Cheap Summer Vacation Series: Yellowstone National Park

After reading a post on SS4BC’s blog on her road trip (which I believe has been cancelled), I got to thinking about cheap summer vacations, and quickly realized that a very frugal way to vacation is to hit up your local (or not so local) national parks.  Many of them are free to get in, and if they are not free admission, there is usually a small fee, and you can camp for free or relatively cheap at campgrounds that are maintained by the park staff.  You can easily cook most of your own meals so you wont be eating out frequently.  This will also be a series of posts, and I’m hoping to get some posts from other bloggers around the country to talk about parks I’ve never been to.  I’ll start out the series with the first national park, Yellowstone National Park.

Yellowstone National park is huge, and is mostly located in Wyoming (some small areas in Idaho and Montana are within the parks boundaries as well).  I’ve only been up there once, but it was amazing.  The park is currently sitting directly atop a large caldera (volcano) and that has lent to many unique features in the park.  There are very, very old redwood trees (that are normally not found in wyoming), hot pools, gyesers galore, fantastic waterfalls and much more.   There’s abundant wildlife and it was well worth the admission fee.

When I went, I stayed at yellowstone and grand teton national parks for 7 days today, and spent $25 to get into both places.  I’d have to say that it’s easily the best $25 I’ve ever spent. Even though this was during the gas price spike in 2008, I was still able to have a fairly cheap week.  A lot of the meals I made were relatively simple affairs, as I wanted to get and see as much as possible when I was up there.  I camped when I was there, and for those squirmish about not taking a shower for that long, yellowstone has shower facilities that you can use (though you had to pay a small fee).

This park is just north of Grand Teton, and there are 4 roads into the park.  You can access it from Cody, WY, Gardnier, MT, West Yellowstone MT or Jackson, WY.  You’ll need a vehicle, as no town is close enough to the park to walk to.  Visitation is very high in the summer, but you can still feel like you’re out in the wild if you get away from the main roads.

This is a picture that I took in the park. The pools in the background are steaming and you cant get in them – they are heated by the caldera.

Another picture from inside the park.  As you can see, the landscapes vary in the park widely.  This was near a gyser.  The landscapes in the park are just stunning, and you get to see them all for the low price of $25 for the week (7 days)!  The park was huge, so this did take some driving from our campsite to the best areas of the park, but it was well worth it.

One of the many gysers in the park.  It is really awesome to watch these gysers spray, some of the spray quite high and quite frequently, and some of them don’t spray that often, but often resulting in a large stream of water.

This is the iconic yellowstone falls.  Obviously my crappy camera and photo taking skills dont do it justice, but it is stunning.

Along with all of this, you get a chance to bond with whomever you decide to take and have a great excuse to unplug and enjoy your vacation.  The best part is, this (or a national park near you) wont break the bank.

Green Your Summer: Start A Garden

This post is part of the weekly Green Your Summer Series. This series offers some simple tips to help you have a greener summer.  This is the fourth post in the series.

Gardens are an awesome way to save some money and reduce the miles that your food travels to get to your plate.  You can always get the freshest fruits and veggies, and they always taste great!  Usually, your home grown foods cost much, much less than the ones that you’d buy from the store that are out of season, bruised, split open or sprayed with who knows what.  Having a garden will put you in the drivers seat – you’ll control all the inputs, decide when/if to add something to your food somewhere along the way, decide when it’s ripe and ready to eat, and decide what you want to grow.  Want to grow kumquats?  Go ahead, it’s your garden.  Maybe you like tomatoes?  Get a popular variety in your area.  You can grow anything you want (for the most part).

To start one, you’ll first need to figure out what you like that will grow easily in your area.  Everyone will have different answers for this, but I think in my

case if something that I liked didnt grow all that well, and something that I wasn’t familiar with, I’d probably put a little of both, and then deal with the impending issue of having 239 pounds of zuccini later in the fall.

Your first step is to locate a suitable area – the best one’s will be south facing (to get a lot of sun), relatively flat (so you dont have to flatten it yourself) and away from your dogs favorite area.  I don’t think that anything would make me angrier than spending a whole lot of time creating a garden, only to have the sustainable hound (pictured at right during drivers ed.) tear it apart.

Once you’ve got a spot and it’s ready to go, turn the soil and add some compost or other organic material – I’ve used manure before with success.  With all of that out of the way, you need to find your seeds and figure out how much room you need to give each plant for it to grow with success.  Things like tomatoes need a bit of space between them, while lettuce does not need that much space.  Usually, you can find things like this on the back of your seed package.

You can plant in the spring, summer, and fall, and will have success with different things depending on the season.  However if you’re just getting started gardening, I’d go for the summer myself – it’s a little harder to mess up.  To make it even easier (but more expensieve) consider buying plants that have already been started.  It’s easier for you to track as you can see results sooner (growing plants/leaves instead of just “doing something” underground for a while).

If you find that you enjoy it this summer, You’ll always be able to start your seeds inside and completely get rid of that expense for next year.  Not only will you be spending more time out doors and having some fun with your family, you’ll be getting fresh food for your kitchen that has traveled significantly less than a mile.

Do you have a garden?   (Unfortunately, I do not currently have a garden.  Once I get into a place with a yard big enough that I can fence the hound out of, I’m going to put one in) What are you planning on planting this year?

Green Your Summer: Walk/Bike More

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be running a  short series on how you can save some money and live a bit greener this summer by taking some very simple steps.  I enjoy the warmth of the spring and summer time, and all of the delicious foods that it brings along with it.  The berries, summer squash, warm weather, longer days, more nighttime activities in the community (at least for me) and generally a great time for relaxation and fun.  Because there’s more time during the day, I figured I’d throw out a few tips to green up your summers.  This is the third entry in the series.

Like I mentioned earlier, I really enjoy walking and biking.  Not sure where this came from, but it probably started sometime when I was little and went out riding my bike with all of my friends.  Headed over to the park, to play football or do whatever.  Life was easy then.  Unfortunately, this slowed when I got to middle school – I couldn’t ride my bike to school anymore (It was too far, and crossing too many busy streets, my parents said).  I still was able to ride my bike on the weekend, but not much more than that.  High school was more of the same, as it was near my middle school, but it didnt matter then: I was going to have a car for part of it.

Soon after I got a vehicle, I felt like every american: Freedom of the congested road, frustration with maintenance issues, and increased expenses.  I just took it as a sign of growing up: something that I’m supposed to do/have when I get older.  I got to university and despite all my bellyaching, my dad said I didn’t need a car in college.  I continued to whine, but time bore out his statement: I didn’t – I got along just fine with out it.  I enjoyed not having a car so much, actually, that I really wanted to continue this phase of my existance.

Lower Expenses, Better Health

Expenses were low for me (basically rent, food and tuition) so I didn’t mind not having a car – I walked, skateboarded or rode the bus where I needed to go.  I was able to live without a car for 4 years, and when the time came to start looking for a job, I knew sort of what I wanted to do, but I knew a lot about where I wanted to live: somewhere near my office, so that I wouldn’t need to spend a lot of time in the car.  Well, after a bit of searching, I decided that I should go to grad school instead – a decision that I still haven’t made up my mind about, but that’s another story.  Either way, I was able to live without a car during grad school as well, although it required a bit more work because of the layout of the town and the needs that I had.  I still walked to work and enjoyed it, but when I needed to make a large purchase, I had to have some help getting there and back – which wasn’t hard to find.  I knew that I didn’t want to do much driving, so this time, I looked for jobs that would help me out with that.

Unfortunately, I had difficulty finding a job that would let me do that, and real life was knocking on my door and invading my mailbox.  I needed to pay credit card bills, my student loan grace period was expiring, and I still had to eat!  At that point, anything was better than nothing, so I found a job 50 miles from my house.  Then I found another one.  Less than 6 months after looking for a job that I could walk or bike to, I had 2 that I had to drive to, and an unreliable vehicle.

So, now that I’ve gotten a new job where I’m able to walk, you can bet that I’ll definately be enjoying that fact when summer rolls around and I’m taking a 10 minute stroll over to my office.  I’ve been able to free up at least 400 per month in gas expenses (and who knows where the price will stabilize again) and enjoy my commute to work much more than I previously was.  I’m saving gas money, saving time, and emitting less in terms of emissions from the vehicle.  There’s also no parking costs, and I don’t have  very high likelihood of getting a ticket if I’m not driving.  While I can walk any time, the warm air of the summer sure makes it a lot more fun – you should take advantage of it too.

More importantly, I can live the lifestyle that I was able to enjoy from 2003-2009.  Welcome back, walking – help me stay healthy and save me some money!

Do you ever walk/bike to work?  Do you live too far away, or do you just not like to walk/bike?  How do you feel about people who do get to bike everywhere?

Green Your Summer: Use The Clothesline

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be running a  short series on how you can save some money and live a bit greener this summer by taking some very simple steps.  I enjoy the warmth of the spring and summer time, and all of the delicious foods that it brings along with it.  There’s berries, summer squash, warm weather, longer days, more nighttime activities in the community (at least for me) and generally a great time for relaxation.  Because there’s more time during the day, I figured I’d throw out a few tips to green up your summers.  This is the second article in the series.

Growing up, there was almost always clothing, towels or something out on the clothesline during the summer.  I used to go swimming a lot, and there was always a need for a dry towel (or two) and using the dryer would have cost quite a bit.  Also, if I remember correctly, we had a relatively old and probably inefficient dryer until I was a teenager.  Obviously, using this dryer was not all that great for saving energy, saving money or trying to be green (even though I didn’t really  know/care about that stuff when I was 10).

When I started living on my own in college, my first house had clothesline poles, but no ropes/lines connecting them to hang clothes on, so my roommates and I went to pick up a pack of clothesline – if I remember right, it cost about 3 bucks.  This, unfortunately wasn’t enough to get us to use the clothesline regularly, though it did get used for the occasional towel and a few loads of laundry here and there.  While I’m not positive, I think we recovered our paltry investment just the same.

Forced into a new habit

What really got us to start using it was the time our dryer broke.  Because we were a bunch of guys in college, the dryer broke and while we all knew about it, none of us really cared – we would just wear whatever clean (and clean-ish) clothing until we could figure out a way to solve the problem.  Luckily for us, this happened in late march or early april, so I decided that we should go get some rope for the clothesline.  We could still wash our laundry because the washer worked, and it was warm enough that our clothing would dry in a reasonable amount of time.

Once we started this, it really showed up on the electric bill – our energy use went way down because we got rid of our dryer, which was very old and inefficient.  Being forced to this change slowed our energy use greatly during the summer and saved us quite a bit of money over the 5 or so months that we were able to use the clothesline.   Eventually, we got a new dryer, but it didn’t get that much love when it was sunny out.

Even if you don’t have clothesline posts hung up or a hole dug that you can put your clothesline in, there are a few ways you can get around this on the cheap:

  • Use the fence:  Currently at my house, there’s no clothesline poles or a hole for one (which I find odd given that the house is over 100 years old).  What I did was tied the clothesline to the fence posts.  If you do this, make sure that you add some reinforcement (more screws) to the post – the clothes tend to get heavy and pull on the post a bit
  • Use a Pail:  You can always go to your local hardware store and pick up a pail and a section of pvc pipe.  You’ll probably need something at least 1″ in diameter, and at least as long as the bucket.  Grab a bag or 2 of quick dry cement, and set it up.  Put the post into the bucket, fill with your premixed cement, and buy one of the 1 hole clotheslines that look like a spider web.

Also, here are a few tips to help you get the most out of your clothesline.

  • Find solid clothespins – This is probably the most important.  They may cost a bit more than the other ones, but those other ones suck.  They break apart at inopportune times and generally don’t last as long.  Stay away from the made in china clothespins
  • Hang towels/sheets up by draping a small part over the edge of the line and pin it up – this will expose more surface area and help them dry faster.
  • Hang your shirts upside down – if you hang them by the shoulders,   there will be a little “mountain” where the clothespin was holding on to it when it was on the line.  It looks weird – trust me.
  • Hang clothes in the shade – the sun will fade the clothing dye.
  • Look at the pollen count – If someone in your home has allergies, then there could be a lot of pollen getting left on the clothing if the pollen is high that day.  (I don’t have an issue with this, so if someone does, it’d be nice to hear if this is a factor or not)

Do any of you readers have any tips or hacks that I’ve left out?  Do you use a clothesline, and if so, what’s your favorite part about it?  Mine’s the smell that they have when you take them off the line.  If you find them a little stiff, try my homemade fabric softener.  It’s cheap and works well.

Green Your Summer: Collect Rain Water

Over the next two weeks, I’ll be running a  short series on how you can save some money and live a bit greener this summer by taking some very simple steps.  I enjoy the warmth of the spring and summer time, and all of the delicious foods that it brings along with it.  The berries, summer squash, warm weather, longer days, more nighttime activities in the community (at least for me) and generally a great time for relaxation and fun.  Because there’s more time during the day, I figured I’d throw out a few tips to green up your summers.  This is the first entry in the series, you can find all the entries here.

Along with starting a garden collecting rain water can go a long way to help your fledgling garden get on its feet and save you some coin.   Back in the days of this blogs infancy, I had quite a few posts on how to save water (here and here).  These tips are great and include a lot of things that can help you save money, but I figured that I’d talk a bit more about something new: rain water.

Now, people in the pacific northwest may not even need to collect rain water, because of how much it rains there.  In Wyoming, that’s just plain not the case.  The western US is actually a high elevation desert, and most of the water we get comes in the form of snow.  So when the rare occasion that it does rain comes along, I make sure that I get the most out of it.  I do this because it’s free, and it otherwise would just go down into the sewer system or evaporate away sometime in the next 24 hours.

Most of the places I’ve lived, rain barrels have not really been legal – mostly because they can become breeding grounds for mosquitoes, and sometimes these parts get the worst cases of mosquitoes.  I’m talking wear long sleeves outside in the summer bad, mosquitoes as big as a penny bad.  Given the recent water shortages though, I think they are coming back into favor a bit – so check with your  city or county to see if you can put one up yourself.

I don’t have a rain barrel (not ready for that, yet) but from what I understand, they look fairly simple.  All you’d need to do is modify the gutter to drain into a barrel and you’re good to go.  Make sure that the barrel is elevated a bit so you can access it easier and get some pressure.  Unfortunately, I havent made one of these because the house I live in is just rented, and I have an aversion to moving something like that twice – not looking forward to it.

I do keep a bucket or 2 outside and when it rains, I use the contents of the bucket to water the flowers out in the backyard.  The rainwater makes for great water, and I don’t have to set up the sprinkler or jack with the hose when I do this – it’s such an easy process.  I can save some money on the water bill (which goes up quite a bit in the summer due to lack of rain) and I can help out the earth a bit by making sure that all the water that comes around me is put to some good use.

Keeping your rain water will save you a lot of money if you’ve got a lot of plants to water, or it could just help out your gardening.  Either way, why let the resource just run off your property?

Readers: Do you have a rain bucket, or some other way to catch rain water?  Do you like it?  Where do you use the water it captures?  If not, are you interested in having one?

Easy Ways to Save Energy this Winter

Right now in Wyoming, its 43 degrees with a high of 51 (at the time of this writing).  Even though it’s winter and weather is occasionally nice, you always need to be thinking about easy ways to save money.  One of the easiest ways to do this is plug your house so that it doesn’t let heat out and cold air in (in the winter) and cold air out (and heat in) in the summer.  These cheap tips are great for an empty weekend day or a holiday that you’ve got off work.  They are simple, cheap and effective at saving energy and money.

Plug the Holes

There are a lot of places that energy can leak out of your house, one of them is around pipes and windows.  Often, they have to cut a hole for the pipes and can’t get a tight fit – so there’s air seeping in and out of the hole.  Head over to your local hardware store and buy a bottle of caulk to plug these holes.  You don’t even need a caulking gun and a tube of caulk should cost around 3 bucks.  Find the holes around the edges of pipes that go from the outside of your house to the inside.  Once this is done, look for some gaps around the windows and caulk them up too.

Another easy fix is to stop the drafts behind the outlet plates and switches.  You can get a few packs of these at the hardware store and they are fairly cheap.  They are also very easy to install.  Just take off the switch plate with a screwdriver and then put the foam piece behind them.

Once that is finished, you can head back over to the windows and cover them with plastic film.  This will add another layer to the window, and stop the leaks that are coming through the window.  All this takes is a blow dryer and some time to put up the plastic on the windows.  If it’s nice outside (like it is today) you can do the inside and the outside.  This is also a fairly inexpensive way to save some energy.

The last tip I’ve got is to stop the drafts around the door.  You can get something off of tv that goes on both sides of the door and will block air coming in under the door.  I just use a towel behind the door and move it when I have to open the door to get the mail.

You can easily use these four tips to save some money and energy this winter.  Figure out the next day that you’ve got free, get the supplies and get started.  Good luck with this project, and soon I’ll have some more easy tips for you.

Do you have any other tips or easy ways to save energy?  What do you do in your home to keep your energy bills low in the winter?

Food Tip: Make a Pizza Pot!

One of the biggest factors for our “carbon footprint” is the food that we eat.  When just shopping for some food, meat has often traveled a long distance to get to the store shelves.  It’s almost impossible to know how far it has actually gone (given the way they mix meat, specifically ground beef), but I’ve heard that it can average up to 1,500 miles!  That’s quite a long way to travel, just to get it on  your plate.  One of the easiest ways to lower your carbon footprint is to produce some of your own food, but to do that on a scale big enough to feed yourself (and your family), you’d need some land, and it’d have to be pretty fertile to produce as much variance as you’re used to seeing in the store.  Obviously, not everyone can just go around and plunk down a nice chunk of change for a large amount of land, so if you’re interested in local food, what can you do?  (as an aside, watch this local food clip from the show Portlandia).

Knowing that you’ve got no garden, and little time what can you do to start growing some of your own food?  If you want to get started now, you can.  Just grow a Pizza Pot!  For those unfamiliar with a Pizza Pot, it’s exactly what it sounds like: a pot of vegetables/herbs that you can put on a pizza!  As you’re surely aware, you can’t grow everything on a pizza in a pot, but you can try.  Here’s what you’ll need:

  • A large pot to grow your pizza ingredients in
  • Soil (or, you can use your home-made compost!)
  • Plant food
  • Your Favorite Pizza Toppings! (Make sure they can grow in your area

So, once you’ve got everything, here’s what you need to do.  Put your soil in the pot, and leave about 1-1.5 inches at the top.  Now, you’re ready to plant your favorite pizza toppings.  Here are some ideas:

  • Tomatoes (I like Roma), but you can use any type
  • Basil
  • Oregano
  • Curly Parsley (I don’t use this, but you can)
  • Garlic Chives (I don’t use this either)
  • or anything else you want!

Now, there is a certain order to this, so that everything will grow to its fullest potential.  You need to plant the tomato first, and it needs to go in the center of the pot.  Once that’s done, you can plant everything else that you want in your pot around it.  Once everything is in, put it in an area that will get a lot of sun.

You can also put a stake in the pot for the tomato, but it’s not necessary right away – however it will still need to be done.  Now, the fun starts – You can watch your plants grow, then enjoy some pizza in the fall!  You’ll have fresh ingredients to put on your pizza (I’ve found that this really lends itself to the construction of a margherita pizza that could rule the world).  So, enjoy your pizza, and enjoy the fact that you’re doing the environment (and even your pocketbook) a favor.  Then you can start plotting your next pizza pot, or if you’re feeling extra crazy, you can move on to a small garden.