Tag Archives: yellowstone

Cycles of adventure

In the midst of my wild summer plans, family visits, and national park exploration, I learned that my friend, Jamie Moorby, had cycled across the US for charity, raising money for the DC Area Books to Prisons Project, which has a two-part mission: donate reading material to prisoners and educate the public about prisoner literacy. They aim to bring in reading material because many prisons do not have libraries, and the ones that do often have limited access or selection of materials. This cross-country bike ride was something Jamie and several other people participated in, ending in Oregon last month. I asked Jamie a few questions to talk about her experience.

What inspired you to cycle your way across the US, and how long have you been a long-distance cyclist?

I have dreamed of going on a long bike trip since I was a kid, but never pursued it I until this spring a friend asked me if I’d ride with her from New Orleans to the SXSW music festival in Austin Texas. I was quitting my job at a worker-owned/operated food coop in the DC area and moving to VT this summer anyway, so I said sure. Towards the end of that 10 day trip, another friend called me up and said “since you don’t have a job right now, why don’t you bike across the country with me?” I didn’t have any good reasons not to, so I agreed. Less than a month after finishing my 620 mile ride across Louisiana and Texas, we left Yorktown, VA for a 10 state, 3 month, 4,500 mile ride to Astoria, Oregon. Read More…

Badlands and bad attractions

badlands national parkAfter seeing the Grand Teton and Yellowstone parks, I wondered if my retinas could take in any more amazing landscapes. Not to worry, apparently we had Bighorn National Forest and Badland National Park to get through, and those blew me away. Before last summer I’d never had occasion to climb around the side of a mountain high enough that I could gaze down on all of it like an eagle. And though I’ll always love my Jersey shore and the calm I feel just listening to the Atlantic surf, I also think I’ll never tire of the euphoria of being at the top of a mountain chain. If I wasn’t such an accident-prone scaredy cat, I’d seriously think about climbing to an actual peak.

We headed out from Cody, Wyoming, after our quality time with Old Faithful and its friends, first stopping at the local Albertson’s to get a few provisions. It was there that the cashier told me that 9 people had been struck by lightning at Old Faithful just two days earlier. Egads! And nobody was talking about it when we were there, not that I walked up to the rangers and asked if there had been any bizarre accidents near the geyser lately.

The actual spewing of sulfury goodness was pretty fun to watch. Old Faithful should have a subtitle of The Big Tease, because it spews a little and stops, vapor billowing out the whole time, then some more water, back and forth until kablam! the thing is off to the races. An annoying guy who kept trying to make eye contact with me had a devil of a time trying to capture a photo of the lead-in frothing before the big release, but he kept failing because he insisted on turning off his camera between attempts at getting a shot. People, charge up your camera batteries before you attempt to take pictures for hours. Or just buy a nice, professional photo in the visitor’s center. They have plenty.

So with our educations edified about the safety hazards of Jellystone, we departed our friendly grocery store and started pushing eastward again. We’d gone a ways from the main interstate to get into the national parks, so  we were cutting our way back when we spotted a small post office. I for one love small post offices, for several reasons, including the lack of long lines and the earnestness of the service—smacking just the tiniest amount of desperation to see another human being, but mostly just free from the crushing bitterness that comes with being a public servant in a busy, crowded office. We pulled into the parking lot, which had three spaces in it, and headed inside.

A lovely transgender postmistress greeted us, and we chatted with her for a few minutes as we figured out our postage needs. It’s always hard for me in those kinds of moments not to jump up and down and do a trans dance, but truth be told, there is no ballet of the trans, as much as I’d like for there to be one. And there’s no way not to sound creepy with any such announcement, so I just bit my tongue, trying my best to look extremely happy to procure stamps. We left, wondering what it is like for her in a town with a stated population of less than 100. Were people supportive? Had she lived here her whole life? It didn’t escape us that her employment came from the federal government and not say, from the local farmer’s cooperative or some other local business. She was cheery and smart, and I figured she’d won most everybody over with her charisma, but maybe I just like thinking that. We were fairly satisfied that we’d met the GLBT community for the tiny town, if not the vast majority of it.

Maybe I’ll send her a postcard sometime and tell her how much I appreciated the experience, but probably that’s still too creepy.

Eventually we made it to a 75mph road and triumphantly made our way into South Dakota. This meant we drove through Bighorn National Forest, which looked like this:

Yeah, that was what we thought, too. We had set our compass for Mt. Rushmore, mostly because we didn’t think we could miss it while driving this close to it, but also to see what we presumed would be grandeur and awe. As opposed to shock and awe, which neither of us, frankly, would drive to experience.

Roughly 2.7 million people visited the monument last year, which means that nearly 3 million folks were disappointed in spending the $10 parking fee to see some sculptor’s ego carved into the rock. The guy was a little kooky, preparing to sculpt “famous Americans” and put them into a vault called the Hall of Records for what, some alien civilization to discover? Something that would stand the test of time after we’ve obliterated ourselves from the face of the earth? I don’t get it.

We saw the monument, and I didn’t appreciate it because it was football fields away from me, giving me to sense of its real size. The curating of the exhibits were fourth grade level and didn’t answer any of my questions about why those presidents, why that order. I much prefer the Lincoln Monument in DC, the FDR Memorial, the exhibits that allow some kind of intimacy with the work and the subject, but I grant [sic] that that’s just me.

Next up was the Corn Palace, which not one but five friends insisted we stop and see on our drive. The last time I listened to such pushiness was for taking the Maid of the Mist in Niagara Falls, and it didn’t let me down. So naturally I presumed this would be pretty awesome in all of its kitchy-ness.

It wasn’t. While once upon a time the corn palace was completely redone every year, now only the panels on the building change, and they’re mildly interesting, but not interesting enough to warrant driving through Mitchell, the townies of which must just hate all of us tourists. It was fun enough, and I remarked that it was better than Mt. Rushmore because we didn’t have to pay for parking and we got some very tasty popcorn to boot.

Finally, we hit Sioux Falls on the east side of the state and met up with my friend Anna for lunch at the Phillips Avenue Diner. Note to everyone: fried cheese curds are an excellent bad for you snack, and I recommend them when they’re on the menu. Sioux Falls had an interesting feel to it, somewhere between Portland’s sprawl and the downtown of a small city, like Savannah. Anna showed us the actual falls, which cascade over pink quartz. I can not believe how much rock there is in the United States. Why don’t we export more rock? Where is the rock economy? Nobody is talking about rock getting us out of this recession, and we’re sitting on so much of it! We have to play to our strengths, people.

Clearly, it is time for breakfast. Pictures galore in the next post.

The human race is doomed

Another brief run-down in numbers of our trip. We’ve now spotted:

  • a beaver, who regarded us from about 10 yards away and let us get a couple of good pictures
  • a white wolf, who went running by our car on the side of the road at the Grand Tetons
  • two bald eagles, separate sightings
  • a hawk or osprey, who flew away when we got too close
  • a mountain blue bird, who literally posed for me
  • at least 30 bison, one of whom walked next to our car
  • an elk couple, gnawing on some grass
  • a grizzly bear, too tired to stand so decided flopping over on his side was preferable
  • a couple pronghorn sheep on the side of a cliff

The Grand Tetons and Yellowstone are really incredible, simply put. There are so many different kinds of features I have a hard time fathoming that we’re in the same 300,000 acre area. Hot springs, geysers, mud pots, and volcanoes on the west side of the parks, enormous canyons, mountain-fed waterfalls, iced-up lakes and evergreens on the east and southern sides. And everywhere, precarious cliff drops, beasts and birds of prey, natural wonders I’ve never laid eyes on before, I could look in the same direction for 10 minutes and keep seeing new and interesting things.

The other thing I’ve realized on this trip is that it takes a hell of a lot of work to make a national park functional, from building in trails and roads without disturbing the ecosystem, staffing the park with rangers who know what they’re doing, writing up points of interest accurately and interestingly, and effectively keeping people aware of safety hazards and relevant laws. This last one cannot be understated as challenging for the park service. There were so many times Susanne and I saw people behaving with total ignorance of their surroundings, or what I can only imagine was disregard for rules, laws, and guidelines.

Passing a sign telling us that this area was “frequented by bears,” a hiker pulled out a sandwich and started eating it as she walked. Mm, tasty human with tasty roast beef sandwich!

At a hot springs basin in which all manner of sulfur-living bacteria floated on the water, smelling like dead bodies, a woman dipped her hand in the water, for what reason I have no idea. Susanne and I were astonished at her carelessness—she could contract a parasite, or worse, become the Undead Swamp Woman. Or so I imagine.

At the same hot springs basin, a sign warned travelers of the thin crust to the earth, and to stay on the raised platform. Here is the sign:

dangerous ground signThis sign clearly shows a boy off the raised path, regretting his action, while a woman with a pained expression on her face looks on, trying to figure out what to do as the child begins boiling himself. Notably, a man with a bag in the background walks on, aloof and indifferent to the entire ordeal, which tells us something important. Never trust a guy with a man purse. Let’s please also note that this sign is in five languages, and topped with an eye-catching red banner. There really is no reason not to at least glance at this sign. You’re about to walk through a lava field, people. Aren’t you the least bit interested in what the rangers saw fit to share with you?

hot springs in yellowstone

Does this look like you should stand next to it?

So what did we see happen four feet from the start of the trail? An entire family, one by one, getting off the platform, walking right up to a bubbling crevice, kneeling next to it, and pointing at it, the other members of the clan gleefully snapping pictures. Of what could be their last moment on earth. I think my jaw dropped.

Later that day we saw several vehicles stopped along the side of a road, and we figured something interesting must have been happening, so we slowed down, since rubbernecking is okay in these parts. Lo and behold a grizzly bear was sitting in the brush, just hanging out. We had also read by this point no fewer than 10 pieces of instructions regarding bear encounters, everything from how to photograph them safely, to proscriptions against feeding them, to what to do if one attempts to rip out your throat (note, it does not involve climbing a tree).

None of the people taking pictures of this grizzly were abiding any of the very incredibly sensible rules around bear trauma avoidance. No one was keeping a safe distance, all of them were out of their cars, presumably going on some kind of numbers game—he’ll probably attack someone other than me, so I’ll have a chance to run back into my Hummer3. One woman with her crappy Canon PowerShot (hey, I’ve got one too, so I know about these things) asked another person, “do you see any cubs?” What the hell, lady? Susanne rightly knew that if there were cubs around, this bear would not be nearly so docile-seeming, and chaos would have already ensued. There’s nothing like a real vacation killer than running for your life because you had to get a close up of a baby animal and your zoom just wasn’t cutting it. People seem not to realize that the professional photographers of the wilderness world have amazing equipment that lets them get extremely close shots from very safe distances. The amateur’s stupid Pentax is not going to be the same. Just by the $10 poster print in the national park store and be done with it.

I can only glean from all of this bad behavior that our time is fairly limited on this planet. Those hot springs have been pulsing out boiling water way longer than we’ve been around, and they’ll be here after we lose out to the cockroaches and sparrows of Earth. But it’s a shame—we humans went to the trouble to create language, and then we spend so much energy not listening.

And all that aside, the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone are really amazing places. More on that tomorrow.

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