Friday, July 29, 2011

Great American Road Trip - Part 7

Saying goodbye to Yellowstone -

Yellowstone is such feast of beauty and our final day provided us fitting dessert to sustain us until we can visit again. We drove to the trailhead up to Artist Point and walked a short distance up some massive, gorgeous stone steps to this lookout point. More than once I was impressed by the foresight of the folks who designed and built this first national park. They had no way of knowing how many people would come, or IF they would come, but the buildings and structures they created seem to still be functional for the huge crowds that come today.

This final family photo is at the lookout over The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. The waterfall in the background is the same one Brooks and I took in on our "Stairmaster Hike" the previous day. Really, really spectacular views.

We also got the chance to take in the interior of one of the magnificent historic hotels, the Old Faithful Inn. Check out the shade on one of the double-sided writing desks, furnishing the inn ever since 1911. The green shade has an overlay of copper featuring an owl in the woods.

I just think this is a pretty picture of Ava gazing out of a window on the second floor landing of the inn.

After the last of the sightseeing within the park, we still got to enjoy one last pretty drive along the winding road to the exit. We saw a creature that we hadn't yet spotted on our trip - a deer. And I cannot BELIEVE how close she let me get.

After a few hours of driving we landed at Devil's Tower for a stretch, a potty break and some photos. This is when I began wishing that we would have taken this northern route on the way TO Yellowstone. Our energy was simply waning too quickly to be wowed by some of these last sites. Here are Ava and I in front of Devil's Tower. Can you see tiny pastel-shirted specks above us? Rock Climbers. Crazy.

Next, a few MORE hours of driving. We were heading toward the gold rush town of Deadwood and we'd heard of a restaurant I wanted to try in the neighboring town of Spearfish. We got a little turned around in the canyon and by the time we got there it was 10:00 PM. That made it midnight on Home Time. It was probably the best meal we had during the whole trip. Michael and I both had a delicious seafood bisque and he followed it up with a buffalo burger. Our server was very attentive. He seemed to think we were locals, but when I told him we were from Indiana, he said he was familiar with that long drive as he made it every summer of his childhood. His mother's parents were from a tiny town in the center of the state.

"What town?" I asked.

"Hartford City." My mother's hometown where I visited grandparents and cousins every summer of MY childhood! Our waiter was my best friend after that. I just love that feeling of community it prompted for the two of us.

Tatanka - Story of the Bison.

Sigh. I cannot really recommend this museum-type place in Deadwood. It is promoted as an educational site for learning about the American Buffalo, which centers around these beautiful cast-iron sculptures depicting a thrilling, dangerous way that the Lakota tribe used to hunt these creatures.

A few of the tribesmen would spook a herd of buffalo, chasing a few of them stampeding over the edge of a cliff, at the bottom of which other Lakota were waiting to butcher them.

It turned out to be fairly hostile presentation on the wrongs done against the Native American people. (We were told with an unfriendly smirk that Native American is too broad a term to use and is not the right choice. We were not told what might be the right choice.)

Now, I feel I must say that the historical truth in this matter is absolutely shameful and nothing can undo the violence, greed and trickery done to our brothers and sisters. However, I believe if one wants Change, and one wants to Educate People, then one needs to present their case without pushing their audience away. My less progressive husband drove our family to my chosen destination and paid his money to get us all in without complaint, but without much interest. His attitude became less charitable when the artwork was presented as an afterthought to a hostile speaker making sweeping generalities about "you people" (his white audience) while my bewildered young children blinked up at him. Sigh.

But aren't the sculptures pretty?

A worthwhile destination for Mike and me was the Mount Moriah cemetery. Mike is a history buff and thought it was cool to see the final resting places of folks like Wild Bill Hickock, Calamity Jane and Preacher Smith. I am not a history buff, and what I know about these characters I learned from the brilliantly written but completely barbaric HBO series "Deadwood." Do you think less of me? Nevertheless, it was cool to tour. It was also exhausting. I have no idea who thought of placing the cemetery there, requiring the hauling of Dead Weight (ha ha) up such a steep slope. It is a "mount" after all.

I know this series is dragging on, especially after the huge break between this post and the previous. The end of our trip was too significant to omit, so there will be one last post, which I'll start now. I have other things I want to share with you, including more garden produce preservation and an interview with a new, and surprisingly proficient bread baker.

Stay tuned.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Great American Road Trip - Part 6

Norris/Tower-Roosevelt/Old Faithful

When planning excursions within our vacation I knew there was one which was a must, just for the joy it would bring one family member. Ava is a lover of animals like no other. She was given a summer of horse riding lessons as a birthday gift last year and was over the moon with glee. Horseback rides were offered in a couple of different locations on our route and we took advantage of the Roosevelt Corrals in the northern part of YNP.

Our first attempt at a ride was thwarted by heavy winds. When we were told the ride was being cancelled, this child, who ran ahead of us from the van to the corral, was a bit disappointed. I was glad we had time to reschedule it the next day. We were a part of a group of 20 riders and we were asked if we had ever been on a horse before and how experienced we were with horses. I was among the most experienced (Most had not even been on a horse before, lest you be too impressed.) and I felt utterly confident that I would be able to handle anything a ride for city dwellers would offer. However, this country girl was humbled by a belligerent horse who stopped to graze every time he lost interest in the trail, which was often. I nearly popped a blood vessel trying to wrestle him into submission throughout the ride.

These rock formations are called "hoodoos." Often hoodoos look like faces. These hoodoos aren't the best example of that characteristic, but they distinguished themselves be being very different from the surrounding smooth cliffside. The kids admired them from the comfort of the van, but Mike and I climbed around together for fifteen minutes or so.

Later Brooks and I had our own climbing adventure. The girls had been working toward getting their Junior Ranger badges and needed to attend a ranger-led lecture or activity. While they went to their lecture Brooks and I headed to the trails to get a great view of the Lower Falls, via "Uncle Tom's Trail." The original trail was forged by Tom Richardson in 1898 and now involves a few paved trails at the top and then a series of 300+ steel grate stairs which loses you more than 500 feet of altitude.

The trip down is easy and the trip up is difficult, for obvious reasons. I think I read somewhere that it was 350 steps down and 1025 steps up - when you factor in the extra effort at 8000 feet altitude. All I know is that, whatever direction we were headed, Brooks charged ahead and sighed mightily when I had to stop to rest.

We noticed a rainbow in the spray of the waterfall when we neared the bottom of the steps.

We had a beautiful view of the whole falls and some great bonding time for me and my boy. It was hard to climb back up, but the whole hike was done for us in about 45 minutes. It's manageable for people in reasonably good health and we recommend it to anyone planning to visit the park.

When we got back from our hike, the girls had completed their ranger lecture and thereby finshed all of the requirements to get their Junior Ranger badge. I was so glad that they did this activity. I knew Ava would enjoy the process, but I was pleased to see Sophie dig into it with the gusto she showed.

Here they are being solemn and taking the oath, promising to follow the rules of the park and to do what they could to preserve the parks throughout their lives.

Our friendly old ranger found a proper chapeau to preserve the moment in our photos.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Great American Road Trip - Part 5

Yellowstone National Park - Mammoth and Odds and Ends

Yellowstone National Park is divided into five sections - Mammoth, Tower, Canyon, Old Faithful and Lake Village. I'll focus on the Mammoth section today as that was the area where we spent a large part of our first day in the park. Since we couldn't secure lodging within YNP, we stayed .5 mile outside in the north entrance, in Gardiner, Montana.

Each day when we drove into the park, we crossed through the historic North Entrance Arch, or Roosevelt Arch, as it's sometimes called due to it's association with President Theodore Roosevelt. Back in The Day, almost all the park's guests arrived by train via Gardiner, so this impressive structure was built to welcome them, with the cornerstone laid by President Roosevelt in 1903.

After we passed under the arch, we checked in at the Ranger Station, where we showed them our America the Beautiful Annual Pass, which grants us access to all the National Parks, a pretty good bargain for $80. A better deal if you have a buddy with the pass who allows you to be the second name on the card. The rangers gave us maps and the park newspaper and let us know if any of the roads were closed, as the road to the northeast entrance was for most of our visit.

After the ranger station, the roads began to climb and wind, wind and climb. At times there was very little shoulder and never was there a guard rail alongside the cliffside roads. I drove it once, but was distracted by the beauty and then terrified by my distraction. Michael thought this was likely to lead to a reenactment of the final scene of Thelma and Louise, so I stuck to the passenger's seat after that. I found ways to get into trouble over there, too. More later.

Before long, we got to the Fort Yellowstone portion of the Mammoth Hot Springs area. When the park was first established in 1872, a small staff of civilians was in charge. However, many people refused to stop hunting and poaching in the area, this staff felt ill equipped to bring the level of desired respect to this wild area. A military presence was brought in and Fort Yellowstone was born in 1886.

The Visitors' Center is in the building which formerly housed the bachelor officers. This area is the only place in the park where you will see green grass lawns. I'm not sure why. Maybe it was brought in for the homesick troops, a hundred years ago. In any case, the elk love to hang out and graze there, instead of in the rest of the park, which is left to be as wild as possible.

Here is the lovely chapel which was added to the Fort Yellowstone area in 1913. It has always been non-denominational and still offers Catholic mass and Sundays services each week. It is the last stone building before you enter the untamed portion of the park.

Further down the road are the hot springs themselves. The most interesting part, in my opinion, is the this mound of travertine built by years of the calcium deposits formed when the hot water cools.

I had marked in my guide book an area to check out called Sheepeater Cliff. The book said that kids love to climb the cliffs. Indeed, when we got there, there were parents tiredly looking at maps at the picnic tables with their bottled water, while the young ones scampered up to the very tip top.

When we first parked at Sheepeater Cliff, only Ava and I started to climb. The columns were sort of honeycomb-shaped, and we could see where the columns fell over and broke into individual stones, lying in a row. Chipmunks clambered in and out of the crevices. Before long, Michael and Brooks started climbing too, no nonsense and headed straight for the top. Eventually Sophia joined in, too. What a great time. It was a good place to get out of the car and explore.


These are a kind of trash can that you see in the park. It is meant to be bear resistant. We did learn from Mike The River Guide, however, that they are not necessarily raven resistant. He told us several stories of how crafty those birds are. In the trash can story, several ravens will work together to pull open the door of a trash can. Another raven goes into the receptacle to throw out the yummy bits of garbage. This may be well and good as long as all birds remain at their posts, but there have been several instances of the outer birds being frightened away from their posts, leaving the scavenger trapped inside. Imagine the surprise of the next human to use the trash can, only to have a claustrophobic, enraged raven fly out at them.

We played the license plate game on this trip and found them all in the first week. On the day we drove around Mammoth Hot Springs, we saw this car with the ever-elusive Hawaii plates on them. We wondered under what circumstances the car came to the mainland and never saw the owners to ask.

But Hawaii wasn't the last plate we found. It actually took us ages to find Connecticut. But here it was, in the parking lot of the Roosevelt Lodge.

Why is all this traffic stopped? We slowed to a stop and waited. Some of us even got out of our vehicles and wandered up a little ways to see if we could identify the holdup. Eh, the line of cars stretched all the way up and around a curve. Couldn't see nothin'.

Eventually, one guy came walking quickly back to his car with a sense of purpose I hadn't seen from the others who returned. "What's up?" I asked him. Do you see in this photo why we were all at a standstill?

Holy Crap!

They were all around the van, marching down the street, big as you please. And here is how I managed to get into trouble even in the passenger seat. Throughout the park are warnings that the animals are WILD and do not wish to be molested in any way. But my window was open for picture taking and I just wondered what one felt like. I thought it would be like with cattle? You know, they are not used to be touched either, but when they are touched they seem to think it's no different than a fly. So I just reached out and grazed the coat of the one outside my window...

And it Lost. It's. Mind. So startled was I by the bison's kick and jump that I hit my head on the frame of the van window. A moment later the kids said something about the buffalo kicking the van. "No," I said, "that thud you heard was me hitting my head."

But, no. Further inspection of the van showed where the hoof dragged across a length of the side door. I was the butt of jokes for the rest of the trip.

"Do not approach the animals, Mom. That's what the sign said!"

"Welllll, I don't think they meant the buffalo."

Monday, July 4, 2011

The Great American Road Trip - Part 4

Grand Teton National Park

The French speaking explorers who named this mountain range called it "les trois Tetons" or The Three Breasts. I studied that mountain range long and hard and I think they must have been some pretty lonely trappers.

I've already told you that we first glimpsed the beautiful mountain range and the surrounding national park on our drive through to Jackson, WY. After the pizza and the shootout in town, we actually got to spend the night in the national park. Lodging in the national parks is not particularly abundant and they sell out quickly. There are campsites, cabins and rooms in the beautiful historic lodges. Though the lodges are generally quite posh, most of the rooms don't have private baths, as they were mostly built 100 or more years ago and have been kept as original as possible.

I delayed my planning too long to get one of those rooms. In fact, the only lodging I managed to secure within the parks was a "tent cabin" for our one night at Teton. I'd never heard of a tent cabin before, but I was told it was just one step up from tent camping. Our tent cabin had two walls and an awning made of canvas and two log walls. For most of my family, three of whom are what I like to call "avid INdoorsmen," it looked pretty grim. And, truthfully, I prefer the tent camping that we do once a year to our experience in the cabin. The canvas was cut and finished with holes too generous for the supporting poles, leaving gaps beckoning an invitation to the huge flock of mosquitos outside. We had to buy firewood and kindling to burn in the iron wood stove to keep us thawed during the 40-degree night. And we know the quality and cleanliness of our own air mattresses we use in our tents - not so the nasty striped ticking on the cots provided. I have to say, though, the family went from stomping about over the conditions to laughing about the conditions (and laughing about the stomping) very quickly. I know we'll remember it and smile always.

We wasted no time packing up and moving on the next morning. We were none too comfortable and, besides, we had an appointment at 8:00 for a rafting tour of Snake River.

Our guide was named Mike and he was born and raised in Teton National Park. His father worked for the Park's concessionaire so Mike lived in those beautiful surroundings until he went away to college in Hawaii. He was certainly knowledgeable about the park and it's wildlife, but I was most fascinated about the things he shared about living in such an isolated environment. He asked Ava how many kids were in her class (24) and how many different third grade classrooms there were (3). He was one of three kids in his third grade class. All six primary grades met in one building with two teachers, younger kids downstairs, older kids upstairs. That school is on the park's grounds, but when he advanced to middle school, he went to Jackson and rode the bus 1.5 hours ONE WAY. When he got his lisence, it cut down on the commute time, but he put 300 miles on his car every week. When they went on vacations, they went to cities - practicing not talking to strangers and learning how public transportation works.

River Guide Mike also recommended a hike to Hidden Falls, which sounded good to us after our three-hour raft trip and lunch. It was a very ambitious hike and probably not the right one to introduce hiking to the kids. By the way, what is the difference between hiking and walking? I'm not sure I know, but I do know I wished for my family to have their eyes up to enjoy the scenery on this hike. We started the day with five bottles of water in our bag and two of them were gone during the raft ride. I wasn't concerned having just three bottles for the hike, but when two of them were guzzled before we got to the falls, I knew we'd have to seriously conserve on our return.

(This hike afforded us really rewarding views, and really unrewarding photos.)

Halfway through our two+ mile return hike, Ava started lagging behind. Mike slowed up with her while I charged ahead with the olders. Only one problem: Mike had the one and only water bottle with the paltry inch and a half of remaining water. The last mile was grim. Mouths were parched and sticky, muscles were straining, tears were shed. And it was pretty hard on the kids, too.

When we got back to the Visitors' Center and the drinking fountain, Brooks said between gulps, "This is possibly the worst thing we've ever done." On the plus side the view of the waterfall was very spectacular and we even spotted a baby moose who stepped into our path and then scampered (as much as a giant thing can scamper) into the wilderness before I could get my camera out.

(Look closely for the moose.)

But more than anything was a sense of accomplishment. I read in one of our guide books that a national park vacation should be mentally relaxing but physically exhausting and that they should be the chance to find out what you can do. And I hope that my family can all fully absorb that a five-mile hike in the dehydrating heat over rocky terrain is not our limit. It's good to know that and to understand that you can go further yet.

That was some great-feeling pain.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Great American Road Trip, Part 3

Jackson (Hole?), Wyoming

Cody is just 52 miles from Yellowstone National Park's east entrance. Yellowstone was the "real" destination of this trip, but there was a site or two I wanted to take in down in Jackson. Had I not taken this trip, I would be in dire need of a geography lesson at this point, so let me offer this: Yellowstone is huge and square. Grand Teton National Park is long and skinny and butts up to Yellowstone on the south. Just south of Teton... is the town of Jackson.

I didn't think I would see the inside of the parks until I was done with the touristy western towns, but Jean-Claude told me to enter the east entrance of Yellowstone and drive to Jackson via Grand Teton, by way of YNP.

What's that? Who's Jean-Claude? He is our Garmin, a GPS device who kindly tells us where to turn to get to our desired destinations. And he tells us in an Australian accent, as I prefer.

At any rate, Jean-Claude had us drive through Yellowstone and Grand Teton to get to Jackson and it afforded us some really spectacular scenery. I'm so glad our forepeople thought to put it aside for preservation. In many spots, the altitude was high enough to have unmelted snow alongside the road. When we stopped for a potty break, we had to have a snowball fight first. (We saw several other people doing the same thing, but they were from non-snow states and didn't seem to get the hang of the "ball" part of snowball. They just kind of picked up snow and flung it, which was pretty ineffective. We hated to see such excellent packing snow go to waste.)

We stopped for a rest alongside Yellostone Lake and I learned something new about my husband...he's really skilled at skipping rocks! He spent the next 20 minutes giving the kids a tutorial on rock-skipping. Each one of them was successful in getting their rocks to skip at least once.

Continuing on through Teton, when we saw that impressive mountain range, Michael commented, "How would you like to have been one of the settlers heading west and then have seen those mountains?". They still seem pretty insurmountable today.

We found both Cody and Jackson to be touristy enough to be a little disappointing, with it's myriad souvenir shop store fronts and expensive restaurants. We did find a nice little pizzeria called Mountain High Pizza Pie. They offered whole grain crusts and plenty of interesting toppings. The hippies who served us were a little laid back and we worried about walking back to the main square in time to see the nightly "shootout" performed by the players from the Jackson Hole Playhouse. The man who warmed up the crowd impressed us by cracking larger and larger whips. I couldn't believe how loud they were. They sounded like gunshots.

After the shootout, I couldn't leave those iconic antler arches at each corner of the square behind without a picture, but I felt really conflicted. I thought they were pretty, I guess, and certainly famous. But it seemed cruel or violent or something in the way I assumed the antlers were collected. However, as I learned during our visit, these ANTLERS are solid and they fall off each year. And each year, the animals grow new ones. This is in contrast to HORNS, which are hollow, and have to be sawed off. The local boy scout troops are used to collect the shed antlers in the wild areas so the arches can be repaired or replaced.

The roads in Yellowstone and Teton have a fairly low speed limit and there are frequent stops for wildlife, so it took us longer to get to Jackson than we anticipated, so our time in Jackson was somewhat brief. It was now time to get inside the parks and stay there for a few days.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Great American Road Trip, Part 2

Cody, Wyoming

On the evening of the morning on which we visited Carhenge, we landed In Cody, named in honor of Buffalo Bill Cody, who helped lay out the town.

We arrived without much of a plan. Or rather, having scrapped the plan that I had in mind.

Insight into this marriage: I was telling a friend recently (a friend who's married to a bit of a control freak) that I was reading up on our destinations, I was booking this or that excursion, and I was making decisions here and there. She, wide-eyed, asked, "Can you really plan the whole vacation with Mike just looking at you in the car to ask where he should drive?"

Kind of embarrassed, I shrugged and nodded.

On second thought, I don't know if this is insight into the marriage or into my own inner Control Freak. I just know that whenever I've asked for input into those kinds of things, the answer has always been, "I don't care."

I have never answered 'I don't care' to anything.

Nevertheless, *I* had decided that we would take in the Cody Night Rodeo, which happens every night just outside of town. It would be a chance to experience what Cody has to offer and take in a bit of cowboy culture, too. Of course, I hadn't bothered to share any of this with my family. There was nothing sinister in it, just distraction and cluelessness.

Twenty miles before we reached town, we started seeing billboards for the rodeo, which Ava begged to attend.

"Oh honey, I really don't think you'll like it. I think you'll think they are being mean to the animals."


Fast forward through the next 30 minutes of Ava tearfully protesting, Mike sagely insisting and me irrationally grouching about my apparently secret plans being rebuffed. Yadda, yadda, yadda, we went out to eat instead.

We decided upon The Irma, the dining room of the 1902 hotel of the same name. Built by Buffalo Bill and named for his daughter, the focal point is a giant cherry bar. The bar was a gift from Queen Victoria to Buffalo Bill after she watched him perform. I was also impressed by this and other buildings I have seen on this trip which are kept so original. Even the wallpaper looked to be original. As for the rest of the decor, think ornate chandeliers, taxidermy and, strangely, photos of every governor in Wyoming's history.

I'm sorry that the decor is the most newsworthy part of our evening in The Irma, but I definitely got the sense that the proprietors were not counting on repeat visitors. Just get the tourists in, get their money, and get them out.

The next morning, after finding a supermarket to replace some of the forgotten items still at home, we drove past the Buffalo Bill Historical Center. It seemed a bit pricey for no more time we had to spend in it, so I decided to just snap a shot of the sculpture of the hero of the wild west before driving on. While getting my shot, I struck up a conversation with an apparent cowboy named Phillip, who was drumming up interest for the Cody Night Rodeo doing rope tricks in front of the museum. He asked if we would be attending the rodeo. When I told him our concerns for Ava, he asked if he could talk to her to put her mind at ease. If I was at home, I would feel as I do when at the mall, when the middle eastern college guys ask if they can show me what the Dead Sea products can do for my nails - that is: I would try to get away. But On Vacation, I figure I'll never meet anyone like him at home, so I wanted to interact and see what he's about. Sorry, middle-eastern college guys.

Now, Phillip did give us an education on the rodeo. He said the bucking horses were bred to buck, not tortured or frightened into bucking. He told us the young calves are roped on ranches in order to be doctored and the rodeos came about because the cowboys were competing to see who could be the fastest, and therefore, the least disruptive to the calves. He made me feel like roping is like parenting - there might be times when the calf/kid is annoyed or uncomfortable but it's because the cowboy/parent is responsible. Truth or propaganda? I dunno. What I do know is that Phillip's moustache was fascinating. It was actually FEATHERED, like my hair in the 70's. He also had two boys, named Roper and Rider. Roper was doing rope tricks with one arm. The other was in a sling since his collarbone was shattered from a fall in the rodeo! So Phillip, I get why you might allow your calf to participate in the rodeo, but what are you thinking putting your CHILD out there?

For our last hour or so in Cody, we visited Old Trail Town, a group of 26 buildings dating from 1879 to 1901 . They are not all original to Cody, but many have been. Relocated here to offer interested parties the chance to see how the early settlers might have lived. I really enjoyed this little visit - its exactly the way I like to visit a museum. We could get into most of the buildings, which included a saloon, a trapper's cabin, a store and a Livery stable, to name a few - and we could touch and handle a lot of the things. As much as I enjoyed it, I do worry for the preservation of those items, being no more protected than they were. Items encased in glass are less enjoyable than an item in my hand, but the ones under glass tend to last a lot longer.

(A buggy in the livery barn)
Just as we were finishing up, Ava caught sight of an old codger volunteer, who was carrying around his own oxygen tank and practicing his roping skills on a mock-up of a calf. After checking with me, she trotted right up to him and asked to be taught how to lasso.

He let her try over and over, as long as she wanted. Or really, as long as I allowed. Eventually I had to practice my own cow person skills, herding my family back into the van. We needed to get to Jackson (is it Jackson or Jackson Hole?) for other activities I never bothered to mention.