Tag Archives: Denver

More plotting and planning…

Above the Great LakesAs I was writing in the last post, until I book the flights my plans are never really set in stone. The beginning of the year is often the time when I start probing prices of airline tickets even if my holiday is still months away. I never book them so early in advance as prices are often the best only 8-10 weeks before the flight dates, but it is still good to know what the average prices are at this early stage, and what the options are in terms of the airlines and the connecting airports.

So I started investigating flights to Denver and quickly realised that they are more expensive than I had anticipated. Direct flights were ridiculously expensive but even for the journeys involving inconvenient changes in America prices were still higher than I was hoping for.

British girls in SFONow, why is changing planes in America inconvenient? The biggest problem is the fact that you have to go through the immigration and customs at the first place you land in the US. It means that when you change, let say, in Chicago, you have to queue for immigration there, then collect you luggage, go through the customs and then check your bags separately for the remaining leg of the journey. It is a real pain and if the connecting time is short you can easily miss your flight. Especially as waiting for immigration can be absolutely unpredictable. I was once waiting over an hour in Chicago and I heard of occasions when people waited for 2-3 hours. The other problem is that American airports are not really designed with international changes in mind. International terminals are often separate from the others and connections are far from logical.

So I started thinking about other options.

I’m still committed to visiting Montana and the northern Rockies but the problem is there are really not that many big international airports there and all the smaller ones involve all the inconveniences I have mentioned above. I even investigated options of flying to Calgary and then heading south from there but it was becoming even more expensive than Denver.

Then I thought about Seattle. It is actually closer to the Glacier National Park than Denver and it opens the prospect of visiting more of Canada. I also remember it as a really nice place, albeit I haven’t been there for more than a decade. Conveniently I also found that the flights there are cheaper than to Denver. The cheapest option so far involves flying with Icelandair via Reykjavík; the change in Rykjavik is going to be much easier than in any of the American airports and also the journey time is broken into two convenient segments, three plus seven hours.

As I mentioned already, it is way too early to buy tickets as my plans can still (and probably will) change plus some other cheap deals may pop up in the meantime. But, it gives me the impetus to play again with maps (paper as well as digital) and start plotting some ideas for a trip. One of the latest results looks something like this:US and Canadian Rockies from Seattle 2

For now I have left one of my favourite places, Portland, out of the itinerary. I really like it but I have been there twice already and skipping it gives me more time to explore the Canadian Rockies, something I wasn’t seriously contemplating even a few weeks ago but an idea which was always on my personal long distance radar. In general the Pacific Northwest is another of my favourite American regions. And it is very varied too. It is not all about coast, mountains, rain and the temperate rainforest. For example the eastern Washington state offers dry, sparsely populated open spaces to drive through, almost like on the Great Plains. Also, I could finally see the famous Mount St Helens. I went there in 2004 but due to the weather conditions the visibility was so bad I couldn’t actually see the mountain itself. However, if the weather in September is bad I can spend more time in cities than in national parks so I could actually go and visit Portland after all. As I said, I’m always flexible with my plans, which are actually no plans but rather general ideas.

The biggest problem of my latest plans is the fact that I was kind of looking forward to visiting Denver and the surrounding areas. It is one of the biggest cities in the US that I haven’t visited yet and I have heard a lot of good stuff about the place. I even started thinking about flying to Seattle and coming back from Denver. Such, so-called “open jaw”, tickets seem to be not that much more expensive but unfortunately fees for the one way car rental are much higher than I was hoping for. For the moment then I have abandoned such plans.

It all leaves me with the ideas shown on the map above. It literally is just a few days old so I don’t even really know where to stop and what to see, for example between Seattle and the Glacier National Park, but at least I have something to focus on. Now I can enjoy another of my favourite pastimes, reading guidebooks and consulting maps and atlases of the places I might visit. It is something I never get bored of. I can also start looking for some interesting travel writing or history books about the region.

In the meantime I’m just finishing an fascinating book about the Irish in American cities so the review is coming here soon. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

How a trip is born

Some people may wonder how I decide to visit the places I do. Let’s face it, apart from obvious destinations like Southern California, Florida or NYC I have also gone to places like Ozark Hills in Arkansas, Bismarck in North Dakota and Upper Peninsula of Michigan too. Why? How did I choose these random locations? Well, it is a bit difficult to explain, but let me try.

It all usually starts about this time of year, in the miserable London winter months. It is cold, it is dark and commuting is a real pain. On such days any random distraction can be an inspiration. It could be an advert online, an article in some newspaper or a TV programme. But most often it is just me simply daydreaming in front of my bookcase or my trusted collection of maps.

Let’s take this winter. In the last few weeks I started seriously thinking about going to Wyoming and Montana at some point in 2015. Why?

In fact I have already visited parts of Wyoming and Montana in 2009, mostly around Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. In case of Wyoming I traversed the whole western part of the state from south to north. But in Montana’s case I only crossed the narrow wedge squeezed between Yellowstone and Idaho, no more than 12 miles in total. Now, as I already mentioned before, I’m trying to visit all the US states and my count is currently at 47, including Montana. I do include it because I stopped for a few hours in the town of West Yellowstone, where I had an interesting chat about employing Eastern European students for summer jobs with a lady who runs the Subway franchise and used to employ lots of Slovaks. It was one of those slightly weird encounters you can have in small town America, particularly when you travel off season.West Yellowstone

Anyway, claiming that a 12 mile drive across a state which is about the size of Britain, Ireland, Netherlands and Belgium put together is a proper visit, is a bit of a cheat, or at least stretching it.

So, that was the starting point which drew my attention to Montana and Wyoming. I began looking at maps and atlases and slowly the idea of a trip started materializing. I realised that I could fly to Denver and start my adventure there. Denver sounds like a nice place and at the same time is probably the largest US city I haven’t visited yet. Conveniently it also has a large hub airport (which means cheaper flights and easier connection with Europe). Of course the region I had in mind is a huge place so I started thinking which way and where to go. Should I explore the Rocky Mountains in depth or rather venture into the Great Plains? What should be the focal point of my trip? Every trip needs some special destination.

At the moment I’m inclined to head to the Great Plains as it is one of my favourite regions in America. I have visited the Northern Plains (both Dakotas and Nebraska) in 2010 and the Southern Plains (Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas panhandle) in 2011 and immensely enjoyed both trips. I absolutely love the open spaces and the long drives which any trip to this part of the world involves.

I have also chosen Glacier National Park as the ultimate destination for this trip. Being located almost a thousand miles from Denver it offers a long enough journey to allow me to enjoy the vastness of the region. It also seems to be a damn spectacular park, at least judging by the photos.

Now, knowing the starting point as well as the ultimate destination I started plotting some routes using online maps. This is an activity which I always find a real fun thing to do. I guess it might be my geographer’s spirit but I really enjoy to plot and replot different routes trying to think how much time will I have, how much time will I need, what attractions can I include along the way and what the most scenic route can be. The end result is something like this:Montana and Wyoming anticipated trip map

Don’t worry, having such plans don’t really take the fun out of exploring as I never actually stick to them too rigidly. It is more of an inspiration than a strict set of directions. I usually find other interesting places along the way, and change my route accordingly. In fact the closer I get to the later parts of my planned route the more I deviate from the original plans. In the past it happened that I went to completely different states than I had initially planned. Sometimes it is due to the weather, sometimes due to my mood, sometimes I just spot something on a map or a road sign; the bottom line is that what for some might look like a precise route prescription for me is only a suggestion.

After the map is drawn I usually try to learn more about the region I’m planning to visit. I want to know more about its geography, history, people and politics. Some information I find online, some in the guidebooks but I also try to find interesting non fiction books which offer good background reading introducing me to local history and other aspects of the place.

For example I have just finished two interesting books about Montana and the Great Plains in general.

The first one, Bad Land: An American Romance by Jonathan Raban, describes the process of settling the plains of eastern Montana in early 1900s. It was an era of optimism and faith in science and development of new agricultural techniques. Thousands of migrants from eastern states but also from Germany, Scandinavia and Britain were encouraged by railway companies as well as by the government agencies to settle the marginal lands of Montana and the Dakotas. In countless books, brochures and posters they were promised practically the second garden of Eden. However, after a few promising, but also unusually wet, years the real climate and environment of the region revealed itself to the hapless homesteaders who left in droves in 1920s and 1930s.

Raban’s book cleverly combines descriptive chapters telling the stories of the past with the travelogue of his journeys around the region in the 1990s when he interviewed descendants of the original settlers. Basically he tells the story of the region by personal stories of particular families. One of them is about a young English lady who lived a few streets from my south London home and who moved with her husband to Montana where she eventually, after many misadventures, become a photographer recording the life on the plains. Stories like that make this book a very enjoyable read.

The other book I just finished, Great Plains by Ian Frazier, is sometimes described as a reportage but I’m not so sure about it. However one defines it, it is yet another great read about this huge and fascinating region. The author drove over 25000 miles across the region and lived in Montana for a while but the book doesn’t really follow any specific route or order. It is a rather random description of important facts and unimportant trivia in colourful language which makes it an immensely enjoyable book. Frazier travelled across the plains in the 1980s but during my much more recent visits I found the region no less fascinating or more tame. It is still empty and open country with an unpredictable wild weather, long distances and some weird and wonderful sites (for example an intercontinental ballistic missile silo you can visit). I guess one of the reasons why I enjoyed this book so much is the fact that it describes the Great Plains the way as I see the region myself. An absolutely fascinating place, one of the most interesting and iconic bits of America which I would prefer anytime over the picturesque New England or sunny California. I just wish I could write as well as Frazier to share my experiences.

After all this early planning and reading it seems that I’ll go to Montana and Wyoming in a few months. But then, you never know. Just 2 or 3 months ago I was seriously considering visiting Florida Panhandle and Alabama to add state number 48 to my list. Then Canada briefly popped in on my radar too.

I guess as long as I don’t book my flights there is still a chance of a total change of plans. So stay tuned.Western Kansas, driving towards Dodge City