Paint Pots and Travertine

“Round ’em up and move ‘em out.” Although he didn’t use those words, we got the message loud and clear from Timothy, our tour guide. We had much to see and experience, and we all needed to be on the bus and ready to leave for Yellowstone early that Thursday morning.

This is where I need to say that unless you’re a Yellowstone aficionado with tons of experience, going with a tour group is the best way to travel. Yellowstone is a huge park, nearly 3,500 square miles, that sits atop a volcano. Somehow I missed that important nugget of information when we were planning our trip and became a bit uneasy when I first glimpsed the hot springs, paint pots, and geysers. And when I saw the signs everywhere warning travelers of scalding mud, fragile ground, unstable ground, and bacteria mats, I added anxiety and respect to my perceptions of beauty and splendor.

In Billings the evening before our Yellowstone experiences, we had dinner with my college roommate, Shirley Dyk, and her husband, and she said, “I love the pots, and you will, too.”

“The pots?” I asked.

“Uh huh, paint pots. Some people call them mudpots, but I like paint pots better. And really, some of them look like pots of colored paint, especially blue.”

I stared at her like the ignoramus I was, and Shirley shared more information. The smell, she said, was sulphurous, and added that while many people found it offensive, she liked it. Although I found the odor a bit unpleasant, I respected the conditions by which the pots and their oozing, bubbling actions came about. What else could a person expect from volcanic heat, minerals, acid, and gases rising through the earth’s crust?

In addition to Old Faithful and its surroundings, two areas were especially incredible (to us), an area with travertine terraces and another with hot springs and calderas. Everything we saw, smelled, and heard was awe-inspiring.

We filed off the bus at the location of the travertine (a type of limestone deposited by springs, especially hot springs) terraces. At this stop, there were assorted buildings, including a lodge and a few gift shops, but I was drawn like a magnet (seriously) to the terraces and walked over with hordes of other tourists. I was astounded at the uniqueness of the colors, shapes, and formations of travertine formations; some looked like stair steps, others like cones. Not satisfied with that first glance from behind the fence, I began walking up the boardwalk with other dazed looking people and soon found my way to the top. Every twist and turn was magnificent, a feast for the eyes and spirit.

Curiosity satisfied, I hustled down the boardwalk and joined my husband at a picnic table for lunch. That morning we had visited Livingston, Wyoming and purchased a turkey sandwich and chips at a Conoco store. Nestled in a depression (valley?) and surrounded by low mountains, we slugged our bottled water and munched our chips, taking in the awesomeness around us. We’ve picnicked in numerous sites, but that one with the travertine terraces behind us and mountains around us wins the blue ribbon for best outside dining experience.

I’m not exaggerating when I say that the next stop in Yellowstone was almost worth the cost of the whole trip. Whodda thunk such surreal and magical places existed? As we ventured to and from the bus, I noticed areas that looked almost post-apocalyptic. I say “almost” since I’ve never actually seen a bona fide post-apocalyptic scene. Has anyone? We saw hot springs, pots (mud and paint), calderas, and geysers.

Like most of the people surrounding us, we went around gaping at the sights and took dozens of photographs. Every step we took and every direction we turned brought yet another amazing scene. These views were real, not just embellished photographs in a magazine.

New stop: Old Faithful.

Sacred Ground

If I haven’t mentioned that Gate 1 Travel is an awesome company, I’m doing it now. Our National Parks Tour began in Rapid City, SD and ended in Jackson Hole, WY, and each day was filled with beautiful sights to see and interesting information to be absorbed. Much of the education was provided by our tour guide, Tim Miller, and two step-on guides, but nighttime found us googling additional information about what we had seen that day and what was on tap for the next.

So much to learn, so little time.

On the second full day, our bus driver suggested a change of plans: a visit to Devils Tower near Sundance, WY. Ignorant about what that was, everyone on the bus was nonetheless eager to visit this laccolithic butte in the Bear Lodge Mountains. Essentially a rock formation formed as magma, molten material beneath the earth’s crust, this monolith is considered to be the remnants of a volcano.

Trying to prepare us, Tim said the best way he could describe the rock/mountain’s appearance was that of a bunch of pencils held together by a rubber band. Hmmm. He also told us that the grounds were considered sacred by Native American tribes, including the Lakota and Kiowa, and that many American Indians tie prayer cloths on trees near Devils Tower’s base. “Don’t touch them,” he said.

Tim told us that some people refer to the monolith as Bear’s Lodge and shared a fascinating story about how that name came into being. According to the Kiowa and Lakota tribes, several bears began chasing some young girls who were outside playing. Scared, the girls climbed on a big rock and prayed to the Great Spirit to save them. The rock rose toward heaven and out of reach of the hungry bears. According to legend, the bears left claw marks in the sides of the rock in their futile efforts to reach the girls.

Even from a distance, the Tower cast a spell on me, and when our feet actually touched the earth and we saw what appeared to be millions of rocks and feel the gentle breeze, I knew this holy ground. And that dappled sunlight filtering down through the tall ponderosa pines and aspens was divine. The leaves on the nearby aspens shimmered and shook, and my husband whispered, “This is beautiful.” Magical, too, I thought.

There was no way I was leaving the monument without further exploration, so I walked the 1.3 mile trail around the base of the tower. Paved, it was easy going, and the views were absolutely magnificent. I knew there was a slight possibility of seeing climbers ascending the mountain, but that day (June 20), there were none. Native Americans view climbing the monument as desecration and oppose it, and in June there’s a voluntary climbing ban.

It probably took 25-30 minutes to “do” the trail, mainly because of stopping to gawk, take pictures, and wind my way around other walkers who apparently didn’t have a bus to catch! Take Nike’s advice and JUST DO IT!

In the afternoon, we visited the battlefield where the Battle of Little Bighorn took place. Known as Custer’s last stand to many, I learned that many Lakota call it the Battle of the Greasy Grass. The day was gorgeous, sunny and breezy, and it was unsettling to ponder the noise and bloodshed that had happened on almost the same day (June 25) 142 years prior. Were the long grasses and the wildflowers gracefully swaying in the breeze that day too?

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There’s also a National Cemetery on the premises, and its neat rows of identical white crosses are quite a contrast to the willy-nilly tombstone arrangement on the Bighorn battlefield. From what I read and heard, the combatants were buried where they fell.

Our minds filled with thoughts of Custer, Sitting Bull, and others, we left for Billings, Montana to spend the night. Lucky me. My college roommate and her husband met us for dinner that night

A+ Mount Rushmore Morning

 

Up, out, and loaded by 8:30, our band of happy travelers cruised out of Rapid city and headed toward Mount Rushmore. All the way to and from the park, our tour guide (gate1travel.com), Timothy Miller, entertained, regaled, and educated us with information about the area and its history and people. Considered a sacred area to the Lakota tribe, Rushmore’s ownership is still controversial.

About thirty minutes later, our bus pulled into Mount Rushmore Memorial Park, and the excitement in the bus was palpable as Lisa skillfully drove around and around the mountainous curves. Soon, however, we came to standstill and realized the reason for it: other tourists zooming by on the left lane and cutting in somewhere in front of us. To our relief and rescue, several rangers came to our appeared and began directing traffic.

At the top at last, we got our first view of Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt, and Lincoln. Although they were shrouded in fog and somewhat obscured by trees, people began snapping photographs. Lisa parked the bus, and Timothy gave us valuable information about where to go and what to expect. The Presidential Trail? The Flag Plaza? It all sounded confusing, but as soon as we began traipsing around, all became clear.

First stop—the welcome center, an area occupied by dozens of other tourists. We decided to come back later and headed to the gift shop. In case any readers are wondering why we didn’t immediately walk closer to gape and gawk at the men carved in stone, it was raining. Once inside, we could see that the gift shop was large and well-stocked and absolutely too full of people to walk around. We opted to brave the elements.

The rain dwindled to a sprinkle, and at last the fog slid away from the Presidents’ faces.  Everyone standing around the flag area went crazy. Our reaction was more of awe than excitement. Someone (Luigi del Bianco and several hundred workers) actually carved the faces of these four greats from granite! Sculptor Gutzon Borglum designed and oversaw the work from 1927-1941. Sixty feet tall, their countenances overlooked the surrounding land with dignity and contemplation.

We inched closer—and closer still, stopping every few seconds to look up at the flags representing the fifty states and several territories. We quickly realized that the states were represented in alphabetical order, and we hustled forward to read all about the Palmetto State. It’s not that we expected to learn anything new; we just wanted that feeling of “ah, us.”

Moving past the flags, we entered the Grand Terrace where tourists were enjoying a more up close and personal look at the four famous faces. The Terrace experience was lovely. Birdsong and the sounds of laughter and conversation filled the air.

“Let’s hike the Presidential Trail,” I suggested.

“That’s crazy,” my husband said. “It’s starting to rain again.”

“How likely is it that we’ll ever come this way again? I’m going for it.”

The climb to the top was awesome. Spectacularly beautiful with views of huge boulders, ponderosa pines, and juniper, the mountain ascent was invigorating.  Alas, the hubs was right, and the sky fell in as I approached the last overlook. I turned and hurried back down—but not before I got one good look at all of these well-known faces, men of strength, courage, and integrity. I’m not naïve enough to think they were perfect, but I see them as worthy of respect and admiration.

On the trail back down to the Grand Terrace, I heard a little boy say, “Hey, at least we got a free shower out of it.” Funny.  Another child whined, and her father said, “It is what it is.” I slowed down long enough to say, “I LOVE that expression. My son says it all the time.” Later on the Terrace, he glanced my way and said it again.

Our adventure almost complete, we bought mega cups of ice cream for lunch and sat at a long table with young American servicemen as we ate it. Enjoying our view of the granite boulder and its faces through the huge windows, we ate our sweet treat and discussed our perceptions of the morning. A+

 

Amazing with a Capital A

What does “Badlands” really mean? I wondered, never dreaming that one day I’d actually be visiting this surreal, yet lovely, place of amazing rock formations, towering spires, and steep canyons.. In photographs, the landscape appeared desolate and haunting. How would it be in “real life?”

Two and a half weeks ago, I had the opportunity to experience the “mako sica’ or “land bad” for myself. The Lakota people were the first to call the Badlands “mako sica,” and apparently the lack of water, extremes in temperature, and exposed rugged terrain all contributed to this name.

But first, a little history. We arrived in Rapid City, SD on Father’s Day and rented a car for the next day. Although we were joining a tour with Gate1 on Monday evening, we wanted some free time to explore the Badlands before officially beginning the National Parks Tour. Rapid City, also known as the City of Presidents, is an interesting city with lots of history. To my untrained eyes, its look is both old and new, a city intent on preserving its Native American history while continuing to update and move forward. There’s a strong military presence there, and tourism is a major economic factor.

Deciding to eat breakfast along the way to Badlands National Park Monday morning, we took the scenic route and discovered there were no Mickey Dee’s or Bojangles along the way. Pretty scenery though. We saw hundreds of huge bales of hay and just as many cows.

After about an hour, we arrived at the Park and stopped at the Cedar Pass Lodge for a delicious breakfast—sans grits. The restaurant was attached to a gift shop filled with interesting items. As an aside, I saw a pair of earrings priced at $10, and no lie, I saw the same ones several other times during our trip priced at 5 and even 10 dollars more.

The Ben Reifel Welcome Center is next door to the diner, and we couldn’t pass that up. Once inside, we were treated to a museum-like experience that was quite educational. I  learned a new word: mosasaur. Related to the modern Komodo dragon, it’s a giant marine lizard. I learned that the Badlands is rich with fossils and that new ones often emerge after a heavy rain. It was raining that day………

We drove the loop road and stopped at two trails and four overlooks. The Notch Trail was the first one on the loop, and I joined several other crazy people who, despite the rain, were also determined to walk in such awesomeness. I next walked part of the Window Trail but turned back at the end of the boardwalk because of the rain and thick mud. The rangers had warned us of serious slipping and sliding, and seeing people who had braved the mud struggling to maintain their balance convinced me to retrace my steps.

Once back in the car, we continued the Loop Road, oohing and ahing our way along the geologic wonderland. Scenic with its ridges and towers and colors, every few feet brought yet another exclamation of awe. I might add that it was rainy, cool, and overcast, so there were no shadows cast by the sun. While some might find that boring, I loved it. I agree with John Madson’s assessment that “It’s an improbable looking place, looking like the set on a science fiction movie.” Although the land in the Park appeared mostly barren, there were also grasslands that are home to a variety of wildlife. We saw mule deer, big horn sheep, and several goats.

Knowing that we’d likely never pass that way again, we stopped at four overlooks to gape and gawk at the splendor before us. A stranger volunteered to take a photo of us, and though wet and bedraggled, we agreed.

Our day at the Badlands National Park was Amazing with a capital A. I like the way John Fremont put it in his diary in 1842: “I had never seen anything which impressed so strongly on my mind a feeling of desolation….The wind was high and bleak; the barren, arid country seemed as if it had been swept by fires, and in every direction the same dull ash colored hue derived from the formation me the eye….”

On the Road Again

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Our bus pulled into the little town of Denali late in the afternoon, and we were delighted with the Princess lodge and our accommodations. The rest of the crew went out for pizza, but I settled for snacks and an invigorating walk around the property and across the street. Naturally I took plenty of photographs, especially of the river flowing behind the lodge.

Before shopping at the souvenir shops the next morning, eight of us gathered for breakfast at a restaurant on the property that served delicious food in an atmosphere of warm ambience. And what a view! Overlooking the Chena River, the restaurant’s wall of windows afforded panoramic views of mountains with aspen and spruce trees. The snow on distant mountains looked like vanilla glaze on a Bundt cake. We loved seeing the leaves shimmering in the breeze and the chandelier lights from inside reflected in them.

After breakfast just about everyone on the trip found their way across the street to the souvenir shops. Fortunately for us, some of the merchandise had been reduced to half price. We were the last tour of the season, and the businesses were eager to move their wares. I settled on some bookmarks and a navy sweatshirt jacket with a ALASKA written on the front. No bears or moose—just a word to remind me of a cool damp morning in a small Alaskan village.

Around noon, we were on the road again, reluctant to leave Denali but looking forward to the next destination. On the way, we passed mile after mile of breathtaking scenery: huge rocks, tall evergreens, mountains, and well, wilderness. I learned that 75 to 80 percent (depending on which tour guide was talking) of Alaska’s inhabitants live in Anchorage, and I can understand why. The wilds of AK are not for sissies or the faint of heart. Alaska is beautiful, but there’s no scooting out to Wal-Mart for contact lens solution or half a gallon of milk.

Like the drivers before him, the bus driver regaled us with stories of early inhabitants and information about the terrain and temperatures. Along the way to McKinley National Park, he told us about an independent woman called Mary the Homesteader who got so tired of going to far away Anchorage to get her supplies by river that she bought a plane and built an airstrip. He also pointed out a road called Honolulu Road and said he thought it got its name from the men who cleared the land. As the weather became increasingly cold and dreary, they named the road after a place that conjured up sun and surf and tropical flowers.

When we arrived at the Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge, we could see right away that it was an isolated place—but beautiful indeed. We checked out the Welcome Center, and then Otis, Thomas, and I went for a walk to explore the property. We soon chose a trail appropriately called “Hill Trail,” and trekking up, around, and down it gave us a workout. The views of foliage, sky, and mountains were spectacular.

After our walk, the six of us reconvened at the 20, 320 Alaskan Grill for a delicious dinner. We sat around a round table and had a great time talking and sharing stores. By the way, the restaurant was called the 20,320 Alaskan Grill because of the height of Denali. Recently, however, climbers with more advanced measuring devices have discovered the mountain is actually ten feet shorter than that. Sooner or later, all signs will change to 20,310.

After a yummy breakfast at the grill the following morning, I walked another trail, a popular one with many people out to great some fresh air and savor the sights and sounds in one of America’s most beautiful state parks. How many ways can a person say gorgeous? Throughout my walk, I could hear birdsong, leaves rustling in the breeze, and the rushing of a nearby river.

Around midmorning, we left for Talkeetna for the next adventure.