A Travellerspoint blog

Motor City, USA

STATE 26 - MICHIGAN

overcast 25 °F

Michigan is a state filled with lakes and natural beauty. It has more coastline than any state (other than Alaska) and touches 4 of the Great Lakes. Michigan is the 11th largest state (approximately the size of Wyoming, and largest east of the Mississippi River). Although Michigan is the 8th most populated state, over half of that population lives in a single metro area. This metro area is not known for its natural beauty, but rather for being the car capital of the world. The home to General Motors and Ford, Megan and I are headed to Detroit!

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Fittingly, we are not entering Detroit by plane, bus, or boat, but by automobile. Southern Michigan looks exactly like Northern Ohio, farms surrounded by corn fields. But it wasn't long before we passed signs that we were entering Motown.

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The fields slowly transitioned into factories and clouds of steam. We passed the plant that builds the Ford Mustang and the Mazda 6 and another factory that stamps the panels for Ford cars. The oil refinery tried to distract us (unsuccessfully) from the eyesore of pipes and dirty buildings by painting the natural gas containers in patriotic colors or as a giant basketball.

My friends who grew up in Detroit warned me several times that I need to be careful going around downtown (they stared at me in wide-eyed horror when I said I would walk from the casino to Ford Field, a distance of a few blocks). One friend even said that red lights are optional when driving around downtown ("if you feel threatened at a red light, just go through it and get the heck out of there!"). With manufacturing covering up any natural beauty and constant warnings about safety, I was pleasantly surprised when we entered downtown.

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Even the gray skies of a Midwest winter couldn't cover up the history that exuded everywhere in this city. The classic architecture of older skyscrapers standing next to their flashy neighbors told the story of a once-prosperous city with a rich history reinventing itself. Despite stopping at several red lights, no one ever approached me (in fact, no one was really even in the streets since it was so cold out). We parked in the parking deck of the Greektown Casino (it was free parking) and made our way down to the street level.

Now, as I have already mentioned, I talked to several Detroiters in preparation for this trip. I was told explicitly to not try to walk around downtown, but use the public rail system called the People Mover (jokingly called the "Mugger Mover"). Since I didn't see any hooligans running rampant through the streets, I figured it was safe to leave the parking deck and walk across the street to the People Mover station. We paid our dollar to get on and started our tour around the city. While I consulted the city map to get my bearings, we took in the sights of downtown Detroit from the warmth of the rail car. Very few people could be seen on the streets below on this late Friday afternoon, and only a handful of cars were driving around. Downtown looked reasonably clean for such a large city, and the area next to the Tiger's baseball stadium and Ford Field looked a little more lively. The stop we wanted to get off was only 200 yards away from where we originally boarded, so after completing an entire circuit we got off at the jewel of the Detroit skyline, the Renaissance Center (home of General Motors).

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Megan and I walked around the Renaissance Center to reach the shoreline of the Detroit River. We could see the city of Windsor, Canada just on the other side of the river. The sun was starting to set, and it was very cold. We stopped for a quick picture before continuing our walk along the waterfront. In the picture below, Canada is on the left side of the river and Detroit is to the right.

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At the end of the walkway along the river, we stopped at Joe Louis Arena, the home of the Red Wings (Detroit's Professional Hockey Team). Before the Hurricanes moved to Raleigh, I was a big time Red Wings fan, so it was pretty cool to see the arena (the building itself wasn't really much to look at otherwise).

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We wandered into the plaza park between Joe Louis Arena and the Renaissance Center. We continued moving through downtown back towards the Greektown area (where we had parked). It was a little early for dinner, but we were both starving and figured we could beat the dinner rush by grabbing an early bite to eat.

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Greektown is a historical downtown area that features many Greek Restaurants, deserteries, and the Greektown Casino. Originally a Greek neighborhood, the area is now more of a commercial area, but the city and neighborhood took steps to preserve the Greek atmosphere.

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Greek restaurants lined both sides of the street, so I patiently waited (while my stomach growled impatiently) for Megan to check all the menus before finally selecting one. The restaurant, New Parthenon, was authentically decorated and we had a very attentive Greek waiter. We ordered the flamed cheese for an appetizer, which our waiter exuberantly shouted "Opa!" when he lit it on fire, and then a Greek platter that had nearly everything (hummus, pita, stuffed grape leaves, moussaka, and lamb shank to just name a few). Great service, great food, and it was surprisingly inexpensive!

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After dinner we walked to a cafe to get some Greek desserts. Baklava, sweet rolls, and all types of cakes filled the cases. It was tough to choose just one, so we got multiple desserts to make sure we didn't miss out on anything!

Megan had never been to Canada, and being this close, she couldn't resist the urge to cross the border. After our desserts, we walked back to the car and headed towards the Great White North.

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We paid a toll on the American side of the tunnel, went under the Detroit River, and arrived at the traffic jam entering Canada. Cars slowly divided into lanes to cross the border. I picked the wrong lane, as the lanes on either side were passing three cars through for every one in our lane. As we pulled up to the Canadian border guard, I put on my cheeriest face and prepared for a pleasant conversation (all the Canadians I know are extremely nice and easy going). This guy was not nice or easy going. Here is how the conversation went:

Guard (before I had even stopped the car): "License plate number."
Me: "Hold on one second, I have to look it up." (it was a rental)
Guard (after waiting impatiently for 5 seconds): "Come on, give me the license plate number."
Me: [license plate number]
Guard: "Why are you driving up from Cleveland?"
Me (slightly confused): "Huh? I've never been to Cleveland, we are driving in from Detroit." (no duh)
Guard: "Who is the car registered to?"
Me: "I'm not sure." (and once I realized this was the WRONG thing to say, quickly added) "Enterprise, I guess."
Guard (now furiously tapping away at his terminal): "Why are you bring a rental into Canada?"
Me: "I got a rental after I flew into town."
Guard: Where are you headed?
Me: "I'm not sure, we are going to grab a bite to eat."
Guard (raising his voice and asking incredulously): "You don't know where you are going?!?"
Me (now realizing I just made another big mistake, I strained to remember the name of the bar we were headed to)
Megan (sarcastically): "We are headed to Danny's," (the name of the all male strip club), "do you like it?"
Me (cutting Megan off): "Sunny's, we are going to Sunny's".
Guard: "Place must not be very good, I've lived here all my life and never heard of it."

At this point Megan was frustrated with this guy's attitude, I was trying to stay polite to the guard and hush Megan, and the guard asked a few more questions before reluctantly handing our passports back. Leaving the guard behind us, we traveled 45 minutes into Canada (I had wanted to find a neighborhood bar far from the border so that Megan could get a real Canadian experience, not just drunken American 19 year-olds).

We pulled up to the tiny neighborhood bar and found two seats at the bar (there was only 25 seats total in the entire place). We were easily the youngest people there by 20 years, and I'm sure the only non-regulars in the place. The bartender took our drink order, and then immediately identified us as Americans. After finding out we were from South Carolina (he didn't understand that there is actually a North Carolina), he asked some friendly questions about the States. A veteran bar-fly sitting next to Megan (who had obviously has quite a few before we arrived), began talking her ear off. Canadian NHL Hockey, working in Alberta (western Canadian Province), Hurricanes hockey, CFL Superbowl, and more hockey were his favorite topics. At the encouragement of her new friend, Megan ordered poutine (fries with gravy and cheese curds), a Canadian specialty. As Megan drank more beers, more and more people became interested in the conversation. I had to fight off people wanting to buy us beers (no way I was crossing the border drunk after the experience earlier), and Megan ended up getting her food on the house. When it finally time to go, Megan and a herd of Canadians fought me to stay longer by bribing me with more free beer.

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As we headed back to the border crossing, Detroit's skyline shone across the river. It was pretty impressive.

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After going under the river and emerging on the American side, I was the only car in sight. I slowly headed towards one of the crossing booths, and right before entering the booth I realized that it was closed. I swerved to what I thought was an open lane, and then a series of really quick, bright flashes went off (the kind when you run a red light). My heart dropped as I realized I had probably just tried to run the border and snipers were locking targets on my car. A puzzled guard leaned out of the booth and motioned for me to pull forward. Swerving to switch lanes at the last second, stopping 20 feet before I was supposed to—so much for not looking drunk. The American guard gave me grief about the rental car and asked to search the trunk, but I guess I was more prepared this time to be interrogated. Thankfully we were allowed back into the country and headed to my friend Chris's parents' house for the night.

The next morning, we awoke to find our car dusted in snow and completely frosted over. One more reason for living in the South (or at least having a garage).

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Megan and I drove out of Detroit and headed south to Dearborn, the site of The Rouge, a gigantic Ford manufacturing plant. We were going to the Ford Museum, a massive museum with rooms and rooms of collections. The first thing we see coming in the door? One of the most recognizable automobiles in the world—the weinermobile.

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The first section of the museum we walked through focused on Henry Ford's engine that was used in farming equipment. Giant combines and harvesters stood next to displays showing how Ford's engines helped power Michigan's agriculture. The coolest part? I got sit behind the wheel of the harvester!

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The museum had displays on life in America during the 20th century demonstrating what is was like to grow up in each decade (you could practice hiding under your desk for bomb raids, listen to a radio broadcast of War of the Worlds (that people originally thought was real), dance in an 80s music video, or watch a nickel movie with WWII updates). The museum also had hundreds of cars, including the car JFK was shot in (bringing back memories of investigating the JFK assassination conspiracy in Texas), the bus Rosa Parks rode on when she was arrested (which was cool since Megan and I had just walked the bus route in Montgomery), and the original Ford car.

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There were additional sections of the museum focusing on aircraft, train engines, and humongous steam engines. Most of the sections had displays where you could sit in the aircraft or walk though the train. A new section of the museum was about to open, "Driving Across America", which featured row after row of old cars. And no roadtrip through America is complete without a stop at McDonalds.

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The museum was cool, but it focused more on history and cultural education than Ford and his company. That all changed once we boarded the bus to go into The Rouge and view the manufacturing facility.

Ford tried three times to start a car company, partnering with the Dodge brothers in one failed venture and leaving the future Cadillac Motor Company in another. On the fourth try, Ford finally made his mark. As we learned in history class, he created the assembly line, paid his employees more than the national average, and implemented vertical integration of production (meaning he took raw materials all the way to finished product). The Rouge is the crowning achievement of all those innovations. A river was built to allow raw materials to be dumped next to the manufacturing plant. Iron ore was forged into steel on site, as well as raw materials being turned into glass. The place is massive, and it is still in use today.

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The tour guide spent a large chunk of time talking about the environmentally friendly innovations at The Rouge. Bee hives next to orchards between buildings, a living roof, porous concrete that filters rain water, and modified wetlands surrounding the complex have been added to present you with an image of an environmentally friendly company. As great as these innovations may be, I still couldn't see the beauty of the Michigan wilderness around the endless factories and smoke stacks.

However, the tour did allow you to walk through the factory where they build F-150s, and it was incredible. The basic frames enter at one end, and a completed car drives out the other (just like in Ford's original assembly line). Everyone had a very specific job, and the cars never stopped moving on the assembly line. One guy put speakers in, while another attached the steering wheel. One guy's job was to open and close every tailgate to make sure it was attached correctly. While the jobs may be boring, it was pretty efficient.

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After taking a loop around the factory, we left the Ford Museum and The Rouge. Our trip through Michigan was over and it was time to move on. We continued South, leaving Michigan the same way we entered—in our automobile through fields and farmlands.

Posted by Mike.Flynn 13:48 Archived in USA Tagged museum local_food travel_trouble Comments (0)

The Most Southern Place on Earth - Mississippi

STATE 25 - MISSISSIPPI

sunny 90 °F

Mississippi is the Most Southern Place on Earth. Well, geographically it is not the most southern on the Earth, or even the most southern in the US. But according to James C. Cobb, a former president of the Southern Historical Association, due to its unique racial, cultural, and economic history, no place is more southern. Megan and I were headed down to Mississippi to rub elbows with the locals and attend a down-South wedding!

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It should come as no surprise that the Mississippi lies in the Mississippi River Valley (the Mississippi River runs along the length of Mississippi's western border). The Mississippi River has greatly influenced much of Mississippian culture, from antebellum times to current day. The state of Mississippi is relatively flat, so when the river floods, its effects can be far reaching. Megan and I decided to stretch our legs after a long ride in the car and experience the Mississippi River runoff first hand by taking a hike through the floodplain.

It was a hot, muggy morning despite being late September. My shirt was sticking to my back and it was barely 9am, good thing we were hitting the trail before it got even warmer. Megan and I checked in at the front desk and told the ranger we were going on the river trail. Upon hearing our trail choice, the ranger looked up and said, "you watch out now, I heard the mosquitoes are real bad right now." I didn't give the warning much thought. Back home in North Carolina you have to deal with mosquitoes every second of every day during the non-winter months. Mosquitoes may be a nuisance, but they aren't going to keep me from taking a hike. We said good bye to the ranger and started off on the trail.

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The trail was dominated by wooden walkways. The river runoff trail could get pretty soggy, and large portions of the trail wound through marsh land. We descended lower and lower into the valley until we reached the bottom of the valley and the marshlands extended off in every direction. There was very little direct sunlight beneath the canopy of the trees, no wind at all, and the water seemed completely stagnant.

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As I followed Megan on the trail, I noticed her shadow looked really weird. It seemed be vibrating and inconsistent. Suddenly it hit me, it wasn't Megan's shadow I was seeing, it was the thousands and thousands of mosquitoes following her! I tried to keep from panicking, but I realized that if we stopped moving, we would end up having an incredibly itchy weekend. It was just about then that Megan wanted me to stop to take the picture above. It took a lot of convincing, but I agreed to a single picture, but I was going to keep moving until the last possible second to keep the mosquitoes from landing on me. Unfortunately Megan caught my "mosquito dance" on video.

After the picture, Megan and I took off at a sprint back to the visitor's center. Once making it safely back inside, we slapped each other silly to kill the mosquitoes that were sucking us dry. My smug North Carolinian pride took a big hit as I realized that I couldn't handle the onslaught of Mississippian mosquitoes.

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The visitor's center was pretty cool. It was like a mini-zoo displaying all the types of wildlife that could be found in the Mississippi River run-offs. Terrariums filled with turtles, alligators, and snakes filled one humid room, while another had over 25 aquariums recreating the different environments of the river and forested ponds.

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I've seen plenty of turtles, bass, bluegill, catfish, and minnows before, but the museum made them seem exotic in the beautiful and realistic aquariums. As we exited the aquariums, we entered a large room filled with stuffed versions of the mammals that call Mississippi home. Megan and I posed as the different animals. I chose to mimic the boar and the bat, while Megan did her best two-headed snake impression (the snake was actually alive!).

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Megan and I left the trails and museum to grab some lunch. We headed to downtown Jackson to grab a bit to eat at the Mayflower, the restaurant from the movie The Help. The local Jackson residents we had met the night before had warned us about walking around downtown (apparently the area was full of crime and was dangerous). However, just as it was walking around downtown Montgomery, it seemed as if we had the entirety of downtown to ourselves. The security person guarding the building that we parked in front of (who watched us suspiciously as we consulted the map to get our bearings) was the ONLY person we saw while downtown. No cars, no one walking around, nothing. Even the restaurant we had planned on eating at was closed because the owner was a wedding.

Side note: Notice how weird the roads look. The were almost a pink color and seemed to be made from paved gravel instead of asphalt.

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We walked from the middle of downtown uphill to the Old Capital building and home of the war memorials. The Old Capital (the state capital building from 1839 to 1903, including when Mississippi helped form the Confederate States of America) was located in a beautiful area overlooking downtown. The following picture features the War Memorial that sits to the left of the Old Capital building.

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When Jackson was founded, the entire area was a giant swamp (not too dissimilar from the area we had hiked through that morning). I guess that's why the capital building was placed on the highest point downtown. Looking the other direction, you could see the Jackson skyline (I didn't have the best vantage point when taking the picture).

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We walked through the War Memorial. There was an area that housed the Mississippi soldiers that died in battle, as well as a number of sculptures and inscriptions honoring the soldiers. Since we were the only people there, the entire area felt very serene.

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Of course it wouldn't be a southern state capital if didn't also include a memorial to the Confederate soldiers, which was located on the other side of the Old Capital building. Standing at the heart of the memorial was a life-size statue of Jefferson Davis.

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From the site of the old capital, we walked down to the new capital building. Squirrels were everywhere and clucked loudly at us as we walked by. After taking a short rest on the benches in front of the capital, we made our way back to the car.

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That night we met up with our friends at a Mississippi restaurant, Cock of the Walk, overlooking the river. The restaurant only served two things, fried catfish or fried chicken. You could also order sides of fried onions, turnip greens, fried pickles, and cornbread. Everything is served on tin plates, and beer is served in tin pitchers. We ordered multiples of everything, it was delicious!

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The next morning Megan and I headed out to the Mississippi Ag Museum to get a feel for "the real Mississippi". The Ag Museum was actually a collection of buildings. The largest building was a museum with displays on Mississippi agriculture, but other buildings held special classes and displays. Adjacent to the museum was a collection of historic Mississippi homes and buildings that had been relocated here. We decided the check out the main museum first and work our way outside.

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Upon entering the museum, we were greeted by a very realistic looking Mississippi man.

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The man sat outside a replica of s simple house, and I guess he was supposed to represent a native of Mississippi. He was incredibly lifelike, and it wasn't until I got up close that I realized that he wasn't real. He was also pretty creepy, take a look at his eyes.

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Escaping the gaze of the Mississippi man, we entered the first display. Row and rows of different types of axes filled several walls, showcasing the various tools of the woodworkers (or the types of weapons used by the creepers represented by the man guarding the entrance).

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Reminiscent of the dinner from the night before, the museum had a display on catfish farming. Mississippi farms more catfish than anywhere else in the country. When you eat catfish, it was probably grown in Mississippi.

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The next portion of the museum focused on the cotton roots of Mississippi. At the time of the civil war, Mississippi was the 5th wealthiest state in the country due to its cotton production. Even after the war, cotton remained king. They had an old cotton gin and examples of the textiles that were produced by Mississippi.

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The best part of the museum, other than the axes and freaks, was the music that was constantly playing in the background. The upbeat, banjo-pluckin' tunes prompted Megan and I to have a hillbilly dance-off! Who do you say won?

After the dance-off, Megan and I made our way outside. After exploring the big city of Jackson, it was time to walk through Small Town Mississippi!

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The Ag Museum had actually moved buildings from historic sites around the state to create a little town. Several old houses (most of them log cabins), an old church, farm buildings, an old schoolhouse, and a trading post were just some of the buildings that made up this little town. Animals grazed in the pastures and rested in the barn. As you walked through the old homes sensors would detect as you entered each room which started an audio tour. Everything was kept was authentic as possible and was very well done.

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You could also walk into the largest (working) cotton gin in the world. It was massive! It was steam powered and even included a vacuum sucker that could pull cotton out of wagons. You had to walk up a flight of stairs to see the main compartment. As hot as it was already inside the room, I wouldn't want to be there when they fired up the cotton gin.

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Between the agriculture tour and the relaxed attitude of its residents (not to mention the delicious down-home cooking), Mississippi reminded me of life in North Carolina (although I would agree with James C. Cobb in that the Deep South is a different type of southern). Megan and I started to make our way out of the Ag Museum, but not before one last hillbilly dance in the town garden.

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Posted by Mike.Flynn 11:08 Archived in USA Tagged animals museum marshes historical local_food Comments (2)

Montgomery, Alabama

STATE 24 - ALABAMA

overcast 80 °F

Grits, Hank Williams, Rosa Parks, fried chicken, and Martin Luther King Jr can all be found in my next destination. I'm heading into the Deep South to visit Montgomery, Alabama!

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As Megan and I rolled into Montgomery, it looked like it was about to rain (and the humidity was so thick you could cut it with a knife). I hoped it wouldn't rain, because our plan was to walk through downtown to see the sights. Montgomery has played a role in some of the most significant events in our nation's history. Jefferson Davis took the oath of office here when Montgomery served as the capital of the Confederate States of America at the beginning of the civil war. 75 years later another leader, Martin Luther King Jr., rose up to fight against unfair practices and violence against African-Americans in the Civil Rights Movement. There was a ton to see, and we only had one rain jacket between the two of us.

We parked the car near the Alabama River and started to walk into town. The Montgomery Riverwalk was supposed to be a nice area to walk around, but with the rain looming overhead, Megan and I decided to head into town and start with a museum.

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Hank Williams got his start in Montgomery, and one of the largest collections of Hank Williams memorabilia can be found here. Neither Megan nor I are a huge fan, so we hadn't planned on stopping by the Hank Williams Museum while in town, but it was hard to miss when walking away from the Riverwalk.

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One of the celebrities we were here to see was Rosa Parks. Rosa Parks is one of the icons of the Civil Rights Movement, who after a day of work claimed she was too tired to move out of her seat when ordered to do so by the bus driver. She wasn't physically tired, but "tired of being treated like a second class citizen."

Megan and I walked to Court Square, the "Historic Heart of Montgomery". Originally serving as the junction between the two rival towns, New Philadelphia and Alabama Town, that merged together when the capital moved to Montgomery, Court Square has been the scene for many moments on the Civil Rights front. Slaves, freshly shipped up the Alabama river, were sold next to livestock in the middle of the square. In 1866, Court Square was the first place that Alabamians could witness the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation (over 3 years after Lincoln had originally issued the order). On December 1, 1955, another historic event took place, Rosa Parks boarded a bus.

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Megan is standing at the current stop for the bus route that Rosa Parks was riding. Rosa Parks only rode the bus for a couple blocks before she was arrested. Megan and I walked along this route to the Rosa Parks Museum, located at the site where Rosa Parks exited the bus under arrest. On the side of the museum there was a picture commemorating the event. Megan thought the guy's face behind Rosa Parks was interesting (and slightly odd), as he seemed to be saying "lady, you're about to be in BIIIIG trouble!"

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We went into the museum to take a look around. A lady at the front desk claimed they weren't ready to accept the entrance fee (despite it being 20 minutes since the museum was supposed to open). She offered for Megan and me to take a look around and she would come grab us once the payment system was up and running. We wandered into the museum and entered an art gallery. To my surprise, there was nothing about the Civil Right Movement, just art exhibits. Not wanting to pay to see a tiny art gallery, I pulled Megan out the back emergency exit in the museum before the curator could track us down.

We walked back through Court Square, past the fountain, and further through downtown towards the Capital Building. Montgomery has a weird vibe to it. First of all, we were the ONLY people walking around. It was just before noon on a Friday morning, you'd expect to see someone walking around. Only a handful of cars passed us, one nearly running us over (I guess the driver wasn't used to people actually using the crosswalk). Most of the buildings downtown looked older, but then extravagant buildings with fountains, waterfalls, and pools mixed in between the older structures. Our next destination was the Civil Rights Memorial, one of the modern structures located downtown.

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It took us a while to find the entrance to the Civil Rights Memorial Center. As we circled the block trying to follow a basic map, a security guard definitely started following us, staying just far enough away that we couldn't ask for directions. On the second loop around the block, we found the entrance hidden behind a construction tarp. Upon entering, Megan and I had to pass through a metal detector and empty our pockets to be wanded by another security guard. The Memorial Center wasn't a very large place, but it was incredibly moving.

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The first room of the center had a series of plaques describing 40 different men and women (some black and some white) that had lost their lives in the Civil Right Movement. Their stories ranged from being victims of random acts of violence, from giving a black man a ride in their car, to being an active member in the NCAAP. You could look through a simulated telescope to see the scenes of the Civil Rights Movement located within 4 blocks of the Memorial Center. A set of phones played commentary on each of the people remembered.

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We left the first room to watch a 20 minute video on the Civil Rights Movement. We had studied Civil Rights in school in various US History classes and during Black History Month, but the images presented in the video had a deeper impact. Perhaps it was the fact that I was seeing these images outside the sterile and safe environment of the school and in the location where they actually took place, or perhaps it was because I had just read the tragic story of 40 people who had died. I think the real reason is I no longer view 1965 as ancient history (30 years ago seems like an eternity to a 10 year old). Both of my parents were in school when these events were taking place. My grandparents were in their 30s, certainly aware of the events that were going on. How could people in my grandparents' day think that segregation could be fair? How could the creation of laws to prevent blacks and poor people from voting be passed? These events didn't just happen in Alabama, but all across the country. In North Carolina, laws passed in 1900 prevented nearly 100% of blacks from voting. It took until 1964 for a constitutional amendment to be added to ban these types of laws.

The hallway outside the theater drove the message even further. Here were stories of additional acts of racism and unfair practices against other minorities. Some of the stories had happened since I was in college, stories like the random acts of violence against Middle Easterners after September 11th. Entering the final room, you were presented with a giant wall filled with changing names. This was the Wall of Tolerance, where people could pledge to do their part to end racial injustice. It was pretty moving to be able to take this minor stand after reading the stories presented in the rest of the museum.

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Unfortunately the memorial itself was undergoing some maintenance, so we couldn't see it completely. A round, polished marble monument, etched with the names of the 40 people, rotates as water cascades over the side. The wall in the background has a quote from Martin Luther King Jr, "...we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream...".

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From the memorial we walked back to the main street running through town. On the corner was the church that Martin Luther King Jr had served as minister. They offered tours throughout the day, but the sun started to come out from behind the clouds, and we decided we wanted to see some more of the city.

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Across the street from the church, a giant memorial commemorated the inauguration of Jefferson Davis. Montgomery was the initial capital of the Confederate States of America until Virginia seceded several months later.

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The grounds around the Capital Building were beautiful, especially after walking around with an overcast sky all morning. A giant map of Alabama stood out front of side, while flags of all the states were on the other.

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On the far side of the Capital Building, we walked past the First White House of the Confederacy (when the capital of the Confederacy was moved, so was the White House). With as much security as we had seen around downtown, I was surprised there wasn't a single guard in sight around the Capital Building or the White House.

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Upon leaving the Memorial Center, we had asked the guy at the front desk where we should get something to eat. He had two suggestions, either Chris' Hotdogs for a meal that had been in Montgomery for over 100 years, or go to a down-home southern kitchen. Both sounded great, so Megan suggested a hotdog appetizer before heading the the southern kitchen.

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We crammed into Chris' to sit at the bar after ordering a single hotdog. It was good, but not too much different from your standard hotdog. The restaurant itself was the real experience. You could feel the history while sitting at the counter. There were still no people in the streets, but the restaurant had a consistent line of people ordering food. Seemingly every person ended their conversation behind the register with an emphatic "Roll Tide!" (referring to the cheer of the University of Alabama).

We walked back to the waterfront to pick up the car. With the beautiful weather (but not completely able to ignore our rumbling tummies), we wandered down to the river to take in the view. It was scenic, with a walkway and a concert pavilion off to the side of the dock. A steamer was tied up, waiting to take people out for a cruise later in the evening.

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We hopped in the car and drove to the restaurant for an authentic Alabama meal. I ordered steak and gravy, with grits, corn bread, black-eyed peas, and rice. Megan ordered fried chicken, coleslaw, macaroni and cheese, and string beans. It was absolutely fantastic, and Alabama held up to the saying "If it ain't fried, it ain't from the South".

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Despite the rough memories of the events of the Civil Rights Movement, Montgomery was a nice city filled with Southern pride. The people were friendly, and the food was phenomenal. If was time to leave, however, and head to the neighboring Mississippi.

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Posted by Mike.Flynn 07:09 Archived in USA Tagged museum historical local_food Comments (0)

The 11 Countries of Epcot - A Bachelor Party in Disney World

STATE 23 - FLORIDA

sunny 100 °F

10 guys are looking for a destination bachelor party. Vegas? Too cliché. New Orleans? Done that. The beach? Did that too. How about a place that appeals to everyone? Disney World!

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10 guys piled into one van and hit the road to head south to Florida. The road trip is half the fun, and we definitely made the most of it. The first stop was the Florida visitor center. Florida is so proud of their orange juice (74% of all US oranges are grown in Florida), they give everyone as much as they can drink for free!

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Our next step was a quick drive further south in Jacksonville, the Budweiser Brewery (it is a bachelor party, you know it wouldn't take long for alcohol to enter the picture).

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Unsurprisingly, the Budweiser brewery wasn't too much different from the Coors Brewery in Golden, CO and the Miller Brewery in Milwaukee. Just like for the Miller tour, we had a person that showed us around the brewery and gave us the details on how Budweiser is made.

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Malted grains, hops, lager yeast, cold storage—the same basic process that beer makers have been following for centuries. Budweiser's main innovation is using beechwood in the fermentation process to help the lager yeast better process the sugars. After a quick run through the factory, we entered the tasting room. A couple of cold ones later (and 3 bags of pretzels apiece), we were back on the road to Orlando.

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So the plan for the bachelor party was to "drink around the world". Epcot has 11 countries, each recreated as authentic as possible (as authentic as a major resort can be). Each country is staffed only by native residents, has authentic food, traditional entertainment, and most importantly, authentic beverages. We pulled into Epcot, eager to start the bar crawl. First things first, we posed with the iconic "golf ball", Spaceship Earth.

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The countries are laid out in a giant loop around a lake. We chose to go counter-clockwise, starting with our neighbor to the north, Canada! It was only 10 in the morning, but our Canadian bartender didn't even flinch when we ordered 10 Moosehead beers.

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With beers in hand, we walked through the Canadian Rockies, past Niagara Falls, and through an Inuit village. About the only thing not authentic about our surroundings was the Florida heat. We paused inside the Canadian gold mine to drink our beer in the air conditioning.

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On our way out of Canada, we paused to see how many people could fit into a Canadian phone booth. We even had some anti-American talk when a group of foreigners claimed that we could have fit twice as many people in if we hadn't been "super-sized Americans".

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The next country was the United Kingdom (UK refers to the union of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, while Great Britain refers to the largest island of the British Isles containing England, Scotland, and Wales). Where else to grab a local brew but in an English Pub?

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We convinced the barkeeps to serenade us with the British national anthem, God Save the Queen. Interestingly enough, the words to the anthem change when a king rules the country, to God Save the King. It was tough to leave the comfy surroundings of the pub and head back into the sticky, humid heat.

The next country was France, which was located across a channel. Street artists and performers filled the center square, recreating the artistic backdrop of Paris. An acrobatic display was ensuing as a man balanced himself on a stacked table and chairs. A delightful smell made its way to our group, and we headed into the closest pastry shop.

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The pastries were delicious, and between our group, I think we sampled one of everything.

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While most of us stuck to a French beer, Erik wandered off into a French store, tried on the local garb, and left with a glass of French champagne (champagne refers to wine produced in the Champagne region of France, versus the more widely produced sparkling wine).

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We left the artful country of France behind, and entered the more gritty Morocco. Not passing the opportunity to get some Moroccan food, I grabbed lunch to eat in the open air cafe. The lamb, hummus, tabouli, and couscous were delicious, and the open air cafe was surprisingly cool.

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While enjoying the Moroccan beer, we noticed a long line forming along the waterfront. Someone informed us that Aladdin and Princess Jasmine were scheduled to make an appearance, so we jumped in line with the rest of the 9 year-olds to anxiously await their arrival. It might have been the beers, but Aladdin's joke to Ryan that "marriage is a whole new world" had us laughing pretty hard.

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After talking to Aladdin, I realized that Disney paid attention to even the most minor details. Aladdin and Jasmine never broke character for a second, responding to questions about Abu without missing a beat. The buildings, food, and entertainment were painstakingly authentic, and even the bathrooms were decorated in Moroccan style.

The next country was Japan, complete with temples and Japanese drummers. Several members of the group grabbed some sushi for lunch. Ryan, Greg, and I skipped the Japanese beer for a drink of hot sake (it didn't go well with the 100 degree heat).

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We took a break from the bar crawl to head back to the center of Epcot to ride a few rides. Disney has a "fast pass" system that allows you to grab a ticket for a ride and return at a specified time. This way you don't waste time waiting in line, but rather show up and jump on without any hassle. We rode "Soarin'", a simulated hang gliding experience through California. As you pass over the ocean, you can smell the salt in the air and feel the sea breeze in your face. You pass an orange grove and can smell the citrus. Flying over the forest, you can smell the pine trees. All this while hovering 40 feet above the ground in a mock hang glider. It was entertaining, but I'm glad we didn't wait longer than 10 minutes to ride it. After leaving "Soarin'", we passed my favorite Disney character, Figment.

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On our way back to continue the bar crawl, we passed the ride Captain EO. Captain EO is a 4D experience (a 3D movie with special effects that make you feel like you are involved in the scenes). Captain EO is a science fiction film that mixes a Michael Jackson music video with Star Wars-like action sequences. A couple members of the group begged the rest of us to wait for the next showing, so we made our way into the theater. The 1980s 3D effects left you with a headache, and Michael Jackson's acting was atrocious, but the overall movie was about what you'd expect. If anything, it saved us from the heat for another 30 minutes. One member of our group, Dave, decided to play in the fountains for a little extra refreshment.

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We walked back to the country loop to pick up where we left off. The halfway point around the loop was home, sweet, home, the United States. In America we watched a Revolutionary-era band perform and then ordered a round of Sam Adams. The effects of the beer flowing full effect, we convinced a cute American beer-maiden to take a picture with us.

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Our next stop was Italy, decorated in the more modern Italian style of Venice with only a hint of ancient Rome. Here the group had some gelato and Italian beer, and briefly posed in front of Neptune.

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We entered Oktoberfest in Germany next, and after breezing through the previous two countries, we took our time here. Some of us wandered through the German beer caves while others chatted with German bartenders. A German woman showed us giant beer tankards and das boot (as cool as they were, I was afraid to hold it for the $200 price tag). I grabbed a warm, German soft pretzel that went perfect with the Oktoberfest beer.

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We left Germany and headed into China. The smell of stir-fry and eggrolls filled the Chinese market. All of the workers at Disney had been overly courteous and accommodating to our large group, but the Chinese went above and beyond. They taught members of our group Chinese phrases and posed in multiple pictures. I'm not sure if they found us entertaining in our slightly intoxicated state, or they were genuinely interested in mingling with us. We grabbed another quick bite to eat, drank another beer, and continued on our way.

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Norway was my favorite stop. The bachelor party felt most at home in the Viking decorated Norwegian village. Cute bartenders convinced us to take the "viking test", which was to take a shot of Norse liquor without making a face. Jon opted for another pastry, the "Viking Horn". Our party hung out in the viking hall while we finished the Norwegian beers. Night was beginning to fall, but we only had one more country left, Mexico.

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It was ironic that the only country located entirely indoors was the one we visited last. Mexico was located inside an Incan temple. Locals were making trinkets by hand while intimidating temples loomed overhead.

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Some of the group went straight to the tequila bar, while the rest of us ordered margaritas. Nothing like ending a bar crawl with a hard liquor drink.

A few of us left the bar and went back outside to get ready for the fireworks show. Epcot, like the rest of the Disney parks, puts on an extravagant fireworks show every night. 30 minutes of fire, rockets, and floating displays mesmerized the crowd. It was impressive, but after the show, we hustled out of the park to catch the bus to go out in downtown Disney.

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The bachelor party was a load of fun, but some members of the group paid for that fun on the car trip back home.

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Posted by Mike.Flynn 13:10 Archived in USA Tagged beer brewery bachelor_party Comments (0)

Glacier National Park

STATE 22 - MONTANA

sunny 60 °F

We left behind the beautiful state of Idaho and entered another state just as scenic. Megan and I headed to one of the most awe-inspiring National Parks in the country, Glacier National Park!

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Driving through the Rocky Mountains was just as beautiful crossing from Idaho into Montana as it was driving through the mountains passing from Colorado to Utah. Forested mountains surrounded blue lakes, and it seemed like we were the only people for miles.

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To get to Glacier National Park from Sandpoint, Idaho, we were supposed to follow a state highway north to about 10 miles from the Canadian border, head a couple miles west through a mountain pass, and then come back down south to the entrance of Glacier National Park. It was a long loop, but apparently there are not many passes through the Rocky Mountains in this area. When Megan pulled up the directions to Glacier National Park, the GPS found a direct route through the mountains that would cut 2 hours off our drive. I'm not usually one for blindly following the GPS, but a 2 hour time savings sounded too good to pass up. I left the highway and followed the road heading straight east.

Turning off the highway, the road looked like a standard two lane country road. 15 miles later, it turned into an unmarked paved road.

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In another 15 miles, we were no longer on a paved road.

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At this point, we had been driving for about 40 minutes. We could only drive about 20 MPH since our tiny 2 wheel drive Ford Focus was not quite equipped for off-road travel. I figured that turning around would cost us 40 minutes of time backtracking, plus 2 additional hours of driving time. The road was probably only gravel for a few miles before connecting to another road. Unfortunately, that didn't quite happen.

It turns out that NFSR-401, the name of the road we were on according to the GPS, does not stand for "Neat and Fast Shortcut Route" as I had naively thought, but rather for "National Forestry Service Road". The narrow, unpaved road we were traveling on was used by the National Forestry Service to travel through the Kootenai National Forest. The slow progression down the road was bad, but seeing that we still had another 43 miles until the next turn was even worse. I took a couple deep breaths, and tried to focus on the beautiful scenery around me. That worked until we encountered a log laying across the road.

I slowed the car, and briefly considered turning around. We had been traveling on the detour for over an hour, and it was going to start getting dark soon. I didn't want to be caught driving through a National Forest, on a narrow dirt path, with hundred foot drops at night. I said screw it, and stubbornly decided to continue forward. I punched the accelerator and attempted to "jump" the log. The car slammed into the log, the steering wheel jerked hard to one side, and Megan and I were thrown forward. When we landed, we miraculously ended up on the other side of the the log, and I thanked God when the car still seemed drivable. Expecting that the worst was behind us (there was now only 10 miles until we left the NFSR), we ran into the next obstacle—a river was running over the road.

I always heard you shouldn't drive through standing water, but it's not like we had a choice. I didn't want to try log jumping again, and the water didn't look that deep. Megan, who kept uncharacteristically silent during the log incident, began to openly express her concern with going across the water. I told her that I would try to go through the shallower looking mud and just try to keep moving. Figuring it had worked well before, I punched the accelerator and tried to get as much momentum as possible before reaching the water and mud (while muttering a quick Hail Mary). Water shot off the side of the car as we sliced through the river. We slowed to a crawl, and I fully expected water to start coming in from the door jams. Somehow we made it to the other side without getting stuck.

Thankfully we emerged from the dirt road with our car still intact. Our route through the forest had taken over 3 hours. The previously white, shiny car was now covered in mud and dust. A thousand insects peppered the front grill and windshield, but at least Megan and I had made it through alive. I wish I had more pictures of the off-road ordeal, but honestly I had been too nervous to think about documenting the experience.

Sticking to the main road, we eventually found ourselves on the outskirts of the National Park. We entered an Visitor Center to get more information on which trails through the park were closed. Never did I expect that we would have to worry about trails being closed due to snow at the end of July. It can snow at Glacier National Park at any point during the year, even the middle of summer! The Visitor Center didn't have any information on closed trails because it was actually the Alberta Visitor Center (for traveling into Canada). I took a picture with a mounty, looked around quickly, and then got back into the car to head into the park.

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Glacier National Park is humungous, over a million acres in size. Wildlife is abundant. Mountain goats, black bears, grizzly bears, bighorn sheep, lynx, cougars, wolves, moose, deer, and plenty more can be found throughout the park. Megan was scared to death of encountering a bear while we were out hiking, and I had spent a good portion of the road trip assuring her that we would not see a bear. However, not 30 seconds after paying the entrance fee to enter the park, we came across our first bear.

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It was awesome seeing the bear walk through the forest, although also a little scary. Megan had read up on what to do when encountering a bear (play dead when encountering a grizzly, fight back when encountering a black bear). She had also tried to convince me to get bear bells (bells attached to your backpack that jingle as you hike so you don't sneak up on a bear) and bear spray (heavy duty pepper spray). My fears grew upon stopping at the Visitor Center when we learned that of the top 3 trails we wanted to hike, 1 was closed due to snow, 1 was closed to a bear attack the day before, and the third had both a grizzly and black bear sighting earlier in the morning. To get Megan's mind (and mine) off of bears, we walked outside to take in the view of Lake McDonald and head to a bear-free trail.

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We took the bus to the Avalanche Trail trailhead. There is only one road that winds through the mountains of Glacier National Park, Going To the Sun Road. It is incredibly scenic, as we caught spectacular views of Lake McDonald and the surrounding mountains.

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We did a quick hike through the Trail of the Cedars before heading up Avalanche Trail. The trail was only a couple miles long following an ice-cold, cool-blue stream. The trail was fairly busy, with a large number of people jingling from their bear bells. With all the foot traffic, it seemed unlikely that a bear would be anywhere close to this trail (I was both relieved, but also disappointed). Bears, or no bears, the hike along the stream and through the woods was great.

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At the end of the trail we encountered a glacier lake, Avalanche Lake, that was the source of the stream. The sun was warm, and encouraged us to wade out into the water. The water was like ice! Waterfalls streamed down the mountain ridges in the distance, and the clear, blue water sparkled magnificently.

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We sat on the edge of the water and took in the scenery. It was late in the afternoon, so the crowds had thinned out, and we were almost left alone. Once our feet had thawed from wading the water, we put our boots back on and made our way back down to the bus stop. Tomorrow morning we planned on getting an early start to do a full day hike on the trail with the multiple bear sightings.

We parked our car at the trailhead leading to the Granite Park Chalet. The sun was just starting to rise over the horizon, and everything was eerily quiet. The trail lead straight up one of the mountains to an overnight camping lodge, although we planned to hike back down later in the afternoon. We were the first ones on the trail that morning, and a sign that said "Entering Grizzly Country" reminded me that this trail had bear sightings the day before.

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As we hiked, Megan did her best to engage me in a conversation (one of the tactics to prevent a bear attack is to make noise while hiking, such as talking loudly, to make sure you don't surprise them), but I am not much of a conversationalist on the trail. Plus, I thought, I would be able to spot a bear well before we got close enough for it to be a threat. About that time, the bushes rustled 10 feet in front of me and a large animal jumped onto the trail.

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It was only a deer, but it could have been a mouse and I would have been just as startled. If I didn't see a deer 10 feet away, I was just as likely to miss the bear. On either side of the trail, grasses and flowers rose 4 feet, almost totally obscuring the immediate view. Once my heart started beating at a normal pace, we started back up the trail.

The first part of the trail wound through a section of dead trees. A wildfire had burned 10% of the park in 2003. The dead trees weren't as pretty as the live ones, but they allowed clear views of the surrounding mountains while we hiked.

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Wildflowers were everywhere on the trail, adding vibrant color and contrast to the green fields and trees. Pink and purple, yellow and white, big and small, flowers were in every color and size.

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Eventually the trail wound above the treeline and offered awesome views of the mountains and glaciers off in the distance.

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About 2/3 the way up the trail, snow and ice began to dot the side of the mountain and eventually covering the pathway. The trail also wound back through a heavily forested area. Megan began trying to talk to me loudly again, so I knew she was nervous about entering the forest. After an hour or so of clear visibility, we could no longer see what was waiting around each turn.

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Deciding it was time to take a break, I turned around to give Megan some water. I noticed she was carrying something in each hand. When I asked her what she had, she held up a rock in each hand. She had picked up weapons to use in case a bear attacked. One rock was her "stunning rock", a larger baseball-sized rock, while the other rock was the "cutting rock" due to its sharp edges. In the event of encountering a bear, I was now more likely to be pelted with rocks as to be attacked by a bear.

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We made it safely through the woods and up to the Granite Park Chalet. The view was outstanding.

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We sat down outside the lodge and ate a light lunch. Chipmunks scattered about, anxiously awaiting for us to drop something. From the lodge, the trail forked to go different directions. We watched hikers attempt to cross snow covered passes off in the distance. Only one group made it successfully across, the others turning around to come back to the lodge. The cold bite in the air encouraged us to begin the hike back down the mountain.

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We got back to the car and decided to drive the rest of the Going To the Sun Road through the park. The entire road was over 40 miles long, but it offered magnificent views of roadside waterfalls, valley views, and mountain ridges. The road was uncomfortably tight, and delays due to road construction gave us plenty of time to soak in the views. Upon reaching the far side of the park, we encountered a totally different view of the park. The great plains of the middle of country stretched out as far as we could see, a stark contrast to Rocky Mountains behind us. We circled around the park to begin the long drive back into Washington to catch our flights home.

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Posted by Mike.Flynn 10:10 Archived in USA Tagged mountains animals hiking national_park world_heritage_site Comments (0)

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