8.27.2008

Monday, August 25

Wahoo! Current state count up to and including Utah: 14! By Monday morning, though, it was time to hit the road again - I could feel it in my veins, hear it in my heart. I saw a bumper sticker that summed it up so well: "All who wander are not lost." Wandering time was definitely nigh.

I left Logan with a full agenda for the day's trek to the south. I first stopped to get some fresh Cache Valley produce (cantaloupe, watermelon, peaches, blackberries and raspberries!) and then stopped again when I reached the wonderful Smith and Edwards salvage yard in Ogden. I of course ended up finding numerous metallic treasures I was compelled to take home with me. Back on the road approaching Salt Lake, I saw what is by now a familiar plume of acrid yellow smoke covering the horizon - a large wildfire burning in the hills overlooking the city. I tried to pinpoint the column in the distance as I turned and headed west to the shoreline of the Great Salt Lake but couldn't determine the source. I was headed to an interesting place I'd read about called Saltair III that boasted beach access to the lake and cool clean showers after your dip. I'd been drawn to the venue after reading about the soap opera setbacks experienced by its original incarnation (built in 1893), including fires, floods and fickleness. When I arrived at its much more modest modern replacement, it was pretty sparsely populated with just a handful of cars besides mine dotting the parking lot. I suited up in the discomfort of the hot car and headed out to the lake.

I was completely underwhelmed when I finally reached the water's edge. Not only was every square inch that stood above the water along the shoreline swarming with zillions of tiny gnat-like insects (it did look cool the way they scattered as I walked along – much like miniature schools of fishes) but once I finally started wading into the water, I noticed that it was a veritable soup of particulate matter. I say particulate matter, because who knows what the hell that stuff was. I’m guessing it was a casserole of insect parts, algae, mud and au gratin potatoes. In a single instant, I understood why I’d never heard Salt Lake mentioned before in any sentence having to do with recreation. It's mostly a lake to look at, apparently. Still, I was determined to float in the damn thing. How could I come this far and then let a little thing like organic mystery soup stop me? My thought being that since I float so easily anyway, I should be able to walk on this water. I gingerly eased myself down into the water and soon realized with frustration that I was sitting on sand. The water was only about a foot deep where I plopped down which would make it difficult to float, even for me, even in this water. I got up out of the water and waded out a bit further, the salt burning the lining of my mouth and overwhelming my tastebuds where a little lake water had managed to seep between my lips. It made me think of sucking on an anchovy. A little further out I found a spot that seemed to be a good 18-20 inches deep and so slipped back down into the wretched waters to fulfill my determination. Wow. Sure enough, I could float. I don’t know what I was expecting, now that I think of it. I’m a hard person to measure a baseline on since I’m so naturally buoyant. But that was pretty much it - I floated easily. Huhn.

Unsurprisingly, I didn’t dilly-dally on my swim. I hurriedly waded back to my pile of stuff on the beach and began herding the swarms of gnat-like things away in an enormous swirl so I could snatch up my canteen and pour cold water over my face and arms and hair. I loaded up all my stuff and started back on the hot, salty 1/3 mile walk trek back to the parking lot. I could see the smoke from the distant fires in Salt Lake City writhing along the horizon, making an intriguing backdrop behind the distant Saltair III. I encountered a large group of Asian tourists who had obviously just disembarked from a bus I could see idling in the distant parking lot and were headed out to the shore. The first one asked me, “Did you go IN????” I replied proudly, “Why yes I did!” “Well how was it then – was it nice?!” she queried eagerly. I just couldn’t muster a fakey tourist-friendly lie. It would only lead to grave disappointment. “Well, to tell the truth, I'm afraid it’s really pretty nasty out there” I told them. The group of them began giggling nervously at my answer so I added hastily, "But you should definitely still go out to the water's edge and stick your toe in, just to say you did it!" I left them to fashion their own relationship to the Great Salt Lake and beat it on back to the parking lot so I could hop under the shower as quickly as possible. It felt really good to sluff off the salty slimy second skin I'd developed.

By now it was more than time to get some miles under me on my way toward Moab, Utah. I passed back through Salt Lake City and got close enough to the fires to see the leading edge licking a line down the side of a mountain (although I couldn't spot any flames, just smoke). I left Salt Lake behind and began passing through a litany of small towns where I saw various and sundry marvels including a 70s space age building complex (four white domes with gothic arch entrances and Jetson style porthole windows) and a elk antler garden that had definitely seen better days (but was intriguing, nonetheless) and a pod of gigantic wind turbines that held me in thrall for a good half hour.

As the golden hour approached, I started searching for a good place to watch the sunset which unfortunately was only mildly interesting. No matter - there would be plenty of scenery the next day at Arches National Park. I was on my way toward Green River (where I'd decided to lodge for the night) soon after the sun slipped below the horizon.

8.25.2008

At long last, Sunday Dinner

I spent three hyper-relaxed, pleasurable days in Logan, Utah with Bruce. We did all sorts of fun things: took a nice walk (see burdock burr decorations above), attended a garden party, and made visits to a couple different fun electrical supply stores. Friday evening, we drove out to Richmond and visited Stuart Smith (father of my friend Nate) whom I absolutely adore and the three of us stayed up swapping stories and outlandish opinions until 1:45 in the morning! Saturday evening Bruce and I played pool (complete with tattooed Midwestern thugs) and ate awesome pizza at a grungy local basement hang out called The Factory.

But the activity I'd arranged my schedule around as soon as I'd decided to stop in Logan and visit, was Sunday dinner at the Christiansen house. Almost as long as I've known of Bruce, somehow I've known about Bruce's family's regular weekly Sunday dinner. It's funny what you attend to, isn't it? I think the aspect that most appeals to me about Christiansen Sunday dinner is the very regularity with which it has unfolded all these years, probably because I've had so little consistency in my own life. I went to dinner prepared to absorb and replicate every little component ritual so I could fully inhabit the concept of regularity - well, as much as any pink haired woman might, I suppose.

At right, Bruce demonstrates one of the physics principles utilized in proper beverage service: optimal chilling of a soft drink over specially prepared ice. He makes it look so simple, doesn't he? But don't take this regular Sunday dinner stuff lightly, people! It is not nearly as easy as it looks, I assure you.

Following a whirlwind of activity in the well oiled machine of the Christiansen kitchen, a turkey breast, mashed potatoes made from scratch, brown gravy, green salad, sliced home grown tomatoes, sweet summer corn on the cob and freshly baked yeast rolls (drool!) were turned out onto the dinner table, ready for rapid deployment. After a brief discussion of where everyone should sit (I was an intervening variable, after all) we settled in and began the quiet ballet of serve, pass, serve, pass.







I watched Bruce carefully to see how he arranged, combined and ordered his meal. This was a ritual, after all, and I didn't want to be the dumb neophyte acolyte that dropped the chalice! Bruce puddled his potatoes and made a large caldera for gravy, which he neatly filled before dotting the rim of the crater with neat white turkey chunks. Because I am a heretic of sorts, I added salad (1000 island dressing) and sliced tomatoes to my plate. Bruce is a celebrated vegetable eschewer, so I had to wing this part of the procedure myself. Unfortunately, I think in the end analysis, I got a bit carried away with the turkey chunks, but then those of you that know me are aware of the fact that I've been known to overdo a thing or two before.


Dinner was absolutely delicious - I was just short of miserable when I finally gave up the ghost. I chatted with Bruce's mom Judy, as she neatly portioned the leftovers and stowed them away, item by item. We talked about travel and cooking and reading - it was great fun. I'm not sure if the boys were having brandy and cigars in the other room or not, but after awhile I shifted my locale and began watching the Harry Potter movie already in progress on the wide screen tee-vee in the family room. Just as things were getting hairy for Harry, Judy brought Pat (Bruce's father) and I a piece of apple pie with ice cream. It was almost like receiving the wafer and wine - the culmination of a great American family sacrament. After the movie magicked to a close, Judy packed the leftover yeast rolls in a Rubbermaid container for Bruce and I and we staggered back to our lodging just before midnight. Ahhh the rhythm of life. Sometimes the simplest melodies truly are the best. Thank you, Christiansens, one and all.

8.22.2008

Antlers across America

Antlers, antlers and more antlers! When I saw the beautiful antler arches located on each corner of the town square in Jackson, I thought they were impressively large and beautiful. Little did I know I would have the privilege of seeing the world's LARGEST elk antler arch when I drove through Afton, Wyoming later Wednesday afternoon.

I also liked this take on antler art that I saw as I passed through Alpine, Wyoming (left). It was in front of an antler furniture store that I popped into in search of my all elusive jackalope trophy. I thought I'd hit paydirt when the very nice gentleman that ran the place said he didn't have any, but suggested I head down the highway a short way and knock on the door of the woman whose husband had made the best jackalopes to be found anywhere (at least according to Shaun). The jackalope master had died several years back, but Shaun thought his wife might still have some of his work in her storage shed. It had all the earmarks of a roadside miracle, but alas, when I knocked on the poor woman's door, she did little but smile nervously at my attempts to explain my plight. "I had a bunch of those things, but I sold every one of them" she offered apologetically. I could hardly blame her for being a bit put off by a woman with pink hair stopping in on a whim to ask after jackalopes - probably not a situation she was accustomed to dealing with.
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Soon afterwards, I rolled into the town of Afton, Wyoming and was delighted to see an enormous arch of elk antlers spanning the main avenue crowned by a pair of concrete elk, antlers locked in a stony death struggle. I hurriedly pulled over and parked - no way I was going to pass this little gem up!

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Afton, it turned out, totally had it going on. Not only did they lay claim to the largest elk antler arch in the world, but a local artist had embellished a number of the buildings, sidewalks and lightposts with figurative concrete sculptures that gave the tiny town a huge dose of character. I especially liked the pair of busts framing the Ford Theater - John Wayne and Audrey Hepburn! The Ford dealership had also been adorned with a giant bas-relief monster truck, ATV and motorcycle along with a bust of a fellow I assumed was the owner.
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It's always such a delight to me to drive into a little town that is distinctive. It's an elusive quality, one which I'm sure city planners struggle with as they work to help their tiny outposts survive. Some get it very, very right and others fail miserably, mostly because of temerity I would imagine.

Soon after I'd resumed my drive, I passed a construction site, made my usual visual inspection to see if there were any cool pieces of earth moving machinery or other oddities I needed to see and then after a few clicks I began to smile broadly. Enough so that I performed the 829th one-eighty turn in the middle of the highway and went back to take a picture. This probably won't tickle anyone as much as it did me (I guess that's one of my qualities!) but take a careful look at this picture if you're intrested (you'll probably want to click on it to enlarge the image):

What we have here are the beginnings of a country subdivision. The first step has been to make small mounds of dirt on the valley floor, and then sprinkle native pines among the hillocks, all set against a sweeping backdrop of mountains dotted with pine forests. Isn't it hilarious how man will go to so much trouble to tame a thing? To dumb it down, to make it safe, to precious-ize it? Aren't those little hills cute? Not nearly so troublesome as mountains, you see. We are definitely creatures that like to pretend we control things. We have all sorts of elaborate rituals we engage to pretend we are the masters of our world. Hee hee! Arrogant humans!

Much more to my liking and just down the road I discovered some farmer/field art.

I love it when people take on the challenge of the huge canvas. Somehow they see a pheasant instead of a bunch of crappy old corregated metal roofing and can envision shovels as ears. Hooray for the person who thinks they can! Because they can, you see. Yahooooooo!

I soon popped into the southeast corner of Idaho for a brief transit that would carry me past Bear Lake and to the beautiful canyon drive that led to Logan, Utah. My dear friend Bruce is currently stationed in Logan and I was very much looking forward to spending a couple of relaxed and happy days with him. I also planned to visit a couple of other folks I dearly love who call this area home, Stuart and Chris. Not only would it be good to see all these wonderful people, but the timing was perfect for curing my mild case of loneliness.

Shortly after I arrived in Logan, I met up with Bruce at his parents' place, an opportunity I was happy to exercise since I've looked forward to meeting Bruce's folks for a while now. After a brief round of introductions and some initial chitchat, Bruce and his friend Ellen and I chose to go to a local Asian eatery (Bruce treated me to a thrilling motorcycle ride!) to experience a dish I'd heard Nate talk about for years: tiny spicy chicken. The chicken was swell, but Ellen had the foresight to order the Bo-Bo Platter to get us started, which fortuitously had fire! Always a bonus. The three of us sat and chatted easily and plentifully. It felt very much like having a nice strong cup of coffee after a long hard night. It gave me a renewed strength and presence that I very much appreciated. I could feel my batteries recharging.

8.21.2008

Mammoth, but not so much

While I had soundly discarded the Plan of the previous day, I found that my desire to see Mammoth Hot Springs had carried forward to Wednesday. After my wonderful experience on the Chief Joseph Scenic Byway the day before, I chose to head back out that route to Yellowstone, this time with a minimum of pull out stops and without the 4 hour detour. I made good time to the east gate and began the circuit around the northern end of the park so I could get to the far corner where Mammoth was tucked away.

When I finally arrived at the Mammoth Hot Springs area, I emerged from the car provisioned with my canteen, a map, a thick coating of sunblock and my cowgirl hat, committed to seeing everything there was to see in this intensely featured area. As I performed reconnaissance on how to best navigate through the maze of boardwalks, I noticed there would be quite a bit of vertical climbing required to reach one of the nicest formations, and combined with the high altitude (around 6200 feet) and the warm summer day, I was less than eager to set out. After quelling my childish sense of displeasure, I headed up to the first stop on the tour. The brochures I'd read made careful mention of the fact that the springs in this area were sometimes active, sometimes inactive. They did not, however, describe the inactive phase as resembling a post nuclear holocaust wasteland. The travertine formations along my route were all dry, desolate and colorless. I went past the Jupiter and Mars terraces, swung by the Minerva terrace, and shortly thereafter decided to give up the ghost. So much for my commitment - it apparently fell quite short of tromping through the heat to see various dead geological formations. I decided that there couldn't possibly be anything up on that hill that could be worth the climb I'd have to engage in, so I limped back down the dozens of flights of stairs I'd already ascended, and returned halfheartedly to the car. My rationale was that I would be able to find some much more user friendly steam vents elsewhere in the park that would likely have a much better payoff in terms of beauty.

I resumed my drive along the park road, scanning for a telltale plume of steam right next to the road (instead of at the vanishing point of a distant boardwalk). As I pulled into the parking lot of the next site I came to that looked promising, I felt the first twinge of anger I'd felt in a long time. It was kind of shocking, really. When I took a moment to examine why my patience with cars and tourists and the Disney approach to creating awe had expired, I realized that not only had I had passed the saturation point with natural beauty, but even more interestingly, I had finally become lonely. The tourists and the cars and the summer heat weren't any different than they'd been for days, but I had reached the point where being away from the people I love so dearly was taking a toll on me. I had wondered before my trip, how long it would take to get to this point or even if I would get to this point, and sure enough, Wednesday was the day. Once I realized what was going on, however, I immediately felt free to abandon the Plan (which had quietly reinstated itself in the form of "I must see spectacular natural beauty!"). My new goal became to find a nice spot to have a picnic on my way to Jackson, Wyoming where I would spend the night. Whew! Much better!

After many evaluative stops, I finally picked a nice little picnic table near the shore of Lewis Lake to eat the tomato salad I had prepared in my hotel room the previous night. I had assembled the salad as an antidote against all the patty melts, limp flavorless iceberg salads and mediocre hashbrowns I'd been offered in the last weeks. My salad had fresh tomatoes, avocado, sliced purple onion and feta cheese. I chose Premium saltines as a gesture toward eschewing elitism. Add a couple of inferior non-squeaky cheese curds, some nice cold diet Pepsi and a cool breeze blowing in off the lake and it was just the palliative I needed to ease my weariness.
After my restorative snack, I continued south toward Jackson. I emerged from the forested hills of the park to discover a sweeping view of the Tetons, impressive peaks even after all the amazing mountain scenery I'd enjoyed the last couple of days. This time, however, I was content to roll along and enjoy them from afar. I was ready to get to Jackson.

8.20.2008

What the Hell Good is a Damn Plan Anyway???

My plan Tuesday morning was to return to Yellowstone via a different scenic highway than the route I'd taken the day before and then take in some more sites at the park, especially Mammoth Hot Springs (it seemed as though there might be a good deal of mineral induced color there so I very much wanted to see it). You'll notice I used the word plan, because Tuesday's theme ended up being: What the Hell Good is a Damn Plan Anyway? I wrassled all day with the concept and got to see all sorts of relationships I have to a plan that aren't usually apparent to me. I learned a whole lot about myself, and I mean that in a good way.

The first part of my plan that failed was to head out from Cody by 9:00. I usually get up really early (by 7:30 at the latest), but most mornings I have a hard time weaning myself off the computer before 11 or so. "Ah well," I reminded myself, "it's not like you have to be somewhere at a specific time. Just leave when you're ready, for crying out loud!" There it was - the first skirmish had quietly been waged in what would be a day long battle.

Next, I somehow missed the turn off for the road I had intended to take to Yellowstone and was pretty far along the road toward Belfry, Montana by the time I had discovered my mistake. Now there aren't many roads out in that corner of Wyoming/Montana, so once you're off on the wrong road, it's pretty durn hard to correct your mistake short of turning around. I consulted the map, and the route I had taken by mistake was one I had toyed with taking anyway - just much further out of the way. Still, it was reputed to be an extraordinary drive and well worth the detour and it was a lovely day. What the hell! I think I'm so damned spontaneous, let's see what happens when I put it to the test! It was amazing to me, as I sat and conversed with myself, how driven by guilt I was. I felt really bad for missing my turn and thwarting the Plan-with-a-capital-P. Even though the only person I could possibly be disappointing was myself, I found myself fretting over and over about not doing things right. Here I am with the complete freedom to do pretty much anything I want to, and what I choose to do is feel guilty because I didn't stick to a plan? Okay, that's crazy. It really helped me to see that.

Happily, my erroneous route took me through the tiny town of Red Lodge, Montana just about the time I was in dire need of a late lunch. Naturally I came to a screeching halt when I saw the sign for the Red Lodge Cafe. Leaping Indian braves circling a giant red tepee! Perfect! When I sat down inside, I recognized the universal menu selections I'd seen in every cafe I'd eaten in for the past 5 weeks, but there were one or two glimmers of hope on the listing, too. One bright spot was that one of the featured sandwiches on the menu was a pork chop sandwich. Now that's not a sandwich you see everyday, and if it's prepared right, it's far more than delicious. I ordered an iced tea and a pork chop sandwich for my lunch, ambitiously eyeing the list of homemade pies which I knew in advance I would never have room for. The tea arrived in a giant opaque baby blue plastic tumbler, which had the immediate and wonderful effect of making me feel right at home, like my granddaddy had just fixed it up for me. It was good strong brewed tea, too.

The tumbler and it's effectiveness gave me pause to think. I looked around and began noticing that the Red Lodge Cafe had paid an extraordinary amount of attention to detail that is lacking at most cafes of it's caliber - I won't bore you with the details - but it did bode well for my pork chop sandwich as I saw it. The waitress came out from the kitchen after what seemed like an eternity and told me they had run out of pork chops, and that the cook had to BUTCHER some more and then bread them up and fry them and that's why it was taking so long! Can you imagine? At that moment I knew it was going to be well worth the wait and sure enough it was. The breading was crisp and delicious, as good as a perfect piece of fried chicken. The chop itself was moist and as lopsided as some of the mountains I'd be driving past just after lunch. It was obvious that the waitress hadn't just been pulling my leg when she said the cook had to cut the chops for me. Thankfully, the Red Lodge Cafe had managed to renew my affection for the small town diner, even after four weeks of dreary offerings all over the Midwest.

I hadn't seen much staggering scenery by the time I arrived in Red Lodge, so I was beginning to wonder about my decision to go this route, even as good as my sandwich had been. But it wasn't long after I'd returned to the road that I realized I was now driving pretty much straight up a mountain and all of a sudden I was right in the middle of the mountains I'd been seeing off in the distance all morning! I climbed and climbed and climbed. Every time I turned a corner, there would be another stunning view that would cause me to hurriedly pull off and FIRMLY apply the hand brake. I tried to take pictures, but every single one of them turned out deadly dull and do nothing to represent the sweep of being in that magnificent place in person. Bah. I can't even post them, they're so bland. Here instead is a picture of tiny raspberries I found growing at one of the pull outs, just before I put all five of them in my mouth at once with a happy giggle. They were delicious!
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And this is a picture of an inquisitive little fellow I met at another pullout that was absolutely swarming with chipmunks, many of whom were fat and sleek from being plied with tourist nibbles. Some of them were also quite bold. This one came right up to me while I was trying to snap his picture and seemed to be mostly interested in what I held in my hand which turned out to be inedible and poof, he was gone.

As I drove along, hairpin turning back and forth among the very tops of those extraordinary mountains, I tried hard to drink in the concept of barreling along at 10,000 feet with such relative ease. Unlike many mountain drives I've been on previously, the roads of the Bear Tooth Highway take you right to the TOP of the mountains, a place you don't often get to go without strenuous climbing. In fact, the elevation of the Bear Tooth highway is such that it's usually closed to all traffic from September to May because of snow accumulation that can't possibly be cleared. Quite often, I'd execute a thrilling 180 degree turn and find myself smack dab at the summit of yet another beautiful mountain. I chose one of these summits, the one that seemed the very highest of them all, to make a rock stack in order to celebrate my ability to be there. It was windy (as you might expect) and cold - around 58 degrees - and rain clouds hovered overhead, large drops plunking down around me from time to time. I finished my stack and went back to the car to retrieve my camera. When I returned, I had taken only one picture when the wind decided the exercise was complete. This made me happy as my preference in such things leans strongly towards impermanence.
At right is an image from the West Summit observation area (altitude 10,947 feet) that shows the fires that had blanketed the entire area with dun colored drifts of smoke for the past two days. I had not been able to see the source of the fire clearly at low altitude, but it was obvious from this vantage point exactly where the blazes were located.
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Another delight of the path I took were all the beautiful little alpine lakes that dotted the route. Crystal clear and inviting, the water was ice cold, so much more scenic than swimmable.


I eventually came down out of the mountains and was soon thereafter caught in rural highway repair hell in a tiny town named Cooke City that sits just outside the West gate to Yellowstone. This necessitated my sitting and waiting for around 10 minutes for a pilot vehicle to ferry the group of intrepid fun lovers that had been caught with me down a four mile stretch of active road resurfacing. As I sat waiting, I started fretting. It had taken me on the order of five and half hours to get from Cody to the other side of the Bear Tooth Mountains and I hadn't even reached the west gate of Yellowstone yet, much less made the drive to Mammoth Hot Springs! I got cranky and worried and petulant. Damn it, here I was locking horns with the Plan again, even though I had sworn to do without one! I fumed as I traversed the construction and the few additional miles to the Yellowstone gate, worrying about what the right course of action was. I asked the ranger (I love those damn hats!) how long the drive to Mammoth was and she informed me it was a good solid hour and forty-five minutes. Quick math: 4 hours of driving to see a travertine formation because that was the Plan? If I threw caution to the wind and went for it, I would miss seeing the Chief Joseph Scenic Byway (the road I had tried to find on my way out) on my way back to Cody. Arrrrrrrrggghhhh! What should I do? This struggle with choosing was fascinating, albeit a bit annoying.

Finally, I calmed down and decided that a lot more driving was NOT what I wanted, regardless of how gorgeous Mammoth might turn out to be. I opted to pull out of the entrance gate, turn right around and exit, before I had gone 10 feet into the park. A weight seemed to be lifted. The Plan had not succeeded in seducing me. I had finally triumphed.

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I drove the 20 miles back to the turn off for the Chief Joseph Scenic Byway with a renewed sense of freedom and ease. I prepared myself for yet another astonishing trek through the mountains, this time on the route taken by Chief Joseph as he led the Nez Perce Indians out of Yellowstone and into Montana in 1877 during their attempt to flee the encroaching U.S. Cavalry and escape into Canada. I already felt completely saturated with beauty, so I was truly amazed to find that I was even MORE moved by the scenery of this incredible highway. How could it possibly be more gorgeous that what I had already seen that day? But it was. It was more varied and more exotic somehow. And as a bonus, it was even more fun to drive, moving as it did through valleys and plateaus in addition to cresting the mountain tops. I cranked up the stereo, rolled down the windows and fully engaged in the delicious exercise of driving the sort of road you see in a car commercial. It was also the golden hour, making for dazzling brightness and smoky purple shadow. What a rich reward for abandoning the Plan! Note to self: freedom feels way better than guilt.

I spotted a viewing area along the route that seemed to hold a good deal of promise and pulled over. It was where a nice sturdy steel bridge spanned a deep, deep gorge, with a wild river running below, churning with white water. The observation area sat high up on a cliff (see if you can spot my car in the photo on the left) and gave easy access to the bluffs around the span. A lone car had pulled into the parking area ahead of me (believe me, there wasn't a lot of traffic out there) and as I prepared to get out and walk over to the bridge, I noted with amusement that the car contained two young cowboys, both adorned with large brimmed gaucho hats, and REAL spurs. I'm not talking, I'm-going-to-the-Broken-Spoke-to-line-dance spurs, no, I'm talking I-ride-a-horse-for-a-living spurs! I was delighted to hear the classic jangling sound ringing as they walked ahead of me across the bridge. One fellow sported an enormous handlebar moustache to complete his outfit. The cowboys quickly crossed the bridge and veered off into a grassy area on the other side of the road, apparently on a mission of some sort. I puttered about, enjoying the view of the precipitous drop just below my feet when I noticed the pair returning from their mission. The first fella, the one with the whimsical moustache approached first, holding an enormous rock. "What on earth?" I asked myself. Was it some sort of valuable mineral sample? Was it for his garden? Was it to crush the skull of some unwary opponent? I remarked exhuberantly as he approached, "Lookee there! You got you a fine looking rock there! Good job!" His eyes sparkled as a smile played across his lips, "Yes ma'am, I got me a nice one!"

Soon after, his pal emerged from the screen of tawny grass with his own large rock, heavy enough to take concentration in handling. I continued on my path across the bridge, over into one of the overlook areas. I kept turning it over in my mind, what were they collecting those big rocks for? In retrospect, I can't believe I didn't figure it out right away. As I carefully picked my footing to descend a rocky outcropping overlooking the river, I heard the obvious sound of a large rock hitting water, far far below. Of course! Boys + rocks, on a bridge = splash! It tickled me to no end.

The cowboys dawdled a bit more, and then just ahead of me returned to their car and were off. As they pulled out of the parking area, I noticed a garment bag hanging in the back of the car, emblazoned with the name of a tuxedo rental service. Hmmmm. All sorts of intriguing story lines played through my mind. The plot thickened pleasingly when I turned a corner shortly after resuming my journey and saw a tell-tale plume of dust indicating the pair had turned off on a long dirt road and headed off into the hills, likely to a far distant ranch. I liked that development because it gave me the notion that these two had been sitting around killing time when one of them had likely remarked, "Hey! Let's go throw some rocks off the bridge!" It was the perfect expression of what I was struggling so hard to achieve myself that day.

I continued on my journey, enjoying the play of light interacting with the rich colors of the rock. The smoke from the days fires had massed in the distance and created a lovely orange glow behind one of the prominent peaks as the sun set in the distance. It wasn't long before I found myself back in Cody, exhausted from a long day of driving, but filled with the staggering beauty of existence. I pulled into my wonderfully comfortable motel and sunk into a deep sleep. My struggle with the Plan had been victorious, but had left me tireder in addition to wiser. A good, good day.

8.18.2008

It's all about steam, baby!

Monday was all about Yellowstone, Yellowstone, Yellowstone. I approached the park from the direction of Cody and was about halfway to the park when I saw signs on the side of the road indicating that a wildfire was in progress in the area and to watch for activity. Sure enough, thick yellow clouds billowed from the top of a distant ridge. I passed a large encampment of fire fighting paraphenalia - tents, mess hall, tanker trucks - the whole nine yards. I also saw a helicopter flying by with a large empty vessel it had just dumped on the blaze. Fire is most definitely a large part of the natural order of things in the park and is in evidence in many areas as you drive around.

The scenery in the areas that have burned previously is gaunt and beautiful. A short distance after entering the park on the east, the road runs through a large area that apparently burned several years ago. The skeletons of trees that have not yet succumbed to toppling stand guard over immense fields of fireweed and other wildflowers and grasses. I really love fireweed (go figure) and there were large swaths of it covering the slopes of the burn area, making for a splendid sea of pink. Ooooo-la-LA!

I figured my first official stop at the park (besides pulling over at every scenic lookout for 50 miles!) should be the quintessential park attraction: Old Faithful. It's funny, but I think a large part of what I was looking to experience at Old Faithful was watching the people. I derive a good deal of my enjoyment at tourist attractions from observing how people interact with something they suspect they should be in awe of. It's fascinating if you're an eternal student of human behavior like I am.

Yellowstone was our first National Park, established in 1872. As such, they've had a few years to get their nature viewing anomalies under control and create the perfect experience for visitors. Clean comfortable is-this-plastic-or-is-this-wood benches surround the steaming geyser which is located at a way-more-than-safe distance to aid in creating the proper respect. Looking into the crowd, I saw not only an ocean of faces of every flavor, but also a phalanx of various recording devices. Including mine, mind you - I am certainly not immuned. It is interesting to me, though, how we are increasingly living from behind a lens instead of in front of it.

Old Faithful was as right on cue several intermittent jets of water signaled the imminent eruption. Such a crowd pleaser that gal! After several minutes of vapoury splendor, violent ejections yielded to diminishing spurts, signaling the end of the performance. The docile crowd moved quietly and reverently toward the exits. I was somewhat disappointed that there hadn't been any clapping at the conclusion of the show. Oh well. I moved toward the exit too, got in my car and was off to see the next marvel.

Because they're such a novelty to me, I first focused on some of the park's geothermal features as I wandered about. I.e., places where water that has seeped far below the surface of the earth interacts with hot lava and then comes shooting back out through various apertures in the crust. There are geysers, fumaroles, boiling mud and hot springs, to name just a few. I visited several lovely areas in the park that are referred to as "terraces" which seems to indicate that there are a number of various features conveniently colocated in an easy one stop viewing area. Beautifully manicured boardwalks usher you past various steam portals, along with tourbuses and minivans and PT Cruiser-fulls of various and sundry other fun lovers. The beauty of the water and the colors was moving, even with lots of people milling about.

Back on the park road once again, I closed in on completing the bottom circle of the park's characteristic figure 8 shape, allowing me to depart on the same road on which I arrived and head back to Cody.

As I passed up and down along rolling grass covered hills edged with gold where the slanting rays of the sun made them glow, I saw brake lights and stopped cars up ahead of me on the road - a sure sign that some poor member of the wildlife species was being eagerly observed and photographed by every single human in a 1 mile radius.

As I rolled to a stop, I could see that traffic was at an utter standstill while members of a gang of buffalo ruffians wreaked havoc on the roadside gathering. I swear it was like that scene in a Frankie and Annette movie when the greaser gang rolls into town!

A large group of males strutted down the road snorting, inciting others to come racing down from on top of the adjacent hill (I've never seen a group of thousand pound animals deftly manuever through trees, running downhill before! Man that was impressive!) and still others to come galloping up from the distant valley floor below. Just as things started to heat up (cue West Side Story music), a huge Chevy Blazer driven by a Park Ranger pulled up to help quell the situation. The ranger used his truck to herd the recalcitrant buffalo bull, edging him toward the shoulder and off the asphalt with gentle movements. The bull moved, but wasn't happy about it.
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He even faked a charge as the Blazer moved away.

The Blazer quickly whipped around and returned to do any further punk management that was necessary, but I had grown bored of the proceedings and resumed my journey, the glow of a sea of red tail lights visible in my rearview mirror.
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I had to pull over one more time when I saw a sign for the spectacular sounding mud volcano! There were serveral beautiful features in this area and sure enough, the so called volcano had hot boiling mud, bubbling right up out of the ground. The acidity of some of the water in the park dissolves the minerals where it emerges and makes a sort of slurry or mud that bubbles as the steam escapes. It was really interesting to see all the different forms the mud took as it interacted with the water and steam and then dried. Beautiful mud cracks!
One of the other formations at the terrace was I think my favorite one of the day: Dragon's Mouth Spring. It's a hot spring that emerges from the mouth of a cave tucked inconspicuously into a hillside. Steam billows from the mouth of the cave in big intermittent puffs, along with mysterious subterranean noises and little eddies of water. The video I've included below does not do it justice in any way, shape or form, unfortunately. It's a be there sort of thing.

video

As I finished circumnavigating the boardwalk, the light was noticeably beginning to fade and I still had a lot of driving to do through forests full of darting animals, so I got back on the road even though I wanted to linger and see more. I had a lovely drive nonetheless, and I was able to find the perfect pull out to watch the sun go down.