Exploring

ID-WY Day 5 – Gimme steam

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

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Exploring

ID-WY Day 4 – Volcano everywhere

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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”.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Exploring

ID-WY Day 3 – Walk the planet

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

 

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Exploring

Journey into the West – Day 7

Walking the Strip

The Excalibur has surprisingly comfy beds for being a $45-a-night hotel so I felt well rested, if a bit sluggish. We abstained from our ritual cooking of camp-stove oatmeal as the hotel staff and fire alarms would have disapproved.

I decided not to take my camera with me on our excursions for the day, mostly because I was tired of carrying it around.

The map showed a McDonalds down the Strip from us near the Las Vegas welcome sign. We walked there, ate, then visited the sign to find a hoard of tourists waiting in line to get their pictures in front of it. An Elvis impersonator stood nearby, ready to accept the tips of anyone who wanted him in their pictures.

We walked back up the Strip to the Bellagio with the intent of visiting their gardens. We wandered around inside for a while before figuring out the gardens were closed for construction. Back at the hotel Terry checked his pedometer and discovered we had walked more that morning than any of our park hikes.

Visiting the Non-garden

Determined to fit some nature into our time in Vegas, we drove to Spring Reserve on the north side of the city. Terry is a member of the New York City Botanical Gardens (because, who isn’t?), so we got in free, which turned out to be the appropriate price.

Spring Reserve would probably have been more interesting if I was in 3rd grade, had never seen dirt, and was accompanied by a crotchety, but knowledgable tour guide. That not being the case, it was just a well-maintained series of paths highlighting four types of native cacti. There were lots of empty class areas, so I’m sure it’s a popular spot for field trips.

The attached museum is a temple dedicated to Las Vegas’ status as an unsustainable stain on the desert. The exhibits highlight residents’ water usage compared to what was available in the area with the lesson being, “It’s stupid for this many people to live here. Escape if you can, children.”

Tacos con Pinball

I wanted Mexican food and Terry acquiesced as it had been “only the second preference I had expressed the entire trip”, so we drove to Tacos El Gordo on the Strip and had the best truck-style tacos I’ve ever had. I’m convinced I could eat the asada tacos for every meal.

With a few hours to spare before Terry’s flight, we drove to the Pinball Hall of Fame across town. Quarters in hand, we split up and played through their collection.

There was a sweet spot of machines from the 70s and 80s that were tuned to provide a good money/play-time value. The older machines and those from the 90s all seemed to be quarter-sinks, often shooting the ball straight into the gutter on its first launch. I played a Johnny Mnemonic-themed machine that cost 75 cents and did this three times in a row.

Out of quarters, I followed Terry around as he spent the last of his on Mario and the few arcade games spread out among the pinball machines.

Sending Terry Home

We drove back to the hotel and Terry finished packing. To ensure bag space we split the camping gear that we had purchased in Vegas the prior week – I got the stove and oatmeal. Terry took a quick shower and was ready to go, so we loaded up and drove to the airport.

Neither of us had tried to kill the other during the week and that’s a good measure of success for a road-trip, so on the way we talked about planning a trip for next year. “Alaska?” “Sure. Or the Arctic. I want to ride a polar bear.”

At the passenger drop off we shook hands and Terry said “You are kind to the people you don’t hate.”, which I took as the best sort of compliment. We said goodbye and Terry walked inside to magically teleport to Philadelphia in time to go to work the next morning.

Sending Chris Home

I woke up the next morning to discover that my flights had been delayed and instead of arriving in 5PM in OKC, my rebooked itinerary would arrive nearer to 11PM.

I left the hotel and drove to McDonalds to buy a cup of coffee. Pulling up to pay, I discovered the driver in front of me had paid for me. He was pumping his fist out the window and yelling “Woo!”. I waved at him and he threw me a peace sign as he drove away, still yelling “Woo!”.

With extra time before my flight, I drove to Red Rock Canyon outside of Vegas. I had the road to myself and it was a pleasant drive, another reminder of how pretty the desert can be without Las Vegas in it.

I finished up the loop of the park and drove back to Tacos El Gordo for some late breakfast tacos.

It was time for me to head to the airport, so I filled up the Passat and returned it to the agency. It’s not my favorite car, but it had treated us well for the trip for as much as we abused it with unpaved roads and wild temperature swings. I walked away from it feeling like a little kid waving goodbye to passing trains. “Bye bye, car.”

I was able to steal an entire exit row for the long flight to Atlanta. As we took off, I wedged myself into the window and looked out until all I could see were clouds. Then I fell asleep.

Cover Photo: Rob Hyndman

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