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.

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.)


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? 

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.