Traffic Stopping Bison

 

The allure of Yellowstone with its geysers, hot springs, and paint pots is what initially sent us on the National Park Tour with Gate 1 Travel. We enjoyed every moment of it. Three weeks later I’m reminiscing about the two bison who stopped traffic in both directions as they moseyed across a narrow mountainous road and continued their slow amble on the other side. They were either oblivious or uncaring about the presence of so many humans being stalled by their promenade.

After two days and nights, we departed the town of West Yellowstone in Montana for the Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. Our Gate 1 itinerary describes the park as having “jagged peaks, glaciers, lakes and dense forests rich with wildlife.” That’s an understatement for the breathtaking views of the Snake River, Colter Bay, and the scenery around Jackson Lake Lodge.

At the latter location, several people hiked up a wildflower-covered hill to an area where John D. Roosevelt reportedly retreated for his lunch break. The views were spectacular, the temperature was moderate (60’s), and the breeze was gentle. We caught sight of moose and elk on our downward trek, and Browning’s words from Pippa Passes came to mind. “God’s in His heaven—All’s right with the world!”

We climbed back on the bus, and shortly before arriving in Jackson Hole, we stopped in what appeared to be an isolated spot. Although there were a dozen or so people sauntering around, the area felt quiet, serene, and well, hallowed. There sat a small wooden building called the Chapel of the Transfiguration. I wish I had taken more pictures because my words are puny in describing the small sacred structure.

 

Once inside, we felt shut off from the world, protected somehow from outside influences. When I say “we,” I mean all of us. If any talking took place, it was in hushed tones. Touched by strong emotion, a few people cried. On the way out, we left a few coins for some beautiful postcards to help us remember the spirit of the place. If you ever happen to be in or around Jackson Hole, go to Moose.

Later, we arrived in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and about half of our group went rafting. We opted to discover all we could about the town itself and shared a late lunch/early supper with our new friends, Naomi and Floyd, at the Bunnery Bakery and Restaurant. The food was so gooooooddd that I went back early Monday morning to purchase some treats for our journey home. Other eateries we enjoyed are the Smokin’ Iron Bar & Grill and The Merry Piglets, the former for its ambience and the latter for its tasty Mexican food.

 

Having never been to Jackson, we didn’t know what to expect, especially since it was June and not skiing season. We soon fell under the spell of the town surrounded on all sides by low mountains and ski slopes. It’s a virtual shopping mecca, artist colony, cowboy town, and entertainment & dining. One evening at an event called Jackson Live, we saw police men and women riding their horses as they patrolled the area. We also saw several cowboys remove the spurs from their boots before entering restaurants, a far cry from what we’ve grown accustomed to seeing in the South, especially the coastal area: sandals and flip flops.

 

On the second day in Jackson, we took a bus to Teton Village, a quaint shopping and recreation area about twelve miles outside of town. In addition to tram rides, horseback riding, skiing, and hiking trails, there are also lodging and dining options, and we ate ginormous slices of pizza while sitting at an outdoor restaurant. While we enjoyed the views, we were a bit travel weary by this time (the last full day of our trip) and had already seen so many wondrous things that we might have become a bit jaded.

Early Monday morning, I took one last stroll around town, snapping pictures left and right, knowing I’d likely never pass that way again.

 

 

Canyons, Geysers, and Wolves

Yellowstone National Park is big. So huge, in fact, that unless I’d been taking notes, I’d have forgotten the exact when and where of many locations and sights. Even so, I overlooked the visit to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and want to give it a nod before moving forward to Old Faithful.

In a word, amazing. Online sources report that the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone is basically “24 miles of twisting, sheer rock cliffs carved 1200 feet deep.” After visiting the Grand Canyon in Arizona a few times, this one seemed smaller, more narrow and not as deep. I could see the Yellowstone River clearly, but the Colorado River rushing through the Grand Canyon in Arizona  was too far down to see or hear. No matter how times people asked, “See it? It’s like a ribbon,” my answer was always the same. No.

What really struck me about the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone was its V-shaped steepness and the colors. According to our tour guide, the canyon is still being eroded by the Yellowstone River. I could get technical and use scientific words like hydrothermal alteration and iron compounds in rhyolite to explain the amazing colors, but I think I’ll stick to the description of painter Thomas Moran who said, ‘Its beautiful tints were beyond the reach of human art.”

Reportedy, Moran felt so impressed with Yellowstone that he began signing his paintings “TYM” to stand for Thomas “Yellowstone” Moran. His work helped change public perception of the area to that of a wonderland and not a wild place blemished with hellish geysers.

After visiting the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone and Mammoth Hot Springs, we continued to the sight we’d all been awaiting: Old Faithful. There are several buildings, including Old Faithful Inn and a welcome center,  gift shop, and restaurant, and while they were rustic and welcoming, our attention was drawn toward Old Faithful’s location. It wasn’t hard to spot. There were hundreds of people of all ages, colors, shapes, and sizes sitting on benches, in parents’ laps, and in wheelchairs. Just as many were standing, all waiting expectantly for the next eruption, due to take place in about twenty minutes.

In twenty-two minutes, we heard a sputter and then saw a loud, gushing forth of hot steam. I can’t recall how many minutes Old Faithful performed for us, but I do recall that all in attendance were rapt. Afterwards, everyone dispersed, awed at the majestic spectacle they had witnessed.

We ate lunch and visited the Welcome Center before coming back for an encore ninety minutes later. Since its discovery in 1870, Old Faithful has been erupting every ninety minutes (give or take).  While there, I learned that the timing depends on several factors, including the length and strength of the previous one.

There are more geysers in Yellowstone than anywhere else in the world. In the world! While Old Faithful is not the largest, it’s the most popular geyser in the park and has a  steam temperature above 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Interestingly, although visitors were repeatedly told to stay on the boardwalks to avoid injury, there were people who ignored the warnings. Didn’t they understand that Yellowstone sits atop a volcano? Fortunately, there are plenty of park rangers who gently but firmly moved those folks from the fragile crust.

After viewing Old Faithful erupt twice, we still had thirty minutes to absorb the wonderland before the bus’ arrival. I’d been eying the boardwalks overlooking hot springs and fumaroles and decided to take a quick walk to get a more up-close look. There may have even been a paint pot there. I don’t know. I know only that the views were unlike anything I’d ever seen. My only regret is that our time at the Old Faithful site was so short.

Alas, we climbed aboard the Gate 1 Travel bus and headed back to the little town of West Yellowstone, Montana where we spent another night. There are several restaurants, gift shops, and tourist attractions there, and we enjoyed the ambience of the area.

That night we heard wolves howling from across the way.

 

 

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….”

The Blue Marble

Is there anyone out there who hasn’t looked up at the night sky and felt a sense of wonder, and well, sometimes smallness? Even as a child, I felt a connection to the heavens and always (yes always) included words of gratitude for the sun, the moon, the stars, and the rain in my prayers at bedtime. Now in my twilight years, the wonder and sense of connection are even greater.

On our first trip to Arizona a few years ago, we went to Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff. Constructed high on a hill, the grounds and buildings overlooked the city below. Around and around the curves we went until we finally reached the top of Mars Hill. We oohed and ahed over the several telescopes, strolled down Galaxy Walk, and then donned our special glasses and stared straight at the sun without squinting or doing damage to our eyes.

We were entranced with the beauty, essence, and history of the place. Trees and rocks and century old buildings set the stage for adventure and discovery. Pluto was discovered there in 1930, and although Pluto’s status has changed since then, its sighting was historical. The morning we were at the observatory, astronomers walked about to and from their offices, and one of them willingly stopped to answer questions when our tour guide hailed him.

After learning there would be a lecture and a Saturn viewing that evening, we planned the rest of our day around the night visit. The lecture was enlightening, full of fascinating facts, but seeing Saturn and its rings up close and personal was surreal. I looked at the sky, then back at the telescope several times. How could that barely discernable spot above my head be so large, illuminated, and visible through the telescope lens? What else was up there that I couldn’t see?

I don’t own a telescope. But I do own an increased reverence and awe for our galaxy and the billions of others in the universe. Although I haven’t studied a lot about it since then (so much to learn, so little time), I’m not quite as ignorant as I was four years ago. I’m not a scientific person and don’t grasp concepts like gravity, cosmology, or black holes as easily as some people. Truthfully, I’m more into quotes like this one from Listening for the Heartbeat of God: “…the lights of the skies, the sun and moon and stars, are referred to as graces, the spiritual coming through the physical.” Ah yes, thin places…got it.

 But I’ve been learning. As I look at the night sky, I now understand that earth and space science studies connections between the land, ocean, atmosphere, and life of our planet, sometimes referred to as the Blue Marble. From Wikipedia: “Our Solar System consists of the sun and its orbiting planets, including Earth, along with numerous moons, asteroids, comet material, rocks, and dust.” It’s my understanding that until the invention of the Hubble telescope, we Earthlings thought our solar system was the only game in town. Now we know there are billions of galaxies in our universe. Billions.

I often go walking with a neighbor in the evening, and sometimes the stars are so numerous in the inky sky that we have to stop and stare. And a full, crescent, or half-moon causes the same reaction. There’s darkness all around and above us, and yet here we are in a galaxy floating, twirling around in space with everything we need to support life as we know it. Oxygen, carbon dioxide, stars. sun, moon water, birds, giraffes, trees, roses, owls, starfish—everything is connected and has what it needs.

And high above us is Saturn. But as far as I know, we’re the only planet with life as we know it floating around in the dark universe. A mystery beyond my comprehension.