had not been further west than Colorado, and Bro. 2 had not been further than Glacier NP. We prowled around the harbor area and went to Pike Place Market where we bought some wonderful fruit and wished we had a place for some of the beautiful flowers.

    We arrived in Vancouver at the correct hotel on the day we were supposed to (not so easy), and the plane cohort arrived soon afterward but with no luggage and facing the cruise departure the next day. Seems the computers were out in the Louisville airport, and their luggage went out with little notes attached to it. But miracles do happen, and it arrived around 9:00 pm. (My SIL had already planned a shopping trip for early the next morning.)

    The next day, the driver of the shuttle to the ship gave us a mini-tour of Vancouver, and check-in was a breeze. The cruise was with Holland America, and the ship was the Ryndam. It was the first cruise for all of us except Bro. 2 and SIL, so we hardly knew what to expect.

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    Thanks, yk. On to the cruise.

    The hotel in Vancouver (actually Richmond) let us leave the car for a minimal fee, and so we were off. As I said, this was a first for five of us. About all we knew about cruising was the fabled amount of food available, and that was certainly true. My first dinner choice was fresh fruit appetizer, green salad, pork medallions with cherry sauce, mashed potatoes and broccoli, and chocolate-toffee dessert slice with caramel sauce. So much for Jenny Craig.

    Every morning at breakfast there was wonderful, delicious, mouth-watering fresh pineapple; and every day at 3:00 there was an afternoon tea. My dearest love of a travel destination is London, so I went to tea every single day--sometimes by myself if no one else wanted to go with me. I did quit taking some of everything after a day or so, managing on scones, cream, and strawberry jam. (It was whipped cream, though, not clotted.) Other entrees for me were short ribs, duck on an oriental noodle base, scallops, steak and lobster combo, and duck l'orange. And for breakfast every morning wonderful, delicious, mouth-watering fresh pineapple.

    The cruise stops were Ketchikan, Haines, Juneau, and Sitka. The towns were interesting, especially Sitka that was founded by Russians. We visited the Orthodox Cathedral there, rebuilt after a fire, but the items inside (the altar, lots of gold, old Bibles, and lovely icons) had been saved. I was amazed at the number of jewelry stores everywhere. We took a bus in Juneau to the Mendenhall Glacier where we saw salmon spawning in a lovely stream in addition to the glacier; but the most breathtaking sight of the trip was the Hubbard Glacier, six miles long and I've forgotten how tall, but enormous; it was magnificent. There was some calving and a lot of oohs and aahs from the passengers.

    We disembarked at Seward for bus transportation to Denali National Park. Made a lunch stop in Wasilla with a lot of political jokes and comments all around. Also stopped at a viewing spot for Mt. McKinley. We were so blessed with good weather, and the mountain was gorgeous, snow covered and standing tall and awesome against a brilliant bright blue sky.

    We saw elk and lots of Dahl sheep along the way. The closer we got to Denali, the more the aspen trees were turning. By the time we reached it, they were at their peak, brilliant gold, and reflecting in the still waters of the lakes, just beautiful, and the unforested space between them on the mountains was covered in a reddish-purple, low-growing something that looked like Scottish heather. I've run out of superlatives to describe the scenery.

    Next installment--Denali NP.

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    Before I left the cruise portion, I meant to tell you all about buying my formal dinner attire. I'm an older lady and don't have any formal dinners to attend, so I didn't want to spend much on an outfit for the formal cruise dinner that I probably will not wear again. I had a birthday discount coupon fron Stein Mart's and found a pretty, long skirt there. It is in the new style of solid and patterned strips, pale orange solids with different flower prints, very pretty, and $23 after my discount. So, now I needed a top and found one in a shiny bright poppy orange that just matched some of the flowers in the skirt. Snapped it up in small size and took it home without trying it on, which was a big mistake because it CLINGS! I mean it clings like Saran wrap, showing every ripple and bulge, and at my age gravity is winning. I took it back and tried on a medium that would just about do but still . . . so I bought a latex camisole to smooth things out a bit, but I didn't try it on either since I was just out of the dressing room. I put the whole outfit on after I got home and went into the den to see what DH thought. He approved, I went back in the bedroom to hang it up, and COULD NOT get out of that camisole. Went back to the den to ask for help. So here I am, bent at the waist, while DH attempts to peel me out of the thing. We were laughing so hard, we almost never got it off. There is a bright ending, though. The ever-present cruise photographer made what turned out to be a very good picture of us on the festive night.

    Okay, on to Denali Park.

    We stayed at the Holland America Denali Chalet Resort. We think they are trying to make up for the food we ate on the ship, because the cost of breakfast in the dining room was $5.95 for oatmeal or a small box of cold cereal, $12.95 for continental breakfast, and $15.95 for the buffet, plus $2.50 for coffee, and no wonderful, delicious, mouth-watering fresh pineapple. We did this the first morning, but the following day we walked across the road to the Black Bear Coffee Shop and had a bagel and delicious cappaccino.

    That first morning we rode the shuttle out to Visitors' Center and watched a short film about the park, listened to a Ranger talk, and looked through the museum. It had several stuffed animals including a very large bear and a bald eagle.

    Part of the cruise deal was a six-hour bus tour on the paved-to-gravel-to-dirt, mostly one-lane road that led to within about 25 miles of Mt. McKinley from the opposite side to what we had seen the day before. Along the way we saw more beautiful scenery and golden aspen trees, as well as wildlife. We saw bears, moose, caribou, more Dahl sheep, a coyote, a fox, and bunches of hares that had white feet and turn completely white in the winter. (I finally learned the difference between rabbits and hares--rabbits are born without fur, and hares are born with fur.) We also saw a bald eagle, magpies, and hawks. We didn't get back until about 10:30 pm but had another wonderful experience at a late rest stop when we saw the one-day-past-full moon rising between two mountain peaks.

    The following morning we departed by rail to Anchorage. The train was a double decker with glass-domed passenger cars and dining cars on the bottom. We saw several more animals, including bears, and had dinner on board, which was quite good. We were put up at the Achorage Hilton Hotel, and it also was very good.

    The next day was our departure for home. After breakfast, Sis, Bro. 2, and I souvenir shopped a little while, and then we were taken by shuttle to the airport where we had a flight back to Vancouver. The three plane people flew on home, and the other four of us found the correct hotel shuttle, rescued the car from its lonely space in the back parking lot, and headed for the border.

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    For our return car journey, we retraced our route through Washington, Idaho, and as far as Billings, Montana, where we took a more northern way through Wyoming and South Dakota.

    We made a morning coffee stop in Buffalo, WY, a small town where the Occidental Hotel has been in operation since the 1800s. I think it was in the "USA in My Chevrolet" thread, the OP mentions staying there and describes it beautifully. One thing we were told is that Hole in the Wall is about 40 miles up the road and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid came to the hotel and had their picture made. Up to that point, people knew who they were but didn't know what they looked like; after the picture, someone turned them in for the reward. Sounds like Dumb and Dumber, doesn't it?

    None of us had been to South Dakota before, and we all really liked it. We stopped at the Devil's Tower, a huge rock formation coming up out of flat ground, and stopped at a plain with a prairie dog village. They are so cute, but signs warned not to put your hands down a hole because they bite and because rattlesnakes and poisonous spiders like to live with them. That was warning enough for me!

    At Spearfish, we got off the interstate and drove the scenic Hwy 14A to Deadwood. It was one of the prettiest drives I've ever made. The pine-covered mountains come right down to the highway, and a beautiful clear stream runs over big, smooth stones alongside the road.

    We spent the night in Deadwood, the town where Wild Bill Hickok was killed at a poker game. Saw his impersonator riding a horse down the street, toting his old 44 or whatever, and got a photo of him for DH who loves old Western movies. The next morning we went up the hill to Boot Hill Cemetery (Mt. Moriah, actually) and made pictures of his and Calamity Jane's gravesites. It was not at all morbid--rather, the cemetery is quite large, evidently for the whole town since the beginning, and very pretty.

    From there we drove to Mount Rushmore, which looks just like all the pictures you've ever seen of it but still inspires awe. Went on to Custer State Park and took the wildlife trail through it, seeing one lone buffalo (must have been nap time), a lot of Pronghorn antelopes, and some burros, one a young one with big, sad eyes.

    Drove on through the Black Hills and to Badlands National Park. It's easy to see where it got its name. Wind and water erosion have created a very strange landscape, and it's so odd because the road will be on a level plain and then the ground just drops away. Many of the formations look like crenallated castles. This was September 11, and all the national sites had the flag at half mast.

    After that, we spent two more long days of driving just to get on home. Nine days out, ten days cruising and touring AK, and seven days to get home made for a long trip but a very interesting one. The highlights for me:

    1. The Hubbard Glacier
    2. Mt. McKinley
    3. The scenic drive on U.S. Highway 14A
    4. Doing what you love most with those you love best

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