Sunday, August 28, 2011

Yellowstone, Part B

On our third day in the park, we took the loop south-east from the hotel into an area characterized by the gorgeous Yellowstone falls as well as extensive bear area.  In fact, early in the day, a bear walked out of the forested hill to our right and, when we stopped, walked across the road directly in front of the van.  I believe I got a couple of good photos of that bear.  Along the drive, we saw sand-hill cranes, gray jays, ground squirrels, elk, bison, ravens, and, at a distance, a bear with two yearlings, difficult to see with binoculars, but clearly visible in the spotting scope.
We went up through snow-covered Dunraven Pass, in view of Mt. Washburn, then to Tower Falls, with a cliff overlook, where we saw an osprey nest.  Afterwards, we drove on to the famous lower and upper falls of the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, scenery made famous by Thomas Moran, one of the great Hudson River painters.  I believe this was the highlight of my tour around the park.  During the day, we ate a picnic lunch at a snow-encrusted picnic site along the way.  Again, we had dinner and spent the night at Mammoth Springs Hotel; the three-day stay there was a great feature of the trip.  It’s impossible to see much of the park in just one day; I think that my brother, Dick, and I spent only one day on my previous visit to Yellowstone. 
On the fourth day, we drove directly south into the geyser basins, on the way passing Golden Gate falls and Bunsen Peak (named after the same guy who invented the Bunsen burner).  On Swan lake Flats, we sighted bears, a coyote and elk.  After Obsidian Cliff and Roaring Mountain, we went into the Norris Geyser Basin, which has the hottest geysers on earth:  boiling pots, steam vents, and aquamarine pools.  I didn't go around the whole basin, but walked through part of it on my own.  Bison patties dotted the edges of hot pools; odd plants (and fungi?) sometimes grew in poop plots in the midst of mineral encrusted surroundings.
That afternoon, we arrived at Old Faithful just as it was about to erupt.  We lunched at the Old Faithful Inn.  Afterwards, Blake and I went to the Ranger Station and viewed a video on Yellowstone, then we walked up a half-mile walk to other geysers and pools.  He was very considerate, and sat down on a bench whenever he thought I would probably be tired.  Blake and I actually saw Old Faithful erupt three times that afternoon:  once before lunch, once after lunch, and once during a walk we took to Castle Geyser and the Crested Pool.    We came back to the inn just as the van was pulling up to pick us up.  That evening, we drove over Craig Pass, with a good view of Yellowstone Lake and Mt. Sheridan, to Grant Village, where we had dinner at the inn overlooking Yellowstone Lake and spent the night.  Snow was piled high next to our window, and Blake wanted to go out and play in the snow with Lyndon.  Both boys got soaking wet, and Lyndon’s grandmother was annoyed at that.
On the fifth day in Yellowstone, we went back to the geysers, particularly the Midway Geyser Basin where the huge Grand Prismatic Spring steams incessantly in its multicolored pool.  Several in the group climbed a hill where they could get an aerial view of the formation, but I didn’t.  Then we took the vans and drove to the other side of the basin where, besides the Grand Prismatic, several steaming pools – Excelsior Geyser Crater, Opal Pool and Turquoise pool – created warm, sulfurous mists over the boardwalks.  I took several photos of the brightly tinted pools, all the while breathing the acrid mist, but the smell didn’t seem to make my breathing worse.
We again had lunch at Old Faithful Inn and saw the signature geyser erupt once more.  After lunch, we went to the Lower Geyser Basin, saw the Fountain Paint Pots, and walked around the boardwalk past several geysers, including Clepsydra Geyser, which erupts constantly.  It offered continually new and interesting configurations, rather like the dancing fountains popular a few decades ago.  I found it hard to pull myself away from the mesmerizing sight of Clepsydra’s randomly spurting water and steam.
This was the last main stop in the park; from there we drove north to Madison, passing along the Firehole River and the Gibbon River, the latter reminding me of the Meander River in Greece – flat and constantly turning back on itself.  In West Yellowstone, the town just outside the west entrance of the park, we checked into the Gray Wolf Inn for our last night of the trip.  Blake and I went across the road to the bear and wolf sanctuary, wandered around the wolf pens, and he took photos of wolves.  I took a few photos also; by the time we got back to the hotel, it was time for dinner at Bullwinkle’s, a local bar/cafĂ©.
The next morning, the others got up early and headed back to Bozeman Airport, but Blake and I slept late, had a continental style breakfast in the hotel lobby, stored our bags with the lobby desk clerk, and went back across the street to the wolf sanctuary.  We saw another pen of wolves we hadn’t seen the day before.  Some of them came quite close to the visitors’ building, and, as we were watching a video of Yellowstone wolves, several wolves started howling.  It was quite an experience.  Dinah and Cledith came to the hotel at noon and picked us up; we had lunch in West Yellowstone and then went back to their cabin, stopping on the way at the Hebden earthquake center.  While we were there, it began to rain and then to snow; Cledith said that it wouldn’t be snowing when we got back to the cabin, but it was.  Blake had fun playing in the snow again.  Snow laid a white blanket on the cabin's roof and the surrounding field and powdered the sides of surrounding mountains.  It was all gone by the next morning, but this was another reminder that June in the Rockies is not necessarily a summer month.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Yellowstone, Part A

June 11 – 16
Cledith and Dinah drove us to Bozeman on Saturday, where we met the NWF group near the bronze bear in the Airport waiting area.  The group leader was named Steve, as was the assistant leader, so those names were easy to remember.  The names of others in the group have not stuck with me so well.  There was another grandmother-grandson combination, but he (Lyndon) was only five years old (almost six).  They rode in the same van as we did during the tour, and he and Blake hit it off well, amused each other, and offered each other respite from the old fogeys.  There were a couple of pushy amateur photographers from New York in the other van, with whom I didn’t interact much, a female minister from Maine (also a photographer, less annoying), a couple from Hilton Head with whom I also didn’t interact much although they rode in the same van (she was carsick and peevish most of the time) and another couple from Pennsylvania, very nice, who moved into our van about half-way through the trip.  He had had a quadruple bypass and walked slowly, whereas she was quite athletic, but not aggressive.  So I had a walking companion for the treks around geysers on the last couple days of the tour; he took it slow for the sake of his heart and I walked slowly because my lungs wouldn’t allow a faster pace.  Blake was almost always up ahead with the other boy, except for the day we spent at Old Faithful, where he and I explored things together, and he was sweet and helpful.
I took a few notes during the trip, but had no time to write up anything during the course of the five days in Yellowstone.  The following impressions are reconstructed (July 6) from those notes and recollections. 
After we left the airport, we drove east from Bozeman to Livingston in view of the Absaroka Mountains, and then headed south to Gardiner, at the north entrance of Yellowstone.  During that drive, we stopped several times to view wildlife:  trumpeter swans, a female moose, elk, and bighorn sheep.  In Gardiner, we ate (buffalo burgers) and afterwards had a very interesting presentation by Jim Halfpenny on the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone.  He is a wildlife biologist and one of those involved in that original effort.  His talk included updated information on the numbers and locations of current wolf packs, as well as commentary on how wildlife managers were dealing with reactions to wolves by humans living outside the park who feel threatened by wolves that stray from the park.  He was, however, optimistic, and felt that the reintroduction project was successful, and that wolves are now firmly established in the area.  That evening, we stayed at a hotel in Mammoth Hot Springs, inside the park.
On the next day, we awoke early and left the hotel at 6:00 AM.  The day was gray, with intermittent rain and sun.  We drove through the Lamar Valley toward the north-east entrance; Steve thought this was the best area to look for wolves, but we didn’t see any.  However, we did see two coyotes, and we also saw herds of bison with their calves – on the road and off.  A fascinating sight was a bear (probably a grizzly), first spotted swimming across a small lake toward a herd of bison.  When the bison became aware of him, they began to run, and he seemed to run after them.  The bear’s running speed was rapid, matching the speed of the bison, which soon rounded up into a tight herd next to a steep incline.  Then the bear just ran on past them, not slowing his speed, as if he were really chasing different prey.   We also saw prong-horn sheep, mule deer, a couple of female moose with young, and elk; later in the day, we spotted a black bear with cub.  Whenever someone spotted an animal, both vans would pull over, the guides would set up spotting scopes, and we could watch, either through the scopes or with our own binoculars, as the animals went about their lives.  Their lives consisted mostly of eating (grazing) and caring for their young.  Indeed, the chief theme of the trip seems to have been babies, babies, babies.  We saw baby moose, and baby bears, and baby elk, and baby deer, as well as innumerable baby bison (called red-dogs).  Whenever we saw another herd of bison, Lyndon would shout out:  “Red-dog, red-dog.”  The immense fertility of nature was everywhere obvious (when left alone by humans) and poignant, as the land awakened from its harsh winter sleep.
We left the north-east entrance of Yellowstone, driving outside the park toward Cooke City through Beartooth Pass in the Beartooth Mountains.  That road had been opened just a day or two previously.  Snow escarpments along the roadside were taller than a person; Blake clambered up over the snow cliffs with most of the others in the group.  I didn’t climb onto the snow but got some great photos of scenery and of others in the snow.  Along the switch-backs going up to the pass and back down, we saw a couple of ski-gliders trying to harness wind and snow to give them a long, spectacular, swerving slide down the mountains.  In that gusting air and wildly uneven snow-scape, it was obviously not easy to keep glider cords from entangling.
We came back to our Mammoth Hot Springs hotel in late afternoon.  Before dinner, I went to the ranger station there, saw a video on Yellowstone, and bought a couple of books on geology.  The contours and movement of the earth fascinate me at least as much as the animals, having come to take a much longer view of time with age.  Yellowstone lies in the caldera of an ancient volcano of gigantic proportions, greater than anything that has blown through the earth in recorded history.  It lies over a “hot spot” in Earth’s crust (rather like the Hawaiian Islands), which has moved, relative to the surface, about thirty miles in the past two million years.  During that time, three huge eruptions ahve occurred.  Now the heat energy below just drizzles onto the land in steam vents and bubbling mud, but it could blow again at any time and if it does, it could lead to a global disaster as devastating as a nuclear war.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

W-b-N Denver to Yellowstone

June 6 – 10: 
When Blake and I arrived in the Denver airport, we picked up his luggage and made a shuttle reservation to go back to the campground in Englewood where I had left the RV for the week-end.  The sky was hazy and darkening as we took the shuttle into Denver, so he couldn’t see the mountains in the distance - a dramatic sight I had hoped he might enjoy on arriving in the west.  Nonetheless, when we left the next morning for the westward trek to Dinosaur National Monument, we saw mountains, the Rockies, up close and personal, as the RV chugged its way up from mile-high Denver, to two miles above sea level in some of the mountain passes.  We passed snow fields, and even saw a group of big-horn sheep not far from I-80 as we wound among the peaks.  It was a shame we couldn’t stop for photos.
West of that stretch of Rockies, the terrain became dry and wind-swept, with humped, multicolored hills spreading to the horizon.  At Dinosaur National Monument, the visitors’ area with its wall of Mesozoic bones was closed (apparently for the past six years), but a shuttle took visitors to a hillside with exposed bones.  Blake climbed up the trail and was shown dinosaur bones by the rangers there; I chose not to make the steep climb because I was having trouble breathing, and because I had seen the wall of bones several years previously on a westward trip with my brother, Dick.  For lunch, we stopped at a gas-station/restaurant that made a great chocolate milkshake, half of which we put in the RV freezer for a later dessert.
At the gift shop, we bought a couple of dinosaur videos for Blake and books for me, then drove into Vernal, Utah, and visited the museum there.  It was informative and filled with good diagrams of geological formations and paleontology, which Blake followed with keen interest.  A garden surrounding the museum exhibited statues of dinosaurs and other ancient life forms - great for kids.  We spent that night at a KOA in Vernal.
Driving north from Vernal on Route 191, the scenery was awesome – broad, treeless skies, mountains and high plateaus ringing the horizon.  We took Route 191 through Flaming Gorge National recreation area; brilliant red and orange sandstone formed cliffs above the winding highway.  It was cold, the wind picked up, and by the time we reached Rock Springs,Wyoming, the wind was so fierce we could hardly get out of the RV without the door slamming back on us.  We stopped there for gas and some lunch.  A cold, sharp rain pelted us outside the truck stop, and the sky to the north looked ominous.  I asked a gas station attendant what the weather was like further north.  A trucker volunteered that he had just come south from Yellowstone.  He said there was rain and some snow, “normal for this time of the year,” and “nothing to worry about.”  So I decided to forge ahead, and we made it into Jackson, Wyoming, by which time the late afternoon sun had come out again.  We stayed in an expensive campground (The Virginian, Good Sam endorsed) – cramped and cold – but I didn’t want to turn around and backtrack to a less expensive KOA.
The next morning we went through Jackson Hole, flanked by the magnificent Tetons with whisps of clouds coyly veiling their lower peaks, and then drove on to into Yellowstone National Park through the south entrance.  Along the park road, trees were embedded in snow; snow cliffs, like layered geological formations, lined the plowed road.  Blake was thrilled with the snow; I stopped at a pull-out and took a couple of photos of him and a snowbank.
We drove through Yellowstone to the western entrance, and from there to Dinah and Cledith’s cabin out 287, not far from the earthquake area near Hebgen Lake.  Cledith met me at the end of their driveway and got into the RV, which gave me courage to drive up their steep, winding, shoulderless, two-rut driveway to the cabin.  I hooked up to their electricity, and that’s where the RV stayed during our Yellowstone trip.  They had just arrived in Montana a couple days previously and had hardly had time to open the cabin and unpack.  But Dinah served a wonderful, hearty, chicken-and-rice soup for supper, which was a great way to end our long day driving.  The next morning, they drove us to the airport in Bozeman, where we met the group that would be together for the next six days on the National Wildlife Federation’s tour of “Wolves, Bears and Geysers” in Yellowstone National Park.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

W-b-N Denver

June 3, 2011

The late afternoon is cool, and cottonwood fluff drifts lazily through the air at this relaxed, easy-living campground in Englewood, just south of Denver. Wish I could spend a little time here just hanging out, but tomorrow morning I must take a shuttle to the airport and fly back to Charleston to pick up Blake for our trip to Yellowstone.

The day after returning to Denver from Pike’s Peak, I went to the Denver Airport to figure out how to get there and to scope out parking and airport access, so as to plan my strategy for getting there tomorrow and for sending Blake back to Charleston after our Yellowstone trip. Afterwards, I drove down to Cherry Creek State Park and stayed at the campground near a reservoir. The day at Cherry Creek was pleasant, devoted largely to catching up on things - showering, doing laundry and finishing a book (The Life of Pi).
Yesterday, Gail Mullen and I went into Denver and spent half a day (including lunch) at the Denver Art Museum, primarily in the American, European and Western exhibits. We also visited a special exhibit on early Renaissance Italian art, organized according to the Italian city in which it was produced. Period background music made for pleasant browsing; I think they tried to create the best possible venue for their Italian Renaissance paintings (which are not all that special) by adding some glitz and educational information. The museum is very user friendly, with sitting areas and books available about the subjects exhibited. The American and European art section are organized according to subject matter rather than country or chronology; this offered some interesting juxtapositions. The Western Art section is in the new wing of the museum, and features more recent visual arts, including textile art.
We had a very pleasant dinner at her house – grilled chicken kebobs, potato salad, veggie salad and ice cream. I met her husband, John, and learned something of both their lives. John has an interesting background; he was a marine pilot and later flew with U.S. Air. But he developed diabetes while he was in his forties and has had trouble managing it in recent years. In the meantime (before and since the onset of diabetes), he has climbed all of the 50+ mountains in the U.S. that are over 14,000 feet in height, including Pike’s Peak. Gail and I have interacted only occasionally since our years at Kalamazoo College, primarily at the “K-gals” get-togethers; I feel as if I have gotten to know her better since spending that day together.

This morning I went to the National Jewish Health (NJH) to get forms to fill out for my five-day “appointment” from June 20 – 24. I’m doing this at Arlene’s urging, although it will make the trip back from Yellowstone really hurried, and the trip to Iowa for the week-end writer’s conference almost impossible. And parking around NJH will be difficult. The patient coordinator never heard of anyone coming there in an RV (I’m sure that’s not the case at Mayo). We’ll see if it will all be worth the time and aggravation.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

W-b-N Pike's Peak, Part 2

May 30, Memorial Day.
This morning was spent at Camping World in Wheat Ridge (Denver suburb) getting two new deep-cycle house-batteries for the RV.  The ones I had were probably four or five years old and no doubt should have been replaced before the beginning of the trip.  The whole process took less than two hours and cost less than what I paid at the Mid-Tenn Ford in Nashville, where the battery problem wasn’t fixed after a $500 expense.  Hope these batteries will hold a charge for the rest of the trip.
Yesterday I took the 9:20 AM cog train going to the top of Pike’s Peak.  The morning had broken cloudy and overcast, and I was worried that we wouldn’t have much of a view at the top.  But clouds soon lifted and by the time we boarded the train (the Aspen), skies were sunny and blue.  I was lucky and had a seat in the front of the train as we ascended, so I could watch the scenery transform as we went from below, where pine and aspen line the tracks, and huge boulders hover over it, through scrubby, bristle cone pine growing in sparse earth still littered with snow, on up to a snowy, hostile slag-strewn landscape above the tree-line.  At Windy Point, elevation 12, 120, the wind was truly fierce; it was even worse, clocked at nearly 80 mph, at the summit.  So we had to stop there, wait for the 8:00 AM train to descend, and then come back to the station without making a full ascent.  I was disappointed, but we had some spectacular views on the way up, so I’m not sorry about taking an extra day to make that excursion.  The train behind us had even more trouble (gear lubrication or heating issues) and had to descend after going less than a quarter of the way up.  A group of Korean tourists was on that train (I talked with one young lady from the group on the platform), and I’m sure they were truly disappointed.
After getting back to the station, I climbed the stairs to the road, rested a bit, and then climbed the hill to where the RV was parked.  I was so exhausted when I got there that I had to lean against the driver’s seat of the RV before getting in, my lungs gasping for air and my heart thumping in my chest.  I worry about how I will handle the trip to Yellowstone with Blake, and I realize it’s probably a good thing I’m going to NJH afterwards to have my lungs checked out as thoroughly as possible.
I drove the RV into town, parked for a while, had a sandwich and drink from my supplies in the refrigerator, and then drove back to Denver.  A traffic jam, apparently the result of an accident on I-25, slowed me down for about twenty minutes; this gave me a chance to glance back fondly at the Pike's Peak for a prolonged farewell.  Castle Rock, on the way north, did not look nearly as much like a castle as it did on the drive south.  I again parked at the Flying J in Aurora, my “home base” here in Denver.  Tomorrow, I’ll camp for two nights at Cherry Creek Park campground, spend a day (Thursday) with Gail Mullen seeing sights in downtown Denver, then go to a campground in Englewood, where I’ll leave the RV to take the plane to Charleston to pick up grandson, Blake.

Monday, August 1, 2011

W-b-N Pike's Peak, Part 1

May 29, 2011
Yesterday, I drove about an hour south of Denver to Manitou Springs, hoping to take the cog railway to the top of Pike’s Peak.  The drive was easy and scenic, though more cars were on the road than on arrival in Denver.  So many people going about their separate interests and concerns - business or duty or pleasure.  I suspect it's mostly pleasure this Memorial Day week-end.  The first scenic formation along I-25 was Castle Rock; it truly does look like a castle, viewed from the north.  A huge structure perched high atop a solitary hill, it seems to have been constructed of worked stone.  That erosion-resistant stone is probably the remnant of an old volcano, the work of Nature’s God; I imagine westward pioneers were awestruck by it.

Shortly beyond Castle Rock, Pike’s Peak arose in the distance, a white dome below which hover blue-gray foothills, remnants of earlier Rockies, now heavily eroded.  As I drove toward the foothills, their shading changed to mauve and then to deep green.  The snow-cowled mountain seemed to recede continually before me until I finally passed the foothills.  Evergreens swathed  the lower half of the mountain like a beard, casting a permanent shadow below the glittering white, crinkled top.  All of this, too, must have seemed like a marvel to the pioneers who had traveled hundreds of miles across flat plains before seeing the high Rockies, then days after seeing the mountains before reaching them.  It took me about half an hour from the time I first caught a glimpse of Pike’s Peak until I exited I-25 at Colorado Springs, headed toward the base of the mountain at Manitou Springs, a formerly popular spa for the well-heeled.

At the Information Center there, I wasn't able to get a ticket for the cog railway for that day (Saturday), but did discover other interesting sites in the area.  So I decided to stay in town for two days instead of one and made a reservation at the cog-railway for the following day.  Then I drove out of town to visit the Garden of the Gods, a fascinating collection of natural sandstone formations decorating the area north-east of Pike’s Peak.  These eerie structures are remnants of effluvia from the more ancient Rockies, whose eroded sand compacted into layers of silt in the shallows of an ancient inland sea, which covered middle North America during the Mesozoic Era.  This sandstone was pushed up during the more recent mountain-building period to form these amazing, stratified outcroppings.  I hope my photos capture some of the spectacular shapes.  I drove around the loops and stopped at turn-outs for photos and hiked the trail to the Siamese Twins.  Breathing was difficult on the way up; the elevation there is about 7,000 feet, more than a mile high.  The hiking was hard on the lungs going up and hard on the knees going down!

After Garden of the Gods, I visited the Cliff Dwellings not far from town.  These were also interesting – partly hewn from sandstone and partly constructed of sandstone blocks and bricks.  I didn't get much history on the inhabitants, perhaps because the rise and demise of Anasazi culture is not well understood.  But seeing the dwellings cut out of living rock recalled other sites I’ve visited in the past:  Mesa Verde, on a trip in 1969 with my sister and our children, and especially Petra, Jordan, in 2004, where the sandstone is also swirled with dark and light strata as in Manitou.  That evening I found a spot to hook up, dump and get water in an expensive, very crowded campground, also called “Garden of the Gods” - certainly not heavenly, but the only place I could find to park the RV.