Saturday, September 29, 2012

Off to Israel

Our final days in the US were quite quick. We had a wedding to go to in Knoxville on the night before we left, and since Sophie was in the wedding, we had to drive up there the day before. We had a great time at the wedding - since a significant number of our friends from DC and Chattanooga went to the wedding, we were able to say a final goodbye. However, we did have to wake up in Knoxville the morning after the wedding and make the 2 hour drive back to Chattanooga, pack, and get on our plane.

We were looking forward to an easy day of flying, but of course, we were mistaken. Our flights were Chattanooga to DC, DC to Newark, and then Newark to Tel Aviv. Unbeknowst to us, United had decided to cancel the DC to Newark flight we were on, meaning that we would miss the Newark to Tel Aviv flight. This happened a full hour before we left Chattanooga and United could have notified us and instead flown us to Charlotte and then on to Newark, but that would be too logical. Instead, we were caught off-guard and didn't find out that the flight was cancelled until we arrived in DC. At first, the United people told us that we could only fly out on the flight that left the next day, which I was actually pretty happy about, since we could have spent the night in DC and had another night with friends. However, it is quite annoying to change plans so drastically, so we asked the obvious question of whether there was another way for us to get to Tel Aviv, perhaps on a different carrier. We soon discovered that we could take a later flight to Newark, taxi to JFK, and fly out on an El Al flight, albeit 4 hours later than our original flight. What fun!

Of course United would pay for our taxi fare to JFK, right? Well, sort of. They did pay the $85(!) fare to JFK, but they neglected to give us enough money to pay for the tolls and tip, which amounted to about $40 more. You'd think that this thing is common enough that they'd know what the total cost of the far would be, but I digress. When we got to JFK, we were asked a few silly questions about who packed our bags, but the people at El Al weren't joking. I felt like any response that was perceived incorrectly would lead to us not getting on the flight, so I decided to keep my snickering to a minimum. The people at El Al were nice enough, just very serious. There was a bit of discussion between the security people before they came forward and asked us, in an incredulous tone, "why did you get your Israeli visa in San Salvador!?" When we answered that we were living there at the time, their eyes brightened and they welcomed us into the ticketing line. We got our tickets and headed to the gate. Of course, at this point it was around midnight, so the TSA people manning the security line were not in the best of moods, and I guess I can't blame them.

When we actually arrived at the gate, there were a lot of people sitting around, waiting. I couldn't help but notice that the gate attendants were occasionally walking through the seating area checking for unattended bags under seats as well as checking the trash cans for what I can only assume to be bombs. Also, about 45 minutes prior to boarding, a pair of heavily armed Port Authority (I think) men came and stood out front of the gate. Like, with large rifles that I'm used to only seeing in Central America, not the US. Needless to say, this made me wonder what the hell we'd gotten ourselves into. Then there's the rather odd slogan of El Al - "It's not just an airline... it's Israel!" All of this made me a little antsy. Once we got on the plane, though, that anxiety went away. The flight to Tel Aviv was uneventful and comfortable.

We arrived into Tel Aviv at night and were met by one of Sophie's coworkers, a friend who we'd met back in DC a few years prior. Of course our bags hadn't made the trek from Newark to JFK, but El Al assured us that we would receive them the next day. We arrived at our new place in Tel Aviv and promptly went to bed. Our social sponsors were nice enough to stock our fridge with some food, and they also left us with a huge amount of a delicious chicken and rice dish.

We woke the next morning to a great view of the Mediterranean, a view that we'll have for the next 4 years. After months of preparation, anxiety, excitement, and nervousness, we had arrived and settled into our new home in Tel Aviv!

Friday, September 28, 2012

Home Leave Part 4 - Oregon and Beyond

None of us had ever been to Oregon, so we didn't have much of an idea of what to do. We knew that we wanted to check out Portland at some point, but beyond that, we were lost. I'd been reading Wild, so I really wanted to see some of the volcanic features of Oregon like Crater Lake and Mt. Hood, but I also recognized that we didn't have that much time to hang out in Oregon, especially if we wanted to see friends in Idaho and Colorado. Besides, we'd been surrounded by volcanoes in El Salvador, so what's the big deal anyway? So, we did what any tourist does - we bought a Lonely Planet guide to Washington & Oregon, the first time I've done that for a place in the US.
With our guide in hand, we decided to head down the Oregon coast and see what differences there were between it and Washington. The beaches seemed similar, but we were blown away by the feeling of natural-ness on the Oregon coast - something that is really hard to find on the east coast, save for a few places like Cumberland Island. Our first stop was at the Short Sands beach in Oswald West State Park. We had a grand time checking out the sea life living in the tidal ponds: starfish, sea anemone, small fish, algae. Although the weather was a bit cool for beach-going weather, we still enjoyed the beach immensely. After the beach, we were thinking about potentially heading inland to do some hikes the following day, but it just seemed so much easier to stay at the beach and relax, so that's what we did. We drove down to Nehalem Bay State Park and spent the night just on the other side of the dunes from the beach. This is a huge state park and it was almost entirely full, but it was still pretty relaxing.


We got up the next day to head to Portland. We checked our Lonely Planet and decided to go to the Kennedy School, since it seemed like the most Portland thing we could find. It's hard to describe what this place is - it's an old school building that has been repurposed into a hotel with pool, gym, a few bars, a few restaurants, a theatre that serves beer, and a few other amenities. It's really well done, and I think if we lived in Portland it would have been a pretty cool place to grab drinks. However, going there in the middle of the day is a bit weird. For one thing, it's an old school building, so that means it's in the middle of suburbia. Also, we weren't hungry and it felt too early for beers, so we just ended up checking it out and moving on.

We parked in Portland and walked around. None of us really felt like doing a tour or anything formal, so I ended up texting a few friends who have been to Portland, and that is how we found our way to the Dechutes brewpub. They have a tasting option, so we spent the next few hours eating great food and drinking great beer. It was pretty chill. Although I wanted to continue our beer tasing escapades by heading to the Rogue brewpub, we ended up grabbing donuts at Voodoo Donuts. The donuts at this place are pretty out there, both in names and in content.


Sophie's sister left us the next morning, flying back to Tennessee in the wee hours of the morning. Our next stop was Boise, which was about a 9 hour drive from Portland. I used to play The Oregon Trail a lot as a kid, so it was pretty fun driving through all these places that were in the game. As we drove through The Dalles, I imagined myself guiding my overladen wagon cart through the rapids as I sought to keep my family safe - the same family that had escaped dysentery, snake bites, and starvation. Fun times.

We got to Boise in the early afternoon. Boise is gorgeous, and our friends there were quick to brag about how they can mountain bike from their door and be on a great trail within 10 minutes. I was definitely jealous, although we didn't have time for them to prove it to us. Instead, they gave us a tour of their house before we headed out to the pedestrian mall in Boise. We dined at a place that had locally-sourced ingredients and beer in red text, and everything else in black. I think I had a really good burger, but since I forgot to take my camera, my memory, now a good 2.5 months later, is a bit hazy. I do know that we tried some beers from the Boise area that were fantastic. We were sad to leave Boise after just a single night there, but Colorado was calling.
Lovely Boise
Our drive to Colorado was very trying. At about 13-14 hours, it was the longest stretch of driving that we'd had so far, it was hot, and it was everything we could do to not go crazy as we drove across flat, flat Wyoming. Don't get me wrong, Wyoming is a beautiful state, but I-80 can drag on forever. We were both extremely happy when we finally arrived at my sister's house in Denver.

Our time in Denver flew by. We slept in and then met up with a friend in Boulder for lunch. For dinner, my sister had set us up with reservations at a new, super-hip restaurant in Denver that served street food from around the world. I don't think they had pupusas, but we did eat a ton of other great street food, too many different things to name. Oh, and there was good beer, of course. When the dessert menu came, I just about jumped out of my chair in excitement because there, on the menu, was coffee from El Salvador! Sleep be damned - I loved my double espresso at the end of the night.

My sister took the next day off so we could all go for a hike. We drove west for about an hour before stopping at a parking lot that was literally just off the interstate. After about 15 minutes of mostly uphill hiking, we could not longer hear or see the interstate, and we were walking among majestic mountains, tall trees, and beautiful streams. Our goal was Herman Lake, a small glacier lake tucked in the mountains. About 2/3 of the way there, it started hailing. Luckily, we were still below treeline, so we just waited for the storm to pass, about 20 minutes. When we got to the top, the weather had cleared and we had great vistas. It was a perfect day to be up there. As we headed down, it was starting to look like a storm was coming in. It hadn't rained in Denver for a long time, so none of us had brought our rain jackets, so we were a bit worried about how unprepared we were. However, we ended up timing things perfectly because about 30 seconds after we got into the car, a deluge of rain came down. My sister rejoiced at the rain as we carefully made our way out of the mountains, unable to see much in front of us since the rain was coming down so hard.

my three favorite ladies
That night, we ate dinner with my sister, her boyfriend, and one of the groomsmen from our wedding, who I hadn't seen since the wedding. Once again, great food and great beer. We were sad to leave Denver, but our next destination was the Royal Gorge in Cañon City, Colorado, where Sophie's brother was working as a raft guide.

We had a great time rafting down the Arkansas River and going through the Royal Gorge. The sheer walls of the gorge are very humbling. Simply beautiful. After rafting, we got dinner with Sophie's brother before finding a hotel room. The hotel looked pretty simple from the outside, but little did I know that many famous people had stayed at this hotel. A significant number of rooms in the hotel had placards next to the rooms saying "Goldie Hahn stayed here" or "John Belushi slept here." Our biggest mistake was not knowing to ask for the Belushi room. Hopefully it'd been cleaned up in the past 40 years.


Cañon City marked the end of the destinations for our road trip. We then had to make our way back to Tennessee. It was a long haul, but we decided to take a quick side-trip to 'Garden of the Gods' in Colorado Springs. It would've been fun to climb or camp here, but we just did a quick hike and were on our way.

If you've ever made the trip through the middle of Kansas on I-70, then you know there ain't nothing there for you to see. We made it half way through Missouri before stopping. After spending the night, we decided to try to take a trip up the St. Louis Arch. The arch itself is really pretty since it's surrounded by a huge park and the Mississippi River. Going up in the arch is quite an experience - they ask you if you're claustrophobic or afraid of heights before selling you a ticket, and, well, those are two good questions to ask, since the pod that carries you up is really small. It fits 5 people in it, all sitting. Even though I was sitting, I still had to hunch over. It's a pretty cool experience and I'd recommend it to people who are passing through.
the highlight of Kansas - wind turbine rotors!
inside the pod
the view from the top

After St. Louis, we made the long haul to Nashville, where we stopped and saw a few friends from high school who are now parents. We came, we ate, we danced, and then we decided that we were tired of traveling and finally got on the road for the final 2 hour push back to Chattanooga. It was good to be home, even though we had only a few days left before we would be making the long flight to Israel.
She's going to be a dancer

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Home Leave Part 3 - Washington State

We drove into Seattle and picked up Sophie's sister and spent the day checking out Seattle. Of course, we drank a lot of coffee. We really didn't have any ideas on what to do in Seattle, so we went with the typical tourist ideas: Pike Place fish market, coffee, food, and the Space Needle. When we got to the Space Needle, we found a Dale Chihuly exhibit next door. Sophie knew this was there, but I guess I just hadn't been paying attention. Strangely, we had never heard of Chihuly until the week before, when Sophie's parents were watching a PBS special about his work. Basically, the guy is a phenomenal glass blower and has created some of the coolest works of art I've ever seen. I'm the kind of guy who goes into the Louvre and says "yea, ok, can we eat yet?" but man is Chihuly's stuff different. It's just fascinating.
those boats are real boats - so, this stuff is quite big
just to be clear, that big green thing on the right is mostly glass, and was made for an exhibition in Phoenix (I think)
After the Chihuly exhibit, we went up into the Space Needle, which was fun, although now that I've done it, I probably won't do it again. heh. On our walk back to our hotel, we found a great place to eat that had great food and great beers. The US really does have the best beer scene in the world.

The next morning, we drove up to Anacortes, Washington to take the ferry over to our next destination: the San Juan Islands. Sophie had been there before, and she was gushing about the beauty of the place and the whales. Sophie loves whales. On our ferry ride out there, we passed a few harbor seals swimming by. When we got to San Juan Island, we immediately got into a van and made our way to the put-in for our sea kayaking whale watching tour. Of course, they can't guarantee that you will see the whales, so Sophie was prepared to do whatever was necessary for us to see whales, even if that meant extending our time in the San Juans and doing kayaking trips every day. Luckily, this turned out to be a non-issue, because a pod of whales swam by as we were packing up the kayaks. Our tour guide was probably in her 50s or 60s and I really have never seen a person of that age as downright giddy as she was when she saw the whales. She has lived there for the past 5 years, sees the whales on most days, and still gets excited to see them. Hopefully I'll have the same zeal for the world around me when I get to be her age. Our sea kayaking trip was fun - we paddled down the coast for about an hour before stopping and having lunch. After lunch, the whales swam back by, so we got to see them once again, although this time they were much closer to shore. On our way back, we saw seven harbor seals sunning themselves and a bunch of purple starfish. Good stuff.
kayaking amongst the bull kelp
a whale passing by another group of kayakers
We spent the night in a state park right on the water, hoping to hear whales go by at night. Alas, this didn't happen, but one can dream, right? On the first night, our campsite was next to a group of a bunch of boy scouts. They were very well behaved, but the next morning, the leaders seemed to be complaining to the camp host about raccoons getting into their stuff, seemingly implying that the camp host should have told the scout leaders about raccoons. Come on, man. As an Eagle Scout, it was annoying to hear a car-camping scout leader complaining about wildlife bothering him. Sigh
nighttime at the campsite

We spent the rest of our time on San Juan Island checking out English Camp, American Camp, and enjoying Friday Harbor, the tiny town on San Juan Island. Apparently, there was a serious land dispute between England and the US over who owned the San Juan Islands. This lead to the Brits and Americans both stationing troops at opposite ends of the island. Luckily, there was no war about it, and the disagreement was solved peacefully. While in Friday Harbor, we went to the whale museum and learned about the fascinating subject of marine mammals. Essentially, it is believed that marine mammals actually lived on land for a long period of time before returning to the water. Pretty neat. I also learned that the orca whales in this region were placed on the endangered species list in 2005, which is really sad. Washington state is removing some dams on rivers that used to have large salmon runs, but it may be too-little, too-late, since many people think that the population size is small enough to where the ill-effects of inbreeding may restrict population growth. Hopefully they're just being pessimists, but regardless, I am very grateful to have seen these beautiful creatures swim by.
a butterfly in English Camp
After Friday Harbor, we took a ferry over to Vancouver Island and Victoria in British Columbia. We spent 3-4 hours in Victoria before catching another ferry to Olympic National Park back in Washington State. Victoria at this time of year was gorgeous, and I got some great pictures of your everyday Canadians.
sharing a 'pink cow' (ice cream + pink cream soda) in Victoria. The B.C. parliamentary building is in the background. Note the Canadians.
the harbor in Victoria
I had heard of Olympic National Park, but to be honest, I'd never investigated what we were going to see there. The prominence of the mountains there is amazing. They basically rise from sea level all the way up to 7,980'... and there are tons of peaks. We dropped off tents at the Heart o' the Hills campsite before driving up to Hurricane Ridge. We got extremely lucky, because there weren't many clouds obscuring our view from Hurricane Ridge. It's really pretty up there - in one direction, you see nothing but peaks. In the other direction, you see the ocean. Pretty neat.
the Olympics as seen from the ferry
Hurricane Ridge
After spending the night at Heart O' the Hills, we headed out the next morning to check out Sol Duc Falls. We had a great hike there. Again, it's hard to complain when you're surrounded by such huge, majestic, covered-in-green, trees. After our hike, we made our way to Forks and Rialto Beach. Sophie and her sister were both obsessed with the Twilight series, so we got lots of pictures of Forks, even though the little town isn't that interesting. The city does have a pretty good humor about it - they have signs warning of werewolves and vampires. They've definitely taken advantage of all of the press.
Sol Duc Falls

Rialto Beach is simply stunning. I spread out a camping pad on the stones, read, and took a nap while Sophie and her sister ventured up the beach to see some more sea stacks. You really could not have asked for a nicer day at Rialto Beach - blue sky with a few clouds, warm-ish temperatures, and, of course, the beautiful sound of the ocean. Rialto Beach is also covered in huge driftwood trees, making for a uniquely-Washington experience.
quite a large drift-tree
Sophie's sister climbing on a sea stack 
sea stacks seen through a hole in the roots of this ancient tree
We spent the night at a campsite near Rialto Beach. We woke up and started driving towards our next destination: Oregon. Along the way, on a random stretch of road without much around it and still inside Olympic National Park, we came across a few animals that looked to be dogs. It was a bit strange to see a group of obviously-from-the-same-litter dogs in a deserted stretch of road, so we laughed that maybe these were actually wolves. Well, it turns out that there are wolves in Olympic National Park, and we found pictures of these wolves that looked exactly like the 'dogs' we saw. So, I'm going to say we saw wolves. Cool! We didn't chase them into the woods to get pictures, but maybe we should have.

Our last place to visit in Washington state was the Quinault Rain Forest. Of course, it was gorgeous. We were sad to leave Washington, but we were also excited to see a new state for all of us: Oregon!

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Home Leave Part 2 - Glacier National Park

After North Dakota, we drove across most of Montana before arriving in Glacier National Park. Originally, we had planned on doing a backpacking trip of some sort in Glacier, but we jettisoned that idea because it required too much advance planning and it would have also meant that we would have to bring our big backpacks in our checked luggage, which would have made it hard for us to bring everything we might need for the months living out of our suitcases. So, we settled on just doing day hikes.

When we first got to Glacier, it was raining and foggy, which was a bit of a bummer. However, our spirits were lifted when we discovered that the campsite we stayed at just inside Glacier came with hot showers. It had been a few days since we showered, so it was definitely nice to be able to get rid of the grime and sweat. We didn't feel like eating in the rain, so we ate at a restaurant, hoping the rain would stop while we ate. Luckily for us, it did stop, but only for about an hour. We were able to get our tent up and get into bed before it started really raining.

When we got up the next morning, it was still foggy. We were hoping to jump on the Highline Trail out of Logan Pass, but as our car climbed up to Logan Pass, we quickly realized that there was a very small chance that we could do this. When we got to Logan Pass, we couldn't see much, there was snow everywhere, and the wind was kicking up something fierce. We were definitely not prepared, although I think we had enough warm stuff that we could have attempted it. However, the park rangers told us that the trail was closed, and we didn't put up a fight. We decided to instead head back down the pass and do a short hike out to St. Mary's waterfall and Virginia Falls. We'd passed it on the way up and there wasn't a single car in the parking lot. When we returned about an hour later, the parking lot was almost completely full. I guess people visiting Glacier aren't early birds. Anyway, as we hiked, we got a few fleeting views of the towering mountains around us, but I was beginning to think that these fleeting views would be all we would get in Glacier, so I was mentally preparing myself for this letdown by taking extreme satisfaction in what we could see. This wasn't really hard, since the waterfalls were magnificent.
what we saw at Logan Pass
St. Mary's Falls
fleeting majesty 
Virginia Falls
After our hike, we started driving back up to Logan Pass. It had gotten a bit warmer, but we were still driving through the clouds. I had accepted that we weren't going to see the beautiful views that Glacier is known for - that is, of course, until we actually crossed the pass. Within half a mile of crossing the pass, we were greeted with amazing views of the glacier-shaped valleys below, and we quickly realized why the road we were driving on (the 'Going to the Sun' road) has been named one of the most breathtaking and beautiful drives in the world. I mean, the views are just spectacular, but don't just take my word for it...



Eventually, we got to 'The Loop,' which was where we had originally intended to end out hike. We parked here and started hiking towards the Granite Park Chalet. The hike (seen below) goes through a forest that had burned about 9 years prior, so there was very little shade. After our hike, we headed down the mountain and spent the night along Lake McDonald.


Lake McDonald from our campsite
With regret, we left Montana the next day, heading for Seattle. We both had been using Virgin Mobile while in the US, and its service was pretty terrible through all of Montana, so we'd been largely out of cell phone range for 3 or 4 nights. When we finally did get service, I was surprised to see that I had a few messages from my parents, who were a bit frantic because things weren't working as they should at my dad's office back in Chattanooga. I'm kind of the IT guy for my dad's office (no, I will not be your IT person as well), so we took a quick pitstop at a Safeway that had free wifi and I debugged his issue. It turned out he needed to unplug a switch (networking device) in his office and plug it back in. There's nothing like debugging someone's computer issue from your car in a parking lot of a Safeway...

Anyway, Sophie's sister was flying into Seattle on the following day, so we drove most of the way towards Seattle, stopping in Lake Easton to spend the night. Driving through eastern Washington was particularly interesting because they have a section of road where all the crops in the fields have a sign telling the passing motorist what crop is being grown. I saw sweet corn, field corn, alfalfa, peas, potatoes, lentils, and wheat. When we got to Lake Easton, we found a beautiful state park that had awesome showers and laundry nearby. It was a bit wet, but the beauty of the trees made up for the wetness. The next day, we drove to Seattle, which is where I'll start part 3.
Lake Easton State Park

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Home Leave Part 1

It's been a while since I've posted - things have been busy. We started our home leave back in June, and I thought I'd share a little about what we did for home leave. I was going to make this a really long post, but the length of it has meant that I have been hesitant to post anything until it's done. So, here's part 1.

We successfully bookended our home leave with two weddings - one which I was in, and one which Sophie was in. We left El Salvador on a Thursday with the plan of dropping our bags off in Tennessee, and then heading up to Rhode Island on Friday for the wedding. It sounded like such a great plan, but never underestimate the pain of flying. Our flight out of San Salvador was delayed because Dallas had had bad thunderstorm the night before. This meant that the flight from Dallas to San Salvador got in late, which translated into our flight being late, since the flight crew had to have 8 hours to rest in San Salvador. The 2 hour delay wouldn't have been that big of a deal, except that it meant that we missed the only flight from Dallas to Chattanooga. American tried to route us through Chicago, but we successfully lobbied them to put us on a flight to Atlanta, where we would then board a Delta flight to Chattanooga. It all worked out, but we ended up getting home in Chattanooga at about midnight - just in time for us to fly out to Rhode Island the next day at 6am.

The wedding in Rhode Island was amazing. We got to see lots of friends from our time in Charlottesville and DC, the weather was absolutely perfect, and all the wedding festivities were fun. Good times.


After the wedding, we made a quick stop in Boston to visit my one-and-only nephew before heading back to Chattanooga for a few days. After a few days in Chattanooga and Birmingham, we embarked on an epic 7,100 mile road trip.

Our first stop on our road trip was the boundary waters of Minnesota. This is a large area of rivers and lakes that borders Canada. There are campsites (with latrines!) along most of the lakes, but you can only get in and out via canoe. Many of the lakes are connected via small, navigable rivers, but you also have to portage (e.g. carry your canoe and all your stuff) a fair bit. The timing worked out well, such that one of our good friends could join us for this 4 day excursion.

It took us around 20 hours to get up to Ely, MN, the gateway to the boundary waters. The timing worked out such that we were able to spend the night with a friend in Chicago. After Chicago, we had some time to burn before we had to meet our friend at the airport in Duluth, MN, so we took advantage of it. First, we passed through Madison, WI, so we decided to check it out. It's very pretty in the summer. After Madison, we were planning on just going straight to Duluth and hanging out there, waiting for our friend. However, when we started to pass through Wisconsin Dells, something caught our eye that we weren't expecting: water parks! After a quick 30 second discussion, we decided to turn around and spend about 4 hours at Kalahari, which boasts Wisconsin's largest indoor water park. Luckily, it also has a large outdoor waterpark. I love waterparks, and I've been especially itching to go to every waterpark I can ever since my favorite place as a kid, WhiteWater in Atlanta, was all but closed to us as kids after an Atlanta Braves player's son got ecoli.
Madison, WI
the outdoor park at Kalahari
It was raining hard when we got to Duluth, so we decided to spend the night in a hotel, which turned out to be a great idea since the rain never let up. From Duluth, it's about 2 hours to Ely. We woke up early in Duluth and were on the water by about noon. Boundary Waters was probably one of the most awesome outdoor experiences I've had. It's this awesome mix of natural beauty and relaxation. You have to reserve an entry date, but aside from that, you can do whatever you want. You just canoe until you want to stop. The campsites are already there, they have latrines, and you never has the prospect of sharing a campsite with anyone other than the people in your group. You can fish. You don't see that many people. Just great. Rather than go into detail on the trip, here are some pictures.

The crew before we headed out


Portaging in bug country
otter!

View Boundary Waters Trip in a larger map

After Boundary Waters, we took our friend to the Minneapolis airport. Before dropping him off, though, we took a quick trip to the Mall of America. We only had abou 15 minutes to check the place out, but that was probably enough. We saw the indoor roller coasters and the entrance to the aquarium, as well as the shops. It's worth checking out if you have a long layover in Minneapolis, mainly just to say that you've been.
Inside the Mall of America - roller coasters everywhere
Under our original road trip planning, our next stop was going to be Glacier National Park in Montana. However, when we looked at the map, we saw a little known national park situated at just about the perfect location for our road trip: Theodore Roosevelt National Park. I had never heard of this park, but it turned out being a great place to stop. We rolled in at about 4pm, but since we were so far north, we still had plenty of daylight left to explore. The main draws to this national park are the bison, the prairie dogs, and the landscape - badlands. I think this was my first time seeing prairie dogs, and they were everywhere, chirping (or 'barking') away. Much of the landscape has a really cool red color that is due to ancient coal-seam fires baking the ground around the seam. Apparently, up until the 50s or 60s, there were even some active fires and people would roast marshmallows over the wild, burning coal fire. We camped along the banks of the Little Missouri River.
prairie dog ruling his mound 

sunset at the campsite

The next day, we drove across Montana to Glacier National Park, where I'll pick up with part 2.