Notes, Tall Tales, & Travelogues

This is an archive of chronicles from a two-week mother-daughter cross-country journey from New Hampshire to California in 2017. New posts about other trips may come sporadically.

Article published – August 2019

An article I wrote on the Golden Spike sesquicentennial, archaeology, and remembering the lives of Chinese railroad workers was published by SAPIENS in August 2019. SAPIENS is a magazine about everything human.

On a Monday, Time Stood Still.

It began as an ordinary day. The sun rose early, before most of the people. Birds began their dawn songs. In the cabins, humans started to cook their breakfasts. Some rushed out to make their tee time.

But there was not a single soul on the mountain who did not know today was an extraordinary day and that this normally predictable golf resort was in an extraordinary place.

NASA has calculated the date and location of every solar eclipse since 2000 BCE and they have predicted every eclipse coming for the next thousand years. And yet, knowing that there have been so many instances and that there will be so many more did not change the feeling that were both observing and taking part of a singular, momentous event.

The day before the eclipse, we made our way to Garden Valley Idaho, to a mountain golf resort called Terrace Lakes (not one lake, never mind more than one). The sharing economy pulled through for us when in July I found what I firmly believe to be the last reasonably priced accommodation on the edge of the path of the totality. It just happened to be a two bedroom cabin- rooms of our own!

We stocked up in Boise. Upon arrival, the resort was in party mode. My highly romanticized dream of a quiet moment shared between us, the moon, the sun and the forest was immediately dashed. A live band played rock and country into the night, cycling through the same set at least twice. But since they were pretty good, one could forgive the Fleetwood Mac repeats.

As a location to watch the eclipse, we picked a perfect spot.

The morning of, we set our blanket down on the edge of the green of the first hole and settled in. Around us was a carnival. A DJ played sun-themed music. Children ran around. Eclipse themed craft beer was sold out of a tent. T-shirts for sale read: I blacked out during the 2017 eclipse.

Indeed, I was surprised by the number of people who, having made the special arrangement to be at this particular place on this particular day to see this once in a lifetime event, proceeded to drink their way through it. Much like my notion of spending the morning alone in a forest clearing, I should have known better.

We sat, watching the sun (with our solar viewers- yes, they were legit. Thanks, Amazon, for the refund, though) from thirty minutes before contact until just before the moon was completely separated.

Plenty has been written about the phenomena on Earth that happens when the moon blocks the sun. There are the physical effects: the temperature drops, the sky darkens. Humans and animal behavior changes. And there are the social effects: in 585 BCE, the Medes and Lydians were fighting in modern day Turkey. An eclipse occurred during the battle which had reached a draw. When the sky darkened they halted fighting and negotiated a peace treaty.

Even knowing that this day was coming, viewing the eclipse was a fundamentally life-altering event. In the moment just before totality, the sun flashed, suddenly winking out and just as suddenly light reappeared as a corona around the moon. Knowing what was to come had no effect on the stupendousness, the freakishness of it all.

Some people around us began howling. A teenage boy, live streaming, previously too cool for school, was in rapture.

I sat there and put my hand out, reaching for mom. “What?” I repeated, again and again.

Day was night.

True to character, I had decided going into the day that I was not going to take any photographs, that plenty of people with far better equipment and more experience would take care of that aspect so we should just savor the moment and really feel it.

And then the moon covered the sun and I was on my feet taking pictures with my cell phone. Bad pictures and okay panoramas.



When totality ended, the DJ came back. And that was that. Party time again.

For Wolf Mom and Snow Crane, it was the end of our adventure. The next morning we left while it was still dark and drove straight to Sacramento. It was a long drive, too long of a drive. But when you have just been witness to an event on the astronomical scale, what else do you want to see?

Open sky.

Crossing into Utah from Colorado was not a momentous occasion. A straight road through an open landscape with no discernible environmental differences. In fact, the point of going to Vernal, UT, our next stopping point, was to visit Dinosaur National Monument which straddles both states.


No, the border was not momentous but the landscape was.



Dinosaur National Monument is famous for, you guessed it, DINOSAURS. Fossil deposits were discovered by Earl Douglass, a paleontologist in 1909. The 80 acres surrounding the dinosaur quarry was designated a national monument in 1915 and expanded in 1938 to 200,000 acres to protect the canyons of the Green and Yampa river and also to encompass other facets of geological and cultural heritage.



We start with the dinosaur quarry. An air conditioned structure was built over the cliff face, allowing visitors to spend as much time gazing across the fence, picking out as many fossils and trying their hand at in-situ bone and species identification. Rangers line the hallway, giving talks for adults and for children.



On the bottom floor, you can walk up to the cliff face and feel some of the embedded fossils. Casts of some of the biggest finds are on display.


And then we moved on to my main attraction: sites of human activity!



Following the auto road tour (and stopping at every single pullover), we made our way to a site where stone tools were found, dating back 7,000 years. Pictographs and petroglyphs by the Fremont people were painted and carved on the shelter wall about 1,000 years ago. This was just a taste of the wall art we would see.


Lunch at the Split Mountain picnic site, where we learned about the geological processes that formed the landscape we see today. Split Mountain, so called because the Green River seems to split the mountain’s dome in half, was the subject of much debate. Water’s natural course would be around the mountain, not through it.  50-60 million years ago, the Uinta mountains, of which Split Mountain is a foothill, were created. This was the same time as the formation of the Rocky Mountains, by the way. The Uintas were a lot higher and over the course of tens of millions of years, shed rock and dirt that was deposited in the foothills by ancient rivers. Split Mountain was completely buried. The Green River began to flow, cutting into the deposition and eventually into the dome of Split Mountain.


Human for scale.


We finally made it to the petroglyph stop I had been waiting for. The trail rises quickly and it is surprising how sharply the petroglyphs appear, even from halfway up the trail. The picture doesn’t do justice.



Up close, the immensity of the undertaking overwhelms. You are standing on a rather sheer cliff edge, looking up at images carved into the stone, high, high, high up. And ask yourself, how?


That speck in front of the van is Wolf Mom. 

The auto road ends at the Josie Bassett Morris homestead, the home for 50 years of a remarkable woman. She built her first cabin in 1914. The one you can walk through today was built in 1935. After 5 marriages, she lived, provided for herself, and ranched alone, also raising pigs, chickens, and geese and keeping an immense vegetable garden. She used the surrounding box canyons as natural fences for her cattle. By all accounts we came across, she was happy until the end at age 89.



It was a surprise to end the day we thought would consist of the super ancient and ancient with the history of a pioneering woman, but it was well met. And although we would spend another day in Utah, biding our time until the eclipse, Dinosaur National Monument was the highlight.

Midland Review.

Wolf Mom & Snow Crane at Cahokia

Cahokia Mounds State Park

In current day Collinsville/East St. Louis, Illinois at the confluence of the Mississippi, Missouri, and Illinois rivers is the remnant of the center of Mississippian society, which we tag as emerging around the year 800 and declining around 1600. French explorers met a people named Cahokia living in the area but the creators of the city had long left it behind. Still, those people are today called Cahokians because it’s impossible to know exactly what they called themselves (the museum doesn’t quite address this.)

The current site, an Illinois State Park, covers just a fragment of the city that in the year 1050 exploded in population and size. Around 20,000 people (some higher estimates, some lower) lived there in 6 square miles, not including the suburbs. For perspective, Cahokia was larger than London at the time. No city in North America would be bigger until Philadelphia reached 40,000 people in 1780.

But for many reasons, namely the “myth of the mound builders” (European disbelief that a Native American group could have created such large monuments and complex, centralized societies) and subsequent land development, most of the 120 mounds have been destroyed. At the park, you can take a turn around the Grand Plaza, past a mortuary mound and small temple mounds. The Cahokians leveled the terrain of the Grand Plaza to fit thousands of people who could gather before the largest temple mound of the city. Monk’s Mound, as it is called today because some Trappist monks used to live near it, is 100ft tall and covers just under 14 acres. A temple and other buildings stood at the top, making it even taller while in use.

Monk’s Mound was a sacred space. A political place. During our visit, Monk’s Mound was a gym. But better a great place to get in those steps and stairs than bulldozed.

Mom’s rating: 4 out of 5.


Kansas City

The Bodyguard The Musical: Deborah Cox and the cast delivered. Our souls were uplifted by song and dance.

Mom’s rating: 5 out of 5

The Bodyguard at the Starlight Theater

The Steamboat Arabia Museum: This was a really interesting museum. In the 1980s, a group of friends excavated a steamboat that sank in the Missouri river in 1856. The museum is designed well: historical context, excavation and preservation context and artifacts on display as if in A department store. Stories abound. A family run operation, their passion for the find is clear. We thoroughly enjoyed the experience. I applaud the independent spirit that drives the whole outfit but I still can’t help but wonder- if this is the largest collection of pre-Civil War artifacts in the country, what is being done in terms of analysis? Does anyone else have access to it? Is the data being examined? But these questions shouldn’t get in the way of enjoying one of the best museum experiences in the country.

Mom’s rating: 5 out of 5.


City Market and River Walk: Lunch at a trying to be authentic Chinese restaurant and a walk along the Missouri River. It was hot.

Mom’s rating: 3 out of 5.



The Oregon Trail at Alcove Spring in Blue Rapids, Kansas: It’s swale. A turn off the highway onto a dirt road. No other automobile, houses, or people. “You’ve arrived at your destination,” Mrs. Garmin says as hills rise on either side of the road. But around the bend and there she is: Alcove Spring, another state park. This time in Kansas, this time on the Oregon Trail. From the parking lot, a short walk along a meadow takes you to a natural spring where many travelers stopped to rest, including the infamous Donner Party  (a member of whom carved his name into a rock). Supposedly the spring has never gone dry but it was pretty near done for when we arrived.

Across the road and a few steps up the hill, a swale, or the ruts in the ground from a road long disused, is visible. This is the path of the Oregon Trail.

Mom’s Rating: 5 out of 5

On the Oregon Trail



All about the food… and altitude sickness. We stayed at the Lumber Baron Inn in the North Highlands area which was a great neighborhood. We ate at Bar Dough, an Italian restaurant, one night and a ramen shop the next, Uncle Ramen. Both were delicious.

Mom’s Rating: 4 out of 5


Sparing a thought for the jade plant wilting in the backseat, we stopped for lunch at a “family restaurant” in Belville, Kansas on the edge of town. We forsook a picnic lunch for two reasons. One, for an area with so much land, none of it was for public enjoyment and two, in a new place I am compelled to be among people who call it home.


Sit anywhere, a young woman indicated. A dining room to the right and the left. On the right, plastic tables and what may possibly have been the entire retired community of the town, in parties of one and two, for a total of seven. That room was crowded. On the left, an empty room save for a couple in the corner. Wooden tables. Mom heads to the right, through open stares and uninhibited curiosity toward a table for six; I turn left. “You’re both going the other way,” a grandmother chuckles. I smile and suggest to Mom we take a smaller table in the other room. All heads turned to follow our progress.

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Where all my Amazon packages came from.

The journey to Louisville was long and winding. My phone lost service somewhere in western Pennsylvania and didn’t get it back until Kentucky. Somehow our plan to just cross the tip of West Virginia, to cross it off our list, turned into making our way across all of it, and precluding us from checking off Ohio.

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Hit the road, Jack.

Rusted Root sent us on our way. Rhiannon Giddens empowered us on the Mass Pike. The Sound of Music carried us over the Catskills and Yo-Yo Ma brought us into Williamsport, Pennsylvania where we find ourselves for the night at the City Hall Grand Hotel.

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Meet Wolf Mom.

Red Wolf Pup & Mom

Photo: Brooke Gilley taken June 2014


The dynamic between Chinese mothers and their American daughters is well explored. I don’t have any insight that hasn’t been expressed in an Amy Tan novel so I will not delve further except to express my gratitude that with my own mother from the Middle Kingdom her individual traits and personality outweigh some of the more restrictive cultural expectations.

The ferocity of her love manifested not in a highly regimented daily life or plans for my future carved in stone á la Amy Chua but in cultivating traits that would support a person no matter where she ended up. It was important to my mother that I experience an American childhood: summer camps of countless variety, slumber parties (where my friends were treated better than I ever was), school plays, etc. Whatever I was interested in, she found a way for me to explore it, spending a day at a Robin Hood event at Hammond Castle in Gloucester, MA for her medieval era fixated 10-year-old  and checking out every book tangentially related to the middle ages from the library. Too bad for any other kid who wanted to read about knights and castles and kings and queens during the summer of 2002.

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