All the Things that Did Not Kill Me

(Reasons to Travel)

Original Post: April 23, 2016

 Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a “bit” of a worrywart.  Okay, it’s true.  I’m a flat-out crazy person sometimes.  In my own mind, I’ve already encountered every possible awful scenario that has ever existed.  My imagination is my own worst enemy.  I’ve been through floods, fires, earthquakes, the end of the world, and somehow none of it has ever actually come to happen in my everyday life.  I’ve always been this way, but motherhood has, naturally, increased this amazing ability a good hundredfold.  (Thanks, kids!  Now mama’s a nervous wreck.)

And after 23 days, we’d managed not to run into any of the natural disasters and imminent death that I thought might try to greet us.  I figure, all in all, we avoided:

  • floods
  • tornadoes
  • wild fires
  • black bears
  • grizzly bears
  • wolves
  • bison
  • scorpions
  • snakes
  • spiders
  • lightning
  • earthquakes
  • rockslides
  • rockfalls
  • super volcanoes
  • murderous hitchhikers
  • heatstroke
  • altitude sickness
  • drowning
  • falling from cliffs
  • dehydration & death after a car break down in the desert

I’m sure there were more on my list, but that more or less sums up what we weren’t forced to survive along the way!  And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why you should never let your brain stop you from going where you want to go!

Get out there and explore.

Chicago on a Saturday

Original Post: April 23, 2016

Remember the feeling when you were a kid and Christmas day finally arrived?  It’s simultaneously amazing and disappointing.  The day is here, but all of the weeks of anticipation are gone…  There are tons of amazing new things to play with, loud family gathered around the dinner table, dozens of cookies and pies to choose from, but it’s all about to end in just a few short hours.  And even the radio stations are back to playing regular music 24/7 starting December 26th.  Plainly put, it’s depressing.

That’s kind of how I felt the morning of day 22 as we left the Badlands.  Knowing that it was just going to be a long day of steadily driving eastward, I made a point of not booking a hotel.  I was hoping to spend the night in Chicago and maybe do a little sight-seeing.

Wrong.  

Wrong on so many levels…  For the record, you cannot expect to show up in Chicago on a Saturday night in July and get a room without booking it long in advance.  After a full day of driving, phone call after phone call to numerous hotels proved this to us quite plainly.  And so, it was after 10 pm when we finally stopped for the night. 

In Valparaiso, Indiana. 

And that’s the drive from Chicago to Valparaiso, an hour and a half in traffic.

Because that was the first place we could actually find a hotel off the highway that had a room available.  It was a long drive and the only thing that I actually remember about Chicago was the dark and the traffic.  I took a single photo… (Not that I was traveling the country to take pictures of the nation’s cities, but still…)

So, after 13 1/2 hours of driving, we finally got some rest.

Day 23 wasn’t much different and as soon as we crossed the border into good old Pennsylvania, we were greeted by a steady, pouring rain.  Ah, just as we left it, I see…

One thing almost goes without saying, though.  While Pennsylvania was still as gray-skied as it had ever been, I had a new appreciation for how green it can be as well.  

I don’t know that I would have realized it or even appreciated it until I’d spent weeks in the southwest, but it’s true.  I remembered then that when we had stopped at a little shopping center outside of Bryce Canyon, we had been approached by a guy who noticed our Pennsylvania plates and couldn’t stop going on and on about how amazingly green and fresh everything was when he’d visited the state.  I was dumbstruck at the time, of course.  What could possibly be so amazing about Pennsylvania when you live near one of the most gorgeous places in the country, Bryce Canyon?

But I get it.  After being away for three weeks, it’s clear that Pennsylvania is just as beautiful as any other state.

Plus, my two kiddos are here and I couldn’t wait to get back to them.  Of all the sights we saw throughout our days traveling, coming back to their smiles was probably the greatest sight my eyes could ever see. 

The best part about this trip was that in the weeks and months since traveling, my kids have done nothing but ask about the trip.  They love to look at photos and the first thing they asked was if they could go with us next time.

And that concludes my tour of Chicago.

Next time?

Huh.  I hadn’t thought that far ahead… 

Well, now I guess I have a reason to plan for cross-country trip #2.  I’m not foolish enough to think that I’ve seen it all in one go.  Time to plan the next great adventure!

In the end, it came down to 167 hours, 35 minutes, and 54 seconds in the car as we drove 8,587.4 miles from our front door in eastern PA, around the country, and back again.  For the record, we’re still happily married and don’t plan on divorcing any time soon, although we do reminisce about this trip frequently and are ready to go again as soon as humanly possible.

You Can’t Have it All

Original Post: February 15, 2016

They say all good things must come to an end, and perhaps that’s why I’ve put off posting this last blog entry!  

On day 21, we were up at 5:30 due to a crying baby in the camp site across from us (seriously – what is with these parents???) and while Nate packed up the tent, I headed to get sunrise photos.  The sun was coming up quickly, though, and I only hoped I’d reach the lake in time!  This may have been the only instance in the entire trip where I was behind the wheel of our car.  Nate claimed the road for his own.  Though I was briefly distracted by an elk, I did managed to make the lake in time for a sunrise shot. Whew!

The Badlands National Park in South Dakota was the last of our vacation destinations before heading back to rainy eastern Pennsylvania.  Leaving the Grand Tetons, on what officially capped three weeks on the road, I knew we had quite the drive ahead of us and even though I’d hoped to get one of the camp sites just inside the park, my expectations weren’t high.  Like Jenny Lake Campground, Cedar Pass Campground is first-come/first-served.

The drive was one of the most interesting along the way, particularly when we had to stop for a herd of cattle being driven across the road by a couple of real cowboys.  People really do still have these occupations!  I think I’ve been working in an office for too long!  The only thing that would have made the sight better was if the cowboy’s horse hadn’t spooked, misstepped, and fallen.  On the pavement.  On top of his rider.  You would think that since I had a camera in hand, I might have tried to capture this moment.  Perhaps the fact that I didn’t means I have a shred of human decency and capturing the image wasn’t as important as making sure both rider and horse were okay.  (Other than hurt pride and human anger, both seemed fine!)

You can see the horse’s misstep here…  This was right before it happened!

We originally stopped for lunch at a Subway, but upon seeing the line that went out the door and around the side of the building, we decided to review our options.  A good thing we did.  We found the Trucker’s Outpost Cafe, where we learned that there was a festival or a rodeo in town (that explained both the number of people and horses in the direct area!), and had a better meal than we could have gotten at Subway anyway.  The meal was surprisingly good and the rest from driving was a welcome change from hours in the car.

We arrived at Cedar Pass Campground in the Badlands around 5 pm, and even though we had figured it would be the case, I was disappointed that there was no spot left to pitch a tent.  We instead turned around and booked a room in an ‘eh’ motel just outside of the park.  (Yes, ‘eh’ is an official rating.)  It wasn’t ideal, but getting a shower was an unexpected delight and very much welcome!

Nate points out the sheer drop just a few feet from where he stands.  No thank you, I’ll stay in the parking lot. That’s what telephoto lenses are for!

I’d always wanted to photograph the Badlands landscape at night and couldn’t wait for the opportunity to do so, but finding the right place to take a photo isn’t easy when you’re tripping over your own feet and hoping not to step on a snake.  So, we gladly took a trip to the park during the daylight hours first, just to ensure that we’d get to where we wanted to go when we were ready.

The landscape is quite breathtaking and it’s easy to see why the park was named Badlands.  It’s a lonely place and though it’s a national park, crowds don’t dominate here the way they do at the Grand Canyon, which gives visitors a hint of what it might have been like for the Native Americans who lived here centuries ago.  There’s something very quiet and very spiritual happening here.

As we ate our dehydrated camp meal while watching the sun set from the parking lot of a lookout, we noticed thunderheads off in the distance.  I fought the excitement building in my gut.  A thunderstorm!  In the Badlands!!  

Since I’d first begun planning this trip at age eighteen, I had hoped to encounter a wild thunderstorm in the Badlands.  How amazing would it be if Mother Nature actually obliged?  A part of me hesitated, though.  I wanted beautiful night skies, too!  But you can’t have it all.

Or can you?

Mother Nature – far fiercer than she looks through a wide angle lens (sigh…wrong lens).

We returned to the hotel to work on loading photos to the computer and conversing with the outside world.  Hooray for wifi.  By 10:30, we decided it was time to venture out again.  We were hardly out the door when we realized that the storm we had seen rolling in the distance was producing massive lighting strikes.  This was nature demanding our respect!

But of course… I hadn’t brought the right camera lens.  Nate insisted that we return to the motel to get the lens so that I could capture the sight, and we did, but by the time we were back to the park, the storm had more or less run out of steam and we were left with not much on film.  But, oh the experience!  It was worth more than any photo I could have taken!

Back to the lookout point for some night photography.  The Badlands is, without a doubt, the perfect place to capture stunning silhouetted landscape and the Milky Way stretching far overhead.  

In the end, I got both my thunderstorm and my clear night skies.  It was the perfect way to end the vacation, and sure, it wasn’t quite over yet, but the heart of our trip revolved around the natural beauty that can be seen and visited throughout the expanse of this amazing country.

So, as election season begins to rile friends, family, and neighbors across the United States, I encourage you to remember that this country was built on much greater things than what politicians would have you believe are important.  

Travel.

Experience.

See it for yourself!

And if you need someone to help you plan…I’m really good with Excel.

The Race

Original Post: November 30, 2015

Surely you must think that I’ve died since I have sorely neglected this blog for the past month and a half.  At least part of that is due to NaNoWriMo or National Novel Writing Month, a frantic November scurry to get 50,000 words written by each participating aspiring novelist.  As with most Novembers, I failed to meet 50,000 words, having been sidetracked by work, holidays, children, and any number of other excuses, but as of this evening, I have four solid chapters of a novel I’ve been wanting to write for quite some time, so I’ll call that a victory regardless of what anyone else says.  A few more months like that and I’ll have (another) finished novel.

And so, without further ado…

When we last left our hero…oh, wait.  Must change internal settings from “novel” to “blog” writing style.

Leaving Yellowstone, Nate and I were up at 6 am and on the road by 7.  Our initial intentions were to visit Old Faithful before leaving, but there wasn’t much point when the fog looked like this:

Forget Gorillas in the Mist.  We’ve got bison and bears.

Besides, we figured it was only two hours away.  We’d come back later in the day when the weather cleared.  You know you’ve crossed into full on travel mode when a two hour drive one way is considered an easy day-trip.

Our second reason for such an early departure had to do with the fact that attaining a camp site at Jenny Lake Campground at the Grand Tetons is rather akin to this:

Yep, that about sums it up.  I have yet to figure out why any campground would run this way as it causes frustration, anxiety, and disappointed campers.  Jenny Lake Campground lies at the base of the Grand Tetons and often fills up by 9 or 10 am.  We arrived by 9:15 am and found this to be true.  The woman who was handing out paper slips said that we must claim our spot by putting our slip on the post next to the site we wanted. We were there with two or three other folks who had also just arrived, so we grabbed our slip and hopped back in the car immediately.  We found a spot with a packed car that looked ready to leave, so I quickly slipped our paper onto the pole.  Much to my embarrassment, they had just arrived, and were not leaving…  However, they had no slip and didn’t even know that they were supposed to get one.  They left the campsite, and I still felt kind of ‘Indiana Jones’…only with considerably less cool and a bit more remorse since I wasn’t tossing Nazis from a blimp.

The good news is that they were still able to get a campsite – the one right next to ours.  I sheepishly visited at some point to apologize since I just don’t have it in me to ignore an uncomfortably awkward situation.  And this says much since so many of my encounters are uncomfortably awkward.  Thankfully, the family was more than happy to let bygones be bygones.

We got our tent set up quickly enough despite the gloomy weather.  And it was gloomy.  This was not the way I had pictured the Tetons at all.  I’m pretty sure there were supposed to be jagged peaks somewhere under there.

I’m pretty sure there’s peaks under there somewhere.

We spent the day waiting in vain for better weather and when we finally got at least a little less rain, we decide to take a hike.  (Why is that supposed to be a derogatory term?  Next time someone tells me to ‘take a hike,’ I swear I will happily oblige.)  We still got caught in pouring rain on our way back to the camp site, and the hike really only served to whet the appetite for additional adventure, preferably with a little less of a damp atmosphere.  The weather being what it was, we opted not to drive back to Yellowstone just to see Old Faithful.  So, yes, we quite possibly could be the only two people on the face of the planet who visited Yellowstone without seeing Old Faithful.

I fervently hoped that the clouds would clear in time for the evening, at the very least.  While rain makes for some good sleep in a tent, I wanted photos of the night sky with Grand Tetons towering above.

Finally, the sky obeyed!  It was too early for night photos as the setting sun still lit the sky, but Nate started a campfire – our first on the entire trip.  Don’t ask how it took 20 days for us to finally get a campfire going, but it did.  This trip was an on-the-go vacation filled with seeing and doing and running and driving and hiking and complete flat-out exhaustion, with no time for anything else.  A rainy day with slowly clearing skies forced us to slow it down for a day.  The fire was nothing less than welcome.

And of course I have a book.  What else would I be doing by a campfire?

Around 10:45, we headed to a lookout point a few miles away.  (Don’t even get me started on the irony of fighting for a camp site directly at the base of the mountains only to get in the car and drive to where the mountains were some distance away.)

The sky cooperated to a point, and only for about 45 minutes, before we were forced to call it quits for the night and head back to camp, but the pictures I did manage to take convey at least a fairly good impression of what it was like to stand in the open wilderness at the base of the Grand Tetons in the middle of the night.  (Dark, by the way.) 

Another site on the map quite happily checked off.  It was hard to imagine that in just a few days, the entire trip would be finished.  How would I ever return to the “real” world again?  Racing for a campsite is one thing.  Getting back into the rat race?  A whole other animal.

Brake Lights

Original Post: October 11, 2015

We got up at 5:30 am to try our hand at spotting wildlife.  We’d been told by Kirk that wolves and bears are frequently spotted in the Lamar Valley, and Nate had wanted to fish Pebble Creek, so off we went.  Unlike Yosemite, Yellowstone is wonderfully laid out, with roads forming a rather large figure eight and several smaller offshoots here and there.  A figure eight meant that even though there was lots of driving, you weren’t stuck on one long (and positively snore-worthy) road for the entire trip and that you could get where you wanted to go by planning out the best route.  (Get that?  The best route. Not the only route.)

We didn’t make it very far before “Eagle-eye” Nate spotted a bull moose far off in a meadow. We pulled over and took out “the big lenses” to try to capture a good photo of him, but he really was just too far off and constantly on the move.  As we watched him, fascinated by the elegance with which he moved, we were almost equally fascinated at the cars that slowed to a crawl as they passed us.

We quickly discovered in Yellowstone that very few people actually spend time spotting the wildlife on their own.  Most drive around looking for brake lights and people who are already pulled over with a camera lens hanging out the window.

So when you go to take a shot like this:

Everyone is quite clueless as to what it is you must be looking at, which is kind of funny, so every now and again, Nate and I would pull over and start pointing just to see who would follow…

Not far down the road, we found ourselves surrounded by bison on all sides.  And all I could hear was this:

Just start listening at 0:55.  That’s the beginning of what played through my head nonstop for two days straight.  I can’t lie.  I was soaking it in.

Despite the frequent “buffalo jams” (as we’d begun to call them), we remained entranced.  I never tired of watching.  Brake lights frequently confirmed that there was an animal up ahead (buffalo or otherwise, but usually buffalo).

License and registration, please.

We made it all the way to Pebble Creek without a single sign of wolf or bear, despite having seen numerous antelope, elk, and bison along the way.  I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t slightly disappointed.  (How silly is that???  Surrounded by more wildlife than I thought I’d see in a million years and I’m disappointed because I didn’t get to see wolves or bears.)

Nate spent a few hours fishing while I put my seat back in the car, read a book, then closed my eyes and snoozed.  You see, the night before had been a bit of a rough one as we had camped next to a most obnoxious family.  As a mother of two, I really hate to call anyone’s family obnoxious. 

We had been woken up at least 4-5 times during the previous night to a young toddler’s blood-curdling screams and coughs, followed by “nonononononononononono!”  The coughing had me feeling bad for the baby since I figured he was sick and his parents were trying to medicate him.  I thought back to all of the times I had a sick young daughter at home and I struggled to get her to take the Tylenol that would make her feel well enough to get some rest. But after the third time, I wasn’t feeling so bad for the kid anymore…  I was just, well, annoyed.  (Anyone who knows me knows I like my sleep.)  Bugger off, kid.  You’re ruining my night.

And what was wrong with those parents anyway?  Who goes camping with a child this young?  We didn’t take our girls camping until they were 4 and 8 years of age.  Who takes a 1 year old camping?  More importantly – WHY?

The parents finally (Finally!) put the kid in the car for a while to calm him down (why they hadn’t thought to do this earlier, I don’t know), but everyone in the entire campground was awake.  (Though they weren’t all as lucky as us – getting to camp right “next door!”)  I will forever be traumatized.

I didn’t get much sleep in the car either, though, as I, 1. couldn’t get comfortable and, 2. had to listen to a family that pulled in for a rest get out and chat right outside my car window.  An entire parking lot and they chose to pull in directly next to the only car in it.

If there’s one thing I learned while going cross-country, it was that people never fail to amaze me.  (And that’s not necessarily a good thing.)

Naturally, I couldn’t get any photographic evidence of the larger ones…

I finally gave up, got out and followed the creek a bit to find Nate fishing.  Despite listening to a man who’d been watching him explain to his wife that “this fisherman’s got his line all in a granny knot,” I was pretty sure Nate was confident in what he was doing.

And I was right.  He was simply changing flies.  Nine cutthroat trout later, Nate and I headed back to the car and back to the campground.  At this point, I could hardly keep my eyes open while Nate, with the prospect of catching bigger fish, couldn’t have been more energized.  He dropped me off at the campground, so I could climb in the tent to get some sleep.

Clearly, we can see where my priorities lie.

Unfortunately, I noted that our neighbors’ tent was still set up and I couldn’t figure out why anyone would still be hanging around with a sick kid.  (I discovered only later that the kid didn’t appear to be sick at all…which only made things worse since now he’s just a snot-nosed brat in my book.)

As I collapsed onto the sleeping bags, a huge clap of thunder pealed through the sky, but Nate was already gone and on his way to the Gibbon River.  Crazy.  I found out only later that though the sky had opened up where I was and let loose a downpour, Nate had dealt with hail.  Yep.  Hail.  (Do notice, however, how long it takes him to actually leave the fishing site.  He’s still casting even when the hail is obviously not going to stop.)

Proof?

Despite that it rained for a solid hour, the tent remained dry and cozy.  When Nate arrived back an hour later, he quickly climbed into his sleeping bag in attempts to warm up and catch up on a little sleep of his own.  I guess hail kind of takes the fun out of fishing.  (News to me.  I thought nothing could defeat Nate’s love for fishing!)

At 5:30 pm, we finally got up and headed to the lodge for showers (Showers!  Aaaah!) and laundry!  We followed it up with dinner at the slowest restaurant we’ve ever seen – The Canyon Lodge.  Dinner was okay, mediocre at best.  Cold french fries, meh.  But at least it wasn’t another dehydrated camp meal.

Remember Mel and Tim Johnson and their boys from Crater Lake?  Well, right before we’d lost cell reception in Idaho, we’d gotten a text from them, telling us that they were staying at Bridge Bay Campground.  It was a 45 minute drive from where we were staying at Canyon Village, but what’s 45 minutes in the scheme of hundreds of hours on the road over the course of three weeks?  I mean, really?

Not knowing exactly where in the campground they were staying, we knew we were taking a chance at driving there, but we figured if nothing else, it was just another trip through Yellowstone to see the sights!  We took the gamble and began the trip, but – brake lights – we were quickly stopped in a traffic jam for two gorgeous bull elk!  People were out of their cars and some of them were way too close!  I, too, was out of the car to get a few shots, but you can bet that I didn’t get this close!

Slightly delayed, we got back in the car and were ready to get rolling again…until we encountered a mama bear and her two cubs in the meadow…easily spotted by – you guessed it – brake lights!  Okay, delay.  Like everyone else, we pulled over and got out.  Yellowstone had rangers stationed to the area to make sure that people didn’t get too close to her.  (The den was nearby and these bears are frequently seen here.)  Nate filmed for a while and I snapped some photos.  I didn’t imagine the thrill I’d feel at seeing a Grizzly in person.  They are enormous.  That should go without saying.  Really.  But, in person, it’s just a whole other ballgame.  And we were a good 100 yards away! (Which was plenty close enough for me, thank you very much.)

The cubs were positively adorable, wrestling and running in the tall meadow grasses, playing hide and seek with one another while mom rustled up some grub (literally, I think).  It was quite the sight to witness and I am glad that we had the opportunity to see it!  My photos were nothing to brag about, but Nate was able to get some fun video with his iPhone, a spotting scope, and a cheap adapter.  Worked out okay!

Slightly delayed, we got back in the car and were ready to get rolling again…until we encountered a mama bear and her two cubs in the meadow…easily spotted by – you guessed it – brake lights!  Okay, delay.  Like everyone else, we pulled over and got out.  Yellowstone had rangers stationed to the area to make sure that people didn’t get too close to her.  (The den was nearby and these bears are frequently seen here.)  Nate filmed for a while and I snapped some photos.  I didn’t imagine the thrill I’d feel at seeing a Grizzly in person.  They are enormous.  That should go without saying.  Really.  But, in person, it’s just a whole other ballgame.  And we were a good 100 yards away! (Which was plenty close enough for me, thank you very much.)

The cubs were positively adorable, wrestling and running in the tall meadow grasses, playing hide and seek with one another while mom rustled up some grub (literally, I think).  It was quite the sight to witness and I am glad that we had the opportunity to see it!  My photos were nothing to brag about, but Nate was able to get some fun video with his iPhone, a spotting scope, and a cheap adapter.  Worked out okay!

The wolves…well, they continued to elude us.  We arrived just minutes too late to catch them just a few miles down the road from the bears and disappointingly had to admit that we weren’t going to see them at all.

Finally, just as we were beginning to lose all light from the sky, we arrived at Bay Bridge Campground, about an hour later than we’d originally intended.  We had no way of knowing if the Johnson family expected us at all or if the campground would even let us know which site they were camping in.  To make matters worse, we were in a long line of folks waiting to check into their campsite…  Nate finally made it to the front of the line.  Because we couldn’t confirm the Johnson’s last name (we didn’t yet know it at that time!), they wouldn’t give us the exact site.  They did, however, give us the loop in which they were camping.  So, off we went to find them in the dark. We drove the entire loop and just as we were about to give up, we spotted their van parked at the very last campsite.  Adam and Taylor quickly spotted Nate as we pulled up and jumped out of their seats to greet us!  Despite the fact that it was now 9 pm, the Johnsons offered us a fire, a seat, and hot tea and coffee. We spent a few hours talking and enjoying their company and were glad to talk about a little of everything.  It’s an odd thing to run into friends you’ve only just met, but we were glad we had the opportunity to spend more time with them.  The boys shared their tales of zip-lining in southern Idaho and showed photos that they’d taken of some of the Yellowstone wildlife, while we gave them tips on where to find and photograph bears the next day.  The boys soon climbed into bed, leaving the “grown-ups” to talk.  (Really, who’s actually “grown-up” here?  This trip has made me feel like a kid!)

Their campground was completely opposite of ours, with no trees to block the night sky.  It was easy to see the Milky Way and we quickly spotted a satellite or two making their way across the expanse as we shared our thoughts about how important it is to keep kids fully involved and in love with the outdoors. It appears we share similar philosophies!  Given how quickly we got along, this doesn’t surprise me.

It was close to midnight by the time we left their campground, saying goodbye to our newfound friends and knowing we’ll likely never see them again.  It’s too bad they don’t live on the east coast…  Perhaps we can utilize a blog to convince them to move. 

Okay, probably not.

On the way back to Canyon Village, we were startled by glowing eyes, but not nearly as startled as the male Grizzly that had just finished crossing the road and turned to look at us.  Up close, we were definitely reminded of how large they are!  Holy cow…I mean, bear.

It was off to bed when we reached our campground at 1 am and, thankfully, the campground was quiet. Tomorrow we would be up early to head to the Grand Tetons, in an attempt to attain a campsite at the infamous Jenny Lake Campground.  But that’s a tale for another day.

Big Horn Sheep, Hot Springs, and (No) Bears – Oh My!

Original Post: September 22, 2015

We were in for another long trip, but really, was there any other kind on this vacation?  We left our little cabin in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho by 7 am and drove through the western edge of Montana, thinking all the while that we’d definitely be retiring there in the future.

The views are amazing, the roads clear, the speed limit excellent at a reasonable 70 mph (though I must admit that this feels awfully fast when you’re speeding downhill and around curves, even though you’re just keeping up with traffic), but there was one curious little thing we noticed.  What were these weird looking fences on the hillsides? 

Photo courtesy of a Google search.  Not mine.

It didn’t take long to realize what they were, though seeing them in the middle of the summer didn’t do much to help us solve the mystery.  Snow retention fences.  Of all that is holy.  If the snow gets that high, maybe we don’t want to retire in Montana after all…  We saw these fences through all of western Montana and straight through Wyoming.  Those, and a lot of “Turn back to (insert-name-of-closest-town-here) when flashing.”  That meant the road was closed due to inclement weather and you’d better get your butt back to the last town and hunker down.

Big Sky Country, indeed.

In southeastern Pennsylvania, we rarely see snow so crippling that the major highways are shut down.  Back roads, maybe.  But main highways?  Never.  I can only remember a handful of times when work has been closed.  (Of course, some school districts close at the drop of a snowflake sometimes…)  But even in the worst of these snowstorms, never have I seen the roads completely shut down. I won’t lie.  The thought, especially while traveling amongst the isolated Montana wilderness, made me shiver.  Imagine what it was like for the settlers as they made their way westward.  Sobering thought.

Before we made our own way to the entrance of Yellowstone, we drove through a wilderness area (isn’t it all wilderness here?) and spotted Bighorn sheep on the rocks.  The best part, they were standing on a small outcrop no higher than a car and right next to the road.  An odd sight to say the least.  If I’d thought we were going to see them, I had no doubt pictured it from far away and at the top of a mountain.  Not the case.

We continued our drive past Earthquake Lake, formed when – you guessed it – an earthquake struck in 1959 and filled the area with water.  The lake definitely exuded a creepy vibe.  I could just imagine the opening of some horror flick taking place as we drove.  Thankfully, we “escaped” unscathed and made our way to Yellowstone.

We arrived at the park after 4:30 pm, but instead of setting up camp like responsible campers, we decide to head straight to Grand Prismatic Spring to take advantage of the sun while we had it.  As we had learned in Yosemite, the weather can turn at any time and the last thing we wanted to do was get stuck with crummy weather for crummy (or no) pictures.

Grand Prismatic is amazing.  It was exactly what I thought it should be and though I was not surprised by the number of tourists there, I was amazed by the sheer stupidity of some of them…

There are very specific boardwalks set up for both visitor safety and to keep the surrounding land untouched.  But mostly, I will stress again, for visitor safety.  Let me say it one more time.  Visitor. Safety.

So, when I saw toddlers running around and ready to step off the planks of the boardwalk before their mothers hastily grabbed them back and scolded them, it put my heart in my throat.  When Nate and I saw an older teenage boy walking toward us on the fragile bacterial mat before jumping back onto the boardwalk despite the numerous (and I mean numerous) danger signs placed all around the area, it was just a bit too much to take.  Nate gave him a quick, “Yo!  What were you thinking?  Didn’t you see the sign?  That’s dangerous!” The teenager sheepishly ducked his head and gave a, “Yeah, I know, man.”

But, oh it couldn’t end there…  Mom had to chime in.  (And I sure do wish I could somehow manage to type the nasally inflection in her voice when she said this…)  “I’M parenting him.  I’M parenting him!”

Rather annoyed at this exchange myself, I actually responded.  (If you know me, you know I’m perhaps the world’s most non-confrontational person, so I surprised even myself with this exchange.)  “Sure didn’t look like it.”

At the same time, Nate responded with, “What happened to the first 15 years?”

At that point, she had passed us and she never stopped walking, so at least she didn’t feel the need to keep the conversation going,.  I’m quite sure, however, that she continued to curse us out for at least the rest of the day.  Regardless, we had provided some amusement for the teenage girls walking in front of us.  Score for us. (If you’re interested in, you know, keeping score and all.)

We had gotten some great shots of Grand Prismatic Spring and the smaller springs nearby, but I was still perplexed.  I wanted a bigger shot.  I wanted to see the whole spring…  Spying a mountain not far away, we decided to take a hike.  We stuck to the Fairy Falls trail for a while, but realized pretty quickly that it wasn’t going to take us to any decent elevation.  Despite the signs that declared the hillside next to us wasn’t a trail, we saw obvious evidence of hikers having used it extensively.  Nervous without bear spray (there were a lot of hikers, so we didn’t think we needed to carry it), we began to scramble up the hillside.

Ultimately, the gamble paid off and we got to see Grand Prismatic Spring from above.  Simply breathtaking. All in all, the springs, all of them, were scarily beautiful.  It’s hard to imagine that something so pristine, so infused with vibrant color could be so deadly.  And yet, the evidence was plain to see.  Bleached animal bones stood prominently in the center of some of the springs.  And yet, still, people continued to step over protective barriers to take their vacation selfies.

Once back down, we were forced to be satisfied with the day (despite our desire to hop on over to Old Faithful) and we decided that since it was now 7 pm, we’d better head to our campground and set up the tent.  By this time, we were pretty confident in our ability to set up the tent in under 5 minutes, so arriving at the campground by 7:30 wasn’t bad. 

What was bad was that we were too late to sign up for the historic yellow bus tour that would take us on an early morning tour for some stellar wildlife photos.  We spent some time at the visitor’s center, talking with employee and new buddy, Kirk, who told us that there was a single seat left on the bus.  Nate graciously offered it to me, but what fun would a trip like that be without my best friend beside me to enjoy it?  Nada.  I forewent the trip, but Kirk was happy to tell us the route the bus takes daily and where the best spots for finding wolves and bears would be.  Of all of the animals in Yellowstone, the wolves and bears are really the “crown jewels” of the park.  Most folks manage to see elk and moose and everyone who visits Yellowstone sees bison.  It’s rather impossible not to.  And yes, bison are quite stunning on their own and definitely bigger in person than one would expect!  But I wanted wolves.  And I wanted bears.

Thus we made the decision to take the same route the bus would take, only we’d leave about 15 minutes earlier.  And you realize, of course, what that meant.  Night night.

Day 1 in Yellowstone.  Bighorn Sheep.  Check.  Hot Springs.  Check.  Bison.  Check.  Bears and Wolves?  Day 2. 

We hope.

A smaller spring with an unknown name, but notice the bones of an unfortunate animal who wandered too close to the left of the deep middle.  Beautiful, but deadly.

More than Just Potatoes

Original Post: September 8, 2015

There came a point in our trip when we knew it would be time to turn around and head back home.  Crater Lake didn’t really count (even though we’d changed directions), as it was still an amazing destination that I’d planned as part of the itinerary.

Idaho, however, was…well…

Idaho.

Before leaving for the trip, I’d asked a few friends who lived out west whether it was better to travel northern Idaho or southern.  We needed to get to Yellowstone and I wanted to do it as quickly as possible, but what’s a few extra hours on the road if the scenery is nice, right?  So we added an extra hour and a half and took the northern route as recommended.  Why?  Because it was pretty. 

Or so I was told.

As I’m really not being very fair to Idaho, I should probably clarify.  Northern Idaho is beautiful.  (I’d been told the southern route was all desert, and we’d really seen quite enough of that.)  Eastern Oregon and Washington, however, are not.  Having seen the west coast of Oregon on a past trip, I pictured all of Oregon to be full of the amazingly green, incredibly dark piney forests that make western Oregon such a draw to nature lovers and neohippies everywhere. 

In fact, I couldn’t have been more wrong.  After the mountains faded into the distance, eastern Oregon looks the way I expected Kansas to look. (For the record, I was wrong there, too.  Kansas is not grain.  Kansas is corn.  Oregon is grain.  Lots of it.)  And eastern Washington is very much the same.

Okay, so this part was pretty amazing.  Mountains, horses, and beautiful blue skies, and miles and miles of road to travel.

But this part?

On film, stunning.  In reality, breathtaking.  

For an hour or so.  

Hours upon hours?  Not so much.

Oh, come on. You knew we had to stop.

By the time we reached our cabin in Coeur d’Alene, I was very much contemplating the wisdom of my decision to travel northern Idaho, but Coeur d’Alene itself, particularly the lake, is beautiful.  Our first stop in Idaho, naturally, was this –>

You can take the boy out of Cabela’s (in Hamburg), but you can’t take Cabela’s out of the boy…hence why we ended up in Cabela’s (in Coeur d’Alene).

A few dehydrated meals later, we were back on our way and reached the Osprey Perch Cabin at the Wolf Lodge Campground within a half hour.  Nestled against the back of a mountain, it was a positively charming little A-frame…even if it did slant uphill and made me feel as though I was a little tipsy.  Seriously, It’s odd the way a slight incline outdoors does nothing to your equilibrium, but the same slant inside is downright disturbing. Still, it didn’t detract from the charm.

We finally had a slow evening to ourselves, so we headed to Lake Coeur d’Alene for Nate to try his hand at fishing.  I sat with camera at the ready, hoping to capture a bald eagle or two in the area, but to no avail.  However, I did manage to capture a spectacular sunset!

Lake Coeur D’Alene

Back at the cabin, we ate another dehydrated meal, shared a couple of mugs of hot tea and enjoyed the stars as they begin to dot the sky.  At least until the mosquitoes showed up.  Then it was inside and time for fun on the computer.  We actually had a few hours to load photos and view them.  Throughout the trip, I would try to download photos to my laptop every few days, but now I finally had time to look at them.  (Imagine that!)

In the end, I was glad we took the northern Idaho route instead of southern, but those 9 hours in eastern Oregon and Washington was quite the test.  A test of patience, a test of willpower, or a test of sanity – I’m not sure.  But it was a test.

But I did discover that there was more to Idaho than just potatoes.

Come to think of it, I didn’t see a single potato.  Maybe I should write the Idaho bureau of tourism.

No eagles, but plenty of osprey.

It’s Only an Ankle

Original Post: September 1, 2015

Day 16 – Crater Lake!  It was “only” a 3 1/2 hour drive from the Redwood National Forest, but it’s funny how on this trip, the shorter drives felt longer.  We arrived at the campground at 12:30, set up camp, ate some lunch, and realized it was already time to get moving again.  Our reservations for the boat tour of Crater Lake were for 3:30 and all of the guidebooks and info say to arrive at the top of Cleetwood Cove at least an hour prior.  That’s because it’s a 1.1 mile switchback trail with an 11% grade down to the lake below. “Insane” is not enough to describe the parents we saw who were carrying toddlers both down and back up this path, although “miserable” was pretty accurate.

 This was the hike I was worried about as the website claims that the “trail is recommended only for those in good physical condition.”  Having screwed up my ankle less than a week prior, I was concerned, but there was no way I was missing out on a boat tour of Crater Lake.  (Two boats in two days?  Whoa!)  Wrap it up!  Thanks Mr. Ace Bandage.  After all, it’s only an ankle. If I screwed it up further, at least it would be 100% worth every second.  We took our time, taking about 45 minutes to reach the bottom of Cleetwood Cove Trail.  Oddly enough, it wasn’t my ankle that bothered me at all, but rather my knees.  It’s always something.  My joints have always been weak and I’ve frequently suffered bouts of tendonitis from time to time in ankles, wrists, and knees.  If that’s my lifelong “condition,” though, I’ll take it. It may not be great fun, but it’s bearable and I’m lucky!  (And I still made it to the bottom of Cleetwood Cove!  WITHOUT my knees buckling on me!)

A view from Cleetwood Cove Trail

While we waited for our tour to be called, we met an adorable family with two young boys who made us a bit homesick for our own little girls.  (You know, the little brats who didn’t want to talk to us because they were having too much fun with my parents. Why do I love them so much!?)  For the purpose of this blog, we’ll call the boys Adam and Taylor and their parents Mel and Tim Johnson.  Though they seemed impressed with our journey, they were on quite the journey of their own (and with kids no less!).  While we waited for the boat, we found out that they were from the San Francisco bay area and that they, too were headed to Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons next.  What are the chances?  It was nice to meet kindred spirits who felt the same draw to nature and the desire to pass that love onto the next generation. I regretted not having the girls with us.  (And then I remembered that they hate car rides and that though the destinations were amazing on this trip, the car trips were rides from hell.)

Even with cloudy skies, you could tell the water clarity was positively amazing! I fervently hoped the sun would show up.

The boat tour started off with chop and cloudy skies, instantly dashing my hopes of capturing the amazing water shots.  I had seen images online of Crater Lake waters glinting with amazing clarity – turquoise and deep blue hues typically only seen in the tropics.  We were pleasantly surprised, therefore, when the sun emerged from the clouds and we had the chance to see how blue the waters of Crater Lake really could be.  Maybe a few “tropical” shots after all!

After the tour, we headed back up Cleetwood Cove Trail.  And if the walk down was strenuous, the hike back up was twice that.  (But at least my knees didn’t threaten to buckle going uphill.)  I was ready for a slower pace, but as it turns out Adam and Taylor were quite enamored of Nate and glued themselves to his side.  It was positively endearing…especially as I huffed and puffed from 100 feet behind them.  Every now and again, Nate would pause to wait for me to catch up and I’d get to hear the extensive and intense conversation regarding the latest and most important video game.  I’ll be honest. My asthma hasn’t acted up in 8 years, but this hike definitely had me struggling. Frequent stops helped. Still, we made it to the top in a half hour. (Faster than I could have imagined thanks to the kids, who despite the steep grade still managed to chatter nonstop.  How do kids do this?  What superpower do they possess?)

Nothing cuter than men bonding over talk of video games.

Once we reached the top, we bid the Johnson family farewell, hoping to see them again in Yellowstone, but knowing the odds were likely against it.  As we trekked to our car, their van pulled up and we exchanged cell phone numbers.  Perhaps we’d meet in Yellowstone after all, or at least compare funny stories along the way!

By the time we arrived at the Mazama Campground, we were starved and headed to Annie Creek grill for food.  One lame “fake” pizza later, we were full.  Following up the meal with chocolate “bear claws” improved the dinner considerably.

Another early night for us, but a fully satisfying day.  So, it was only an ankle.   And I didn’t make it any worse by hiking the Cleetwood Cove Trail.  Just don’t ask me how it feels today, nearly two months later.  (Hint: The answer is not “better.”)

It was still worth it.

Yup. Worth it.

Fog City, The City by the Bay, San Fran

Original Post: August 26, 2015

 Call it what you will, but I think San Francisco gives Chicago a run for its money as The Windy

City.  Geez!

But I’m ahead of myself.

Last I wrote, we were still stuck in Yosemite.  Dismal, stormy, not-what-it-was-supposed-to-be Yosemite.

We were poured on again the night before, ensuring that we’d be not-so-happy campers packing up a very wet (and grossly yellow) tent.  The weather in Yosemite was nearly 100% uncooperative and we hated Tioga Pass Road.  Suffice it to say that we were happy to be leaving (even if it meant taking Tioga Pass Road…again).

When we finally arrived in San Francisco, it was one pm and we were about two hours early for check-in at the Sheraton at Fisherman’s Wharf.  Exhausted and tired of being outside, we called the hotel just to see if they had a room ready.  They did. One room. We got it.

Whew.

And if you haven’t sensed a pattern yet, I’ll give you a hint.  It was snooze time.  We showered and passed out for several hours, getting up in time for a stroll by the bay, some entertainment (WOW!  We bought two cds!), and dinner.  The weather had cleared and it looked beautiful, so we skipped the sweatshirts.

The infamous waterproof purple hiking boots (by Ahnu).  100% worth every penny.  And they are, indeed, waterproof.  I had tested them when I stepped nearly ankle deep in Maroon Lake back in Colorado.

It was a regrettable decision that later resulted in my purchasing a windproof, waterproof jacket from a completely packed souvenir shop at Pier 39.  But, hey, at least now I own a purple jacket to go with my purple hiking boots…  A fierce wind had kicked up and I won’t lie.  It made me nervous.  I had checked weather reports and I knew there was no storm in the area, but for the life of me, it certainly felt like it was about to storm!  Weird as can be!

Dinner at the Eagle Cafe – yum, yum, and more yum.  Soon after, we retired back to the hotel and did something we hadn’t done in weeks.

We watched television.

We treated ourselves to a Friends marathon. It was a nice little escape from our reality (which is sort of ironic since our reality, in this case, was an escape from actual reality).

The next morning, we were up early to catch our ride to Alcatraz.  The weather had very thankfully cleared and I was relieved that the bay was not nearly as choppy as it had been the day before.

Where better to spend Independence Day than touring a famous prison on an isolated island?

Once on Alcatraz, we wandered the halls and the yards, imagining what it must have been like for those sentenced there.  The isolation cells are in complete darkness and they are very intimidating – especially for someone who never even got detention as a kid.  Yep, looked scary enough to me.  We were told that the longest anyone ever spent in isolation was 19 days.  I had a hard time imagining ten minutes.  It was pretty much what you would expect of Alcatraz. Never mind that the entire island smelled like fish and bird poop.  Sweet!

On our way out, we discovered that a former inmate, Robert Louck, #1118, was signing autographs.  I had had just about enough of the very claustrophobic gift shop that was filled with people and I made a beeline for the door.  But, I’d lost Nate somewhere along the way.

He was, you guessed it, chatting up a storm with Mr. Louck.  Turns out that Louck was former military who was sent to a penitentiary in Leavenworth for attempting to rob a bank while still in the army.  When he unsuccessfully tried to escape, he was transferred to Alcatraz.  Upon hearing the story, I was amazed that he ever came back.  Autographs or not.

Also, once released from prison, Mr. Louck fished professional bass tournaments with his wife, who had accompanied him to Alcatraz, as his teammate.  Only Nate would manage to work this into a conversation with a former inmate.  Only Nate.

We left with Nate’s Cabela’s hat signed by former inmate #1118.

We hit the road shortly after noon, but our next destination was farther than we wanted it to be.  It was a long drive to the Redwood National Forest!  To break up the road, we stopped at a roadside store dedicated to Bigfoot.  The shop had a variety of amazing carvings made from Redwood trees and Nate and I made several purchases.

At the Big Foot shop.

We stopped once again for a late lunch/early dinner right next to a Redwood tree on the Avenue of the Giants in Myers Flat, a “town” so small if you sneezed you’d miss it.  It boasts a drive-through tree, but we noticed that the tree was no longer alive and consequently, we decided to skip it.  (Plus, there was a fee involved and who wants to pay to drive through a tree?)

When we got back on the road again, we swore – SWORE – there would be no more stopping until we reached our campground.

But.

Ten minutes from our destination, we encountered a herd of elk and, you guessed it. 

We stopped.

When we finally arrived at the Jedidiah Smith Campground, it was 7:30 pm, Nate was fighting a headache, and we were exhausted.  We briefly contemplated driving to Crescent City about ten minutes away for fireworks since it was, after all, the 4th of July.  But, we thought better of it and fell asleep before 9 pm.  I don’t even think I heard the fireworks. Shameless.

No Moonbows for You!

Original Post: August 17, 2015

Day 2 at Yosemite.  At least we were prepared for Tioga Pass Road today.  We woke early, figuring we’d start the day off right.  That meant fishing in the stream in the meadow directly across from the campground, of course.  Nate caught several cutthroat trout, hooting and hollering each time he reeled one in.  And while we (ahem, Nate) were fishing, I sat by the shore, photographing and generally appreciating the solitude.  Until these guys showed up.

Okay, so they were pretty welcome and I’d hardly say that they ruined my solitude. They checked us out for several minutes before deciding we were no threat and that the meadow looked like better eating on the opposite bank. They splashed in and waded across to the other side. (With one stopping to pee in the middle of the stream.  Really???  What a boy thing to do.)  I was really just in awe at how close they were to us, without a concern that we were near.  When two additional frisky deer showed up about twenty minutes later, the entire spunky herd took off together.  At a distance of 30 yards, it was a pretty spectacular sight.  And the Belding’s ground squirrels were pretty darn cute, too (even if they might be filthy little plague-carriers).  

This guy took several minutes before coming out of his burrow.  I’m sure he wanted to make sure I wasn’t a coyote ready to pounce on him.

Since Tioga Pass Road threatened to be long and exhausting again today, when we’d finished with our morning in the meadow, we headed to Tenaya Lake on the way to the falls.  I didn’t need to see Yosemite Falls until the evening anyway.

We just figured we’d make a day of the journey.  So, on we went to picnic at Tenaya Lake, when we realized that the place was not as deserted as it had seemed.

Nate tried throwing in a line, but caught nothing.  The lake is far too deep and there was nothing to be caught from the rocky shore.  Mid-afternoon at this point, we head onward to I had begun to think of as “The Main Attraction.”  But, we were tired and Tioga Pass Road is ridiculously long.  Does this road ever end?  And it was drizzling again.  Hmm, a pull off…  (Or “pull out” or “turn off” depending on what park and what state you’re in.)  Off we go, to take a fifteen minute nap. 

Back on the road, we finally reached the visitor center in the midst of a horrible traffic jam.  The rain had picked up steadily and nearly everyone wanted to get out of the very poorly laid out parking lot.  Let me restate that.  VERY. POORLY. LAID. OUT.  Add to that the ridiculous chaos of travelers from all over the world who probably don’t read the signs so well and it’s a mess.  Oh, but wait, that’s right, the signs weren’t there to read…  One thing we discovered (belatedly) about Yosemite was that the signage within the park was awful.  The only saving grace was that I had a park map from when we’d first entered the park.  Otherwise, I think it’s safe to say that we would have been turned around quite a number of times! 

We finally found a parking spot just as the sky really began to pour on us.  It was about 4 pm by this point and we figured we’d just wait out the storm. Storms can’t last forever, right?  Lots of wicked lightning and one hour later and we were still sitting in the car.  Then – a break!  Hooray!  We got out and figured it would be a good time to do a little shopping in the gift store, particularly since it was still too early to try to hike to the falls.  (By my calculations, the sky had to clear, the sun had to set, and the moon had to rise for the moonbows to show their faces…)

We finished shopping and made it back to the car in time to see this:

What? 

To say I was frustrated would have been a severe understatement.  It wasn’t as though we could wait out the storms forever, particularly if they just kept forming and lingering. How could we be HERE, in Yosemite, during the perfect time for moonbows and be foiled by the weather of all things? I swore I heard the soup nazi in my head, only instead of no soup for me, he was screaming, “No moonbows for you!”

Disappointed, we decided to throw in the towel rather than wait another several hours in the car.  You know what this meant, of course.  Back to Tioga Pass Road.  But, on the way out, we saw at least a few sights that made the trip to “The Main Attraction” worth it. Here and there the sky cleared for just an instant and the sun set the peaks on fire, the low-hanging clouds only making the scene more dramatic.

For all that Yosemite skunked us, I’m still surprised that I managed to pull off a few photos I hadn’t thought were all that great when I was out in the field, but at the computer discovered that they weren’t nearly as bad as I’d thought! 

Perhaps there’s some Ansel in me after all.