Exploring

ID-WY Day 6 – The Wasteland

Craters of the Moon

Craters of the Moon

Motel 8 breakfast consists of overcooked eggs & sausage, a small container of yogurt, and watching a woman from the English Midlands scream at the hotel kitchen staff “to do their fucking job” upon being unable to get coffee out of a carafe. After she storms out, Terry turns to the small woman who had just gotten yelled at and tells her *he* thought she was doing a great job.

Our destination this morning is the Idaho National Laboratory, home of the Experimental Breeder Reactor and many other, wonderful nuclear-research things. We drive into the wastes of Idaho to visit the INL and discover that not only is it located in an impressive expanse of nothingness, its staff have done a poor job maintaining the visitor information on their website and the facility is closed to visitors until next summer.

Fortunately, another visit on our list is nearby – Atomic City.

The only picture of Atomic City that needs to have been taken. You're welcome, now you don't have to go there.

The only picture of Atomic City that needs to have been taken. You’re welcome, now you don’t have to go there.

If you ever come across an article or blog post recommending that you visit Atomic City, drive to the author’s house and punch them in the face. What was promised to be a “neat slice of Americana and the Atomic Age” turns out to be a ghost town full of mobile homes. The road leading away from Atomic City is more interesting than the town itself.

IMG_0492

So far, the morning has been a complete bust. We drive on to Craters of the Moon National Monument with drastically re-calibrated expectations.

“What lives here?” is the thought that fills my mind as we approach the park’s entrance. The surrounding area is a special kind of desolate, a black lava field that extends into the horizon. We discover the answer via a park ranger – mostly bats and some ungulates that wander through as part of their migration. The bats are at risk of some sort of fungal infection and we are asked to help protect them by signing a statement declaring that our clothing hasn’t been in any other cave system in the past ten years.

After our morning of disappointment, the park turns out to be rather interesting. There are lots of strange rock formations created by the lava flows, spires and sponges. It does feel a little other worldly and the name makes sense. Several caves have been created by collapsed lava tunnels and we descend into a few of them, enjoying the significant change in temperature. It is in the 90s on the surface, below ground we find frost and ice.

Looking up

Looking up

We have headlamps, but turn them off in a few of the caves to experience what could only be described as “true” dark. After several failed attempts to take pictures of the frost and ice, I made my first attempt at light painting.

Weeeeeeeee!

Weeeeeeeee!

We enjoy a PB&J-based picnic as a late lunch and leave the wastelands of Idaho for the slightly less desolate vistas of Boise. It turns out that Boise-proper is actually a decent city. The downtown is walkable and we find ourselves in the middle of a Basque festival, which seems to fit with Boise’s nonsensical ethnic make-up – Hawaiians and Basques are both big groups there apparently.

We eat dinner and watch Terry consume the least manly cocktails ever devised, then walk to a bar full of video game consoles and pinball machines. I discover that the concept of arcade games appeals to me more than the actual games. I think I dislike them even more in this environment as I tend to appreciate the social aspect of bars and the level of concentration required to play an old-school platformer rules out any socializing.

After an hour of burning through quarters a group of Furries walks in and settles that this is not the place for me. I watch Terry and Matt play a few more games before leading the trek back to the car.

The night is an appropriate bookend for what is becoming a yearly adventure trip. We started our journey with Idahoan-Hawaiian food and raptors and ended it watching an anthropomorphic fox mash buttons on Street Fighter.

 

Standard
Exploring

ID-WY Day 5 – Gimme steam

IMG_0421

I wake feeling better rested than any other night on the trip – perhaps due to a combination of a slightly warmer night and setting up the tent on a comfortable slope.

There is no more sausage and we are forced to fall back to oatmeal. Historically, this is the fork in the road that leads to either a return to civilization or the Donner Party. We will return to civilization later in the day… hopefully.

Camp is broken and we make our way south to the Painter’s Pots. The valley containing these pools of bubbling mud is almost entirely filled with steam.

IMG_0425

Making our way to the western exit of the park, we stop at Gibbon Falls to take pictures. Although the falls are impressive, I am disappointed that a.) there do not seem to be any gibbons and b.) that I am not very good at taking pictures of waterfalls.

IMG_0454

A final buffalo bids us farewell and we soon find ourselves in a seemingly empty corner of Montana. There is little, if anything, notable about the drive from Yellowstone to Idaho.

Panda Express for lunch in Idaho Falls, then down to Blackfoot to visit the Idaho Potato Museum. My expectations are low and when we arrive they are met appropriately. Aside from some spectacular whitewashing on why Idaho is a great place to grow potatoes even though it’s effectively a desert (“We can more accurately irrigate the crops”), the most entertaining thing about our visit is listening to Terry grill the woman who runs the front desk about the Idaho Potato Council’s executives and their recently launched (and completely bizarre) comic book series.

IMG_0483

I buy a coffee mug that depicts a potato-themed version of American Gothic and a Vitruvian Potato magnet.

Our next stop is the Collector’s Corner Museum, a recommendation from the Roadtrippers app. From the outside it looks like a bodega full of Precious Moments figurines. I tell Terry and Matt that I’m going to sit in the car if we find out they charge admission.

An elderly gentleman greets us, yelling towards the back of the building for his wife to turn on the lights because they have visitors. Partially inspired by both their charm and a burbling of sympathy for the obvious lack of foot traffic, I hand over five dollars to buy my entry.

The woman tells us that flash photography isn’t allows as she eyes our DSLRs. I frown. She says, “But if you want to take pictures of your friends standing in front of something, that’s OK.”

The interior of the museum is larger than it seemed from the outside and is filled with dozens of glass display cases. Some of the collections are moderately interesting – in particular, a knife collection contains several Nazi and Axis blades. I notice a number of swastika-bearing items I’m fairly sure are both difficult and in some cases, illegal, to purchase and collect.

The old man is a WWII vet and shares stories and a neat scrapbook with us that contains news clippings from the war. “Germans attack with robot planes” is one of the more interesting headlines.

His wife chimes in with random facts about each of the collections but seems to have a good sense of when she’s hovering and never becomes annoying. Both seem to love their collecting hobby and I can’t help but feel a little sad that the things they’ve collected (and the surrounding history) that matter so much to them won’t mean much to anyone in a few years.

I loathe junk, junk stores, and junk collections, often looking down my nose at people who are passionate about collecting “things”, but the tiny couple that runs the Collector’s Corner gets a pass (for all that my approval matters). I can’t manage any cynicism or spite towards them, even when I try.

Our home for the evening is a surprisingly clean Super 8. The front desk clerk gives us one of the few, decent, non-apathetic restaurant recommendations I’ve ever received from a hotel clerk.

I am normally dubious of any restaurant claiming to serve “kobe” burgers, but would recommend the Snow Eagle Brewery to anyone passing through Idaho Falls. Given that they serve high-point beer and I am very tired it’s possible that the burger was just OK and my recommendation should be taken with a grain of salt. But it is probably very good, possibly maybe.

 

 

Standard
Exploring

ID-WY Day 4 – Volcano everywhere

IMG_0260

The campground showers open at 8AM.  I am standing at the door at 7:50.

A 30ish woman of Eastern European origin scowls at me as she unlocks the door. She slogs through her morning routine, starting the hot water in each side of the facility and depositing cash into the cash drawer. Fifteen minutes later she seems to notice me again, sticks out a hand to accept my money, and shoves a towel into my arms.

I set my expectations low on the cold, half-mile walk to the showers, resigned that I would be presented with a small trickle of water slightly warmer than the outdoor temperature. The torrent of hot water and steam coming from the shower head is a welcome surprise.

When I exit the showers, the woman who greeted me is gone, replaced by an older, grandmotherly-looking woman who smiles and tells me to have a nice day.

We eat first sausage, pack our gear into the car, and leave the Grand Tetons behind as we drive toward Yellowstone.

My first impression of Yellowstone isn’t great. The southern entrance is packed with people and not much can be seen besides a low forest of evergreens. It feels very much like driving through a giant Christmas tree farm.

Soon after entering, we discover that the 15 mile road to Old Faithful is closed. However, the 80 mile road that loops around to it is not. A park ranger tells us we need to hurry to our campsite before all spots are taken for the day.

We claim our site and make a short trek to the Norris Geyser Field nearby. It is nearly overrun with tourists.  The geyser field is “neat’ but not what I would consider “pretty”.

IMG_0263

Bog of eternal stench

The air smells strongly of sulphur and we see several passive-aggressive signs detailing the damage that humans have done to the park and the nature contained therein.

“If you feed a bear, we’ll have to kill it, and you’ll be single-handedly responsible for the demise of an entire species.” (sic)

It is late afternoon and I am hungry. This results in me being short with Matt and Terry and making a firm suggestion that we eat after watching Old Faithful spout.

IMG_0316

The Old Faithful Grill provides the least-flavorful burger I’ve ever had – meat content somewhere south of 50%. I make up for it by buying a bag of Twizzlers and Reese’s Pieces which I proceed to demolish as we hike the boardwalks surrounding the geysers north of Old Faithful. These pools and geysers prove to be more colorful and interesting than the others we have seen during the day.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I am finishing off my Reece’s Pieces as I watch a man jump off the boardwalk to retrieve an action figure he dropped into the mud below. Given that he is just a few feet away from super-heated steam and bubbling clay that is hot enough to melt flesh, I think I would have abandoned Tiny Hulk to fend for himself if it were me. Unfortunately, he makes it safely back onto the boardwalk.

The sun sets and provides us with the best view of the day – a scene that reminds me of pictures from Iceland and doesn’t match my expectations of northern Wyoming. Yellowstone has largely made up for its poor first impression.

IMG_0404

 

Standard
Exploring

ID-WY Day 3 – Walk the planet

IMG_0169

Early on in the trip I noticed myself becoming frustrated and unreasonably impatient. It has taken two days for me to push down the anxiety created by operating in “go go go’ mode while everything around me is moving slower than I’m accustomed to. I do my best to adjust to the new pace. Still, I wake up early each morning, not wanting to waste daylight.

We have an aggressive plan for the day – a hike of somewhere between 16-20 miles (depending on which map we referenced and who we asked). Camp is at roughly 6000ft and we have been at this altitude for less than 24 hours. We are idiots, at least on paper.

Trail Greeter

Trail Greeter

It takes several miles before the hikers begin to thin out. As we push past one of the last large clumps of them, a man from Slovakia strikes up a conversation with us. He is summiting Mount Whitney in two weeks and asks me what he needs. I tell him climbing and cold weather gear but have misunderstood his question. He is asking what paperwork he needs to fill out.

He also asks us why so few Americans visit our national parks. I play into his implied bias and tell him it’s because Americans are fat and lazy. Terry is more gracious and provides the reasoning that most parks are far away from where people live.

We reach a junction we had identified as being our “must reach” goal and consider pushing on to a lake 3 miles further and 3/4 miles higher up the trail. Sore feet win the argument and we make our way back, running across a pair of moose on our way.

IMG_0225

Our return destination was a ferry dock that would shave 3 miles off of our trip. We arrive at the dock, excited to be finished with our hike, but soon discover that we have missed the last boat of the day.

Lake Dissapointment

Lake Disappointment

I borrow a pair of loaner trekking poles from the boat dock and lead the way back, and by “lead” I mean “callously abandon my companions as I hike/jog the last three miles of the trail”. Because trekking poles are awesome and sometimes leadership means letting your friends fend for themselves against bears and Korean tourists. I think that’s a Edmund Hillary quote.

Terry has requested we end the day at a high elevation for golden hour picture fun time so once we all arrive back at our car we drive up a nearby mountain that looks out over what seems to be unspoiled wilderness. While Terry is taking pictures, Matt and I watch someone in a rented RV repeatedly back into a bathroom building in the summit parking lot.

IMG_0250

As the sun sets, we head back to the camp site and discover that the showers closed thirty minutes before our arrival. I try to wash off some of the trail muck and sweat with a damp t-shirt and silently plot the murder of the facilities manager who decided an early switch to winter operating hours was a good idea.

IMG_0257

Standard
Exploring

ID-WY Day 2 – The earth abides

Removed from established civilization,  humans revert to their tribal roots and their language evolves to match their new way of life. The second day into our journey the words breakfast, lunch, and dinner have fallen out of our vocabulary and have been replaced with first sausage, second sausage, and third sausage, respectively. Any meal that does not contain sausage is referred to as not-sausage.

The Gregorian calendar has also fallen to the wayside. We are initially confused as to why several of the locations we had planned to visit are closed, but eventually realize that it is Sunday. We watch a base jumper with a Red Bull parachute jump off of the Perrine Bridge as we adapt our travel plan.

Year 1 - Day of the Flying Red Bull

Year 1 – Day of the Flying Red Bull

The Minidoka National Historical Site moves up on our destination list. There’s not much left there – the buildings are almost entirely gone, but the history is massive enough to fill the empty spaces. Minidoka was one of many WWII-era internment camps where thousands of Japanese-American families were locked up after being removed from their homes.

It’s yet another dark moment in our history that many people don’t know about – a time when fear and paranoia drove us to lock people away in “relocation centers” just as we were fighting fascists who were doing the same.

But those were the good ole’ days. Baseball, apple pie, and neighborhoods safe enough to leave your doors unlocked at night. When someone waxes poetic about the America of the past, it’s a good sign that they know very little about the America of the past. Only the future is worthy of poetry.

Leaving Minidoka, I was submerged in thoughtfulness, but we did take time to stop and take hipster pictures of an old farm house, because there’s only so much introspection a person can handle in one day.

IMG_0029

Prairie air conditioning

We drove to Idaho Falls and discovered they had a well-reviewed zoo. I made friends with a goat in the petting zoo area and watched a monkey meditate.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Once we had burned a few hours at the zoo, we decided to proceed into Wyoming. Our planned stop was an arch of antlers in Jackson Hole, but upon arriving, we saw that it was engulfed in retirees and RV tourists and quickly moved on to Grand Tetons National Park.

We arrived at the park at sunset, just in time to catch the last light hitting the mountain tops and to see two young deer butting antlers.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

A campsite was found and claimed, third sausage was prepared, and we settled in for what proved to be a very chilly evening.

 

 

Standard
Exploring

ID-WY Day 1 – Forests of Corn

Mural of pennies. Because, why not?

Mural of pennies. Because, why not?

Shortly after leaving the airport, I discovered that Boise, ID is the inexplicable home of several Hawaiian restaurants. There is probably some interesting tidbit of history about their origin, but I haven’t bothered to look it up. I also haven’t confirmed that there are, in fact, “several” of them. I’m just taking the Shaka Shack cashier’s word for it. He looked trustworthy, if not at all Hawaiian.

Belly full of pineapple coleslaw and wienerschnitzel-jerk chicken, I piloted the rental Kia Sorento (a well equipped if comically underpowered vehicle) toward the first stop on a week-long road trip – a reserve for birds of prey just outside Boise. It was a short visit.

An actuary, a programmer, and an infrastructure architect walk into a nature reserve. Docent says “We’ve got a ton of birds here.”

Actuary says, “Really?”

Docent says “Yep.”

Bartender says “Don’t listen to her; she’s a liar. Don’t listen to me either. I don’t even belong in this joke.”

They had six birds on display, one of which was a plush owl.

The bar set appropriately low for the trip, we made our grocery run at the origin of most wilderness adventures – Walmart.

Receipt:

  • Breakfast sausage patties (48 count)
  • Jalapeno-cheddar sausages (6 count)
  • Bourbon-cheddar sausages (5 count)
  • Hot Link-flavoured sausages (6 count)
  • Beef bratwursts (6 count)
  • Eggs (1 dozen)
  • Fig Newtons (1 package)
  • Fruit & Nut Trail Mix (1 lb)
  • Crystal Light (18 count / various flavours)
  • Apples (2 lbs)
  • Bananas (3 lbs)
  • Styrofoam ice chest
  • Small skillet
  • Spatula
  • BBQ tongs
  • Propane (1 lb)
  • Lighters (5 count)
  • Ice (10 lbs)
  • Pez (100 count)

Coincidentally, this was the same set of supplies purchased by settlers traveling the Oregon Trail in the mid-to-late 1800s – plus 50 bullets, 2 spare wagon wheels, and a spare axle.

We then followed our GPS to a mislabeled park set amongst corn fields. The park contained a gorge created by a massive shield volcano. It did not, however, contain any signage pointing us to the park we had intended to visit.

While looking for the missing park, Terry, one of my fellow travelers, demanded that we stop so he could run into a corn field. We pulled over and he disappeared into the green stalks. Minutes later he returned, proud owner of a single, industrial quality ear of corn.

We gave up on finding the park and proceeded to our next destination.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Balanced Rock Park in southern Idaho contains exactly two noteworthy objects – a balanced rock covered in graffiti and a campsite, through which a muskrat-filled creek runs. I drifted to sleep listening to large rodents playing in the water and drunk, middle-aged Idahoans daring each other to jump in and join them.

Standard
Spiky
Exploring

Wichita Mountains: Eight Miles in the Rain

Dark Night

I setup camp in the dark.

The campsite’s previous tenant had left behind a few pieces of firewood, but the wood was green and my efforts to get a fire going only resulted in a pyramid of burnt twigs and a campsite filled with smoke. That and becoming acquainted with an adventurous moth who somehow managed to fly up my pant leg while I was hunched over the fire ring.

So I sat in the dark, listening to crickets and the distant whistles of elk. There are worse ways to spend your time.

The darkness also offered an opportunity to take pictures of the stars and an approaching storm front moved in slowly enough that I was able to capture a few decent shots before the sky was obscured by clouds.

Stars & Clouds

Eventually the storm arrived, riding on a cold wind that gave me a good excuse to climb into my tent.

Rainy Day

I set my alarm with the intention of taking pictures as the sun rose, but it was still raining at seven a.m., so I lay in my sleeping bag listening to the rain patter against the tent for another hour.

Convinced that it was probably going to rain all day, I bundled up in my rain coat and tried to light my camp stove, which I had accidentally left out the night before. It refused to cooperate—no hot oatmeal for me.

I packed up my soggy campsite and drove into the park.

On the way to the trailhead I found a few buffalo grazing beside the road and stopped to take pictures.

Filling the niche of dinosaurs.

Filling the niche of dinosaurs.

I realize that buffalo are basically furry cows, but I like them. (I also like those furry Scottish cows.) Maybe because I’m so used to seeing them standing alone, I associate buffalo with melancholy—these giant solitary wanderers looking for herds that are long gone. If I knew they wouldn’t stomp me to death, I’d try to give them a hug.

Feeling a bit guilty for being a voyeur to the buffalos’ meal, I continued on and found the trailhead to start the aptly named Buffalo Trail. The rain shifted back into “downpour” mode as I pulled into the parking lot, which was unsurprisingly empty.

I waterproofed myself as best as I could and set off into the blackjack oaks and cedars, almost immediately encountering a dozen turkeys huddling a few feet off the trail. They seemed unconcerned with me until I pulled my camera up, then they were gone too fast to get a shot.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

A half-mile in, the forest gave way to the rocky grasslands that make up the majority of the park and the trail meandered off into the distance, hardly more than a cow path. Within a few minutes my pants were soaked through below the knee, and would remain so for the rest of the hike.

If you ever visit the Buffalo Trail at Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge, be prepared to hike the worst marked trail in the U.S. At several points I had to backtrack and re-find the trail where it crossed expanses of rock and intersected actual cow paths (a herd of longhorns roams the park) that were better defined than the man-made trail.

My feeling of being lost wasn’t helped by the rain or the elk that seemed to be following me just beyond the tree line. Every time I’d start to relax he would start his creepy elk whistle.

It was only when I was four miles in and came upon one of the lakes I had seen on the park map that I was certain I was on the right trail.

About the same time the rain let up and I started noticing more of the weird vegetation around me. Several of the plants reminded me of sci-fi artists’ depictions of plants on other planets—only smaller.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The remainder of the trail passed through fields of wildflowers and dense, tall grasses that were surprisingly pretty, for being grass. Time seemed to pass more quickly with a clear path ahead of me and the final four miles of the trail felt much quicker than the first four.

Soon enough I was back at my car, feeling a little sad that the hike was over, although my wet feet felt differently. I set off for the park exit and the long drive home. I waved at the buffalo as I passed them.

I hope they find their herd.

Standard