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Favorite films of 2015

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Favorite movies of 2015


“The Walk”

I didn’t get to see everything I wanted to see last year, but amongst the movies I did see, these are the ones I enjoyed the most and recommend…

My favorite movie of 2015 is “Mad Max: Fury Road”. It was written and directed by George Miller, who made the first two films in the series (in 1979 and 1981). The man deserves an Oscar for what he’s done with this movie.

I also liked “Ex Machina”, “Inside Out”, “Room”, Sicario”, “The Revenant” and “Straight Outta Compton”.


“Inside Out”

I really liked “National Gallery” though it was a 2014 release and I didn’t get to see it until last year. It’s 3 hours long, it held my attention throughout and I would like to see it again. Another 2014 film I saw last year and recommend is “Love is Strange” starring John Lithgow and Alfred Molina.

I also really liked “Steve Jobs” and am saddened it didn’t do better at the box office. It’s not a kind portrait of Jobs, which will turn off many who adore him. Michael Fassbender does some incredible acting and Aaron Sorkin’s script is on par with his work on “The West Wing” and “The Social Network”, perhaps even more impressive given that he’s creating three in-depth scenes (product rollouts) based on the best-selling biography by Walter Isaacson, a book that doesn’t focus on product rollouts.


“Steve Jobs”

Other movies I enjoyed: “Jurassic World”, “Maggie, “Slow West”, “Chappie”, “That Sugar Film”, “The Visit”, “Crimson Peak”, “The End of the Tour”, “Love and Mercy”, “Chi-Raq”, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”, “Sisters”, “The Walk”, “The Hateful 8” (too long, though) and “Bone Tomahawk” (a better Kurt Russell western).



I saw “The Martian”, “Spotlight” and “The Big Short” and thought each of them was okay, but I have no desire to watch any of them again. “Spotlight” wasn’t as revelatory as it wanted to be (everyone knows about the Catholic clergy sex abuse scandal nowadays) and “The Big Short” annoyed me for glossing over certain causes of the 2008 economic meltdown while overplaying other aspects (this article does a good job addressing these issues).

Each of these three movies has been nominated for the Best Picture oscar, though if I had to choose from amongst of the 8 nominees, I’d be torn between “Mad Max” and “The Revenant”.


“The Revenant”

I was disappointed by “Soaked in Bleach”, a documentary about Courtney Love’s possible involvement in Kurt Cobain’s death. To put it bluntly, the doc was very sloppy. I somewhat want to see “Cobain: Montage of Heck”, but like “Amy” and other docs about musical subjects that have come out recently, it feels like the music labels are partially supporting these films just to drive up sales of their catalogs.

I was disappointed by “Queen of Earth”. I liked the imagery of “Goodnight Mommy” but it was too torture-porn for my tastes.


“The End of the Tour”

Films I didn’t get to see but want to: “Carol”, “Grandma”, “99 Homes”, “Anomalisa”, “Brooklyn”, “In the Heart of the Sea”, “45 Years” and “Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet”.

Between Netflix, Facets and Hulu, I’ve continued to watch many older films, I figure I watched over 200 movies last year, not counting theater films. After my annual new year’s redraft, my film list is now down to a single page… three column, 10-point font. Roughly 100 titles on this year’s list.


“Crimson Peak”

Of the older movies I saw last year, the ones I really liked were “All That Jazz”, “The Execution of Private Slovik”, “The Hurricane” (1937), “Letter from an Unknown Woman”, “Mamma Roma”, “Panic in the Streets” (seen just after our honeymoon in New Orleans, natch), “Passing Strange”, “The Quiet Earth”, “Round Midnight”, “The Silent Partner” and “The Two of Us”.


“The Quiet Earth”

I regret that I have STILL not been able to watch “The Wire”, but we did manage to binge on the first five seasons of “Game of Thrones” and “The Walking Dead” and all seven seasons of “Nurse Jackie”. The only show we regularly watch on Hulu is “Bob’s Burgers”, though it’s been on hiatus since November-ish. I’m cautiously optimistic for the six new episodes of “the X-Files” coming out… today, actually.


“The Walking Dead”



Written by camcarlson

January 24, 2016 at 9:29 PM

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Movies and whatnot

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Haven’t written in some months. Let’s play catchup.

Still watching movies at a ridiculous pace, aided by subscriptions to Netflix (both streaming and DVDs), Facets, Hulu Plus and (for the next few weeks) a free trial membership of Amazon Prime… their selection kinda sucks, though they did let me enjoy the first season of “Veep”.

I think I found a way to con Netflix into sending me more than the 2-DVDs-at-a-time I pay for. What I did was load up my queue with over 100 titles, some of them listed as “very long wait”, and move all those to the top of my list. When they get a disc back in their hands, they find my next selection may not be available at the nearest shipping facility (which I believe is somewhere in Illinois). So they find another facility where it is available and ship it from there, emailing me a message that it may take 3-5 days to arrive (when in fact it’s usually just one extra day). In the meantime, they find the next title in my queue that is available at the nearest facility and ship that one as well. So they send me 2 titles for the price of one. Since my subscription is for 2 DVDs, it means at times I can have 4 DVDs out at a time, all thanks to their overly generous customer service.

Anyway, since my last entry (sadly, the only other one I’ve written this year), I’ve been trying to play catchup with a number of 2014 titles. The ones I saw and really liked include the Australian horror film “The Babadook”, Jon Stewart’s directorial debut “Rosewater” and the paintbrush anime “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya”. I liked “The Theory of Everything” but it wasn’t interesting enough that I feel I’d ever want to see it again. Ditto for “Whiplash”, though it’s story was a bit more compelling. I also saw “The Overnighters”, “Open Windows”, “Foxcatcher”, “A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night” and “Young Ones”.

I still haven’t seen “Selma”, “Love is Strange”, “Inherent Vice” and a few others… they’ll have to fight their way into my summer schedule.

So far this year I’ve only seen a few movies in the theater and only two of them were worth recommending: “Ex Machina” and “Mad Mad: Fury Road”.


Recommendations for the following services:

Netflix — “In America”, “The Innkeepers”, “Letter from an Unknown Woman”, “Panic in the Streets”, “Passing Strange”, Yukio Mishima’s “Patriotism”, “Ronin Gai”, “Round Midnight”, “The Two of Us” and the early Wim Wenders film “The Wrong Move”.

Facets — Another early Wenders film “The American Friend”, “The Execution of Private Slovik”. Roman Polanski’s 1971 version of “Macbeth” and the 1928 silent film “The Wind”,

Hulu Plus — “The Challenge” (really neat 30s films about the climbing of the Matterhorn) along with hundred of Criterion films, and a bunch of older television shows like “Strangers with Candy”, “The State”, “Ren & Stimpy”, “Reno 911!”… because who has time to watch TV shows?

Actually, we did binge-watch the first four seasons of “The Walking Dead” — great show —  as well as the third season of “House of Cards”, which I did not find as interesting as the first or second seasons.

So there’s that.

Screen Shot 2015-06-07 at 9.44.37 PM

But hey! My life has not just been watching flickering images on a screen.

Viet and I got hitched in January (!!!) and we’ve begun the arduous process of applying for his permanent residency.

We spent our delayed honeymoon road-tripping down to New Orleans and Pensacola. In lieu of the bullet point entry I wrote for last year’s Yellowstone trip, I’ll condense our six days on the road to these six points:

1. I-55 through Mississippi is very beautiful, whereas the I-55 overpass by Lake Maurepas is a seemingly endless white-knuckle hellscape.

2. The French Quarter can be surveyed by foot in less then 4 hours; aside from that and the nearby historical cemeteries (which we were warned not to visit unless we paid to be in a tour group, lest we end up mugged and/or stabbed), I can’t conceive of wanting to go back unless I was there with someone who knew the city.

3. Within the French Quarter are the French Market and the Cafe Du Monde. Both are tourist traps. Avoid at all costs. Especially the cafe — it’s actually a chain, and you can find them all around the city (for example: across the street from the Hilton we stayed at) and they serve the exact same coffee and beignets as the original in the FQ.

4. There’s a neat tunnel on I-10 that takes you underneath downtown Mobile.

5. Pensacola Beach is nice and all, but if you’re willing to drive a bit further, turn left onto Fort Pickens Road and pay the $8 entry fee for the Gulf Islands National Seashore. Miles of deserted beaches, fine white sand, warm southerly breeze, green water and pelicans flying overhead. I figure the entry fee also keeps the riffraff out (like the noisy, obnoxious college kids getting drunk on St. Patty’s Day). At the very tip of the island is Fort Pickens itself, which offers guided and self tours.

6. Cutting through the Appalachian Mountains in Tennessee is fun. Getting stuck in multiple bouts of gridlock on I-24 within Nashville and just north of the city is not fun.

Here’s a fun fact: with an average elevation of -1.5 feet below sea level, New Orleans is the lowest city in the western hemisphere with a population over 250,000.



Viet graduated earlier this month and just last weekend the government sent paperwork allowing him to go out and get a job. So between now and when he finds something, we’re planning another within-the-midwest road trip, something we could pull off over a 3-day weekend.

Been bicycling more this year. About a hundred hours in so far this spring.

Work keeps me busy. Get to the office before 7 and usually leave at 4:30, if not later.

Things continue to move in and out of the apartment. After graduation, Viet simplified his bookshelf and sold or donated a lot of books, and tossed out a lot of paperwork. Seems like every week a new plant finds its way onto a windowsill or out on our patio (ornamental cabbage and web cacti being the latest acquisitions). Picked up a much-needed coffee table for free and our new couch should arrive in a few weeks.

And that’s about it for now. Enjoy a picture from yesterday’s road trip to Maquoketa Caves State Park.


Written by camcarlson

June 7, 2015 at 10:02 PM

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Favorite films* of 2014 (Part 1)

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In keeping with last year’s bright idea of writing two posts about my favorite films of the year, I’m going to write a little something about the movies of 2014 that I’ve seen so far and enjoyed. I have to do this past-tense as, obviously, I waited until after New Years to do this.

Anyway, here goes…


There were four movies I really enjoyed in 2014. My favorite by far was “Boyhood”, a brilliant, low-key, honest story of a boy’s life. It wasn’t until just last year (2013) that director Richard Linklater revealed he had been filming the same four actors for a few days a year over a period of 12 years. We watch the boy, Mason Jr., and his sister Samantha grow up, and their divorced parents Olivia and Mason Sr. grow older and (in their own ways and on their own schedules) wiser. As much as the film is about childhood, it is equally about parenthood, though through the point of view of Mason Jr.; the film takes the autobiographical point of view of Mason, recalling both important and mundane moments in time. That’s how it is for everyone when taking a stroll down memory lane — sometimes we remember the monumental events that shaped who we are, and sometimes we recall some random moment, a song playing on the radio or a sunny afternoon or that time we rode our bikes down the street covered in slush and got our pant legs sopping wet. But I digress… Most of the adults in the film impart advice onto Mason, some nothing more than efforts to control him (his teachers, employers and both stepfathers) but some genuinely useful (his father, while discussing parenting: “We’re all just winging it”).


My next favorite film was ‘Under the Skin”, a dark, seductive sci-fi thriller starring Scarlett Johansson as an alien posing as a prostitute who lures men into her dark cavernous oil-liquid sex-cavern of a home and literally sucked the innards out of their skins. Mmm-hmm. It’s a morbid premise, but Johansson excels in portraying the alien seductress, probably her best film role to date.


There are only a few films by indie favorite Jim Jarmusch that I have really latched onto — “Dead Man” and “Broken Flowers” and the scenes from “Mystery Train” with Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. His latest film, “Only Lovers Left Alive”, starring Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston, tells the tale of two centuries-old vampire lovers, awash in gothic melancholia. After centuries spent influencing music and science, Adam now spends his days holed up in a dilapidated Victorian home in Detroit (the perfect run-down setting for this film), sneaking into hospitals to buy blood like a drug addict. His wife, Eve, flies from Tangier to join him and shake him free of his suicidal funk. John Hurt guest stars as a vampire Christopher Marlowe. Jarmusch’s films are, for me, best enjoyed by focusing on the mood rather than the plot.


And then there’s “Wild”, the indie film starring Reese Witherspoon as a woman who has lost everyone close to her, either through misfortune or by her own doing, and she embarks on a spiritual cleansing of sorts by packing way too much shit into a hiking pack and embarking on the Pacific Crest Trail in true greenhorn fashion. The film connected with me in that it rekindled a lot of memories of my time hiking in the mountains of New Mexico in the summer of 1997. A few memorable scenes — an older man running a camp graciously helps Witherspoon’s character strip the chaff from her pack and obtain proper footwear; the unsavory yet necessary muckwater treated with iodine tablets; being mistakenly interviewed by a reporter for “Hobo Times”; removing a boot to pop a blister and yank off a bloody toenail, only to watch said boot tumble down a few hundred feet of a steep rocky cliffside, immediately followed by much cursing and tossing of the matching boot in an act of angry defiance. The hike is something I’d like to try at some point in my life, preferably while I’m still “young”; that is, while I still have healthy knees and ankles.

I also really enjoyed the following:

“The Grand Budapest Hotel”, Wes Anderson’s saddest, most elegant film to date; my favorite scene is the chase between the attorney (Jeff Goldblum) and the henchman (Willem Dafoe) through the dark museum just before closing.

“Blue Ruin”, the most practical, bloodthirsty revenge film since “No Country for Old Men”.

“Interstellar”, a believable end to life on Earth, the cool TARS design and a star-swallowing black hole I couldn’t look away from. The docking scene was the most suspenseful four minutes of any film I saw in 2014.

“Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” with its crazy two hours of drum solo soundtrack and 99% single-shot camerawork… and Michael Keaton, who is the most perfect person to cast for this type of role since John Malkovich in “Being John Malkovich”.

“Nightcrawler”: no one can tell me Jake Gyllenhaal can’t act after having watched this film. He is just great in channeling a greasy businessman version of Travis Bickle from “Taxi Driver”. Creepy sociopath with a laser-like focus on success and absolutely NO morals whatsoever.

“Citizenfour”, which has convinced me our government will do just about whatever it wants to regardless of the law.

Other films I’ve seen this year and liked include: “Big Hero 6”, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”, “Chef”, “Cold in July” (much like “Blue Ruin”), “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”, “Dear White People”, “Edge of Tomorrow”, “Enemy” (another great performance — two, actually — by Gyllenhaal), “A Fantastic Fear of Everything”, the 2014 version of “Godzilla”, “Guardians of the Galaxy”, “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies”, “How to Train Your Dragon 2”, the beautiful black and white camerawork of “Ida”, “Land Ho!”, “The LEGO Movie”, Kelly Reichardt’s “Night Moves”, the strange of beautiful “Noah”, “Snowpiercer”, the ultra-trippy “The Congress”, the beautiful animation of “The Wind Rises” and “The Dance of Reality”.


2014 has been a really strong year for documentaries. Aside from “Citizenfour”, I really enjoyed “Maidentrip”, about a 14-year old Dutch girl who became the youngest person to sail around the world alone, over a two-year voyage. I also liked “Life Itself”, based on Roger Ebert’s autobiography; “Tiny: A Story about Living Small”, “Jodorowsky’s Dune”, and the fist-clenching frustration induced by Errol Morris’ “The Unknown Known”, about Donald Rumsfeld (a sequel of sorts of his 2004 doc “The Fog of War”, about Robert S. McNamara).


Now, some holdover movies from 2013 that I didn’t see into well into 2014 and wanted to share: “The Broken Circle Breakdown”, “Prince Avalanche”, “Inside Llewyn Davis”, “Dear Mr. Watterson” and “The Heat”. Two films from 2013 I really enjoyed and recommend are “Nebraska”, Alexander Payne’s touching tale of an old coot, his exasperated wife and loyal son, chasing a million dollar prize through the small dying towns of the Great Plains, beautifully shot in black and white; and “Prisoners”, a surprisingly captivating (and depressingly dark) tale of abduction and revenge.

Thanks to Netflix, YouTube and the UNI Library, I have continued to discover a number of great older movies:

“The Red Machine”


“The Bird with the Crystal Plumage” (Dario Argento’s film film)

the late 80s techno-metal Japanese horror film “Tetsuo: The Iron Man”

the 1983 WWIII film “The Day After”, which Wikipedia claims was the most-watched made-for-TV movie in history (over 100 million viewers) and can be seen in its entirety on YouTube

a pair of early David Cronenberg horror films, “The Brood” and “Shivers”

perennial 2010 Portland favorite “Cold Weather”

Werner Herzog’s 2010 documentary “Happy People: A Year in the Taiga”

the 2012 film “In the Family”, a really really damn fine film about custody rights in a Southern state that doesn’t recognize same-sex marriages.

I also *finally* saw “Westworld”, the 1973 sci-fi western that was the first feature film to utilize digital image processing (to simulate an android’s point of view).

[I also want to point out I finally had the opportunity to re-watch the 1997 made-for-ABC “The Shining” miniseries, which is pretty awful.]


*And thanks to Netflix, I have binged on a number of episodic programs: “House of Cards” and “Orange of the New Black”, both of which were better in their first seasons than their second; the entire series run of “Twin Peaks” and various episodes from the first four seasons of “The X-Files”; and “BoJack Horseman” hands down the funniest show I have watched in a long time. I also rented on DVD the first season of HBO’s “True Detective”, a very well-written and well-acted show.

Written by camcarlson

January 4, 2015 at 4:30 PM

21st Century Entertainment

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For several years my home movie watching had been done on either my laptop or on a 28″ Panasonic CRT model dating back to 2001. This particular unit was purchased by my brother and I for my dad’s 50th birthday; some years later he upgraded to a flat-screen TV and gave me the CRT (which replaced the 13″ Sharp I had been relying on since 1994). DVDs were played on a Sony DVD player purchased from Best Buy in December 1999 for $299. The Panasonic VCR has been traded between myself and my dad for some time, and I honestly can’t say how old it is, but the remote looks strikingly like that of the TV, so I’m going to guess another turn-of-the-21st-century product.


28″ TV vs. 40″ HDTV

Earlier this year I received a free Sony Blu-ray player but lacked the needed digital converter to hook it up to the TV. I also signed up for Netflix this summer and have been anxious to try streaming high-def films to a screen larger than my MacBook. So when Black Friday rolled around, I cashed in a few Best Buy gift cards that had been collecting dust for the past couple years and purchased a 40″ Sony HDTV for under $150. My meager entertainment center has now been upgraded to 21st century standards.


Lacy models the DVD player and VCR next to the smaller and notably lighter Blu-ray player.

I never utilized the plethora of connections on the back of the DVD player so they won’t be missed. Besides, I mostly rely on its built-in WiFi to access Netflix and Hulu content. The remotes are notably smaller and thinner than their brick ancestors, and after a few weeks of use I have found almost all needed functions can be access on either remote (screen size can only be changed on the TV remote). The TV sits only about a foot off the ground, but I find that’s about the right height for our viewing needs, given our couch-slouching tendencies.


So many unused ports! So much untapped potential! Oh well, from now on it’s HDMI and WiFi.

On top of all that, Viet bought a Google Chromecast a few weeks ago and hooked it up to the TV’s USB port. He can now stream music from his phone or his iPad mini directly to the TV. Through his Google Music subscription, I can stream every Mannheim Steamroller X-mas tune throughout the apartment. He also hooked up his portable speaker to the TV, which has remarkably good bass for its size.


Transitioning from a gazillion buttons to a mere several dozen.

Written by camcarlson

December 22, 2014 at 9:41 PM

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The Pale King

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I have no problem quitting books I’m not interested in (see If on a winter’s night a traveler) and I’ve pushed myself to finish books I really didn’t want to (see Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy). But I find myself in the extremely unusual position of wanting to quit reading a book I’m actually interested in.

Last month I picked up a few books from the CF library, one of them being The Pale King, the book David Foster Wallace was working on when he died in 2008. His editor collected the manuscript and draft computer files and compiled a book out of the pieces. It’s about 500 pages long, of which I’ve read about 150, but the chapter on deck is 98 pages (I’ve flipped ahead to look) and I feel antsy about spending so much time on this book and I feel like quitting where I am and move on to two books I’ve read before but have been increasingly wanting to reread: Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and (before the movie comes out next month) The Hobbit. 

My usual rule of thumb with a book is that, if I’m not hooked within the first 50 pages, I give up and move on. Life is short and there are too many books I want to read (with what little free time I have during nights and weekends not allocated to movies). I feel I remain on-track to reading somewhere in the neighborhood of 500-600 books before I hit my eighties — legitimate old-age.

So back to The Pale King… it’s not that I’m not interested in the subject matter, because I am. And I’m not turned off by Wallace’s writing style; I did, after all, slog my way through Infinite Jest over the final months of 2005, his tome of 1,079 pages. Like that work, and like most of McCarthy’s novels, TPK can’t be skimmed: the beauty is in the words, the sentence structures, the dialogue, the imagery, et cetera. Each sentence deserves to be read deliberately, or not read at all.

Tomorrow I will remove my 1994 bookmark and return TPK to the library. It will remain on my to-read list for 2015, along with a dozen other titles I did not find time for this year.

Written by camcarlson

November 21, 2014 at 11:11 PM

Silent Symmetry

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Written by camcarlson

October 26, 2014 at 4:55 PM

Posted in Cinema, video

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Summer 2014 Road Trip

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Like most vacations, I can now look back on the road trip Viet and I embarked on in July and remember it as a whole thing. But while it was taking place, each event felt episodic, inspired by the events that preceded it but still able to exist on its own. This is how I’ve chosen to recollect the things we witnessed in the Summer of 2014.

For the most part, we experienced sunny, often hot weather. 99ºF in Montana one day, 45ºF mornings in Yellowstone the next. Occasional light rain during our full day in Yellowstone. I dressed appropriately — light jacket, soccer shorts, hiking boots, with my iPhone for taking pictures and a bag of snacks and Gatorade in the back seat of the LaCrosse.

We drove over 3,300 miles and spent around $430 on gas. Spent only two nights on hotels, one in Salt Lake City (was not impressed with either the hotel nor Salt Lake City) and one in Denver (our first night on town; spent the next two as guests at the Girard residence). Camped two nights at Yellowstone, a place of such beauty and natural serenity I now believe everyone who is able bodied should make a point of visiting at least once in their lifetime, to spend at least one full day with nature. Camping, not RV-ing or staying at one of the lodges, is preferred.

That having been said…

SAC CITY: Start of our journey. Spent the night sleeping on two couches pushed together in my sister’s basement. Woke up with the sun and filled the gas tank with non-ethanol from 1 of the town’s 2 gas stations.

IA-20: Mostly a 2-lane highway west of Sac City. Gentle hills and decent NPR reception on a Saturday morning.

I-29 (SD): A rather bland 75 mph roadway heading straight north. Passed by Vermillion, no reason to stop there.

I-90 (SD): About a thousand bug splats on the windshield, matched by a thousand billboards hawking the wonders of Wall.

BADLANDS NATIONAL PARK: Brief excursion along Highway 240. Takes about an hour to drive through and stop at a few choice turnouts.

WALL: The very definition of ‘tourist trap’.  The Jackalope gag is cute but we didn’t see the huge fiberglass dinosaur. Can get a free “Where in the heck is Wall Drug” bumper sticker at one of the many gift tchotchke shops. Had a delicious buffalo burger at the Cactus Café, despite our waiter botching both of our orders.

RAPID CITY: Stopped only long enough to purchase bug bite relief cream at the enormous Cabela’s off the highway (my first time inside one).

KEYSTONE: Tiny little town at the bottom of a windy highway that attracts tourists like a light attracts bugs. Overpriced motel rooms, crawling speed limits and bumper-to-bumper traffic. Avoid if possible.

MOUNT RUSHMORE: To be honest, I was not as impressed as I thought I would be. If the Crazy Horse monument was finished, I would have gone there instead. If you want decent pictures, come during the morning or early afternoon.

CROOKED CREEK: Several miles west of Mount Rushmore. $32 will get you a campsite and access to bathrooms and showers . An extra $3 will get you an all-you-can-eat pancake breakfast. Pay both with cash, if possible.

SD-385: we drove the 45 northernmost miles of this 1,206-mile highway that begins at Big Bend National Park in southwestern Texas and ends in Deadwood SD. One of the coolest stretches of American highway I’ve ever had the privilege to navigate. Up, down and around the Black Hills in an endless mix of inclines, declines and sharp curves. Highlight was descending along the east side of Pactola Reservoir.

I-90 (WY): white knuckle driving at 80 mph. Occasional road construction. More bug splats on the windshield.

WY-14: Winding high plains road with many hilly fields and little civilization past Sundance.

DEVILS TOWER: Impressive rock formation hidden behind dozens of miles of beautiful Wyoming hillsides. Should be included in any Great Plains road trip itinerary.

SHERIDAN WY: Meh. Ate a late lunch at a Burger King, decided on a whim to escape Wyoming and drive up and through Montana instead.

I-90 (MT): Same 80 mph speed limit, but more maneuverable roadways. Trucks forced to drive slower in the right lane, which makes for easier passing. Beautiful view of the Crazy Mountains west of Billings. Exit at Livingston.

MT-89: beautiful valley route that ends in resort town of Gardiner.

YELLOWSTONE – NORTH ENTRANCE: Be sure to take a picture of the giant stone Roosevelt Arch leading into the park (as there isn’t a similar archway at the southern entrance).

MAMMOTH HOT SPRINGS: Like a town within the park. Wild animals lounge in the grass along the roadway. Check out the multicolored terraces from both the upper and lower observation walkways.

MADISON CAMPGROUND: 6,806 ft. elevation. Less than $25 per night. Bathrooms but no showers; bear-proof dumpsters, and a fire ring for each campsite. Good luck finding ground that isn’t hard-as-rock dirt to pitch a tent atop of. Park rangers give a nightly presentation at the nearby outdoor amphitheater.

GRAND CANYON OF YELLOWSTONE: My favorite feature of the park. The view of the lower falls and the canyon is best seen from the upper deck at Grand View, but we also stopped at Lookout Point. Didn’t make time for Artist Point or Inspiration Point.

YELLOWSTONE LAKE: With over 100 miles of coastline, it’s the largest high-altitude lake in North America. Deepest point is over 400 feet, and the undercurrent is cold enough (even in summer) to cause hypothermia in mere minutes. Next time I go to Yellowstone I will try to camp at Bay Bridge, on the western side of the lake.

OLD FAITHFUL: A necessity for any visitor of Yellowstone, though it’s not as impressive as other features at the park. A magnet for annoying tourists. I would have been satisfied watching the geyser erupt from inside the dining area of the nearby lodge.

GRAND PRISMATIC LAKE: Steaming beauty. I felt a small sense of reverence walking silently around the site, witnessing a geological formation that by and large has no equal anywhere else on Earth. An absolute must-see for any visitor, far more so than Old Faithful.

GRAND TETONS: Directly south of Yellowstone along the Rockefeller Parkway; check out the entire range from the first lake overlook. Don’t be tempted to stop at the Jackson Lake Dam to take pictures; keep going until you reach the Potholes Turnout or Mount Moran Turnout, or go all the way to the parking lot at Jenny Lake Overlook for superior views. Also, don’t let temporary gates along the walking trails deter you; just sidewind your way down the hillside right to the shoreline, and enjoy the view.

JACKSON HOLE (WY): First city after leaving Yellowstone/Grand Tetons; everything is crazy expensive, especially the gas. Just keep on driving…

CARIBOU NATIONAL FOREST: tied with SD-385 through the Black Hills as the most beautiful route of the trip. 15 to 20 miles through the park and I don’t think there was a combined 1,000 feet of straight road. The pace was leisurely and I didn’t see another car the entire time.

SODA SPRINGS: Plenty of smooth asphalt roads and elongated street lights in the small Idaho town.

I-15 (ID): The geography changes from mountain greenery to southwestern sagebrush. Hot, hot, hot.

NORTHEAST UTAH: An endless sea of cities, concrete and billboards, much like I-5 from San Diego to Los Angeles. 12 lanes of Hondas and Mazdas leapfrogging one another. Set your cruise control to 5 over, stick to the middle lane and plow ahead.

SALT LAKE CITY: Stayed at a Super 8 and dined at an In-N-Out Burger in Midvale. Didn’t have time to take in the Great Salt Lake. Temple Square was locked down for the night but could still see the big white temple from behind the perimeter wall.

UT-6: Some pretty tight canyon driving, though it doesn’t last for long. Local drivers continue to speed by like maniacs on a mission.

UT-191: Desert driving. Long stretches of straight roadway flanked on the east by seemingly never-ending cliffs of eroded rock.

I-70 (CO): A picturesque stretch of up & down roads that largely follows the Colorado and Eagle rivers. Lots of fun curves and tunnels along a 65-mile stretch between Gypsum and Silverthorne.

GRAND JUNCTION: The most disgusting truck stop I have ever set foot inside of. Nearly lost my faith in humanity. Avoid at all costs.

LOVELAND PASS: Take the 216 exit and weave your way up the mountain range to 10,990 feet. Foot paths lead higher up, though I settled for walking over to a nearby snowbank and scooping up a clump of hard snow in my hand… in July.

DENVER: Largest ‘midwest’ city that doesn’t feel too expensive. I don’t think I drove more than 2-3 miles in any direction without encountering some manner of road construction.

PHO 96: $9 bought a bowl of ‘special rare flame mignon’ pho larger than my head. So incredibly %#?@*&ing tasty!

QUALITY INN CENTRAL: The first room didn’t have working A/C. The second room reeked of nicotine despite being labeled a non-smoking room. Slept great in the king-size bed. The front desk was woefully understaffed, the continental breakfast was subpar, and the neighborhood was sketchy. Would not stay here again.

16TH STREET MALL: Free MallRide buses continuously run up and down the pedestrian mall. Illegal Pete’s offers tasty and affordable burritos, with a  full-service bar to the side. Browse the stores at the 3-story outdoor shopping mall or take a tour of the Denver branch of the Kansas City Federal Reserve Bank. At the bottom of the hill is the awesome Tattered Cover Bookstore (cartography buffs like myself will enjoy the sampling of maps kept in the side reading room); at the top of the hill is the Colorado state capitol building.

BROADWAY: A variety of stores, restaurants, cafes and bars. Several cluttered used book stores (one of them also a coffee shop – great idea!). One of the highlights of our entire trip was seeing “Boyhood” at the Mayan Theater. The décor inside the main theater is amazing.

BROTHERS: Just like the Iowa City one – packed with twentysomethings. The only saving grace were the $1 well drinks.

THE RETRO ROOM: offers more than a dozen delicious vodka infusion shots in flavors such as pickle, pepperchino and bacon. Go here instead of Brothers.

LOWRY BEER GARDEN: hip bar/restaurant at the former Lowry Air Force Base. Three sides of retractable walls. Outdoor and indoor seating. Cedar Falls needs a venue like this ASAP.

TRACKS: $12 cover gets you an evening of deafening club music and black light drag performances. If you ask for water, you will hand over $3 for a 10-ounce bottle. Take it… you don’t want to be rufied here. On a positive note, the bathroom was clean.

I-80 (NE): Tied with I-90 through South Dakota as the most boring stretch of highway driving of the trip. The only attraction of interest was the highway-spanning Archway near Kearney, which we didn’t stop at. Maybe next time.

OMAHA: Nearly 11 years ago I lived here while student teaching, and remember my time there with some fondness. Had I not been tired and hungry from driving all day, I may have turned off the interstate and driven through a few neighborhoods.

I-80 (IA): Some familiar sights driving through Council Bluffs. I don’t remember southwestern Iowa being as hilly as it is.

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Written by camcarlson

October 19, 2014 at 1:00 PM