AndyO Blog

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Yellowstone vacation: Seattle to Big Sky (Days 1-2)

As a kid, I can remember being cooped up in the family station wagon with my brother and sister, touring Idaho, Wyoming, Washington, and Montana. So when an Olson Family Reunion was planned for Big Sky, Montana, I knew we'd be driving -- instead of flying (in a station wagon, no less).

Day 1 (July 27) - Seattle to Spokane: 420 miles

After spending Thursday and Friday in Vancouver B.C. for a Rush show with Cameron, we drove home on Saturday (141 miles). In Seattle, we picked up Brenda and Drew (and stopped for a little while) then got back on the road. After 5-1/2 hours of driving, we stopped for the night in Spokane (279 miles).

Photo: Ryegrass rest stop (looking West), about halfway between Seattle and Spokane


Day 2 (July 28) - Spokane, WA, to Big Sky, MO: 431 miles

Unfortunately all of my driving and lack of sleep started to catch up with me. I felt foggy as we headed out of Spokane at 12:30 p.m. But the incredible mountain scenery seemed to wake me up.

On this day, we would cross no fewer than three states on our way to Big Sky: Washington, Idaho, and Montana. In Idaho, the speed limit increased to 75 mph. Driving became easier, with people staying out of the left lane except to pass. For some reason, the farther we drove toward Montana the less we saw motorcyclists wearing helmets.

My parents, who were driving about four hours ahead of us on I-90, called about a billboard for a "Testicle Festival," so we were on the lookout.

Photo: Driving in Montana


Around 2:00 p.m., we crossed the Montana state line. Because Montana is on Mountain Time, we lost an hour. So it was really 3:00 p.m. (I would feel the loss of this hour as the day wore on.)

And then we saw it: A billboard for the Testicle Festival in Clinton. (No, I didn't get a photo.) But I started wondering who might go to something like this. Later, I found this on the website:

The Testy Fest is neither about balls or breast, it's about having a good time.  One might say it's an odd family reunion, you usually see the same people every year and new people are always welcome.  You don't have to earn your beads, or anything of the sort, but you can always have fun & find something to do.  Everyone is always welcoming.

The deeper I investigated this event, the more I saw that the Testicle Festival was about "balls and breasts." There are also beads involved. Here's a list of the contests for those who dare to look.

As we continued driving, the scenery changed from mountains to flat desert scrub, similar to what you see in Eastern Washington. All day we'd seen wildfires burning in the distance, and as we drove through Montana the brilliant blue sky started turning a hazy gray. It also seemed to affect Brenda's allergies.


Around 4:30, we rolled into Missoula. This was supposed to be our lunch stop, but the lost hour made it a dinner stop. After driving around town looking for a restaurant (a lot of places were closed on a Sunday), we found the Iron Horse Bar and Grill. It was exactly what we were looking for.

Photo: Downtown Missoula


Cameron and Drew noticed the slot machines in the bar as we walked to our table. One difference from Washington State is that children can be in the bar. I promised the boys we'd play the $1 slot machine after our dinner. I thought I'd use this as an opportunity to show them how quickly you lose, but we ended up winning on the first pull. It took five minutes to burn through that dollar!

Photo: Cameron and Drew love the slot machine


Then we were back on the road. Around Butte, the sky grew purple, and fat raindrops started splattering the windshield (cleaning off those bugs!). Brenda slept through most of it.

I saw a billboard advertising Evel Knievel Days, which I probably would have stopped at if I had time. (Like most kids who grew up in the 70s, I was a huge fan of Evel.) Here's a description from the website:

Evel Knievel's hometown of Butte, MT plays host to the worlds greatest celebration for the Worlds Greatest Daredevil in the finest fashion.

Started in 2002, the three-day event draws thousands of visitors from all over the world to the Mining City. Evel Knievel Days is held annually the fourth weekend of July. The 2013 festival will be July 25, 26, 27 with subsequent dates as follows

Photo: Outside Butte


Before our final push to Big Sky, we stopped at the Town Pump in Three Forks (also a Casino!). While the Town Pump was a great rest stop, it did have the distinction of having the worst smelling bathroom on the entire trip.

I also noticed how the gas prices were shockingly low: $3.88 for Premium unleaded, compared to more than $4.00 in Seattle.


It was after our turnoff at Belgrade when I really started to feel the loss of that hour from crossing into Mountain time. Darkness closed in quickly, and fog and mist hung eerily above the road. Passing trucks blasted spray at us from the wet road, reducing visibility even more. Finally we lost our cell signal, which we were using to navigate to the 320 Ranch near Big Sky.

As we headed into the Gallatin Gateway, the darkness became absolute. It was at this point I turned to Brenda and said, "I'm not sure I can keep going." I'd been driving for close to 6 hours, and my ability to concentrate was depleted. Brenda offered to drive, but I thought I could keep going with her help. Brenda finally remembered the mile marker for the 320 Ranch, which we checked when we got a tiny cell signal.

We arrived at the 320 Ranch after 10:00 p.m. The front desk was closed, but they'd left our key and paperwork for us. Only there was no key. Thinking the doors might just be unlocked, we drove through more darkness to our cabin on the Gallatin River. It was indeed locked up, so we headed back to the office. Fortunately, a staff person at the restaurant was able to get us a key.

We got into our cabin and unloaded under one of the most brilliant night skies I've ever seen -- second only to Santa Fe, New Mexico.

And then I collapsed on the bed.

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posted by AndyO @ 11:51 PM   0 comments

Friday, July 26, 2013

Rush in Vancouver B.C. - Day 2: Sightseeing - July 26

Cameron and I woke up late on Friday. (And when I say "late," I'm talking 11:30 a.m.). I opened the curtains and was blasted with pure, Canadian sunshine. Below, the streets and sidewalks were teeming with life.


Across the street at Teck Emergency Centre, patients dragged their IV carts (or dialysis machines) outside so they could steal a smoke. There were also strange phallic balloons poking out of hospital windows. At first I thought this look like some kind of bizarre procedure going on inside that room. Then, I wondered if it was an indication of a negative pressure room. From what I read, negative pressure rooms are used for someone with tuberculosis or another condition that requires a respiratory isolation protocol. (See picture below.)


Anyway, after we got showered and dressed, we headed out onto the crowded Vancouver sidewalks. The first thing I noticed was the modern, gleaming design of the Sheraton Wall Centre hotel. (Too bad the service level didn't match the architecture.)


As we walked toward our destination of Canada Place, two BMW motorcycles drove by at a casual pace, one red and one black. I knew from the look of the bikes that this was most likely Rush drummer Neil Peart and his riding partner Michael Mosbach.

I'm always amazed by the synchronicity you experience on trips (like running into someone you know). Not only were Cameron and I going to the Rush concert that night, but were actually meeting Michael Mosbach before the show.

But I'm getting ahead of the story...

Memories collide on the Vancouver Waterfront

One of the crown jewels in Vancouver (at least for me) is Canada Place. We'd once stayed there for one of Brenda's business conferences at the wonderful Pan Pacific Hotel. Cameron had only been 6 or 7 months old.


It was during that that trip that my Grandpa Olson had passed away after battling pancreatic cancer. I'd seen him only days before, although he was mostly unconscious (in hospice care at his home). 

I remember getting the call from my Mom in the morning that he had passed. Brenda was gone at the conference, so I couldn't talk to her. I felt a little cut off (and guilty) for not being there with my Dad, Grandma, and family. So I took Cameron out on the sidewalks of Vancouver in his stroller. As anyone knows, you can't stay sad around a baby for very long.

On this current trip, my 13-year-old Cameron and I walked around Canada Place, looking at the shops and exhibits and cruise ships. 


One cruise ship in particular was gigantic: Royal Caribbean's The Radiance of the Seas, pictured here:


Later I looked up the specs on the Royal Caribbean site:

With acres of glass enclosing the nine-story central atrium, elevators facing the sea, and floor-to-ceiling windows throughout, you'll never be at a loss for an incredible view.

Radiance reminded me of the Titanic, mostly because of its size and extravagance (although I know there are ships that are bigger and more extravagant).


Historic Gastown

We strolled to Historic Gastown so we could enjoy another Vancouver tradition: eating at the Old Spaghetti Factory. (It's also become a sort of tradition before Rush shows -- at least in Canada. When I travelled to Toronto in 2007 to see Rush in their home city on two different nights, we ate at the Spaghetti Factory on both nights!)


During our lunch, Cameron secretly listened for a genuine Canadian "Eh?" He wasn't disappointed.


After eating a plate of pasta for our first (and only substantial meal) of the day, we went back to our hotel for a break before the Rush show. I knew we'd need to conserve our energy.

Of course the maids hadn't cleaned the room, but that really shouldn't have surprised me. I was starting to think the Sheraton really didn't want us staying there again.

Bonus photo: The view of the city from Canada Place


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posted by AndyO @ 8:27 PM   0 comments

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Rush in Vancouver B.C. - Day 1 - July 25, 2013

For the second time in two years, Rush brought the Clockwork Angels Tour to the Pacific Northwest. In November 2012, they'd played downtown Seattle at Key Arena; but this time around, they were playing Vancouver B.C. (Friday) and the Portland, OR, area (Sunday).

Being the Rush fan I am, I usually try to see all the shows in the area. But I was leaving for a family reunion in Yellowstone on Saturday, which meant I could only see the Friday show. My 13-year-old son was also going with me, so I decided to extend the trip into a few nights, instead of driving up and back in one day. (I was also wary of crossing the border on a Friday.) 

With our plan in place, Cameron and I set off to Vancouver around 7:00 p.m. on Thursday, a 2-1/2 hour drive.

Cameron is ready to rock

It was a perfect night for traveling with clear skies and light traffic -- until we got to the U.S./Canadian border. Since we were driving on Thursday (and not Friday), I was expecting 15-30 minutes to cross into Canada. But it took over an hour.

At least the view was good:


After crossing the border and driving for a little while, I looked in my rearview mirror. There I saw the moon peeking over the horizon, red and ominous, like the Eye of Sauron.

This isn't my photo (after all, I was driving!), but this is what the moon looked like (thanks to Luis Argerich for taking this one):


Arriving in Vancouver: Sheraton Wall Center disappoints

We arrived at our hotel around 11:00 p.m. after 4 hours in the car. As we climbed the escalator to the main lobby, we heard the strains of Latin piano drifting from the bar, accompanied by a rhythm track. A few older couples were dancing smoothly. Cameron noted how "everyone is dressed up in fancy clothes."

We had to wait to check in, as only one person was working at the front desk (and the man in front of us was asking a lot of questions). Finally, it was our turn, but as we were checking in the woman at the front desk said, "Your room with one king bed is in the south tower -- "

"Wait, didn't I book two beds?" I asked.

"You did, but I don't have any rooms left with two beds. Also, Mr. Olson, it is after 11:00 p.m."

Even though she was right (I was arriving at 11:00 p.m.), it was almost comical to hear this tone coming from someone in the hospitality industry. I think she must have realized how she sounded, as she said we could call the next day to check for an alternate room.

After that, we went downstairs again to get our bags and waited for another five minutes for the valet (a long time when you're really tired). Then we walked to the "south tower," which meant going back up the escalator and walking about 100 yards.

Once in the south tower lobby, we waited five more minutes for an elevator (due to a large crowd). On the sixth floor, we walked though a labyrinth hallway to our room.

But our key didn't work.

As I kept trying the key, doubt started to creep into my exhausted mind that we were in the right place. I pictured a couple waking up in their king-size bed, wondering who was trying to break in. So I decided to haul all our bags and weary bodies to the south tower lobby again.

I didn't see anyone to ask in the lobby, so I went outside to interrupt the valets wearing fancy hats in the midst of an important midnight conversation. They looked at my key and verified that we were indeed in the right place -- then went back to their important conversation.

Back at our room, the key opened the door. As we unpacked and settled in, I realized how much I yearned for hospitality and customer service after a long day of travel. And I if I'm paying over $300 (U.S.) per night, I kind of expect that level of service. (I would find out later through reviews on Expedia that many people reported similar experiences at the Sheraton Wall Centre -- even though it averages 4 out of 5 stars.)

Our one king bed at the Sheraton

Cam and I went to bed around 12:30. He fell asleep right away, but I was up until around 2:00 a.m..

For some reason, Vancouver is one of the loudest cities -- especially when you're right across the street from an emergency room. I cranked the air conditioner to try to drown it out, but it still sounded like periodic battles on the streets below.

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posted by AndyO @ 11:32 PM   0 comments

Thursday, July 04, 2013


Update - 7/12 - The update is mostly live now. You still might see a few broken links here and there. If you see a page that has the old design, try refreshing the page.


Just wanted to let everyone know that I'm working on rolling out a new design for the website over the next few days. Once it's up and running, I'll post an update.

Thanks for your patience!

posted by AndyO @ 5:47 PM   0 comments