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Big Sky Adventure: Pocatello, Idaho and return to Salt Lake

View Wyoming ski trip 2023 on zzlangerhans's travel map.

At four hours, the drive from Bozeman to Pocatello was the longest single day leg of the trip. I had found nothing at all of interest between the two cities and we had a late start out of Bozeman anyway, so the plan was to drive the whole way without stopping. The first couple of hours were uneventful as we covered long stretches of empty road with distant views of barren, snowcapped mountains.

Not long after we crossed into Idaho some flakes of snow began to fall, the first we had seen during this trip. Now that we had left the ski area we certainly had no more use for snow but ironically the snowfall grew steadily heavier until it began to seriously impact our visibility. The sun was going down as well and I had to focus very hard on the center line to be sure I was staying on the correct part of the road. At one point the snow stopped and I thought we were clear but soon afterwards we encountered a new flurry that was so steady that only the taillights of the car in front of me revealed the location of the road. I had to drive faster than I was comfortable with to keep the lights in sight. At one point I began to wonder if we would be safer if I pulled off the road entirely but it never got quite bad enough for me to take that drastic course of action. We kept driving and eventually the snow disappeared for good. It was an effective reminder that winter driving out west can't be taken lightly. We arrived in Pocatello behind schedule and went straight to the restaurant just in case they closed early. Sandpiper was the obvious choice from the online reviews and they provided us with decent, filling renditions of the usual standards. Our Airbnb was a very cozy place with wooden floors and beams, a large kitchen, and excellent mattresses.

Pocatello was a small city of fifty thousand, not far from Lava Hot Springs where we had spent a night on the northward leg of our trip. I had chosen it over its slightly larger neighbor Idaho Falls because of Historic Downtown Pocatello, a somewhat preserved neighborhood southwest of the railroad tracks. The first thing we found there was a small park with some undisturbed snow from the previous day's flurry, so we were able to have our first real snowball fight of the trip.

Most of the interesting buildings and shops in the historic district were along North Main Street. We had to walk up and down the street a couple of times since most of the thrift stores and bookshops didn't open until eleven. One of the main landmarks on the street is the Chief Theater sign, which stands fifty feet tall and commemorates the Shoshone chief after whom the town is named. The theater that the sign once advertised burned to the ground in 1993.

We checked out a couple of thrift shops but the prize was another beautiful secondhand bookstore, the third one we had come across on this short trip. There's nothing I love more than the maze of passages created by towering bookshelves filled with fascinating, inexpensive paperbacks. Even Spenser, our most reluctant reader, found himself a comfortable chair and a book to occupy himself with. I picked up an interesting collection of essays by the renowned physicist Murray Gell-Mann called The Quark and the Jaguar.

We drove around some residential neighborhoods of Pocatello for a little while to get a better feel of the town. Not much stood out about the houses except for one colorful fence that had been constructed from repurposed skis. We had a couple of hours to spare so I surprised the kids with a visit to a place called Outer Limits Fun Zone which had glow-in-the dark miniature golf and laser tag. The kids proved to be much better than me at laser tag, especially Cleo who delighted in deactivating me every time I made the mistake of traversing an open space.

On the way back to Utah we took a detour from the interstate to the town of Preston, notable in American pop culture as the setting of the cult movie Napoleon Dynamite. I wouldn't say it's one of my favorite movies but I definitely appreciated its take on American small town culture and I knew a lot of the catchphrases. We stopped by the tiny town's public high school where much of the movie's action takes place and I took the obligatory photo in front of the sign. Mei Ling had never heard of the movie, of course, but she thought my fascination with the town was pretty funny.

Once we finally rolled back into Salt Lake City we drove directly to Chinatown and put our names on the list for the most popular of the hot pot restaurants. About half an hour later we had crammed into a four top and we were boiling up our ingredients on opposite sides of a Taiji shaped hot pot. As always Cleo and I had the plain chicken soup while the others went with the spicy broth. Heavenly.

I had picked an Airbnb in the suburb of Lehi, about halfway between Salt Lake City and Provo, because it was closer to the activities I had planned for the following morning. We arrived to a house in a rather nondescript subdivision but the self check-in process wasn't working for us. We tried the lockbox on the front door first but the code wasn't correct. After studying the directions on the Airbnb site a little more closely we realized we had to go down a staircase to get to our basement unit, but that lockbox didn't work either. After we had been sitting in our car about five minutes trying to figure out what to do, another car pulled into the driveway. It turned out to be our hosts who had completely forgotten that they had guests that night. They were extremely embarrassed and apologetic and told us that they would comp our stay. We sat in the car a few more minutes while they frenetically brought linens down to the unit and made the beds. They probably would have spent another hour tidying up the place if we hadn't begged them to just let us crash.

Aside from the hiccup on arrival our Airbnb turned out to be really nice. In the morning we went outside and found that the two day old snow was perfect for packing. We had another vigorous snowball fight against the background of snow capped mountains. Our hosts bemusedly watched us from the upstairs patio with their young kids. "We're from Miami", I explained. "We only get to see snow once a year."

After we left we got a notification for a full refund through the Airbnb app. We declined it and messaged our hosts that we had only been waiting at the house for a few minutes the previous night. We're not interested in trying to save money at the expense of other private citizens hustling to make a decent living. They did insist on waiving the cleaning fee so we compromised and accepted that. Driving down the main road in Lehi with a massive ridge of white mountains directly in front of us was pretty surreal. It felt more like being in Nepal than the United States.

Our plan was to have lunch at The Foundry Grill which was inside the Sundance Resort. To get there we took US 189 which is one of the two main roads that run through the Wasatch range in the Salt Lake area. A dusting of snow outlined the natural striations in the jagged rocky peaks that surrounded us.

We arrived at the restaurant just before the lunch time rush and got the last large table before the line began forming. It was a good restaurant with an energetic atmosphere, although I'm not sure it would have been worth the long drive if we hadn't been headed in that direction anyway. From the parking lot we could see one chairlift with a fairly long line and I was glad we had chosen a less renowned location to do our own skiing.

We continued on our way down 189, passing the beautiful Deer Creek Reservoir within the Provo River. Our destination was the Homestead Crater in the town of Midway. Midway is located within the Heber Valley, one of the few areas within the United States that can boast a strong Swiss influence from its original settlers. Midway has a Swiss cultural festival every Labor Day weekend and there's a large resort within the town called Zermatt. There's also a tiny adjacent town named Interlaken. Some of the larger houses in Midway are decorated with highly detailed Alpine-style Lüftlmalerei frescoes.

The Homestead Crater isn't actually a crater at all, but rather a travertine limestone shell that built up around a geothermal spring over countless thousands of years. In the nineteenth century a family of Swiss immigrants bought the land surrounding the crater and drilled a tunnel to the spring through the limestone wall at ground level. At the end of the tunnel is a sixty-five foot deep azure pool that maintains a constant temperature of ninety to ninety-five degrees year round. Visitors can swim, snorkel, or even scuba dive in the pool with an advance reservation. I hadn't made us reservations to swim, much to Cleo's disgust, but the staff member inside kindly let us walk into the cavern to take a few photos.

Midway is also the site of the Utah Ice Castles. The opening date depends on the coldness of the winter and I was hopeful that they would open early two years in a row but it was not to be. We missed the castles by a week. Our flight back to Miami didn't leave until late at night so I had quite a long stretch of time to fill before we needed to be at the airport. I had bought tickets to a magic show that afternoon but it wouldn't begin for another two hours, so we decided to take the kids bowling. This is something we do very rarely as a last resort when there's time to kill, so the kids aren't very adept at it. Fortunately I've learned to request the bumpers on the sides so that the kids won't be in a black mood because of all the gutter balls. We had to peel out before we had finished our second game so we wouldn't be late for the magic show. This turned out to be surprisingly good for a small event that I had only discovered while perusing Salt Lake City event calendars that same morning. The magician was quite talented and had great stage presence as well. He involved several of the kids in the audience, even though some of them were kind of pitiful when it came to following instructions. None of our kids got chosen to participate but they were discussing the tricks for a couple of hours afterwards.

One of the most distinctive buildings in Salt Lake City is its Moshe Safdie-designed public library which opened in 2003. The structure seems to defy every preconception of what a library should look like. The entrance opens into a wide arcade that is covered by the glass roof of the building five stories above. On the ground floor there are galleries, a cafe, and some small boutiques. To ascend to the upper levels one can choose between a curving, avant garde staircase or glass elevators. We arrived just as the building was closing and a procession of homeless men was filing out, possibly to sleep under the enormous, curving external staircase that provides an alternative access to the rooftop garden.

For dinner we went back to Chinatown to try another hotpot restaurant that was reportedly even better than the one we had been to the previous night. Two hotpots in a row gave me flashbacks to Chongqing but I didn't have any better ideas. We'd had our fill of Western style bistros at this point. Mei Ling agreed with her sources that the second one was better but I couldn't tell any difference. I preferred the cozy atmosphere of the first one.

After dinner it was still way too early to head to the airport for our midnight red eye. Fortunately I had one last trick up my sleeve, an escape game. We had done this once before in Nashville and it was a success so I knew the kids would be into it. I found a place that was open late and reserved a spot. We were the only ones there when we arrived so we got a private game. It was quite an expensive activity for the five of us, considering we only had an hour to solve a complicated escape room with very obscure clues. I was amazed at how well the kids did, especially Cleo. In fact they were moving so quickly and yelling over each other so loudly that I soon became lost and had no idea what was going on. We made a lot of progress with just a few hints but we ran out of time long before we arrived at the solution. I have no idea how other people can finish those games on time but I imagine we will have to invest a lot of time and money before we're ever able to complete one on our own. Regardless, it took care of the remaining time before we had to head to the airport and it was a fitting conclusion to a very fun day for the kids. The airport was practically empty at that late hour and the whole boarding process was very easy. The kids went to sleep before the flight even took off and didn't wake up until we were almost ready to land in Miami.

This was our fifth family ski trip, each time with a different destination. Because of the weather it hadn't been the best skiing but it hadn't been the worst either. The road trip had been awesome and I still haven't found a city out west that I don't like. Salt Lake City especially punches way above its weight, although I'm hard-pressed to think of anything new that we'll be able to do if we return. My tentative plan for the next winter is to fly into Calgary and ski somewhere around Banff, although I've been way too busy traveling and planning other trips to investigate more deeply. We've already visited Dubai and Oman this year and we'll be leaving for a six week road trip in Italy in three days. After that we'll spend ten days in August visiting state fairs and water parks in the American Midwest to reward the kids for being good sports about doing so much walking in Italy, and then it will soon be time to start thinking about the next winter vacation. Exhausting but totally worth it.

Posted by zzlangerhans 04:52 Archived in USA Tagged road_trip family idaho family_travel travel_blog salt_lake_city pocatello tony_friedman family_travel_blog

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