Monday, June 07, 2010

Yellowstone (etc.) May, 2010

Epic trip.  3,600 miles.  120 gallons of gas.  9 days, 8 nights and more awesome than can be described.  Impossible to confine it to a blog post, but I'll do my best.

I pack too much. It is my main travel flaw. However, this time there wasn't nearly as much as usual.

Since I was going to be cooking for us for every meal, the entire backseat was food, in the cooler, in grocery bags, on the seats, on the floors, everywhere, and like a good librarian, I sorted each bag by subject.  The acutely organized bags didn't last long and it became a free-for-all in about two days.

We took the scenic route to Madison, which was nice, then hopped on 90 for hundreds and hundreds of miles of cows. Cows are not creatures I dislike. On the contrary, I find their enormous eyes sweet and lovely. But the volume of cows we saw wore away their welcome in our sight. Southern Minnesota is much the same as Wisconsin, though there are a few areas where cows are replaced by windmills, and even though they're not all that interesting, we were excited for something else to look at.

And... then we were back to cows again.

With our day-one driving destination to be Wall, SD, just entering the state was a relief.  It felt like we'd been driving forever, but when we finally arrived, it was only something like 14 hours.

Something interesting about South Dakota that I learned on this trip: SD's state bird is the Chinese ring-necked pheasant, which is a gigantic draw for hunters in the fall. Part of me marveled at the idea that the state bird is a coveted meal upon the table, a creature the state invites folks from all around to come and shoot, which did not translate at all to Illinois' state bird, the cardinal. I cannot see Illinois saying, “Here's our lovely state bird. Come on over and kill a few for dinner, won’t ya?!” Yet, as absurd as it seemed, it made sense as well. Pheasants are in abundance, plus they put food on the table, money in the wallet, and draw visitors from all over. They are probably more prized in SD as game than our own cardinals are prized here as just another pretty bird in the trees. 6 months after my visit to SD had changed my outlook on farming, hunting and agriculture, I was returning with my newly opened mind and seeing the unusual attitude toward animals, and being at peace with it, reinforcing my belief that my horizons are expanding as I explore new ones.

Schwee brought a video camera, which was a thorn in my side for most of the trip. He is your typical over-videoing guy, constantly narrating the trip, interviewing me, making me repeat everything I said or did to get it on camera, and it didn't take long for me to want to whip this vile piece of equipment out the window.

After an overnight in Wall, SD, we headed to Wyoming. If there were things that outnumbered the cows on our drive, it was the bugs. We had to stop every couple hours, needing gas or not, to clean the windshield. The bumper of my car didn't receive any such treatment and the bugs just kept accumulating. When I got home from the trip, my brother asked if we went off-roading, which we did, but he asked because of the splotches all over the front of my car. No, bro, that's not mud -- it's bugs.

Eastern South Dakota looks pretty much like Southern Minnesota, which pretty much looks like most of Wisconsin, but when you cross the Missouri River, South Dakota changes in appearance and becomes its own unique landscape. Eastern Wyoming is the same. The red dirt shows up in South Dakota, but it takes on a different personality in Wyoming, where the landscape again changes and flattens out. There are still some rolling green hills, but the land is almost completely empty of trees. I don't know if it's the wind that rendered the area treeless or if the treelessness makes the area ripe for a maelstrom of wind. Whatever the case, my car was all over the road  from the powerful wind, and thankfully I was alone on 90 for most of the trip. We even pulled over in mid-afternoon to take a quick, 30-minute nap, and the car rocked us to sleep in the violent wind.

We weren't sure if we were going to stop at Devil's Tower or not, and I hadn't even decided until we were in Sundance and I missed the turn for a rest area and found myself on the road to Devil's Tower. Hmm, guess where we're going.

The mythology behind Devil's Tower is far more interesting than the reality, and thanks to the Native Americans who have long considered this site sacred, I actually stopped to read all the information about the significance of this odd monolith. What intrigued me the most were the columnar segments of rock (lava, actually) that looked like bundled asparagus stems to me; they're even greenish. I particularly enjoyed the story about the 7 little Indian girls who were running from a giant bear and the land rose up to protect them, while the bear tried climbing it, leaving behind the enormous claw scratches in the rock.

Prayer cloths decorated trees all over the place.

Schwee noticed a teeny-tiny little person ascending the tower and it brought perspective to this behemoth. It's a big rock. Good luck, bub.

Schwee snapped this pic of me snapping pics of the big rock. He was lying on a rock, contemplating another nap at the time.

He insisted we walk up the path, and I knew we were pressed for time, so I agreed to only a short stroll. Ahhh, altitude, you funny, funny thing! I got about 10 ft up the steep walkway and almost had to sit down to catch my breath. 20 ft up and I had to pretend to read a plaque in order to stop panting. By the time I reached the top of the path that evens out with the base of Devil’s Tower, I was sweating and felt much like I’d just ridden my bike 10 miles. All these years I’ve taken oxygen for granted, but not anymore.

Pieces of the rock have separated and crumbled down at the foot of the beast and here Schwee and I are proclaiming ourselves “on” Devil’s Tower.

As we were leaving Devil's Tower, we drove through a prairie dog town and this trio of pups hung around and entertained us for quite some time. Those long, leeeeetle fingers are so cool!

There have been a few emotional moments of awe in my life when I have viewed something unimaginable, something breathtaking, something gut-wrenching, and some of those moments included my first sight of Niagara Falls, the blinding neon colors of my first autumn in Munising, Michigan, the heartbreaking stories of lost lives at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum (DAMN that Gordon Lightfoot song!), the alien landscape of South Dakota west of the Missouri River, being surrounded by buffalo in Custer State Park, and here, viewing my first real mountains. It was hard to contain myself then and harder to describe the sensation now.

When I was little, the most enormous, engaging, awe-inspiring thing I knew was Lake Michigan, and it remained my magnetic East Pole for most of my life. When I began traveling, Lake Superior took over as the most gargantuan, awesome thing I’d ever seen, and driving around its shores seemed like climbing Mt. Everest might be to others. Each new trip seemed to replace my vision of reverence with something larger, something more impressive than the last, and here, the mountains ruled all that had come before them. Everything that people said about the overwhelming sight of mountains was true.

Rain was heading in, and we could see the mountains disappearing into the dark clouds, so we hit the road promptly and made our way north into Buffalo, Wyoming.

Schwee needed some coffee so we pulled off the highway and traveled down a strange dirt road to a cafe/hotel/convenience store off of Lake De Smet. The area looked run-down and the distance we were traveling on this dirt road to find the business started to concern us both. He suggested we turn around and try to find a gas station or McDonald’s, but something pushed me and I drove on, then parked right at the cafe and walked inside, as if possessed.

There was a kindly woman working the counter who patiently put up with our questions and poking about, making me a ham and grilled cheese sandwich on deliciously thick, dense, wheat bread, and a coffee for Schwee. The rain began falling and we wondered if we should hang out for a while until it passed by or drive through the mountains into this mysterious weather. Within moments, our hostess announced that there was a rainbow outside and we both ran for the windows and saw that there was indeed a massive, complete rainbow that seemed to arch up over top of the cafe, glistening in the sunlight and contrasting dramatically with the dark cloud that was now behind the rainbow.

I said, “I wonder if this is an omen.”

In my very next breath, I asked the woman at the counter how far it was to our destination, Cody, WY. She said we were still some 300 miles away and I nearly fell over. We’d been driving for most of the day and I was completely pooped. However, she asked what route we intended to take. I answered that Google Maps gave us instructions to take 14 to Cody. She shook her head in disapproval, pulled out a map and illustrated that we should drive south and reenter Buffalo, then take 16 instead. She assured me it was a safer, more scenic route, and we’d get there faster as well. I was skeptical, but I thought about the rainbow and decided to follow her instructions.

Trust in strangers (or anyone else, for that matter) is hard for me to come by, but I was in unfamiliar territory and dealing with someone who was in a position to help me, so I allowed that help -- a feat in and of itself -- and the reward was tremendous!

16 begins climbing in elevation from Buffalo (sitting at 4,700 ft) and approaches the Big Horn Mountain range, some peaks over 13,000 ft in elevation. These heights rival the Tetons, and yet I’d never heard a peep about them when planning my trip. People leave out the darnedest things. We drove up and up, winding around the southern end of the Big Horns, and every turn around a corner revealed the mountains from a new angle, in a new light, and we had to have quietly gasped and said, “Woooooow,” about 100 times before we’d hit the apex of the route and began descending.

One of the reasons I like traveling with Schwee is that he gets me out of my shell a little more than I would alone. He makes me stop so that we can see things up close, he pulls me into conversations with locals that are usually quite enlightening, he reads about the history of what we see, and he coaxes me to experience things more completely than just by sight from the window of my car, and Yellowstone would've been a poorer experience without him, for sure. But, me being me, I resist at every turn.

Schwee asked me to stop at the next available road so that he could get out and walk, breathe in the mountain air, stomp on the mountainous land, and get a real feel for where we were, instead of just rolling upon the road through the area. I obliged and abruptly turned onto a dirt road. He got out of the car and found himself staring at something new to him: ginormous buffalo poop. His shock made me laugh. Yeah, it's a big turd.

He invited me to get out of the car and walk with him, but I declined. He begged. I refused. He pouted and walked off, which is when I considered it fully. (I'm a bit stubborn. But just a bit. Ahem.) Again, as if possessed, I don't know what drove me, but I got out of the car and hurriedly stomped past him, waded through shallow mud, followed my instincts and ended up at the shore of this semi-frozen creek, which was just amazing. There were trails up the hills that could've been made by anything from antelope to deer to elk to buffalo, and I felt a little like I was standing in someone else's home.

As we left the area, there was a sign that proclaimed this part of the Big Horn National Forest "Crazy Woman Point". Hmmpf. o_O

The Big Horn Mountains are part of the Big Horn National Forest, full of lakes and resorts and everything you might imagine in accessible mountains, including road construction tying up traffic. However, the pausing for construction was a welcome respite, allowing us to look around at the surrounding landscape and really absorb it.

Coming out of the Big Horns, we found ourselves in Ten Sleep Canyon, a sight my eyes could not fully take in. The cliffs, the forest, the creek below, and coming from the top, winding all the way down, around, and through the canyon, was beyond beautiful. And we hit the area right before sunset, so that the sandstone fired up in delicious peach and creamy golden colors, offset by the deep, dark green of the pines that carpeted the edges. I could’ve lived there and never grown tired of the view.

My entire life, I've battled with a fear of heights that has crippled me. I cannot climb higher than the first rung on a ladder, have white knuckles driving over the smallest bridges, and full-on anxiety attacks when near a height that I could fall from and be harmed. Trips get planned avoiding large bridges, and sights are avoided if they are too high up for me to approach. It's like I was born with a missing limb having this tremendous phobia, and no hope of the limb growing back so that I can live a normal life. A handicap like this does not garner much sympathy from my travel companions who are held back by my own fears, but I never imagined I could grow the limb that contained the courage to overcome this phobia. Yet, here I was, driving in the Big Horn Mountains, traversing a dramatic landscape with huge drop-offs, a lack of guardrails and frightening switchbacks, and I had no fear. The beauty of my surroundings caused something to shift in my head, caused a limb to start to grow where it had never been, and found myself slowing down the car for the sheer thrill of looking down. For the first time in my life, I wasn't afraid.

Beauty trumps fear.

I could write for an hour about what a miracle this is, how monumental a change this is in my personality, in the direction of my life, but I don't have the words to capture the enormity of this feat, so I'll let it go. Just know that in Tensleep Canyon, I felt myself being reborn.

I can think of no better place on earth to find myself born anew.

Though it's impertinent to this tale, it pains me not to mention that the travel for this day was supposed to be an easy 8 hours of driving from Wall, SD to Cody, WY, and no such ease occurred. Though we stopped at Devil's Tower for an hour, and at Lake De Smet for a half-hour, it was a 15-hour day of travel, with the last half-hour spent driving around Cody at 11 pm looking for our hotel, which was hidden on a side street by the same name as the main street. It was like being in Wisconsin. One can't help but wonder if any state in the bottom of the alphabet has logical street-naming philosophies! And that's the end of that rant. Sorry. I'm still bitter.

In the light of day, Cody is a much more interesting town than at 11 pm on a weeknight. It’s surrounded by enormous hills, though it’s situated in the Big Horn Basin, cupped by two ranges of mountains. It still looks like a modernized version of an Old West town, with ridiculously wide streets, conjuring up images of horse and wagon, where manifest destiny created towns, and homesteaders settled either temporarily or permanently. I could almost imagine dirt roads, hitching posts, piles of furs for trade or sale, and handlebar mustaches. Was that whiskey in the air I smelled? Could be. A gunshot roaring in the distance? Not unlikely. Add some pavement, siding, cars and electricity, and not too much has changed there.

The drive from Cody to Yellowstone is one I can only say you have to see to believe. It begins with rocky hills surrounding a river valley, lush and full of wildlife, and this morphs into more sprawling land, higher peaks and a wider valley, bereft of trees and covered with a dingy green blanket of grass. As you approach Yellowstone, the landscape changes again and the mountains take over until you are hugging a granite mountain wall in the Sylvan Pass of the Absaroka Range as it winds upward, while you’re looking out at the surrounding peaks that rise again about 12,000 ft in elevation. Snow-covered and glistening in the bright sunlight, these mountains helped me to solidify my new-found lack of fear of heights driving in mountains.

And finally, the sign we dreamed of seeing for most of our lives...
It was an awesome moment and possibly the most beloved sign I've ever laid eyes on.

Once through the mountains at Sylvan Pass and into the park, the towering pines -- some living, some not -- created a barrier between us and the view beyond of the Absaroka Mountains and Yellowstone Lake.

What first struck us, something we expected even less than the breathtaking sights, was the snow. It was the end of May and we did expect the weather to be unpredictable, with lows in the upper 30s at night, but we did not expect this much snow and ice. The just-in-case down coat I brought was put to good use, and Schwee was never without his monstrous winter coat that we call The Sofa.

Immediately, there were thermal vents hissing and roaring with their steamy releases, and buffalo grazing about the sulfur-scented flats. The odor was atrocious, somewhere between fireworks and rotten eggs, and whenever I saw steam rising from thermal activity, my face would twist up in anticipation of the stench.

I had no idea how much thermal activity goes on at Yellowstone! I mean, you read about it and there are many areas rife with touristy boardwalks and such, but the vents are so numerous that they aren’t even all marked or mapped. They line the sides of roads, bubble up in lakes and rivers, gurgle on hillsides, pustulate in mud bubbles randomly on paths to other things, and spark up the color and scent of just about any surface they poke through. Some are old and no longer active. Some look new. Some shift location and protrude a few feet from their original eruption. They are everywhere! How anyone knows when there’s a fire in the park, able to differentiate burning smoke from all the smoky steam rising from the vents, I will never know.

Thermal vents that burst up on the shoulder of the road that hugs Yellowstone Lake, which drains into the lake and keeps the shoreline here melted.

Okay, so he saw the size of the poop the day before, and he is not a stupid man, but something strange came over Schwee, and he jumped out of the car and hauled ass across a field to the top of an embankment where a herd of buffalo were, and he watched this herd take off when they saw him, but he didn't realize he had his back to a huge bull who was less intimidated by his presence than the rest of the herd. Schwee turned around, video camera in hand, and found this massive beast heading toward him. We have the video. I'll try to post it -- it's pretty funny as Schwee casually says, "Howdy, buffalo," as if they were neighbors. But Schwee stood there and the buffalo walked by him, grunted, and never did a thing more threatening. I sat in the car, snapping pictures of this, wondering if these were to be his last moments on earth.

The Absaroka Mountains and Yellowstone Lake

We entered the park from the East Entrance and headed south around Yellowstone Lake and made a stop at the West Thumb Geyser Basin. If you ever visit Yellowstone, this boardwalk stroll is an absolute must-see. You have bubbling fumaroles, brilliant colors, forests, the lake, and the mountains behind it all. It's a mesmerizing combination of sights and smells, and if you're lucky, you'll have elk and buffalo wandering around as well.

The colors of the water, in seemingly bottomless abysses of heated springs, are jaw-droppingly radiant, toxic in appearance, pungent in odor, and strangely inviting.

Famous images of Yellowstone have been shot here, and I recognized many of them on this walk.

Steam rising from the hot fumaroles and icicles hanging from the lake's rocky shore contrasted interestingly.

The fumaroles percolate up from deep in the earth, bringing gasses and minerals that bake and coat the crust, seeping and dripping down the slopes to the lake. Stay on the boardwalk, folks, and enjoy the warmth of the steam, because the acids in the colorful liquid you're admiring will melt the seams of your shoes quickly, and they will fall apart, so warned a fellow we encountered.

This is Schwee, wearing The Sofa, standing across from me on one of the larger fumaroles in the West Thumb Geyser Basin, but by no means one of the larger in the park. Despite the stench, the steam felt good on this cold day.

A rainbow of colors are possible here. Orange, blue, yellow, green, and the strangest of all, the pale gray bubbling mud.

We didn't spend much time in Yellowstone that day, since the plan was to head out of the South Entrance and straight into Grand Teton National Park. Once we had bypassed Yellowstone Lake, it was all hilly pine forests with the Absaroka Mountains in the distance.

That is... until the Absarokas were behind us and the Tetons were in front of us.

This is a Teton. Tetons are awesome. All hail the Tetons.

We stopped at an overlook area near Jackson Lake, and I jumped out of the car and was immediately surrounded by the coolest birds. They were yellow-headed blackbirds, and they have the prettiest call. Schwee told me they were yellow-headed blackbirds because in another moment of serendipity, at a previous stop he'd picked up a book about the birds of the area and it opened up to the page on yellow-headed blackbirds, which he read about and then put the book away. The only bird he read about happened to be the ones swarming us. Hmmm. Anyway, Schwee got out a loaf of bread and soon the birds were no longer interested in me, but they were eating right out of his hand.

The Tetons are almost otherworldly to me. Maybe it was the the low clouds, the inclement weather, the lingering winter characteristics, but it was all so alien to me that they might have been a painting behind the bushes and trees.

So, we drove closer and approached these monsters as near as we could.

I had read about the Tetons and all the wonderful areas to visit, including this view at Jenny Lake, where you can take a boat across and hike to a waterfall on the side of the mountain. I considered it as an option when planning the trip, without knowing the lake would be frozen.

We got close. Really close. We were in the microclimate that the mountains created, and it rained on us at such a steady pace that made the landscape lush, filled the air with the scent of wet pines, and caused me to ponder if it ever stopped raining here.

Many people come to the Tetons and Yellowstone in the summer when it's hot and sticky, buggy and crowded. The sun blazes, your skin burns and then sticks to the seats of your car, which you remain trapped in due to all the construction and crowds, and the wildlife is distant, both physically and emotionally. Perhaps there are lakes and streams in which you can fish and boat. Perhaps there are longer days in which to romp around. But sincerely, from the bottom of my heart, I would not trade these end-of-winter days in the Tetons and Yellowstone for any other time of the year. What fun are 13,000-ft mountains if not moodily hiding behind clouds and snow? The Tetons convinced me that we were there at the absolute rightest possible time. Accessible frozen lakes, snow-capped peaks, short sage bushes, and the allure of anything being possible around every single corner made it magical in a way that it could never have been any other season. This was what I expected of majestic mountains, and it delivered, on all fronts.

Due to the rain and cold, we didn't make too many stops and found ourselves in Jackson, WY earlier than expected. We stayed at the Motel 6 in Jackson, and having stayed in the cheapest chain hotels many times in my life, I expected this one to be no different. Whoa, what a surprise! This was easily the most hilarious room I've ever seen. It was like Ikea on acid! It was this combination of neuvo-retro and Euro-trash. I opened the door to the room as Schwee started getting our gear out of the car, and I ran back out laughing, demanding he put everything down and get a look at our room. He was equally shocked. It was decorated in black laquer, orange, brown, white and yellow. I didn't know whether I was in a Brady Bunch episode or looking at an Austin Powers themed room.

The ginormous TV was a shock, particularly for such a cheap motel chain, but we smiled largely at the prospects and spent the night watching Schwee's home videos on the big screen.

The bathroom was the most ridiculous. It was divided into two rooms, separated from the sleeping area by two swinging doors. In the first part of the bathroom, the light and rolled-towel cubby cracked me up. It was totally sci-fi.

Then you walk into the second room of the bathroom and there was a small but tall cylindrical shower, where the showerhead was on the outer rim and shot toward the wall. I half expected a bay door to close around you in that shower, like the device used in bank drive-throughs that suck the canister up and away to the tellers inside. Where would I be transported?

Schwee loved it, found it amusingly entreating, and I despised it. I did nothing but mock the decor and my sneers dripped with disdain. It was despicable to me, and I couldn't pinpoint why until I stepped out of the room the next day and had an epiphany. That room was the exact opposite of the Western, historical, timeless Americana I'd gotten accustomed to already, the very reason I was there. The Eastern European family who ran the motel offered up an alternative to the neverending Western atmosphere in the region, probably thinking it a welcome reprieve, and it was so not for me. I couldn't get enough of the New Old West look, which didn't bore me at all. I liked the lodge-like look of all the businesses, the touristy products that tried to combine real usable objects (hunting knives, walking canes, warm hats) with commercial quirkiness (made of antlers, emblazoned with "Yellowstone", or exaggerating the the stereotypes with cowboy style), and even the mounted heads of animals on walls everywhere were a curious draw to me. I spent the night in a motel room with a space-age shower in the middle of Wyoming! It felt wrong. It felt like I'd been robbed. I hated every second and couldn't wait to leave. I wanted to be steeped back in the Rocky Region feel, and even 14 hours out felt yucky. I can get this junk at home. I did not want it there.

In the morning I woke up to find Jackson in the middle of a snowstorm that had been blanketing the area on and off all night. My car was coated in snow and ice, as were all the hills surrounding us. Snow would fall, reducing visibility to nothing, and then it would relent briefly. We took our sweet time getting up, getting out, getting breakfast, and then heading back into the heart of town.

Jackson rocks, let me tell you. It has something for everyone, and I wished for more time to explore this cool place. Then I discovered the best thing of all.

HOLY FLYING SPAGHETTI MONSTER, what a windfall of good luck we found!

I had read about Antler Fest and thought it was going on the weekend before we'd be in Jackson, which disappointed me but there was no way to get there a week earlier. Antler Fest is an annual event that takes over Jackson with a flurry of activity and excitement in celebration of the end of winter, when the ruminants (deer, elk and moose) shed their antlers. Mainly, what happens is the gigantic elk refuge in Jackson allows the local Boy Scouts to come in and collect all the shed antlers sometime around the beginning of May, and toward the middle or end of May the town has this festival in celebration of the event, and not only are the Boy Scouts' antlers for sale, but vendors from all over come to sell their antlers as well. It was a sea of antlers! I was agog! I was dumbstruck! I was in heaven!

I bought antlers. Two big bunches of them. I have no idea what I'm going to do with them, but I have antlers and it makes me happy.

Schwee bought a cow horn. Leave it to him to go to an antler festival and buy a cow horn. But he loves his cow horn, silly boy.

Once we tore ourselves away from all the antlers and headed back into the Tetons going north. Viewing the Tetons from the side put the Jackson airport between us and the mountains and I couldn't help but snap this shot of a plane taking off with the Tetons behind it.

Now, I complained about the abundance of cows on the drive west, but there's something even more abundant than cows, more abundant than bugs, and more abundant than just about anything else, and that's sage. Sage is everywhere. Every. Where.

This is my favorite picture that I shot of the Tetons. Snow was still falling on and off and the clouds were amazing, but occasionally the sun would shoot beams down in random locations and it created these incredibly dramatic views. This is what I remember when I think of the Tetons.

Snow-covered sage that goes on and on and on and on, and then a little bump of a foothill opposite the Tetons.

DUDE, the serendipity! I cannot emphasize this enough! The mountains were nearly invisible all morning, and it snowed more on than off, but we reached this viewing platform at the Snake River Overlook, where Ansel Adams shot that famous picture, and briefly the skies cleared over us while another crazy snow cloud moved in on the peaks. The the cold held long enough for the dusting to stick to the trees, though you could see it falling from the branches in massive chunks. The gray sky brought out the green in the river, set off by the green and white of the trees, and I got to the Ansel Adams spot of the overlook and about peed my pants. WHAT A SCENE!

Schwee dawdled, took pictures of other things like this tree... which is cool...

... but I about ran to the spot I knew would be the best, knowing the weather wouldn't hold, that the magic of the clouds would fade, the mountains would disappear, and the snow would start falling again, and I snapped like crazy. I beckoned to him, wanting to tell him about Ansel Adams and show him this spectacular view and this perfect moment of cloud cooperation, but he brushed me off. Oh well. My nose was running down my upper lip, my sunglasses were fogged up, and I could hardly stop my limbs from shaking in the cold, but I stayed as long as I could stand it, took picture after picture, and then stood and gazed at the mystical moment among the mountains. And then it started to snow.

Between snowstorms, I snapped this view across from the Tetons.

The snow that fell was odd. It was pellets, not snow. And it hurt like crazy if it hit bare skin, so we stayed covered or in the car as we drove north through the mountains.

I'm telling you, something was conspiring with us through the trip. Pellets of snow fell in massive amounts as we drove from overlook to overlook, clearing briefly when we arrived at each stop to get out of the car. This is the clearing we received at Oxbow Bend on the Snake River, another famous spot in the Tetons, and I snapped this shot, watching osprey swooping over the water, and then the snow pellets started falling again.

When we weren't at a heartstopping overlook that made us understand why these mountains are so beloved, we were inundated with snow, like this.

As we were leaving the park, snippets of the Tetons were visible briefly across Jackson Lake. This is Lake View Point, the first and last views of the Tetons one is privy to.

I bid the Tetons adieu, which Schwee yelled at me not to say because it was far too sad, and we imbibed the last swig of Tetons we would have.

On the road back into Yellowstone, Schwee grew drowsy and fell asleep as I drove toward the South Entrance. The scenery was the same, close pine forests rolling up and down, so he wasn't missing much except that we were now seeing it covered in snow rather than bare. It was, quite literally, the middle of nowhere, and I saw this thing on the road, jogging along. We'd seen a number of joggers who also seemed to be in the middle of nowhere, so I figured it was another oddball running where people seldom wander. As I got closer, it looked more like a horse than a person, but without a rider, this struck me as even weirder than a lone jogger in the wilderness. What was a horse doing out here alone?

When I realized it wasn't a horse, I began slapping Schwee's leg to wake him up, and I failed to remember any words other than, "LOOK!" Groggily, he opened his eyes and beheld what I was freaking out about. While he tried to grab the video camera, he barked orders at me about slowing down, backing off and trying not to scare it off. We couldn't possibly lose our first moose ever because I got too aggressive chasing it! But he turned abruptly and trotted off into the woods.

Moose are strange, lanky animals, and they kind of wobble as they go, which tickled me pink. I let rip a string of expletives that were the only things Schwee got on video, of course, and the only proof we have of the event is the photos I somehow snapped while driving and stalking a moose.

The high of having seen a moose was intense, and it carried us for days. Whenever it got quiet, I felt the need to shout out, "We saw a moose!" and then we'd get all giddy for a bit. Each stranger we encountered along the way, my face lit up and I had to stop myself from just blurting out that we saw a moose. I wanted to tell the world! It was amazing! If we had arrived on that road just a minute later or a minute earlier, we never would've seen it. Serendipity, again. It was almost excruciating!

Lewis River leads the way back into Yellowstone, and Lewis Falls sits conveniently near the roadside.

Lewis River started to drop, or the road started to climb -- I know not which. Soon we were high above the river.

It was then that I realized something important. Of all the scenes, all the landscapes, all the lovely views one can consume while driving, my very favorite is a winding road along a river, nestled in a valley with mountains and cliffs rising on either side. I can almost filter out the extraneous reality and feel like I'm riding the rapids down the river, surrounded by mountains towering beside me, predatory birds soaring above me, large trout paddling below me, and I'm completely encompassed in splendor. It's the best drive. I don't care if it's snow covered or sun bleached, give me a river to drive along in a valley and there is peace in me that cannot be accomplished in any other way.

There are a few points of marginal interest throughout Yellowstone, like the 45th parallel (halfway between the North Pole and equator), and here we have Schwee illustrating the vital importance of recognizing the Continental Divide. His orange juice goes one way and my Diet Coke goes another. Fascinating, yes?

It snowed continuously, slowing our drive around the southern part of Yellowstone, that is until we arrived at Kepler Cascades, and again, it cleared just long enough for us to get to the platform for viewing this beautiful waterfall, and it held briefly so we could enjoy it, and then started coming down in massive flakes again.

It snowed and snowed and snowed. We got to Old Faithful about 30 minutes before it was going to erupt and sat on a bench on the boardwalk surrounding this famed geyser, blanketed in a layer of snow. We must have looked nuts, hunkered down, grimacing, slowly turning whiter and whiter. Schwee told me I looked like a buffalo, frowning and unmoving, getting slowly buried in snow, and I said I couldn't get up to shake it off because I was conserving energy to stay warm. In that moment, I understood the buffalo.

But I moved and pointed when I spotted a bluebird, which a ranger happily pointed out was a mountain bluebird. It's a gorgeous bird, but I have to say, our indigo buntings back home are a much prettier blue.  Sorry, Mr. Bluebird.

It was so cold that the covering of snow didn't even melt, just sat on top of us, and then it happened again. I'm telling you, there was something going on in the universe I can't explain. The snow stopped. The sun came out. It melted the layer of snow on us, and within a couple minutes of the weather clearing, before the dark clouds had even moved from view of the geyser, Old Faithful began to erupt. With the sun warming us up, we all began to come back to life, and when the geyser exploded into the air, vitality reemerged and the audience also exploded in applause. It was like watching mummies become animated, slowly the crowd rose, awakened, shook off their remaining shackles of cold, and cheered for the fountain of water and steam shooting out of the earth's crust.

They say it can reach between 100 - 185 feet in height, and it looks dwarfed in this photo, but this was the peak of the eruption. Impressive it was, but I was nowhere near as moved as Schwee, who was overwhelmed.

I found this post inside the visitors center at Old Faithful and it left me a little uneasy. I knew the area was some of the most unstable on earth, with earthquakes and underground rumblings that could wipe out the country if they blew, but to see that over 1,800 earthquakes have happened in the last 5 months was shocking. Thankfully they were tiny.

Near Old Faithful is the Black Sand Basin, a boardwalk-path of thermal activity both stinky and chromatic, with small geysers and massive pools of churning, boiling water, which overflow and run down the land to eventually drain into Firehole River.

Most of the pictures Schwee and I took were pretty similar. Each time one of us stopped to shoot something, the other would take note and shoot it as well. Here I have an example of how we can both shoot the same thing in different ways.

This is his photo of the runoff from a fumarole.

And this is mine.

I prefer his. He is always shooting things on diagonals and I never do because I like symmetry and balance, but he nailed it and I barely grazed it.

The colors... just unbelievable. And you have to wait for a gust of wind to blow the steam away so you can see the vibrant colors in the pools, otherwise you're just standing over a mysterious cauldron.

For some reason, I do my very best to avoid shots of people or any man-made structures in my photos. I like to look at them later without the reminders of what intruders we were. Yet, Schwee thinks the people are as important as the attractions, including them or even featuring them in his photos, and bugger if that doesn't work, too.


Here's a new one for me. Once we got out of the Black Sand Basin, it started snowing again, which was getting old, but it was sunny out! There are shadows in that picture.  Snow in the sun! Seriously, I've lived in the Midwest all my life and this may have happened once or twice, but this began happening all afternoon throughout Yellowstone. Snow in the sun: c'mon!

I could tell we were dropping in elevation because the snow wasn't sticking. Between bursts, all there was to see was green.

Having exhausted our tolerance of the snow and cold, we pulled into the parking lot of the Fountain Paint Pots and had a PB&J sandwich, hoping to gather the energy and stamina to walk out to see these thermals, but after we ate, we were instead ready for a nap. This was where Schwee and I had a fight about the proper way to make PB&J, and I knew we were toast for the day. We skipped these thermals and made our way out of the West Entrance toward our next destination, the Stagecoach Inn in West Yellowstone, Montana.

The snow stopped as we left the park, and I found myself blissfully driving down a road next to a river, boxed by high, rocky cliffs. All the stress of the snow and cold had faded and I felt better again.

The Stagecoach Inn was a stay I had been dreading, largely because it was pricey due to having to pay extra not to have a room over the bar. I figured it would be a dump. I anticipated a bar-like atmosphere and rowdy patronage for neighbors, and I wondered if we'd get any sleep at all in this place.

What a pleasant surprise to find it was actually the coolest place we stayed! This was no crappy hotel with a bar. It was like a massive, pine lodge, old piano in the lobby, rustic decor, massive mounted animal heads on the walls, warm and inviting atmosphere, fantastic grand stairway and fabulous stone fireplace greeting everyone as they walked in. I was in love. And then we got to our room and found it to be decorated with antlers! ANTLERS!

Buffalo and elk adorned the curtains, border, and headboard, and the cabin-style furnishings were fun. The massive bed, pristine and white, was covered in the fluffiest down blanket, and an over-abundance of pillows across the head made it feel so inviting and clean.

I got ideas for my antlers, things to do with them. Yay! And Schwee admired the many shadowboxes of arrowheads adorning the walls. Overall, you could not have asked them to design a room more suited to our tastes.

We immediately felt revitalized and Schwee wandered down to the lobby to play some songs on the piano. Though I was in the room changing clothes and settling in, I could hear him play and then the happy applause he received after, which made me smile. It was a good place. It had good vibes. It felt good being there.

It was still early in the evening and we took a walk down the streets of West Yellowstone, Montana, a very touristy town, visited all the open shops, bought almost nothing, braved another snowfall in the bright sunlight, and wound up at the pizza place across from the hotel. The bartender was our waiter, and this chatty fellow was yakking with everyone about the crazy snowstorms in the sun that had been happening all afternoon. It was the talk of the town. I wanted to tell him we saw a moose, but I kept my silly trap shut and talked with him about the weather, like everyone else.

After dinner, we walked back to our room and settled in for a wonderful night in our favorite hotel.

The next morning we headed back into Yellowstone. We saw eagles along the way, spotted mountains in the distance, and elk aplenty grazing along the river.

The pine forested hills hugging the road in the morning were just as great as they had been the afternoon before. I just love this terrain.

Heading east into the West Entrance, staring at the rising sun glistening off the river.

Okay, we'd seen a lot of wildlife, but the only babies we'd seen were prairie dogs until we spotted this baby buffalo, and then a soap opera of drama ensued. I'll paraphrase. Baby buffalo got separated from its mom and went tearing off down the street, looking bewildered, panicked, and causing traffic jams.

Daddy buffalo realized baby was missing and followed, so we blocked traffic to allow him to get easily to the baby, who was about a half-mile ahead of him. He was so slow!

We caught up with the baby, who finally found its mom.

The dad caught up with them and they trotted off down the street, reunion complete.

Meanwhile, Schwee and I were having heart attacks trying to figure out how to save the family, who probably didn't need saving. Whew... glad that ended well.

Back to the scenery.

The day before, we'd skipped the Fountain Paint Pots due to exhaustion and weather, and this leg we had to stop at the Artists Paint Pots. It was a long walk through the woods, and when we arrived, I proclaimed that there was no way I was going to be able to ascend the muddy path many stories up on a hillside to see the remaining paint pots. It was too high. I'd freak. So we walked, and the next thing I knew, I was up there, on the slippery, muddy path, way up high, not in the least bit intimidated. What a view, too!

This was new: the steam from the fumaroles was so dense that it covered the trees with moisture, which froze.

Looking down on the Paint Pots from way high up.

It started looking a little like organs, and this living, breathing planet had its insides on the outside here.

Ah, the fun blurps of mud bubbles!

An elk with velvet antlers! They shed their antlers in the end of the winter and new ones begin growing immediately, up to an inch a day. The layer of "velvet" surrounding the antlers is a membrane that will peel away by summer. Perhaps the only thing cooler than antlers is velvet antlers, and a big rack like this is magnificent.

This is Roaring Mountain, so named because of the constant bursting of thermal vents that cover this side. They sound like compressed air shooting out, or steam from a tea kettle minus the whistle. It's loud, and with this many in such a condensed area, it did indeed sound like the mountain was roaring.

On a sunny day, this is what it looks like to drive through most of Yellowstone.

At the Sheepeater Cliffs, I ducked into an outhouse for an emergency stop, and Schwee followed me quickly when I finished. Instead of waiting for him, I took off down the trail to the cliffs, where I read that yellow-bellied marmots were found. The trail was quite rough and I had to climb over fallen trees, balance on wobbly rocks down by the riverbank, and climb up and down muddy slopes. I figured Schwee would follow me, but the trail just kept going and going and I wasn't sure if I should return or keep going, so I kept going. It was unsteady and I was a little intimidated, but I soldiered on and finally made it to the cliffs, which looked just like Devil's Tower, only short. And there was this guy, lounging on the rocks, completely unhindered by my presence.

I waited for a while for Schwee to catch up to me, but he never arrived and I headed back. This is the part of the trail at the end where it got nicer and safer.

When I found him, he was at the beginning of the trail and I realized I'd disappeared for quite some time, most likely worrying him, so I apologized and asked why he didn't follow me on the trail. Schwee said he went down the trail as far as he thought I would go, and when he reached a point where he assumed I would've been too scared to go on, he turned around and went back to the car, knowing I wouldn't have gone farther than that point and I must have been somewhere else. It made me quite proud to have surpassed the scariest point on the trail, a point that he never thought I'd be able to pass. I looked suspiciously around, wondering if anyone else was looking at me differently, because I was certainly looking at myself differently now. Who was I? Where had this courage come from?

The mountains in the northwest corner of Yellowstone are glorious, but you don't really get to approach them.

Another feature at Yellowstone, this one a little less natural, is a car jam. Car jams occur whenever interesting wildlife is present. You can tell what kind of wildlife is around by the size of the car jam. This one was enormous and lasted roughly a half-mile, and was cordoned off with cones and signs warning of road hazards due to people and cars. A car jam of this size could only mean one thing: bears.

Yup. A mama grizzly and her four cubs were playing around in this draw, barely visible to the naked eye, and only pitifully blurry in my zoom lens.

Schwee and I are kind of modest folks and we aren't prone to throwing hissy fits in public. In private, all bets are off, but Schwee threw one of the few public hissy fits I've ever seen him have right here. It began with, "What the hell is a 'draw'?" Seriously, you could not see the mama bear without aid, and even then she was just a speck in a field. People were trying hard to help the new arrivals locate the bear, but with descriptors like, she's right above the V-shaped dead tree, by the green bush, in the draw, you couldn't discern that part of the landscape from any other. Schwee couldn't find the bear and almost completely lost it there on the side of the hill. I tried to calm him down, but it wasn't happening. I tried to help him see the bear, but he wasn't seeing her. He was fit to be tied and I had to step away and let him freak out so he could calm down and allow us to help him again. It was kinda funny. And yeah, the directions to the bear were so vague, so ridiculously nondescript that there was really no way to find her unless you got lucky and happened to gaze at her black speck as she was moving. Once Schwee got to see her through someone else's telescope, he calmed down, got my tripod, and we worked together to video the bears way off in the distance. It was pretty funny. But I think it took a year off his life. He spent the rest of the trip spontaneously yelling, "What the hell is a draw?!" or "Oh, yeah, the bear is over there, by the grass, next to the tree!" It still makes me laugh.

You can tell it's a grizzly by the hump over her shoulders. She was so cool, and through a zoom lens I could actually see the cubs rolling around, doing somersaults, walking on logs, etc. It was an unforgettable experience.

A very popular section of Yellowstone is Mammoth Hot Springs Terraces, and for good reason. The cascading springs and fumaroles are too cool!

The thermophiles that thrive in this hot water consume the sulfur that comes out of the earth and convert it to sulfuric acid, which rots the land and trees. However, they give the water this Kraft Mac & Cheese color.

The terraces are fabulous and deadly, consuming and boiling trees nearby, killing animals that are lured near them, and contrasting with the surrounding landscape.

Very hellish, and yet still beautiful. So odd, the dichotomy.

A view of the mountains with the steaming thermal vents at the terraces in the foreground.

Yet, seemingly in defiance of all that we know, a patch of grass and a plant grow in the middle of this orange, toxic spring.

This monster consumed trees and other things near it as it continued erupting and oozing, making what I can only liken to a massive stalagmite without a cave.

Mammoth is a strange town I wasn't too fond of because it felt too manufactured, but the proximity of people to wildlife permitted here was indeed alluring. Here a herd of elk lounge, completely relaxed, on a private residence near the parking area for the Hot Springs. People wandered up and down the sidewalk, not even 10 feet from them, and they didn't care in the least. Someone said that the elk spend a lot of time in town since wolves were reintroduced in the park. People must be less threatening, and I'm not sure if that's a smart idea.

Truly, I was standing just feet away and this elk couldn't have cared less. Look at the adorable little nubs of antlers about to grow in.

From Mammoth, we left Yellowstone again to spend the night outside the park, this time in Gardiner, Montana. And like so often before, the road in and out of the park is so breathtaking, it's a shame it's not a part of the regular loop. You have steep cliffs, the raging Yellowstone River, and a road between the two.

I'm a city girl. I have always thought of that as a positive trait, something that gave me a certain edge, a level of culture, of exposure, and of worldliness that rural America could never provide. I enjoy city life and the extravagances and conveniences it offers, though I prefer to dwell on the periphery, somewhere in the perceived safety and seclusion of suburbia, where I can hear birds singing as well as take public transportation to most destinations (though I don't because I worship my car so much). Urbanity seemed to me to be an advantage. As I get older, as I see more of the world and meet more of the people, I gain more understanding of my own naiveté. My bubble has popped. I'm a spoiled city girl so accustomed to the luxuries of modern urban life that I am often horrified by the concepts of country living. It’s so redneck, I think to myself. Outhouses? Camping? Fishing? Wha... where do you plug in the hair dryer? How do you shower? Panera is so very far away! How does anyone DO this? It’s positively uncivilized!

In discovering my coddled, pampered life, and my snobby and self-absorbed nature, I have also discovered my dislike for the city girl I have always been. In expanding my love for travel, I've had to make concessions I never dreamed I would, and the first time I had to make do with a pit toilet in an outhouse, all I could imagine were snakes, spiders, and other undesirables waiting for my soft, pink, exposed flesh to present itself in that aurora, and fangs aplenty would soon be digging in. I have since improved. I do not look forward to pit toilets, but I can use them without fear now. Such has been the growth I've experienced, which is slow going, even for a straight-A, determined girl like myself.

I want to be more of a country girl, dammit! I want to not run screaming when I see bugs. I want to be able to get my hands dirty and not hold them far away from my body, disgusted, unable to do a single other thing until I can be scrubbed squeaky clean again. I can't even eat food, including finger foods, with my bare hands (which I very nearly wig out trying to do). I want to stop being a crippled germ-phobe. I want to have jeans with stains that weren't intentionally put there by the designer as a fashion statement. I want to put my hair up and get sweaty, dirty, and messy. I want to cook outdoors, on something other than my ginormous gas grill with all my fancy grilling utensils. I want to find food in the wild -- and eat it, not marvel so this is where this comes from, huh. I want to be able to wear clothes more than once without feeling disgusting. I want to sleep outdoors. I want to be able to travel and not make sure that there is a suitable restaurant near every destination and in between. I want to let go of the stupid, vain luxuries I've indulged in my whole life. I want to I want to be able to be comfortable with myself in uncomfortable situations.

But my skin crawls and I recoil, I shudder, I back slowly away from the tent in my garage that I have never used, scoffing at the concept of going anywhere without my makeup, hair products, and jewelry. It's a long road. It's longer than the road to defeat my fear of heights. But I'm getting there. I want it, but it's so gross, yet I hate myself for thinking it gross. What a battle! Let me tell you, parents, don't let your kids grow up afraid of getting dirty. I grew up with terrible allergies, constantly breaking out in hives and springing bloody noses anywhere I went, and I lived in a bubble. This bubble extended well beyond my worst allergy years into my adulthood. I am not a clean freak, not by a long shot, and I'm perfectly comfortable staying in a hole-in-the-wall motel to save money, but when it comes to the outdoors, it all feels so filthy to me and I must, must, must get over this. It has been easier to battle my biggest demons than to overcome this need to stay clean, tidy and comfortable.

This trip I let go of a few things, which will seem insignificant, but they're huge steps for me.

First, I brought only 4 pairs of pants. Granted, I brought 3 pairs of shorts (bha, what a waste!), but I had 9 days of travel and no time to do laundry, so pants were worn more than once. It was rough. I felt grimy. But I did it.

Also, I bought a propane stove, which scared the bejeezus out of me because of the frightening combinations of open-flame, gas-canister, flame-thrower, skin-grafts fears, but I embraced it as a challenge and used it proudly. I made pita pizzas on my propane stove in the open air, in Montana, in bear country, where the picnic tables all had warnings nailed to them threatening of bear attacks if you leave out food, or randomly, if bears happen past and are hungry, or not. That was big. I cooked. Outside. With a gas-powered open-flame, in the wilderness. Well, in a park, but the park was in the wilderness. And I was scared, but I did it anyway, and when I was done, not only was I full (it was so delish!), but I was a little proud of myself. I no longer need restaurants. And that's HUGE! I cook for myself at home every single day, multiple meals a day, and now I have the means to do this anywhere I go as well. It's opened so many doors, and though I'm still a little fearful of the canister of roaring, gassy flames, I can handle it.

Schwee said that next time we travel, he's going to fish for us (well, for me, because he's a vegetarian), but he'll catch the fish and clean it, then I can prep it with breading or marinades and cook it, and then I will have a meal so fresh that it had been alive just an hour before. If that works out, perhaps I will take the next step and learn to fish myself. We shall see. I think about the fact that just a couple years ago I almost threw up into Lake Michigan when I watched a fisherman pull a gigantic fish out of the lake, then beat it with a bat until it stopped flopping on the pier, and now I'm considering fishing myself... it's simply mind-boggling sometimes. This new me, I kinda dig her.

One day I will camp. One day soon. I think I can do it now. And all it took was this little propane stove to persuade me.

We stayed at the Yellowstone Village Inn in Gardiner, which was okay, but it was no Stagecoach Inn, let me tell you. They all paled in comparison after that.

Going back into Yellowstone the next day was eerily welcomed with clouds and the enormous Roosevelt Arch, named for Teddy Roosevelt, a president who had much to do with the preservation of this great area. The stone arch is strangely foreboding, almost uninviting in my opinion, but that is no deterrent to me. I had serendipity on my side.

Stripey snow on a half-hidden mountain in the clouds, outside Mammoth. Such a funky weather day and really memorable scenery because of it.

Mammoth Hot Springs, snow-covered. Really, how many people see it like this? I consider myself fortunate and would not trade the weather for anything. It was definitely a pain in the neck, but oh what incredible opportunities and views it provided.

A mother and baby elk, fleeing. Babies everywhere. Just what I'd hoped for.

Heading east over the bridge that spans the Yellowstone River, with clouds in the valley beyond: so gorgeous.

On the way to the Petrified Tree (very anti-climatic, by the way), we encountered this elk with his gorgeous velvet antlers (I have such a one-track mind when it comes to racks), and he tolerated us parked on the side of the road in the rain as he munched away at the grass just a few feet from us.

Ahhh, the fuzzy antlers! I do so love them!

We arrived at the end of the open road that stopped at the town of Tower. We were faced with a decision to either leave the park out through Lamar Valley, then routing south back to Cody, where we'd have to come back to Yellowstone to see the remaining few sights, and then leave and return to Cody again; or our other option was to retrace half the park we'd already driven through and cut across between the upper and lower loop, to get to the town of Canyon. So we retraced our route through Yellowstone and saw everything in reverse, seeing new things we hadn't seen before because they had been behind us, or seeing them in different light.

Once we rounded past Mammoth, there was another enormous car jam. Not as big as the previous one, but still huge, and I could only think: another bear. Surely it was. This was a brown-colored black bear, and he was quite near the road and the gawkers running down the street following him, Schwee among them. It's a wonder he made it home with all his parts.

Undine Falls, which I wasn't too afraid to look at, despite the huge drop off a stone cliff, that is, until Schwee came bounding down the stairs and jumped up on the stone wall. My imagination ran away with me and I almost passed out, seeing him tumble over the side in my head. I took this shot and then went back to the car to regain my composure.

Interesting rock wall.

When we made it to Canyon, I had to make an emergency stop at a grocery store for some protein, feeling myself get shaky and weak from days and days of limited meat and eggs, and then we moved on to one of the biggest highlights of the entire park: the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone.

This: is high up! Like, pee-my-pants high up. I made it to within about 3 feet of the rock wall that encloses this vantage point and between the 40 mph winds that unsteadied me and the woman who ran up to the wall and leaned way over, I couldn't get any closer and ran back to the safety of the sidewalk. My fear of heights isn't completely gone, and a week before I probably couldn't have gotten out onto that ledge, but I still didn't make it to the edge, and that disappoints me. However, I got a hell of a view down the canyon.

Schwee loved this little patch of snow with trees at the bottom of the canyon. It was cute.

From the other side of the river, at an overlook called Artists Point, the waterfall into the canyon took away my fear and I walked all the way to the edge of the viewing platform to take this shot.

So, my fear of heights wavers, depending on a number of things, but when something is totally gorgeous, like this, it fades away.

We did it. We saw everything in the park we had to see. It was both gratifying and sad because it meant it was time to leave. As we were driving toward the East Entrance, where we would head back to Cody, we saw cars pulled over and people gazing way out into a field to see buffalo in the distance. I chuckled and said they were new because we'd had so many close encounters with buffalo in Yellowstone, that we didn't even slow down for anything that wasn't right up next to the road. That's when you know you've been in Yellowstone long enough. And so we left.

As we made our way out of the park, the weather that had held off all day started to get really ominous, first with rain, then sleet, and we had a mountain pass to drive through still.

Sylvan Pass was almost invisible this time around. The enormous peaks that glistened up in the sky with the sun were nowhere to be seen, and the rain and sleet turned into snow, completely obliterating anything other than the smaller peaks right next to us.

Visibility was diminishing, snow was falling like crazy, and I was down to 20 mph, winding and twisting down this steep mountain road, passing warnings about avalanches, wishing like crazy that there was a guardrail all the way, but there was not. It was still thrilling, and I wasn't afraid of the height except that the road was slick and I worried about sliding off the pavement. I looked over the sides, into yonder valley floor. (I felt compelled to use the word "yonder" at some point. It was needed.)

Once out of the Absaroka Mountains, the snow mellowed into rain. The terrain mellowed as well, though the same adored combination of river road and high cliffs led us back to Cody, WY.

We spotted two eagles here, as well as more deer than we could dream to count, and a few pronghorn antelope. It's a fabulous area that I could drive through repeatedly and never tire of, ever.

The mountains surrounding Cody were just as obliterated by clouds as they had been in Yellowstone, despite the slightly lower altitude.

A series of tunnels run through one mountain heading back into town, and we really enjoyed being in a mountain, if just briefly.

Massive, dark, frightening clouds slid through the area and just missed Cody, but you could tell they were going to drop a heap of something on somewhere nearby. Little did we know we'd be seeing that result the next day.

Cody is a great town. Along with Jackson, they were easily the two best towns of the trip, towns I would like to spend more time in when it is doable. Some day.

Leaving Cody and heading east toward the Big Horns is bittersweet. We debated whether to take the other route, 14, through the Big Horns or to revisit Tensleep Canyon and return the way we came. Somehow, I missed the turnoff for 14 and we were on 16 whether we wanted it or not, and heading right back for Tensleep Canyon.

Schwee looked at the map and found two roads that cut closer to the mountains than 16 on the boring stretch down towards Worland and came out at Ten Sleep, which sounded awesome, so we did it, and it was great.

The road was clear, the sky was full of puffy clouds, and the land was rolling and green. So very Wyoming.

On these lesser known streets, off the beaten path, we saw better sights and were actually slowed down because of cows in the road. Schwee tried to talk to them, but they were so disturbed by him that they got up and took off. I don't know what it was. Maybe we smelled like beef.

This, too, is classic Wyoming. Red dirt mixed with bright green grass in this fascinating blend of unusual colors.

In Ten Sleep, we refueled and dawdled a little while, if just because I have this affinity for the town that I can't quite put my finger on, and then we headed out of town toward the mountains. Along the way, we saw some more classics, like this rundown barn and sheep.

I just loved this sign. They're proud cattle people here.

And then we hit the canyon. Again, we were blown away by the beauty.

About halfway through the canyon, rising in altitude, we saw the snowline begin and immediately understood that the ominous clouds that missed Cody the night before had hit the Big Horns and dropped a load of snow upon the area.

It changed the feel of the canyon, though it was still just as enthralling.

It had been 60º before we hit the canyon, and the temp was dropping rapidly as we gained altitude, and we also found ourselves in more and more snow. I said, "I bet the temperature drops down below freezing at some point before we get out of here." Schwee asked me what temp I would bet on it hitting and I said 32º. It seemed unreasonable considering it was still in the upper 50s and we had the moonroof open with bright sunlight, but I had a feeling it was going to get really cold. Just look at that snow.

As we kept climbing, there was more and more snow.

And at the top, where we entered the mountains, there were still snow plows at work, clearing the streets. They probably got a foot of snow overnight. It was 1 in the afternoon on May 25, and we were looking at woods with a foot of new-fallen snow. It was surreal.

We couldn't help but laugh hysterically at these signs that popped up frequently, announcing a scenic area ahead. So blind to think that every inch of the drive wasn't scenic, because we sure thought it was.

Coming back down from the top of the mountains, we'd reached 31º and I was only off by one meager degree. Darn. Then the temp began climbing and the snow began disappearing. We were left with cloudy, rocky outcrops and forests again.

There were still many overlooks to enjoy the view of the Big Horn Mountains in the distance. We stopped for every one. These are special mountains to me and they always will be.

For years I've been viewing, and I read the book, The Daily Coyote, wherein Shreve Stockton tells the tale of how she ended up with her new life in Wyoming, after driving from California to New York on her Vespa, quitting her old life, and relocating to the region she spent only one day in, after falling in love with the Big Horn Mountains and the red dirt in this very unusual state. Stockton's fame comes from the coyote pup she lives with and photographs, and the glimpses we have of her life with Charlie are just as romantic and lovely as can be. Charlie the coyote is an ambassador, and Stockton is his presenter, and like many others, I have fallen for this canine and his charmed life in a beautiful area.

But what always struck me, and it's a question that seems to be asked often of her, is why Wyoming? Of all the places she's been, what was so special about Wyoming? Seriously. It's a very valid question if you have never seen that part of the country, and it might even be a valid question even if you have.

Going to Yellowstone, I couldn’t recall what town Stockton and Charlie lived in, but when I saw the red dirt, I immediately understood the allure. The dirt It's awesome! However, most of Eastern Wyoming is flat, treeless, rolling and windy. There are a few rocky areas where tall hills suddenly erupt, but mostly it's a vast, sprawling, rolling field of green and the occasional red, from your toes to the horizon and beyond. I don't know if this is where I pictured her living, but I did not understand the need to give up everything for this. And then I saw the Big Horns.

Now, I'm not going to quit my job, live in a shack on someone's land and build my own little farm from scratch somewhere in a state most people will never visit. However, having driven through the Big Horns, having found Ten Sleep, Wyoming and all it's delightful charm, I can honestly say I understand her decision. Not just on this trip, but the combination of all the places I've been in my life, I cannot think of a single other place more beautiful than the Big Horns, coming out of the peaks, dropping down into Tensleep Canyon, and following the creek through the valley and out, straight into Ten Sleep, Wyoming. There may be rivals as far as breathtaking sights are concerned, but nothing surpasses it. It wasn't until I returned home and did a little digging that I realized Stockton and her famed coyote are living in Ten Sleep, Wyoming, at the foot of the Big Horns, minutes from the most gorgeous canyon my eyes have ever taken in. I get it. I nod in reverence to a woman who has the stones to make a life there, for surely it's not for everyone. My heart expanded in that canyon, grew to fill it completely, and I get teary eyed remembering it now, so her callused hands, the back-breaking work and long, grueling hours are rewarded in ways I only saw slivers of, two rides through, two brief encounters, and she has this life there, which I imagine is enough to make even the hardest job worthwhile. She has to explain it repeatedly to people who will never understand, but I am no longer one of those people. I get it. I am deeply enamored, myself.

Somewhere in Big Horn National Forest, we found a dirt road on which we took a brief side trip. Schwee jumped out of the car and wandered around the hillside while I dove a bit down the road to see what there was up ahead. While I was gone, he found a veritable animal graveyard, with multiple skeletons sitting in the open. It was eerie, but interesting and he has a number of pictures of skulls, spines, and various bones laying around in the grass.

I watched the mountains in the rearview mirror getting smaller and smaller, disappearing around turns, reappearing even smaller, and then disappearing for good. It ached deep in my heart. I didn't want to let them go.

We made it back to Wall, SD and decided to change the end of our trip so we could spend a full day doing South Dakota properly, if rapidly.

The next morning we headed straight to the Badlands and were immediately greeted by a huge herd of buffalo lounging about, with calves all over the place. They were shedding their big woolly coats and looked more rugged, somehow rougher.

Babies were everywhere.

There were three main areas in Yellowstone where major construction delays took place, but it wasn't too bad, and here we were in the Badlands with more construction in a short stretch of road that we'd seen in all of Yellowstone.

Considering it had been 31º at one point the day before, it felt quite weird to be in the upper 60s, approaching 70º in the Badlands, although the landscape really makes it look warmer and drier than it felt. Schwee seemed to really love the Badlands, which made me happy. He's a fan of desert landscapes, and he said this surpassed the deserts he'd seen. I was glad I could share it with him.

From there we went to Mt. Rushmore, where Schwee had another very overwhelming reaction to the heads. The dramatic clouds of Yellowstone seemed to follow us here and create interesting shots, though the weather held and we weren't drowned like we feared we might be.

After Rushmore, we drove down Norbeck Byway toward Custer State Park, and I remember being scared out of my mind of driving on this particular stretch of road just 6 months before, and this time it was a piece of cake. Remarkable what a difference this trip had made!

We paid a quick visit to Custer State Park, where again there was construction. I can't imagine these areas in the height of summer, with more construction and irritated families everywhere. Again, thanking my lucky stars for timing this trip just right.

There's something different about Custer buffaloes. I can say this having spent some time in Yellowstone and in the Badlands, Custer's buffalo are a little off. My theory is that because every fall they are rounded up, branded, measured, handled, and some of them sold off, they are a little less afraid of people, and perhaps have a bit of a chip on their shoulder because of it. They can be downright hostile, whereas buffalo in other parks would truly prefer to avoid you. These buffalo have attitude, and I swear you can see it in their eyes, you do not want to mess with them.

There was a car jam in Custer and buffalo were wandering back and forth across the road, holding up traffic, and stubbornly looking at the awaiting cars with disdain. They'd stand in the middle of the road and just look at you, as if playing chicken, and when they got bored (not a minute before), they'd finally wander off the road and start grazing again.

Two motorcycles approached and they kept a lot more distance from the buffaloes than the cars did, for good reason it turns out. I noticed that there was a large bull in the field getting agitated, flinging his head up and down, grunting and stomping, and this riled up some other buffaloes, who started doing the same. I wasn't sure what was pissing them off, but they were headed toward the road. As I looked up to see what was on the road that so irritated them, another buffalo from the other side came running from the field, up the embankment and charged the motorcycle in the front. He was able to quickly ride off before being stampeded, and I couldn't help it, but I erupted in hysterics. As the biker passed me, he gave me a thumbs-up, as if to ask, wasn't that cool? and I continued laughing. The buffaloes seemed to calm down a bit and the second biker passed without incident, but I did snap this shot of the first biker fleeing the charge, with the buffalo who charged him clearing the road.

They're pretty fierce looking, actually.

We enjoyed them a lot more after that when they were happily on a hillside grazing.

I so wanted to see my love, my Javier, but the burros were off in a field and he had no idea I'd come for him. So sad. I do miss him.

This monster of a buffalo was grazing aside the road toward the end of the park and I slowed down so we could get some closeups, but I was so close that I couldn't even see him out the passenger window, so I did a U-turn and pulled up close to him on my side of the car.

As sure as I know anything, I know that the look he gave me when I did this was of utter frustration, and he crossed over to the other side of the road. Well, I had to turn around again to head back in the direction I was going, and he gave me the same look again. If buffaloes can roll their eyes, that's what he did. I'm sure of it. So he got into the road with his posse of birds, who followed his every move, and he walked very slowly down the road ahead of me. I had no choice but to follow because I had to get out that way, and every few seconds he'd look back over his shoulder at me and grunt, clearly more and more irritated that I was still following him.

Finally he moved over to the side of the road and I tried to pass him. Evidently this was the final straw and I snapped this picture over my shoulder just before he grunted and charged my car.

Maybe I was acting like the paparazzi, but he was acting like the Sean Penn of buffalo. He didn't actually hit my car because I screamed and hit the gas so hard we sped off, but damn, that buffalo needs to chill a little. Sheesh. These buffalo in Custer, they are a little off.

Once outside the park, we got on Needles Parkway, a road I tried to take last year but it was closed about half-way in, so I had no idea what to expect. Last November I'd reached this point, which scared me so bad that I was gripping my steering wheel tighter than my hands could stand, and driving 20 mph for fear of flying over the edge. This time, no problem, I cruised right by and snapped a bad picture over the edge.

Needles. I thought it was so named because of the numerous pine trees, but nay, I was mistaken. Needles are the spires of granite atop the Black Hills, and this road weaves in and out of them, sometimes through the granite itself via tunnels, and at 10 mph, you're lucky if you can get around the tight curves that have dramatic drops down the hillside hundreds of feet.

IT! ROCKED! I have never seen anything like it before, and though I should've been terrified out of my mind, I was flying high on adrenaline, ohh-ing and ahh-ing every few seconds, marveling at the ability to build a road here, way up here, and that I was driving on it. Unbelievable! UN! BEE! LEEV! ABLE!

It was late when we got back to Wall, but wow, we packed it in that last day, the last exploring we'd be doing on a trip that we really packed with adventure. The very last day was a 15½-hour drive home, horribly boring and exhausting.

How does one sum up such an adventure? How do I explain what it did to me?

Then I think to myself, and I type this as I think it, why should I? It hasn't ended. It hasn't stopped shaping who I am and what I'll be. It continues to affect me each and every day. As long as I'm alive, this trip cannot be wrapped up in a tidy, clean, neat little paragraph, and I like it that way, because I'm done with being tidy, clean and neat.

Viva Yellowstone!


Romana1 said...

Wow, your photos are gorgeous-I am so envious! I know you weren't sure if you could wrap up your trip in one post, but you did a great job of opening a small crack in the window to show us just how much of a fantastic time you had!

Anonymous said...

Brilliant, brilliant writing and photography, girlfriend! I felt like I was on the journey with you. You've done more traveling and exploring around this great country of ours than I ever hope to do - I'm a little jealous! I can't wait to see where you go next!
VA sends