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….”

Lessons from a Stranger

Today is my granddaughter Olivia’s birthday, a day that reminds me of the juxtaposition of “things,” things like emotions, events, and experiences. I’m thinking of a man I never met who had a profound effect on my thinking. Because of him, I’ll never take my blessings for granted; nor will I ever be insensitive to the feelings of others (or at least that’s my goal).

On that spring morning the other grandparents and I felt excitement, mine bordering on giddiness. We walked and talked and snacked and waited. And then we waited some more. We were allowed in and out of Amanda’s room for part of the day, and then as the big event became more imminent, the medical personnel shooed us out. We adjourned to the huge waiting lobby filled with clusters of sage vinyl couches and found a vacant sitting area. As we made small talk, a feeling of anxious anticipation permeated the atmosphere.

“Dumas said all human wisdom could be summed up in two words, wait and hope,” I quipped. Anxious smiles greeted the remark. We knew the moment was close, and yet there was nothing the four adults could do. It was in the hands of the doctor and Amanda. And God.

Life teemed all around us. At least two groups of expectant parents came for “the tour.” Led by a member of the hospital staff, the excited parents-to-be were given instructions on where everything was and what they could expect on delivery day. The group stopped just short of the double doors that led to the labor and birthing rooms, and we listened as their guide informed them about what went on behind those doors. Securely locked, the doors were sacred portals beyond which no one could pass without permission and a code of some type.

Several medical personnel bustled about with clipboards and pagers, all busily intent on their missions. I watched the scurrying about of doctors, nurses, and orderlies and recalled Annie Dillard’s poignant passage in For the Time Being about an obstetrical ward in a busy city hospital. As Dillard described the activity level, she said there “might well be a rough angel guarding this ward, or a dragon, or an upwelling current that dashes boats on rocks.” She then asks if we, her readers, should perhaps “remove our shoes, drink potions, and take baths?” Because, Dillard writes, “This is where the people come out.”

Chitchatting about various topics, none of them too serious, we scarcely noticed the quiet arrival of an older man who came to join our group. Truthfully, he didn’t so much join us as he filled an empty seat for a few minutes. Because of the various seating combinations in the waiting area, and we had grown accustomed to sharing our space with an assorted crew of people as the day had progressed. He was just another seat filler, someone with whom we’d share small talk and commiserate about the waiting…or so I thought.

Cap pulled halfway down his forehead, his coal black eyes stared straight ahead. On the frail side, his downcast demeanor made him appear even more shrunken as he sat still and silent on the sage green sofa, his dark face immobile and unreadable. He appeared to be around 60, but frankly, it was hard to determine his age. Serious sorrow, rather than his age, could have been responsible for the deep lines etched beside his mouth and the empty look in his eyes.

The four grandparents-in-waiting continued to talk, and hoping to bring him into our conversation, I tried to establish some eye contact with the newest member of our cluster. My friendly overtures were to no avail, and I could tell from my surreptitious glances at his face that to him we might as well be pieces of furniture. He seemed oblivious to his surroundings as he dealt with some inner turmoil or heartache. Still and silent, he created a sacred inviolate space around him that no one could enter.

Looking straight ahead, the sad, silent man pulled a brown bag of plain M & M’s from his shirt pocket, and for the entire time he sat amongst us, he slowly and methodically ate the chocolate pieces. He didn’t tilt his head back and jiggle several at a time out of the bag. Nor did he spill a few in one hand and examine the multi-colored morsels before popping them into his mouth. He ate them unhurriedly, one by one, not savoring–merely chewing. Did he even notice their sweetness? Did eating them merely give him something to do, something to momentarily assuage his pain?

After a few moments, I noticed a lone tear streaking down his cheek, and then another and another. From my vantage point, I could see only his right profile, but I’m certain the tears were coursing down both sides of his face. Despite his sorrow, the candy man’s demeanor was one of dignity and restraint. The juxtaposition between our emotions and his couldn’t have been more obvious. Seeing his pain almost made me feel guilty for feeling so much hope and happiness.

What had happened to cause him such distress? Had he lost a wife or a daughter? Had one of the women in his life given birth to a stillborn child? Northside Hospital’s Women Center is a full-care facility that handles just about any women’s issue imaginable. From surgery to seminars, females from 12 to 100 are treated. The area where we sat was right outside of the labor and delivery area, but there were other sets of doors radiating from the waiting area, all leading to some mystery-shrouded ward. Which ward had he come from?

I’d like to say that someone offered him a tissue and that we became shoulders to cry on. But no, that didn’t happen. Subdued by the newcomer’s obvious distress, we grew quieter, and after a few moments we gave up our feeble attempts to continue our earlier lighthearted banter. We all tried to ignore him, not because we didn’t care but rather because we respected him and his anguish. The candy man had built an invisible wall around himself and seemed to be saying, “I’ve got to get myself together before moving forward.” His grief was a private thing, and we all sensed and respected that; we too had experienced punctured hearts.

But that was eight years ago. Today I’m feeling jangled by the memory of a stranger whose sadness continues to haunt me. What is he doing on this May afternoon? Have his tears dried? If we met today, would he talk to me? And if so, what would he say?

I think he’d tell me something that I already knew, that while there is suffering, there is also joy. And that perhaps pain serves to make us more aware of the exquisite sweetness of life. I hope that the candy man’s heartache has eased and that he has joy in his life.

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.

Nowhere Boy Thoughts

 

 

I mostly agree with Anne Lamott on her Mother’s Day thoughts. To clarify, I agree that it’s a tough day for many people—motherless children; childless adults; parents of wayward, lost, deceased, or disappointing children; children of abusive, mean-spirited, dismissive, or absentee mothers. Then too, there are the mothers who cannot let their children go. Not now. Not ever.

You get the picture. We live in an imperfect world, and sometimes it’s a wonder people turn out as well as they do.

One of the things I recall from SOC 101 is that one of the primary functions of the family is to raise the young. The family, not just the mother, has the responsibility to look after the development and well-being of children. It takes a village and all that. Aunts, mothers’ friends, neighbors, grandmotherly types (ha ha—like me), and other females can all play the mother role.

In church Sunday a woman who happened to be holding a baby for a young friend was asked to say the opening prayer. She didn’t hand the baby off to someone but promptly stood, walked to the stand, and babe in arms, said the prayer. Her husband later remarked that he couldn’t recall ever seeing a man give a prayer holding a child but had seen several women doing so. Women are coded differently, he intimated. Maybe they have a nurturing gene—or something.

On Mother’s day evening, I watched Nowhere Boy, a movie about John Lennon’s youth and his complicated and sometimes stormy relationships with his aunt who raised him, Mimi, and his mother whom he hardly knew. I’ll use estranged to describe the relationship between Lennon’s parents, Alf and Julia, and complicated to describe the one between Mimi and Julia, Lennon’s aunt and his mother.

For many reasons, John Lennon lived with Aunt Mimi and her husband for most of his childhood and adolescence. At some point, he became increasingly involved with his mother, to Mimi’s disappointment and concern, and Julia encouraged his musical gifts. A fun and free-spirited woman who eventually gave birth to three other children, Julia doted on John, and with her he felt acceptance. In the movie, he moved in with her and her family for a short time (just a few days as I recall), and Mimi was heartbroken.

I wasn’t there so anything I write is based on the movie and on my subsequent reading, but from my “research,” it appears that John was a resilient child who had the love of many adults, including his mother and her four sisters, especially Mimi. Julia loved him ferociously and was overjoyed to have him back in her life. As an aside, when John was finally reunited with his father, twenty years had passed.

Tragedy struck one afternoon when Julia was struck by a car leaving Mimi’s house. I have no knowledge of the effect on the rest of the family, but John and Mimi were both devastated. Distraught, he cried out, “I was just getting to know her, and now I’ll never see her again.” (paraphrase). Much of his music was influenced by Julia, and his older son Julian was named after her.

The point of the above? I don’t know except to say that mothers, however imperfect, can and usually do make a difference in a child’s life. But so can aunts and grandmothers and teachers and others with the desire to nurture. According to what I’ve read, John stayed in close contact with Mimi until his death in 1980.