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.

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.