Monday, September 26, 2016

CLASSIC TRIP - Yosemite Ski Trip, California 1998

This report is dedicated to the late Nic Fiore, a legend in Yosemite, who taught over 100,000 people to ski during his 50+ years at Yosemite, including the day described below...

How about a ski trip? Yes, you can do it if you're in a wheelchair.  To prove it, we present a ski trip we took back in 1998.  Enjoy...

It's February and El Nino has finally hit as advertised. We have received over a year's worth of rain in just this one month.

The month has also started off gloomy with two people we know passing on and a million things to do with little time to do them. We're wet...we're depressed...we need a vacation.

  Luckily, the second half of the month perks up with Tim's birthday and our wedding anniversary. To celebrate, we decide to head back up to visit with Jon and Lois Moroni at their great bed and breakfast, the Restful Nest, up in Mariposa.

Are we tempting fate in this extra wet month? The weather reports for the area don't hold a lot of promise as the anticipated President's Day weekend is upon us.

Crossing our fingers, we load up our tire chains, cold weather clothes, and skis and head on up. To tempt fate even further we left at 3:00pm on Friday, February 13th.

The good weather in L.A. held up until we reached the summit of Tejon Pass (the Grapevine) where we promptly hit wind and rain. The rain stayed with us the rest of the way to Mariposa.

We stopped for a quick bite to eat at the In 'n Out in Fresno and to gas up before heading into the hills. Those hills were a gorgeous emerald green. It was not hard to think we had somehow been magically transported over to Ireland. Arrival in Mariposa was at 8:30pm.
Casey the Wonder Pooch
Jon, Lois, and their black lab Casey greeted us on arrival with a hot bowl of soup and a glass of wine. After exchanging greetings and catching up a little bit from our last trip, we unpacked into our room and went to bed.

Saturday dawned with even more rain. Lois cooked up a superb breakfast that included fresh fruit, bacon, eggs, waffles, muffins, and homemade rolls. This was washed down with some great hot coffee and fresh orange juice.

Today, we headed up to Yosemite Valley. It's about 40 miles from the B & B to the valley floor. The rain made even the tiniest of creeks into raging rivers of muddy water. Driving up the Merced River gorge towards Yosemite, we easily saw a hundred waterfalls...literally at each bend in the road.

The level of the river stayed below last year's flood levels. Once in the valley we saw numerous signs pointing out the high point of last year's flood...a level that was at least 3 feet above our heads!

Although it was still raining in Yosemite Valley, there was plenty of snow on the ground. This made for some seriously cold, wet, and slushy conditions. Determined to make the best of it, we drove a loop around the valley before settling down a bit at the store in Yosemite Village.

From there we took a walk over to Yosemite Falls on one of the few clear paths the wheelchair could take that day. Tim had a ball doing power slides through the patches of snow on the pavement.

Even in this wet and cold weather, Yosemite loses none of its majesty. The falls were spectacular and the walk nice but wet. We came back to the village and decided to do the rest of our sightseeing that day from the comfort of our heated auto. On the way out we pulled over to snap this picture of a coyote walking along the shoulder of the road.

Back in Mariposa, we stumbled onto the neighborhood herd of deer...who graciously posed for our camera...

That evening...being Valentine's Day...the Moroni's made a sumptious dinner for the inn's guest which had grown to include a race car driver and his wife from Newark, a policeman and his family from Vacaville, and another couple from Mill Valley.
The Restful Nest
Jon served a dinner of homemade French onion soup, salad, and stuffed shells. It was very good and very filling. Certainly we were not going to be losing any weight this weekend.

After dinner, the two couples went to the inn's spa while we family types retired to our rooms to watch videos and the olympics.

After another huge breakfast on Sunday, we headed back up to Yosemite. Today, the weather had cleared and we headed up to Badger Pass for an afternoon of skiing.
Nic Fiore, a young-at-heart 76 year old ski instructor at Badger Pass, had arranged for Tim to spend the afternoon skiing with one of the resort's instructors in a sit-ski. Fiore, who just celebrated his 50th anniversary at the resort, operates one of just 4 complete adaptive ski programs in California here at this little ski area located above the valley floor.
We met Tim's instructor, Jerry, who outfitted him with his equipment and took off with him for some serious slope time. This left my wife and myself with the afternoon to ourselves to explore the slopes of this mountain.

While small...the vertical from top to bottom is a mere 800 feet (you can see the entire mountian in the top photo)...the conditions were perfect and the uncrowded slopes gave us a lot of time to explore. The Pass was a comfortable if not exactly challenging place to ski.

The only downside to this day was having to put on tire chains to climb up the road to the ski area. Nic and his crew made sure Tim had the time of his life and in doing so also allowed his mother and I to have a good time as well.

Coming back down to the valley, we stop at Tunnel View to snap this picture of the view that just floored us.

Back down the mountain we went with a stop at the Pizza Factory in Mariposa for dinner. The food was good here but the kid with the ear-piercing scream was a bit much (note to the kid's parents: once maybe an accident and cute but to keep egging the kid on should be cause for criminal action!).

On arrival at the inn, we soaked our weary muscles in the hot spa...sipping a glass of good California Sangiovese while marveling at the millions of stars over our heads.

After sleeping like logs we had one more giant breakfast and spent some time in conversation with Lois while Tim played fetch with Casey. One more walk down to the inn's pond and one last breath of the fresh mountain air and then time to head home.

Another weekend in God's country leaves us with our spirits healed and ready to face another day of reality.

Copyright 1998

Sunday, September 25, 2016

THE COCKTAIL HOUR: Dominican Resort Drink Tour

Quandary - you have an unlimited bar tab at a tropical resort. How to you make the most of it?

Watch the Video!

Coming to you from Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, this week's Cocktail Hour tries to make a dent in it. Watch as we go from lobby bar to plaza bar and swim up bar to sample the bartenders talents.

Trying to not get too lit up (yeah, right) while keeping the sunburn to a minimum, it's all rum, tequila, and vodka by by the pool in this week's on-location Cocktail Hour video. Enjoy!



Friday, September 23, 2016

Sand, Sun, and Fun - The Dominican Republic, Part 2

It’s a balmy 80 degrees. A meringue duo is playing in the plaza’s gazebo. Cocktails are being served to the guests at the tables spread across the square. At 9:30, the resort’s guests make their way into the adjacent theater. It’s showtime at the Riu.

After the winners of the day’s activities are given their certificates and the entertainment staff has prepped and the cocktails served, the show begins. An army of bodyguards marches to the stage and Michael Jackson…or at least a reasonable facsimile…takes the stage for an hour of dancing and lip-synching.

Watch the Video!

If you’ve read part 1 of this report (and if you haven’t, click on that link now to get caught up…don’t worry…we’ll be here when you get back) you might have gotten an inkling of all the food, alcohol, activities available here. I should note that at the Riu (and most Punta Cana resorts) all of this is included in the price of your room.  All you can eat and drink, watersports, and endless entertainment and activities.  You never have to pay another dime. (Full Disclosure: The Riu is an affiliate advertiser on this blog - please see our Disclaimer policy)

A good night’s sleep in our room and we start the cycle all over again…

It’s a bit cloudy as we hit our time to go to the pool.  We head in and as the sprinkles start the guests run away. Hell, a little sprinkle isn’t going to stop us so we get our spot, put out the inner tube, insert Tim and jump into the pool.

The rain lets up but a few minutes later it starts again. Tim and I head to the swim up bar. Letty joins us.

Once there, the sprinkle turns to a downpour as we take refuge under the small overhang of the bar. As the deluge continues on, the unneeded extra bartenders are called to relocate to the lobby bar, fashioning trash bags as raincoats to run across the open area.

After a half hour riding the storm out and seeing the heavy clouds offshore, we decide that the next  break in the weather, we’re getting out.

An easing of the rain to a steady sprinkle gives us our chance. Usually, there is a strong man nearby that we can draft to help me lift Tim out of the pool. Not today…we’re the last ones there. It’s mainly just me, with a little help from Letty.

It’s tough, but we manage to do it.

Back in the room, we decide this is a good time for Tim’s shower as we have given up on the pool for the day. After dressing, we decide to explore.

Next to the hotel’s spa is Colonial Street, a small shopping area. While Letty looks at bikinis, the cigar seller strikes up a conversation with me. I ask if he sells Cuban cigars and he does. He clips one, hands it to me, and lights it up…it’s my sample.

Of course, next comes the hard sell, trying to sell me boxes of Habanos to take home but I keep telling him I can’t.  Not Cubans at least with the embargo in place.

It’s a tough back and forth for a few minutes, then Letty comes over with her fluent Spanish to help me out.  I finally get through to him that I just wanted to try a Cuban and we settle on some local Domincan cigars to take home. The large Cuban is my gift to keep smoking so I don’t have to worry about breaking any laws.

We have dinner at the Italian restaurant tonight. White fish and creamy chicken are our entrees but the appetizer bar ahead of time can be a meal in itself.

Salad, pizza, lasagna, spaghetti, cheese, are just a few of the items spread out there.

The next day, it’s time to hit the beach.  We wander next door to the Riu Palace Macao where the paved beach path takes a detour close the water where we can get some lounge chairs and swim in the warm, Caribbean waters.

It’s not long before a waiter comes by and plies us with drinks from the beach bar.

There’s an old shipwreck just offshore, I ask him what the story is. He doesn’t know the whole saga except that the ship crashed about 30 years ago and has been slowly breaking up on the reef every since.  (A quick search reveals the fact that it was a Russian freighter called the Astron that crashed in a storm in 1978.)

We’re in front of the Macao, which holds the area’s casino. Tim wants to go see it. It’s a small place, surrounded by ongoing construction, and we’re the only 3 people in there aside from the staff.  Tim and I wouldn’t mind playing some roulette but we’re told the tables don’t open until the evening. Oh well, it’s not the most lively place so we leave and head back to our hotel.

This evening would be spent in the Riu’s sports bar where we watch local Dominican League baseball (or beisbol, as it is here) on the large flat screen cheering on the action with the bartenders. Want to make instant friends with any local here? If you’re a baseball fan, just start talking about the sport…they love it here as Europeans do soccer.

The next night was a fabulous show featuring a lot of Dominican folk music and dancing.

Alas, the time has come to go home. One last drink in the lobby bar with our bags and our taxi driver finds us. It’s back to Punta Cana International Airport where one of the workers escorts us through all the necessary checkpoints before boarding our plane to Atlanta.

It’s Thanksgiving Day and both planes home are half-full. We are able to upgrade to business class and stretch out, looking back on a great week on that melancholy flight home.

Copyright 2011 – Darryl Musick
All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

DOMINICAN REPUBLIC IN A WHEELCHAIR: Riu Palace Punta Cana and Area Access Features

Here's how we found access in the Dominican Republic...

ON ARRIVAL: Punta Cana International Airport (PUJ) does not have jetways. All passengers board and deplane via stairs. Four men carried Tim down the stairs (and back up when we left) in the plane aisle chair.  An airport chair awaited us at the bottom.

Wheelchair users are escorted though the entire arrival process, including through immigration and customs all the way through to your ground transportation. Our gate checked chair was provided to us at baggage claim.

The airport, other than the boarding stairs, is very accessible and nicely ramped throughout. The restrooms have handicapped stalls and there is also a family restroom available.

GROUND TRANSPORTATION: Since it was our first time, we decided to use a manual chair instead of the power chair.

We used Dominican Airport Transfers, where we were able to book a private van for the three of us, round trip, for less than $100.  They were on time (actually a little early), safe, courteous, and comfortable.  They do not have lift equipped vans but we did find this company...RD Shuttle...that provides wheelchair transportation services.

AT THE HOTEL:We picked the Riu Palace Punta Cana because it was the only hotel we could find that would block an accessible room for us. Several resorts in the area purport to have accessible rooms and facilities, but we could not find any other that would guarantee it.

Watch the Video!

See the video above for a tour of the accessible features of the hotel. There are step-free rooms with roll-in showers which are very nice junior suites but they are not located in the prime area of the hotel. They are very close to the ramp which leads to the restaurants, pools, and beach.  Other step-free rooms with bathtubs are available closer to the beach.

There are six lifts...two on each side of the lobby and one in each wing closer to the pool and beach...four ramps, located at the bottom level of each lift, that will provide access to the plaza, restaurants, shops, pool, and beach.

The grounds are very nicely ramped throughout. A paved path runs along the beach starting at the Colonial Street shopping area adjacent to the pool. About 200 yards south on the path, it jogs pretty close to the water where you can transfer to lounge chairs on the sand.

Copyright 2011 - Darryl Musick
All Rights Reserved

Monday, September 19, 2016

Sand, Sun, and Fun - The Dominican Republic, Part 1

"You know I really miss going to Puerto Vallarta." Letty said to me...for about the tenth time.

"I know, hon," I replied "but you know that it's just too inaccessible for us now that Tim is grown up."

"I know, but I'd really like to go on a beach vacation," she finishes.

I really want to make her wish come true, but where can we go with the wheelchair?

Watch the Video!

Okay, PV is out. Much research time is spent trying to find another Mexican destination that would serve up a more accessible destination.  Cancun and Cabo just seem to overdeveloped and overrun to me. Ixtapa comes very close until we're finally able to contact the hotel that looked fantastic but ended up having "only" 234 steps to the beach.

We need something a little flatter, a lot tropical, and a little less Hawaii.  Here is where we ended up...

The little green gecko is not trying to sell me insurance. Instead, he’s being impatient as my wife tries to get him to pose for a picture. The little guy is on the door of our room. Soon, after my wife snaps the pic, he runs to the edge of the balcony and jumps off like superman, landing gently on the leaves three floors down.

The marble floor of the junior suite cools our bare feet as we enter from the hot, sticky humidity of the Dominican autumn. Our bedding consists of two full beds pushed together making a super-size king bed. The management has put in an extra twin bed because there are three of us. My wife likes the feel of that bed better so Tim and I sleep in the large bed.

A big flat screen keeps my son occupied during spells in the room between activities with American sports programing. A full slate of local Dominican programs are also on, which comes in handy to watch the local Dominical Baseball league in full swing.

Our assigned room came with a big, roll-in shower and step-free access for the wheelchair. It was also in the very back of the gigantic Riu Palace Punta Cana resort and came with its own set of maintenance and noise issues. It was obvious that the hotel rarely rented out this accessible room and it seemed like the ugly redheaded step child of the resort.
(Full Disclosure: The Riu used to be an affiliate advertiser on this blog - please see our Disclaimer policy)

After an almost sleepless first night, a visit to the front desk was in order. We were unhappy. Fortunately at the Riu, if you’re unhappy, you better be made happy or there will be hell to pay.

Another step-free room was found for us…closer to the beach…in a quiet area of the hotel with a nice terrace overlooking the main courtyard plaza of the hotel. Alas, this room only had a bathtub, but a shower chair was installed and it worked for us.

An extensive array of delicious breakfast foods awaited us in the morning. French toast, a couple of scoops of soft scrambled eggs, fruit, and a croissant fortified us for the day.

A quick stop by the reservations center located in the lobby of the Riu’s Italian restaurant secured us dinner for the next four nights in each of the hotel’s a la carte restaurants for dinner. Tonight would be Brazilian Churriasca followed by Japanese fare, Italian specialties, finishing up with a hearty dinner in beachfront steakhouse.

The last night of our stay would find us browsing in the casual buffet where we wouldn’t have to adhere to the a la carte restaurants dress code of long pants and sleeved shirts…it’s kind of a bitch to redress Tim multiple times a day but it’d be worth it to get the full resort experience.

After a change into swim gear, we head to the heart of the resort…the large pool located at the edge of Bavaro Beach. We get to know Carlos, a pool boy, who provides us with towels and finds the perfect spot to decamp into some lounge chairs steps away from the pool, the beach, and the bar separating the two. He quickly got to know us and would make sure that those two lounge chairs, with the space for the wheelchair, and the umbrella would be “ours” from now until we checked out.

We bring an inflatable inner tube for Tim to float in when we go swimming. Carlos took it for a minute, disappeared to some unknown location where there was an air compressor, and returned with a fully inflated tube.

For the next few hours, Tim and I would float around the large pool getting to know Jim, Heather, and their baby Lucas from Chicago; Roger and Ivy from Ontario, Canada, Simo, Elisa, and their disabled daughter Nailia, from Argentina; and Tom and Vanessa from Flint. When Letty would get too hot from sunbathing and join us in the pool, we’d float over to the swim up bar and get to know the extensive bar menu provided by Juan the bartender.

Steps away from the pool, La Altigracia…the resort’s steakhouse…would lay out a spread for the swimmers and beach goers consisting of steak, pork, chicken, seafood, and a giso of rice topped with saucy spare ribs and black beans…a delicious local specialty. Kids missing home could also have their fill of burgers, hot dogs and pizza.

After every meal was the extensive dessert and ice cream bar.

A little time in the sun was in order after the meal where our biggest concern was whether we’d lathered on the sunscreen thick enough.

Animacion…the resort’s entertainment team…would lead dances by the pool, set up archery and ping pong tournaments, and keep the guests involved in the experience. We’d take the afternoon and head over to the beach.

An accessible, paved beach path connects all the Riu resorts along the beach. When it gets over to the neighboring Palace Macao resort, the path takes a nice detour towards the water where it’s only about 30 feet from the water. Here we can get the wheelchair onto the sand, grab a couple of lounge chairs and relax on the sand.

Nearby is Scuba Caribe which serves as the resort’s watersports activity center. Snorkeling gear, boogie boards, wind surfers, and much more are available at no charge (a refundable cash deposit is required).

The lounge chair are on runners like skis, so it’d be easy to drag Tim to the water, put a mask and snorkel on him, swim out and watch the fish. Unfortunately this week the water is just too rough with some strong offshore winds kicking up the murkiness.  I’ll just have to be content with a boogie board, a little body surfing, and drinking rum in the sun on the sand.

Stay tuned for Part 2, coming very soon...

Copyright 2011 – Darryl Musick
All Rights Reserved

Friday, September 16, 2016

CLASSIC TRIP - Montana and Yellowstone 2002, Part 2

A friend from work had just been royally screwed by the company that runs the national park lodging. He'd just come home his mother's funeral in Croatia physically and emotionally exhausted and called up the Furnace Creek Inn in Death Valley and reserved their best room. His family would go with him and have some much needed R&R in the desert park.

When he arrived, he had found that they had overbooked and substituted him at a nearby motel...with no break in the price. Luxury room pricing for a lousy little motel room. Understandably, he has no pleasant thoughts about how he was treated.

I bring this up because he related his story to me right before I left for our trip to Yellowstone National Park and had made reservations specifically for an accessible room with a roll-in shower. I was apprehensive about what would greet me at arrival...

We left from Big Timber, Montana right after breakfast. From here, it's a 23 mile drive on Interstate 90 to the town of Livingston. A 75 mile drive south on highway 89 takes us to Gardiner, Montana and the original entrance to Yellowstone National Park on the north side of the park.

We pass under the circa 1903 Roosevelt Arch and head to the small entrance station. There are about 10 cars in front of us and the line is moving very slow. After not moving for about 10 minutes, a ranger starts walking along the cars asking people to roll down their windows. When he gets to us, we find he is sending those who have passes around the entrance station. Since we have a Golden Access Pass, we happily comply.

If you're disabled and don't have one, get a Golden Access Pass the very next time you go to a national park or monument. This free pass allows you and everyone in your vehicle to enter national parks at no charge. In addition to saving you a ton of money (Yellowstone's entrance fee is $20), you might just get to skip ahead as we did.

Our plan is this...we have two nights here in Yellowstone park. Our first day, we want to get to the Old Faithful geyser area and explore it. The next day we want to seek out the park's wildlife and see any other sights we can find.

We intend to make a beeline to Old Faithful after getting in. It's a 51 mile drive from the entrance station. Two and a half hours later we arrive. Several things delay us along the way: people stopping in the middle of the road to photograph animals (at one point, a lone moose was surrounded by about 30 people with cameras like paparazzi), cars driving 10 miles an hour in a 45 mile per hour zone, and when that was passed, about 20 miles of single-lane road construction with a 15 mile per hour limit.

Finally, at 2:30pm we pull into a parking spot about 200 yards away from Old Faithful itself (parking hint: there are three handicapped spots right in front of the Old Faithful Inn that no one knows is there). The thunderstorms that were predicted for the afternoon are threatening and a light rain starts to fall. On the bright side, the next predicted eruption of Old Faithful is only five minutes away, so we won't have to wait in the rain for very long.

About a minute after we find a good viewing spot on the paved trail, the geyser goes off with a huge fountain of steaming water lasting about 7 minutes. It's quite a show. Now the rain is starting to come down harder so we beat a hasty retreat to the adjacent Old Faithful Inn just as the lightning and thunder start.

Inside, the inn is a spectacular sight. The lodge, built in 1906, has a big lobby that soars several stories. Thin logs seemingly support the whole thing but in reality, a steel, load-bearing rods placed in the logs actually do the work. A multi-storied rock hewn fireplace with a custom pendulum clock anchors the area where you can relax in comfortable morris chairs while reading a book or newspaper. (Another hint: past the public Men's room and Ladies room, there is a large, unisex and very accessible bathroom for wheelers.)

We haven't had lunch yet so we head to the dining room. There's no wait for a table and the service is very good. My hamburger was a bit bland but my wife and Tim had french dip sandwiches that were very good. It was also pretty reasonable at about $7 per person.

Its still raining and there are several really well stocked gift shops in the inn and the surrounding area. We take our time hunting for souvenirs before finally heading down the road to Grant Village where we have reservations for the next couple of nights.

Back at Old Faithful, the old inn and the Old Faithful Snow Lodge were extremely nice and architecturally stunning (if possible, try to get an accessible room in the Old Faithful Snow Lodge for the best accessible rooms in the park). Here at Grant Village, the lodge is lackluster...looking like worn-out 1970's condos...needing a coat of paint badly. (I tried for the Snow Lodge, but they were already booked when I called in May to make reservations. The room prices are identical at both locations.)

Whoever designed this lodge needs a kick in the rear with handicapped parking that could not be any farther from the accessible room. We had to walk, lugging our luggage, all the way through the building. It was a miserable journey.

On the bright side, the bathroom was great. Roomy, with grab bars on the toilet, a roll-under sink, a sliding accordion door, of all....a roll-in shower with bath chair. The bathroom made up for the run down condition of the place and the extra small beds. I do have to admit that when making reservations, the agents did not promise any more than what we got and, knowing that the beds would be small, we brought along a twin-sized air mattress so that we'd all have plenty of I don't feel that I had been taken advantage of.

There is little in the way of any amenities in the room. No TV, no radio, no A/C. There is a small heater and a telephone and the toiletries were just a touch above par for most motels. Certainly, the room is not where you'd want to spend a lot of your time and maybe that's for the best...forcing you out to see the beautiful park.

There are several levels of dining available to you at Grant Village. A coffee shop in the general store has fast food with table service, a restaurant overlooking Yellowstone lake offers moderately priced pizza and pasta, and the Grant Village dining room is the upscale, reservations-only location serving full-service meals.

We opted for the dining room. Service here was just a bit slow but the food was delicious. I had a pork chops while my wife had salmon and Tim had a chicken dinner. A very tasty cream of asparagus soup started the whole thing off. Another waiter in the restaurant is also doing a tour of the major league ball parks and wanted to compare notes. After dinner, we spent another half hour with the friendly guy talking baseball and stadiums. Pricing here is comparable maybe to a Cracker Barrel.

The next morning, we awoke to a bright and sunny day. With no TV or radio, we did not have a weather report so we crossed our fingers that it would stay this way. It did.

After a marvelous breakfast at the general store coffee shop, we headed back to the Old Faithful area to hike the geyser basin that we'd been rained out on the day before.

The Upper Geyser Basin (home to Old Faithful) has a wonderfully accessible three mile plus trail that gets you up close and personal to the largest concentration of thermal phenomena in the world.

We started off at Old Faithful and walked up the paved trail. Along the way, we saw such famous sights as the Castle Geyser and the Riverside Geyser which regularly shoots a 75 foot stream of water over the Firehole River. At the end of the paved trail is the second most famous feature of Yellowstone Park, the Morning Glory pool.

A boardwalk allows you to get right on top of the Morning Glory pool, a hot spring with crystal-clear water shaped and colored as such that it looks like a morning glory. Visitors over the years have not been kind to the pool...many have thrown money and other assorted trash into it, clogging up it's vent and allowing bacteria to grow in it. An orange rim around the spring attests to this.

To combat the pollution, back in the 1970's the park service relocated the road away from the springs and geysers and set back the boardwalk around the pool. It's helped, but the park service still pulls much trash out of the Morning Glory pool during its annual cleanup.

On the way back, we take the boardwalk and see the geyser field. There are mud pots, hot springs, and geysers galore along the accessible boardwalk. The old wooden boardwalk is gradually being replaced by recycled plastic boardwalk as it wears out. The plastic sections are very smooth for wheelers.

It's great to see a TV-jaded kid like Tim really get into the geyser field. He's really impressed when he gets within 10 feet of the ever erupting Sawmill Geyser. A big bison named George lounges in a small meadow nearby...George gored somebody last week, we're told, when they tried to push him into a shot with Old Faithful. Some people never learn...

At the end of the trail, there is one steep section (that can be detoured - check with a ranger before hiking to find the smoothest path for you) after crossing the bridge over the Firehole River. On the other side, we end up on the backside of Old Faithful where we stop and wait about thirty minutes for the next eruption. It's big and spectacular. It's also a fitting end to our visit of the Upper Geyser Basin.

We have lunch at the Old Faithful Snow Lodge dining room. Here's another hint for you: the fast food place in the lodge is only about a dollar or two cheaper for lunch than the dining room but it's very crowded and you wait a long time for service. For just a couple of dollars more, the dining room is a much better place to eat and unwind with full table service and no wait.

Back in the van, we make the 40 mile trek to Hayden Valley where we're told we're almost guaranteed to see wildlife. But first, as we leave the Old Faithful area we see a large herd of elk nibbling the grass of a nearby meadow.

Hayden Valley does not disappoint. Large herds of bison roam everywhere. Too far away for a good camera shot, they do show up good with binoculars. As I scan the valley and the Yellowstone River bisecting it, I see something odd. I move down about 1/4 mile to get a better view and look through the binoculars again to make sure. Is it....? Yes, it's a bald eagle resting on a branch over the river looking for a juicy trout. Looking around, I see it's partner soaring high over the valley. It's the first and only bald eagle I've ever seen in the wild.

We return to Grant's Village and after dinner in the coffee shop, head down to the amphitheater for the evening campfire ranger presentation.

Mosquitoes are everywhere. Thankfully, my wife brought along some high-powered DEET that we slather on. We don't smell too good, but the bugs don't bite. Others at the campfire are fiercely swatting as the extra high-powered Yellowstone mosquitoes dive bomb them.

The ranger tells us that mosquitoes are not among the park's protected wildlife, so feel free to swat, smash, and kill. They are a renewable resource she assures us...

The evening's presentation is a slide show showing how conservation and scientific techniques started in Yellowstone have caught on around the world. It was interesting, but I missed the old sing-alongs around the campfire of my youth. Couldn't we just have a couple of songs to go with the slide show? Oh well, it was still fun and educational to boot.

That was the last night of the trip. The next morning we exited through West Yellowstone, Montana where we saw a coyote and some more elk and bison before exiting. One thing we did not see was Yellowstone's most famous animal resident...a bear. When we arrive home a week later, there are three black bear sightings in our neighborhood. Is it now more common to see bears in our neighborhood that in our national parks?

Copyright 2002 - Darryl Musick

Monday, September 12, 2016

CLASSIC TRIP - Montana and Yellowstone 2002, Part 1

A Montana Collage - Gallatin National Forest

Be careful what you wish for, right?  My wife wanted to really get away (we were having our kitchen remodeled and we were stressed) so I found what, so far, has been the most out-of-the-way and as-far-away-from-civilization accessible lodging in the country - 14 miles from the nearest town and 7 miles from the nearest paved road...the last mile was the driveway into the lodge.  She also had never been to Yellowstone so we put together this trip.  So let's go back to 2002, shall we?

Right up front, let's just say that you need a little extra determination to get here and then get around...especially if you use a wheelchair for mobility.

The state's major airports at Bozeman, Billings, and Helena just don't show up on major airlines radar screens so direct flights from most of the country is not an option. What flights you do find are not going to be cheap. Once you arrive, accessible public transportation will be a challenge to find as will accessible van rentals.

We decided to drive. From L.A., this is not a quick and easy road trip especially if you have trouble sitting in the car for long spells. After 3 nights on the road, we were finally at our destination....Big Timber, Montana, about 50 miles east of Bozeman. We needed some time to just not drive any more.

Researching for a place to stay yielded the Burnt Out Lodge, a bed and breakfast run by Ruth Drange on her family's cattle and sheep ranch. The lodge is accessible with three ramps leading into the building. The area around it is not, so you will need your own private van or car to get there.

The reason you need your own ride is because it is remote. In fact, for a wheeler, I cannot think of a more remote accessible accommodation that I have ever come across. The lodge is located at the farthest reach of the three thousand acre ranch abutting the Gallatin National Forest.

Only 7 Miles to go to the Burnt Out Lodge

To get there, you first drive seven miles beyond Big Timber. Then, it is up six miles of dirt road to the first gate. Someone must get out of the car to open the gate (an attendant here is really necessary for all but the most hardy wheelers), drive through, return to close the gate lest any cows escape the ranch. One more mile of bumpy road is necessary to navigate before you reach the lodge building where one more gate must be opened and closed.

It takes a pretty major effort just to get here.

Once here, it is pretty easy to go up a ramp into the building and into your room. The lodge has a vast open public area with a two story fireplace to warm up at. Five rooms are all on the first floor and each will allow access for a wheelchair easily. One room in particular has been built with bars for the toilet and bathtub for access. There is no roll-in shower, however. Plastic chairs are available for use as bathing chairs.
The View from the Room
We stayed in the accessible room, although as the only guests at the inn Ruth offered us our choice of any room. The room is huge and very open and airy. A twenty foot ceiling reinforces that feeling. It is furnished sparsely with just a bed, two night stands, a small table and two chairs. It was sparkling clean and comfortable, but it does take a bit of getting used to.

Our first day had started in West Yellowstone, Montana after we had stopped there for the night. Along the way to Big Timber, we stopped at Nevada City, a recreated Ghost Town where authentic buildings had been moved to from other areas. It was a quiet and not unpleasant stop but not exactly enthralling either.

In Big Timber, we had dinner at Prospector Pizza in a pretty little downtown area before bedding down for the night at the Burnt Out Lodge. We saw dozens of deer along that 7 mile access road up to the lodge.

After sleeping pleasantly in our large room with all the windows and the front door open (great things to do when you're several miles from the nearest road), we had our breakfast and decided to do a little sight seeing.

This morning, that would entail heading up the Boulder River valley from Big Timber. We stopped when we got to Natural Bridge.

A short hike lead us to a bridge and several viewing platforms built into the rock. The paths are accessible but be careful of the hundred foot drop off of the sides when heading to the platforms. The bridge path is not as scary.

From the bridge and the platforms, you can see the natural bridge when the water level is low, as it was when we visited in July. In a spectacular display, the river drops down a hole and travels about one hundred yard before emerging from a shear cliff face.

When the water level is higher, the hole is underwater and the river flows over the natural bridge but you can still see the other waterfall emerging from the hole in the cliff.

After our tour up the valley, we headed back to Big Timber. It was over one hundred degrees when we hit town so we decided to spend the afternoon in the community pool. A buck fifty was all it took to get all three of us in where we lounged around for an hour and a half...until the lifeguard's shrill whistle told everyone to immediate evacuate the pool. A thunderstorm was approaching fast.

We took quick shelter in the small pool house where I took the opportunity to give Tim a shower in the only roll-in shower we would see in Montana. Now that's what I call thinking on my feet!

We changed back into our street clothes and headed out of town. The rain had let up enough so that we could visit Prairie Dog Town State Park. This is a small area set aside for these large, barking rodents where you can see them in a wild setting to your heart's content. Outside the park's perimeter, the critters are fair game for the farmers and ranchers who shoot these animals as pests when they see them.

A shower and a nap back at the lodge refreshed us and we headed back into town for dinner at the City Club, a combination steakhouse, bowling alley (six lanes!), bar, and casino. We had some delicious Montana steaks...better than the steaks we payed three times as much for on the way home in Las Vegas.

The town turns in pretty early and try as we might, we couldn't find too much to do after 7:30pm. We missed the only showing (7:00) at the local theater but we'd already seen Lilo 'n Stitch back home. A trip back to the lodge where we could reach out and pat a cow's behind as we drove by was in order.

Another night with the fresh Montana air wafting through the room and we were ready to tackle another day. After breakfast, we drove fifty miles to Bozeman to visit the Gallatin County Fair's opening day.

This is a very small fair where everybody was giving out freebies or samples. Everybody had candy bowls out for quick little nibbles. A local political group opposed to an upcoming ballot measure gave us a huge sports cup (with their logo on it, natch) filled with ice cold water with a local chiropractor matching that with a big bottle of spring water out of an ice bucket...perfect for the 105 degree day.

A few local sportmen's groups filled our bag with free fishing tackle...lures and bobbers. A candy maker threw in some free samples of fudge. A local mine even gave us some raw rocks that they grind into talc...along with ruler, pens, pencils. Another local politician running for office gave out free American flags.

We were in hog heaven with all the goodies and we got to see all kinds of livestock and eat that great, greasy fair food while watching some country and western concerts. It was a great day and we met a lot of friendly local folks.

After the fair we ate dinner at McKenzie River Pizza in the beautifully restored downtown area of Bozeman, where some workers recognized us from the fair earlier. It was good pizza and even better beer.

Tonight would be our last night at the lodge. We had one more open-air night before our last breakfast with Ruth.

A deer walked by one foot outside the dining room window while we at our morning meal and a marmot rooted around outside. Before it got too cute, Ruth whispered to us that the marmot was a pest and she would have to shoot it if it returned. Ah, the ways of the Montana cattle ranch life.

Stay tuned for part 2...Yellowstone!

Copyright 2002 - Darryl Musick

Friday, September 9, 2016

CLASSIC TRIP - Salt Lake City, Utah - 2002

If you've been following our Montana and Yellowstone trip from earlier this week, you might be interested that we drove up from Los Angeles.  Along the way, we spent a little time in Salt Lake's that part of the report.

Another Olympic city, Salt Lake City became known as the "corruption" games when it became known that the IOC accepted gifts from the local committee in exchange for considering them for approval for the 2002 winter games.  Here is a trip we took in 2002.

Arriving in Salt Lake City after a day and a half of driving. We're on our way to Montana and in need of a little break. Our hindquarters will develop calluses soon if we don't stop. We park at an underground structure for a mall downtown. It's quite expensive at a dollar per twenty minutes. Later, we found we could have parked at the curb around the corner for free.

There's a heat wave going on. 106 degrees at Temple Square. Our lunch server at JB's tells us this is an all-time record. We just left a heat wave in L.A. and were hoping for cooler weather up here and in Montana.

After lunch, we head next door to the Family Records Center, the famous Mormon run genealogical archive. We get a quick lesson on how to look up our family tree and then are ushered into a room where a volunteer gives us a 10-minute Powerpoint presentation on how to use the center's resources.

They used to show a film instead of the presentation. I thought the old film was more interesting, especially how it explained why genealogy was so important to the church. The world's eyes were on Salt Lake City for the Olympics this year and the center felt the film was outdated and created a more modern introduction for the new millennium.

After our brief stay there, we crossed the street to Temple Square, the Vatican of the Church of Jesus Christ, Latter Day Saints. Try saying that a few times and you see why people just shorten that to the Mormon Church.

The crosswalks here have helpful letters, 6 feet tall, printed on the crosswalk telling you to LOOK both ways before crossing. The walk signs have countdown displays telling you how much time you have left to get to the other side of the street.

In Temple Square, young Mormon volunteers from around the world are everywhere to answer questions, greet visitors, and - if they get a chance- tell you why the Church is the way for them. Most will guide you to the Visitor's Center where you can learn more about the Church's history and message.

We're just passing through, so our hostess tells us the way and we excuse ourselves. We take a quick look in the Tabernacle where you can see the world famous choir perform on Sundays and find that the wheelchair entrance is at door number 10.

Outside, the Tabernacle looks like a big bug but inside it's quite beautiful.

After some shopping in the mall across the street, we retrieve our van and head to our lodging for the night, the Comfort Inn in Layton, Utah just a few miles north of Salt Lake City proper.

It was very easy to find the Comfort Inn as the exit from Interstate 15 practically emptied into its parking lot. I had reserved an accessible room with two queen beds. The room was minimally accessible. It had a very large bathroom with a roll-under sink, a toilet with grab bars, and a bathtub equipped with bars. The bathrooms was so large it cut into the room size leaving us a 1" clearance on each side of the wheelchair to get by the beds in any direction....yes, I measured! It was very limiting but we would be here just one night and not spending any extra amount of time in the room beyond hygiene activities and sleeping so it would do...just barely.

After a delicious dinner at the local Cracker Barrel, we turned in for the night.

The next morning after breakfast at the local IHOP (tasty too!), we headed back in the direction of Salt Lake City to visit the local amusement park, Lagoon, in neighboring Farmington. An empty Coke can granted us a five dollar discount so admission came to just $24.95.
We arrived at Lagoon at 10:00am. just in time for the parking lot to be opened. After scoring the best parking spot...the van-accessible handicapped spot directly adjacent to the ticket booths...we purchased our tickets and waited at the gates. At 10:45am, the gates finally opened and we got to wait a few minutes more in the midway adjacent to the souvenir stands until the ride park opened at 11:00am. There is also a complete water park here that opens at the same time and is included in the price of your ticket.
Ramps are nicely located at each ride for access though, like most parks, you need to bring someone along to help you into the rides. Lagoon has a policy of letting disabled riders stay on rides for two circuits instead of one. This really helps cut down on the lifting your attendant needs to do during the day.

We went on our first ride, an old wooden roller coaster generically named Roller Coaster. It was bumpy with good air time on the first hill after the first drop. After that point, it runs a bit slow but bumpy all the same.
A portable steel double-looping coaster is also here called Colossus (or Fire Dragon depending on which sign you see). A long ramp leads to the platform where we had great fun riding this very smooth coaster.

There's a miniature steam train that makes a circuit around the park's lake (or "lagoon") which is the only way you'll see the park's collection of animals in its zoo.

My wife went on the swinging chair ride and we finished up with a ride on Rattlesnake Rapids, a very good and very wet river raft ride.

After the rides, we stepped over to Pioneer Village, a recreation of an old Utah town, to have some ice cream and see some of the small museums housed there. We also marveled at the beautiful views of the Wasatch mountains directly behind the park.
We didn't hit a lot of the park's attractions such as the giant ferris wheel, the log ride, the water park, or the fun house but we did have a lot of fun and most of the staff was nice although some of the service was a bit on the slow side.

Although not a destination for us on this trip, Salt Lake City did make for a very interesting break from the road. Now it was back in the van where we continued our trek to the big sky country.

NOTES: Salt Lake City and the area has very good accessible public transportation. UTA provides accessible bus and trolley service. The trolley service was put in just in time for the Olympics. If arriving by train, the trolley can be caught directly in front of the station and provides service to all downtown areas, the university, and all the way to Sandy in the suburbs. Many Olympic sites can be reached this way. Buses take up the slack to the airport, Lagoon, and other SLC areas.

Accessible taxis, shuttles and buses are available from the airport. Wheelchair Getaways has an office here if you'd like to rent an accessible van.

Although there are plenty of pay parking lots downtown that will be happy to relieve your wallet of extra cash, we found out there is plenty of street parking available in the area.

Accessible restrooms abound in the downtown area at the mall, department stores, Temple Square, and the Family Records Center. Lagoon's accessible restrooms are a bit on the small side.

Copyright 2002