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

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 to Whittier

My last post about our Alaska cruise was about leaving Anchorage and heading for Whittier where we’d get on the Coral Princess. On the way, we stopped a a nature preserve and gazed at some magnificent animals.

Back to the trip.

We’d just left the nature preserve and were still oohing and aahing over the variety of animals we’d seen up close and personal. Moose, elk, reindeer, and grizzlies were walking around like they owned the place. The elk were such beautiful creatures, moving gracefully across the grassy expanse. And the reindeer and moose! How could they hold their heads so high with all that weight on the top? We saw a little porcupine too. I marveled at how the prickly spines grew right of his little body, just like hair. “All creatures great and small…..”

The weather was cold, yet perfect for the fall afternoon. We’d left Anchorage about 8:30 that morning and were scheduled to board the Princess Coral sometime that afternoon. None of us actually knew exactly where that was or when the “all aboard” would take place. We just knew it was soon, and it seemed to me that the whole bus was bristling with excitement and a touch of anxiety. Seven days on a ship? Were we ready?

The driver took us through some beautiful country, and I spied a couple of signs pointing toward the Portage Glacier. It would have been divine if we’d had time to visit the glacier that my daughter Carrie and some friends from South Carolina had visited nearly twenty years ago when we were in Anchorage for a Team-in-Training marathon. I recalled the quote, “Don’t be sad it’s over; just be glad it happened.” The memory of that cool morning (although it was June 20) would stay in my mind forever.

Suddenly the bus pulled off the road to the right so that we could get a good look at a mountain with a glacier. Many were content to sit tight in the bus, but Otis, Thomas, and I got off to get a better look. We simply could not resist walking through the open space between the evergreens. ‘Twas swell to feel the wind and stand as tall as humans could stand there in that majestic place. A glacier and a mountain and trees and a body of water!

Browning’s words, “God’s in His heaven. All’s right with the world” flashed through my mind as we sauntered down near the water. No matter where my life went after the trip, I’d always have this moment in nature with my sweet husband and one of our friends. Even they, tough nature guys, were affected by the magic.

We asked Thomas to snap our picture, and the image portrayed our feelings on the last stop before arriving at Whittier. Carpe diem!

We got back on the bus with our fellow passengers, and the driver informed us that we had to be at the tunnel by 1:30. The tunnel? What kind of tunnel was so special that you had to have an appointment? Here’s what kind: a 2.5 mile, one-way tunnel dynamited into being! Vehicles leaving Whittier began the trip through the tunnel at the top of each hour, and those going to Whittier went through on the half-hour. That’d be us.

It could have been my imagination, but it seemed to be that the chatter stopped, and for the most part, my traveling companions were all silent as they (we) considered what was ahead. We arrived at the tunnel, and I was surprised to see so many cars, trucks, and buses. Where did all those people come from? We took our place in the queue and listened to the driver prattle on as we waited our turn.

The half hour was upon us, and the bus inched forward.

From Talkeetna to Anchorage

I’m going to remember these moments for the rest of my life, I thought as I finished my last walk in McKinley National Park.  Around midmorning we left on the bus and headed for a little town called Talkeetna where we were scheduled to catch a train to Anchorage. The station was tiny, but it had a beautiful red, white, and blue flag hanging from the front of it. Colorful against the gray sky, it begged for attention, and I obliged by taking a picture of the stars and stripes.

The train ride was long, but nice…exciting too. Mile after mile after mile, the train sped through the wild, and we soaked in as much beauty as our human eyes would allow. Many travelers ate lunch, but most settled for snacks. According to fellow passengers, the food choices were fairly extensive, and the service was good.

The scenery was breathtaking. Trees, especially the tall, straight pines and yellow willows flew by on every side. There were rivers and gravel bars and hills—everything but people. Occasionally, we glimpsed some small structures, probably work-related buildings, but no houses. How do people travel about in this wild country? I wondered.

After a couple of hours, probably closer to three, the conductor announced that soon we’d go through Wasilla, the childhood home of Sarah Palin, and arrive in Anchorage shortly afterwards. Soon we slowed down to ease through an overcast and chilly Wasilla, and he pointed out Palin’s home on our left. The house was nice but unpretentious, and I wondered about her childhood and how the geography and landscape had affected her psyche.

Palin lives in Arizona now, a totally different environment. Now she sees desert sagebrush instead of taiga forest, sun instead of misty fog. She never has to worry about permafrost or grizzlies these days, and she can probably leave her coat and gloves behind even on the coldest of winter days. Without ever having met her, I know that as beautiful as Arizona is, there are days when SP misses her native state.

There were stores, restaurants, and homes along the way, and I realized that in Wasilla, the citizens had everything we have in Camden—everything necessary for survival, that is. I didn’t spy any oaks, dogwoods, or  palmettos, but there were schools, churches, and grocery stores evident all along the ride. When the Princess train pulled into the station, everything around us looked gray: the sky, the concrete, the busses—everything. Like good soldiers, we disembarked from the train and climbed aboard a bus that would transport us into our hotel in Anchorage, the Captain Cook.

After freshening up a tad, many travelers, including us, ate dinner in one of the hotel restaurants, Fletcher’s. The food was delicious, and our conversation was not only about our afternoon train experiences but also about the next day’s agenda. Tonight would be the last night we’d spend on land, and by that same hour the next day, we’d be on the ship waiting to set sail.

Our time in Anchorage was brief, and if my husband hadn’t been willing to walk to a small diner for breakfast the next morning, our only real contact with the largest of Alaska’s cities would have been too negligible to even count—kind of like having a short layover in Reno and announcing to friends that you had once visited that gambling mecca.

As it was, we sauntered down 5th Avenue for a view of the coastline and a short stroll along the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail. After walking back up the steep hill, we walked a few blocks until we found the perfect diner, one that served both locals and tourists alike. The service was good, the food was tasty, and the view of downtown Anchorage through the huge front windows was great.

Scuttling back up the street, we made it back to the Captain Cook just minutes before the bus arrived, the one that would take us out of Anchorage and towards the sea and our ship.

Huddled Masses

After about an hour on Liberty Island, we boarded the ferry for the trip to Ellis Island. Love that place! There’s so much history there that I could go on and on about it, but I won’t, mainly because there’s no way I could do it justice. It’s a haunting site, one you need to visit for yourself to truly perceive. According to what I learned there, over 16 million people came into the United States through Ellis Island between 1892 and 1954.

I was a little surprised to read of so much hatred and prejudice that existed towards anyone who was “different.” The realization/reminder seems ironic when I think of the millions of people here in America who are enraged about the immigration policies of the nation. From what I learned at the immigration center, many of those angry folks have ancestors who were unwanted and undesirable at some point, especially if they were from Southern and Eastern Europe.

The exhibits at the immigration center are spectacular, not in a flashy way but in a heart-touching way.  Standing in the Great Hall and imagining the thousands of people who came through that spot each day was a mind-boggling experience for this American gal who’s never heard, “Get out! You don’t belong here.” According to what I read, a team of officials stood at the top of the steps watching those “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” and had about only a few seconds to make a decision. Would the immigrant be processed right away, detained, or sent back to their country of origin?

Here’s a quote I photographed from an exhibit. “Disturbed only by the sound of a pigeon’s wings, I heard the voices of the millions of people who came through here, building a temple with their highest joys and deepest sorrows-men, women and children who made it through to a new life, or who died straining to look through a dusty mirror at what they knew they could not possess.” Eleni Mylonas

After a couple of hours, we reluctantly got back on the ferry and headed for Battery Park. On the way to the subway, we bought chicken kabobs and devoured them on the way to the subway. They were so good!! Even now, I can taste the hot, savory, almost-charcoaled flavor of the meat, onions, and peppers. We had watched the man press the small bite-sized pieces of chicken while they sizzled, and  eating the kabob while walking was heightened by that experience.

As we approached our stop, we wondered aloud how we’d know when to get off. Fortunately for us, a young Asian angel appeared seemingly out of nowhere and came to our rescue. A lawyer who had recently passed the bar, she too was headed to midtown. “Home of the brave and land of the free,” I thought with pleasure and relief.

We rendezvoused with Elizabeth and Allyson who had spent the day visiting Rockefeller Center and other downtown sights before taking the subway to Canal Street. They dined in Little Italy and then made some purchases a street or two over. Love my knock-off UGGs!

Purchases and overnight bags in tow, we climbed into a van for our trip to LaGuardia. Although we each had our individual thoughts, perceptions, and memories, we all agreed on this: The hustle and bustle, the diversity, the energy, the lights, the culture, the museums, the kiosks, and the bridges will continue to beckon us back for another visit.

Next time………

One Last Hurrah

While walking yesterday morning, I listened to a podcast in which J.R. Havlan, a former writer for The Daily Show, shared some advice for storytellers. Whether writing comedy, a short story, a journal entry, or a blog about traveling, the writer would do well to take Havlan’s advice seriously.  If I hadn’t heard that podcast, I too might be wondering, “Why  am I writing about our Girls’ Trip to TN?”

Havlan says that a writer should always look beyond the facts. What’s important are the emotions and the feelings beneath the facts and not the facts themselves. ASK: What does this piece of writing mean? What does the story mean to you? What’s the reason you’re writing about it? Make it about something. Otherwise, why bring it up?

I’ve been writing a chronicle of our three days in the mountains that happened a couple of weeks ago but why? Do I have aspirations of becoming a travel writer? Not at all. Then why?

  • Time is fleeting and we need to just do it. It’s a big beautiful world out there and yet too often we stay securely in our own narrow little worlds.
  • Also, traveling is a huge memory-making thing. I’ve known my fellow travelers all of their lives, and now we have some extra special memories outside of our regular environment. When’s the last time you rode with someone on a chair lift up and down the side of a mountain, sang in a diner at 10:30 at night, or laughed so much that your stomach hurt?

Back to my story. Since this was our third and final day of our mountain Girls’ Trip, we wanted to make hay while the sun shone. Up early, we packed the car, checked out, and headed towards the downtown area.

After locating the sky lift, we parked the car, and my sis and I plunked down our $15 and headed up the side of the mountain oohing and ahing over the majestic beauty of it all. While we steadily rose up, up, up for a better view of the surrounding mountains, including Clingman’s Dome, our daughters explored some shops along the “Tourist Strip.”

By now everyone had done something on her bucket list except for my niece, and Katherine really wanted to visit the Apple Barn in Sevierville. I’m so glad we stopped there. There are a number of enticing shops where one could buy food, wine, and all manner of apple-related products. Lunch was nice, and although the meal itself was tasty, I have to admit that I most enjoyed the fruit julep and the soup.

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I can’t recount all of the fun things we did and saw, but here are a few:

  • We took turns taking pictures with fellow travelers. Cars careened off of the road onto the overlooks and people sprang out of the car for a quick look and photo op before heading off to continue their mountain adventure. Most of the time, they volunteered to take our picture if we would agree to reciprocate, but sometimes one of us approached them first. Our favorite group was a couple with a young child who stopped for the sole purpose of taking our picture. From about an hour away, they said they made the trip every month or two and gave us some tips for our next visit.
  • We survived the parking nightmare at Tanger, a shopping mecca so crowded that traffic cops were there to direct traffic, both automobile and pedestrian.
  • We found a Bible that had been left at a church in Cades Cove; the owner had written a special passage about his fervent desire to marry someone and his concern over whether she would say yes.
  • We tasted fried pickles, ate the most decadent chocolate brownies ever, and shared a huge banana split to honor my other daughter’s 39th birthday.
  • I watched an adorable Chinese child crumble her saltines in a small plate and eat them with a spoon.
  • I learned that my sister wants to change the spelling of her name to Ayan and that my niece has developed an interesting accent. According to her mom, Katherine now adds an “a” to the end of many of her words, and soon we were all doing it.

The story beneath these facts is that road trips are worth every dime and every minute of time that you spend. I know without a doubt that there are three other South Carolina gals who are still singing Mickey’s “Hot dog, hot dog, hot diggidy dog” and remembering one last hurrah before heading back to school.