This month marks twenty years that I've been a vegetarian. A lot has happened in twenty years; I've expanded my palate, learned to make a lot of great food, and had more access to vegetarian and vegan options when dining away from home. I don't get as many odd looks as I used to or even as many questions about why, which is nice. I don't mind telling people why I'm a vegetarian, but it's not the simple answer most people want to hear. The short answer is that I really just don't like meat. The longer answer is that I think it's, well, disgusting to eat animals. More on that later. But now, a little on how it began.
It all started in the year 2000 when I picked up the cookbook, Garden Cuisine by the inventor of Gardenburgers, Paul Wenner. I'd made attempts at semi-vegetarianism for about ten years at that time and never really did like a lot of meat (I dislike ground meat and sausage so much that I won't even eat the vegetarian versions), but the recipes and the information in the book gave me the push to go completely meat-free.
At first, I ate a lot of pasta and pizza and quickly put on several pounds, so my next step was to actually make some of the recipes in the cookbook and understand the building blocks of food and nutrition. At that time, it was still a bit of a challenge to eat vegetarian meals in restaurants and I traveled a lot for work, so I still had a lot of pasta and ate a lot of pretty sad salads as well. I'm so glad that restaurants offer so many more options now (and have better salads!).
These days, my diet is more restricted thanks to my age. I have inched toward veganism over the last decade due as much to my body's rejection of dairy products as to my knowledge of the problems with large-scale dairy farming. And a dinner of pasta and bread--while delicious--makes me feel pretty sluggish.
The most challenging thing in the last twenty years, though, is the last ten when I've tried to raise a vegetarian child. She was on board with it for many years, but in the few years, she has decided she likes the occasional dead animal. I don't cook or serve it to her, but I do allow her to eat some sushi. Her grandparents are a little more indulgent. However, I've convinced her that a burger-less cheeseburger from McDonald's is a great option and she's a big fan of the bean burrito at Taco Bell. She's an American kid; you just can't do much to keep them away from fast food and marshmallows without seeming like a monster.
Oh, and the meat is disgusting thing? I don't know how people do it. Y'all know that meat used to be a live creature, right? It was a baby once. And as we are in the midst of a global pandemic that many are attributing to consumption of bats in China, I'm disturbed at the hypocrisy of so many people who have this completely subjective hierarchy of animals wherein every creature is assigned a spot that determines if it is fit to eat. In some cultures, any animal that can be captured is suitable to eat. Interesting how people decided where an animal falls on the spectrum (though I'm sure most people never think about it much). It even differs even within geographic areas and families. Even my own.
Our last day in Jackson Hole was a sad one. We did not expect to love the area as much as we did and there was still a lot to do and see, not just in Yellowstone, but in the Grand Tetons as well. But we got up early to visit one last time before heading through Wyoming to Devil’s Tower and on to Deadwood, South Dakota where we stayed as a base for visiting Mt. Rushmore and Badlands National Park before heading back home.
It was during this time, though that wildfires started burning more area, causing a haze (and hazard) over a lot of Wyoming, Montana, and even Colorado. We got lucky that our visit was not affected by the fires.
Day 14: Leave Teton Village for Devil’s Tower and Deadwood, South Dakota (travel time: about 8 hours in the car plus about 4 hours of stops)
It was a beautiful morning, so we got up early to see Schwabacher’s Landing (Grand Tetons) before leaving the area. It is a stunningly beautiful spot that is quite popular for weddings. There were mostly just photographers there when we arrived, all of us trying to get a good picture of a moose cow grazing in the Snake River.
The first portion of our drive east was on a desolate highway in Wyoming dotted with small towns. The mountain terrain flattened to prairies covered with cattle, often interrupted by buttes of varying sizes. We passed many historic sites, including the infamous Teapot Dome! As we drove through the area, we listened to music on the Native American radio stations. The littlest Eats was not a fan, but we thought it was really interesting.
Side note: it was great to have a minivan with a huge gas tank, because there were long stretches where we saw no other people--not gas stations, cars, nothing but cows and grass (and signs advertising Wall Drug). Luckily, we had plenty of food for sandwiches and snacks in the car, too.
We arrived at Devil’s Tower around 5:30 p.m., which is the absolute perfect time in mid-July. We were very fortunate to have clear weather, so the late afternoon sun cast it in a golden glow. This is a sacred site for the Native Americans and it has many prayer cloths and bundles left as offerings. Devil’s Tower was a real highlight for my husband and me. He’s more a fan due to Close Encounters of the Third Kind (which we both saw as children), but I also recall the site from a short film that used to play during intermission at the drive-in theater when I was a kid. Devil’s Tower was always shown during a particularly dramatic portion of the music and it had quite the impact on my memory.
Our expectations of the site were exceeded by far, though. It was an amazing experience; magical and spiritual. Even the hum of a busload of tourists that arrived shortly after us didn’t disturb the tremendous feeling of peace we felt being there. At times, the only sounds we heard was the whistling of the wind and an eagle flying around. While there, we stopped at a souvenir store and mailed an alien postcard to my husband’s brother’s family. Devil's Tower is almost as popular among believers in ETs and ALFs as Area 51.
We stayed until just after 7:30 and about an hour or so later, we arrived in Deadwood, South Dakota at The Lodge at Deadwood. Short-term rentals are a little harder to come by in this area, which is a popular gaming (gambling) area. The Lodge is a casino hotel, but you don’t have to go through the casino to get to the rooms and it had a really fun indoor water park that I figured would be great for some much-needed downtime after a couple of weeks of intense activity. The hotel was really nice and comfortable and not very expensive at all. It’s at the base of Mt. Roosevelt, so it’s perched above the main tourist zone, making it a much quieter place to stay than in town. One afternoon, we found a herd of bighorn sheep ewes grazing on the lawn!
Day 15: Mt. Rushmore and Deadwood (travel time: about an hour and a half to Mt. Rushmore)
We arrived at Mt. Rushmore a little after 10 a.m. (it is about an hour and a half from Deadwood through the Black Hills National Forest). It was already full of tourists and was the most crowded site we’d been to during the trip (since the site is pretty concentrated as opposed to an area that is spread out for hiking and nature viewing). Despite already being extraordinarily hot, the mid-morning sun was good for nice pictures (the monument faces east).
Mt. Rushmore was a huge disappointment for several reasons. Though I should note that I didn’t do a lot of research beforehand. First, it was incredibly tacky. I learned that it was created purely as a tourist destination, the area officials being concerned that the natural beauty was not enough of a tourism draw. The designer, Gutzon Borglum was er, not a good dude, either. After being so impressed by the beauty and spirituality of Devil’s Tower, it was disappointing to see the beautiful landscape marred by this monument.
Second, and less importantly, I’d had an unrealistic idea of what eating lunch at the monument would be like. I pictured civilized people having table service while admiring the view thanks to seeing North by Northwest. Reality was a bunch of tourists in our touristy clothing eating very bad food in a cafeteria. The food selections were so terrible, that I only had a small side salad to eat.
Lastly, the visitors to this monument were very different from the nature lovers at the national parks. I saw as much confederate flag paraphernalia as I’ve seen in downtown Nashville during peak season. Did they get it confused with Stone Mountain, I wondered? Are they unaware that they’re admiring an image of Abraham Lincoln and other representatives of a United States?
Anyway, we ate our sad lunch and a $6 cup of Jefferson’s vanilla ice cream and headed through the tourist traps and back to Deadwood.
Deadwood is an historic “old west” town and very much a tourist trap, but in a fun way. There is interesting people-watching and shopping (plenty of confederate flag merchandise, which I would love to say I don’t understand because of the location but…). We stopped in and had a family “wild west” photo taken (neither of us did this with our families as kids, so it was really fun to do it with ours) and ate at one of the oldest buildings in town, the Deadwood Social Club (neat place with lots of old photos). We drove around downtown a bit; many of the homes were built in the late 1800s and are beautiful Victorian style. We did not visit the famous Mount Moriah cemetery (where Wild Bill Hickock, Calamity Jane, and a number of other famous people that lived in the area are buried), but we did drive past. It’s a gorgeous area that’s very hilly.
On the way back to the hotel, we stopped at Taco John’s, the other western taco favorite. They also feature tater tots, so we got some tater tot nachos. Not as good as Taco Time, but I still love the tater tot option. We ate dinner in the “water park” area, which thrilled the kiddo.
Day 16: Wall Drug and Badlands National Park (travel time 1-2 hours)
I’m not quite sure when I first heard of Wall Drug, but it is legendary, so we were excited to visit. It’s about an hour away from Deadwood and on the way to Badlands National Park. It’s a large complex now that sells just about everything you can imagine (there is an actual drug store), but mostly souvenirs and food. We had a brunch (freshly made donuts, pancakes, and more) as well as ice cream before wandering the grounds. It was definitely a fun stop.
On the way to Badlands, we stopped at the Minuteman Missile Monument, where our daughter got a quick lesson about the Cold War. Then, outside the Badlands, we stopped at The Ranch and fed a few of the resident prairie dogs.
Once we arrived at the Badlands (east entrance), we did a couple of short hikes, the Door Trail and the Cliff Shelf trail. This area is truly amazing. The prairie gives way to this landscape that is how I imagine Mars must be. It’s very stark, too how the prairie grassland just stops and the Badlands are revealed. Pictures don’t do it justice. We saw a lot of wildlife here, too including more bighorn sheep, pronghorns, prairie dogs, and a burrowing owl.
We drove through the Badlands and up to the west entrance and then back to Wall Drug for dinner. I was happy to find a Gardenburger on the menu!
Day 17: Deadwood to Pacific Junction, Iowa (travel time: about 10 hours including stops)
With the fun part of our vacation over, it was time to head back to Nashville. I chose a small hotel in Pacific Junction, Iowa for our overnight because it was cheap, safe, and convenient (it was definitely a no-frills place; it even had real keys for the doors). On the way, I thought we might detour for the Corn Palace, but I was disappointed to discover that the corn is used primarily for decoration and that there was no large selection of culinary corn specialties (just a few options for food including popcorn and corn on the cob). What a missed opportunity. So we skipped it.
It had been quite some time since I had vegetables, so I was happy to discover a place called Al’s Oasis in Oacoma, South Dakota, which is a bit like a mini Wall Drug (in that there are souvenir stores in the complex). We had an early dinner at their salad bar, which had several types of salad greens and all the typical toppings and dressings plus pasta salads, potato salads, and a dessert bar with fresh fruit, pastries, and (of course) puddings. At $8 per person (and $4.75 per kid), it was a great value. Even Mini Eats ate vegetables on her salad! And we were full for the evening, so we didn’t have to stop for dinner. We did have a mishap with the minivan that resulted in having to move all of our stuff into a GMC Acadia at the Sioux City airport, though. That wasn’t fun. But we were fortunate that they had a vehicle that could hold all of our gear.
Day 17: Pacific Junction, Iowa to Nashville (travel time: about 11 hours)
I was able to time most of our travel to avoid rush hour in the major cities, but could not avoid it for St. Louis on the return. Fortunately, we were headed in the opposite direction of most of their traffic, so it wasn’t too bad. But there was congestion a full hour outside the city, which made me realize how small Nashville really is.
I made a wonderful discovery on the way, though. With another “late lunch” stop (a “linner,” if you will), the other members voted to stop at Denny’s. Mr. Eats loves breakfast for dinner and Mini is all about pancakes. But I was still craving salad, so the server let me order a simple grilled cheese sandwich with a side of their kale salad. The kid and I both loved this salad, that was dressed with lowfat vanilla yogurt and topped with cranberries, almonds, granola, and feta. I make it at home now (minus the feta).
After fueling up outside St. Louis, we made our last stop at the rest area in Metropolis, Illinois for a photo op. We arrived home tired and sad and already wanting to go back to Jackson Hole around 10 p.m.
After visiting Colorado, our next stop was Midway, Utah just outside of Park City in the Heber Valley. It’s where my sister-in-law’s parents live and was a great stop over the 4th of July holiday, which is the busiest time of the year in national parks. My brother-in-law, sister-in-law, and niece flew out to meet us and show us around for our short time there, which was really fun. Her parents were fantastic hosts, too so I don’t have very many food or lodging recommendations for the area.
After leaving Utah, we embarked on the very unknown portion of our trip, to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, which served as our base for visiting Yellowstone National Park and Grand Tetons National Park. Neither my husband and I had ever visited before, but I had gotten a lot of advice about how to make the most out of a visit to the area. It’s essential to plan for a trip well in advance (just like to the Rocky Mountain National Park area) because lodging (particularly inside the parks) fills up quickly, up to a year in advance or earlier.
Day 7: Leave Estes Park at 9 a.m. for Midway, Utah (travel time: 8 hours with stops)
The drive to Utah took us east along the Big Thompson River and up through Fort Collins and into Wyoming to I-80 at Laramie. We took I-80 across southern Wyoming to Midway, which is just south of Salt Lake City, which is on the eastern edge of Utah. The scenery all along the route was just stunning as it changed from the mountains to buttes and rocks to prairies with wind farms and back to snow-capped mountains. I-80 is lined with signs about what to do when the interstate closes due to weather as well as snow fences, so it was very different from the interstate landscape of the south.
Midway is in the Heber Valley, with a view of Park City and Deer Valley’s ski areas, which turn to ATV trails in the summer. It’s a beautiful area.
Day 8 (4th of July!): Midway, Utah
Much of the day was spent preparing for the neighborhood parade, but we did get a chance to visit Heber Valley Artisan Cheese for cheese curds and ice cream. Huckleberry (which is just another name for the wild blueberry) is one of the most popular flavors of ice cream (and just about everything else from syrup to lip balm) in this area, so I definitely had to try the huckleberry ice cream, which was delicious. I’m also a sucker for fresh, squeaky cheese curds (they have several flavors, but plain white cheddar is my favorite).
After the parade, the whole neighborhood has a party and watches the fireworks launched from Memorial Hill.
Day 9: Park City, Utah
My brother-in-law and sister-in-law took my husband and me into Park City to walk around downtown. We stopped for beers and snacks first at Wasatch Brewery and again later on in the day at the No Name Saloon. It was fun to see this area on a quiet day; I’d only seen pictures taken of it during the Sundance Film Festival.
Day 10: Leave Midway, Utah for Teton Village, Wyoming (travel time with stops, about 6 hours)
To serve as a home base for our visits to Yellowstone National Park and the Grand Tetons National Park, I chose Teton Village, Wyoming. It is a quiet and small community of resort hotels, condominiums, and single family homes. We stayed at Eagle’s Rest Condominiums, at the base of the Jackson Hole ski area, walkable to the community playground, a handful of restaurants, and to the famous Jackson Hole Aerial Tram. Teton Village is much less crowded than Jackson proper and is closer to the entrance of the parks.
The drive from Midway took us along the border of Idaho and Wyoming, which we crossed several times. It was beautiful and the weather was clear but hot. We even got to see a moose (with head submerged) in a river alongside the highway.
In Afton, Wyoming the area known as Star Valley, we stopped for a mid-afternoon snack at Taco John’s. We didn’t know much about it, but we were intrigued. Out west, they’re big fans of mixing Tex Mex cuisine with tater tots. Nachos with tater tots as a base instead of tortilla chips? Yes, please.
Day 11: Yellowstone National Park with Buffalo Roam Tours
We didn’t have much time to spend in the area and I had gotten a lot of tips regarding Yellowstone (what to see, what to skip, and what to expect). Since I knew this would be the most crowded time of the year, I opted to book a tour with Buffalo Roam Tours so we wouldn’t miss the best spots. Our guide picked us up at 7:15 a.m. and spent the day making sure we saw lots of wildlife and all the best parts of the part. We were able to see all the highlights in a day (which was about 13 hours) and more iconic wildlife than I’d ever seen. The guide was great for making sure we got to see Old Faithful blow, eat at the best restaurants in the park, get the best photos, and see everything since neither of us had to worry about driving. He even helped Mini Eats get her Junior Ranger certification.
Among the highlights was seeing a moose calf nursing with his mother, the Lower Falls of the Grand Canyon, Old Faithful, the Grand Prismatic, the hot springs, The Old Faithful Inn, and herds of bison, elk, and pronghorns (generally known as antelopes).
After such a long day, we were happy to dig into some takeout from Teton Thai, a great little restaurant in the Village.
Day 12: Grand Tetons National Park
We got up early to beat the crowds to Jenny Lake to take the shuttle boat across the lake and over to hiking trails to Hidden Falls. The lake is spectacularly beautiful and the falls were huge (you hike right next to them). There’s a popular swimming area on the lake, but we took the scenic drive up to Colter Bay and then to the Jackson Lake Lodge where we had lunch at the historic Pioneer Grill. It’s an old diner that’s been thoroughly restored and has a great menu. It’s really fun. All the seating is bar style.
Jackson Lake Lodge is also breathtakingly beautiful with spectacular views. It’s a great place to stay, I’m sure, if you can book far in advance. We also visited the dam on the Snake River that created Jackson Lake and also visited the “beach” at the String Lake swimming area. It’s warmer than other lakes, but still way too cold for me.
Day 13: Jackson Hole
I reserved a day just to explore around the touristy areas of Jackson and Teton Village. We started the day by taking the Aerial Tram up to the top of the mountain to Corbett’s Cabin, which is famous for its waffles. There’s not much else up at the top, but it’s popular for paragliding in the summer and for some hikes. There’s usually still a bit of snow for skiing, too.
After taking the tram back down the mountain, we drove to Jackson to shop for souvenirs, see the famous elk antler arches (the elk shed their antlers annually, so it is not grim at all), have ice cream at Moo’s. Jackson was a little too busy and there wasn’t much to do, so we headed back to Teton Village ride the gondolas up and down the mountain and the Teewinot chair lifts, too. We got an unlimited all-day pass so we just went up and down the mountain over and over. It was a lot of fun!
Later, we headed back to the Tetons to take some sunset photos and to see more wildlife, which gets more active in the evening. We had more ice cream and visited the swimming area of Jackson Lake (which was popular but also cold!). I’d wanted to see Swan Lake, but the hike was too long; by this point in our trip, Mini Eats wasn’t up for much more hiking. Afterwards, we visited the Snake River Overlook, the site of the famous Ansel Adams photo.