Thursday, August 29, 2013

Not all travel is scintillating

There's not a lot to write home about as far as Cody, Wyoming is concerned. 
Set on high plains, you pass a large rodeo stadium as you enter the town from the West with a large sign reminding you that Cody is the rodeo capital of the world. Hmmm...a selling point?
The town itself is a little underwhelming. I guess when you hear the names Laramie, Cody, and Cheyenne you imagine gunslingers riding down the middle of a dusty street lined with saloons and houses of ill repute, and a lone sheriff in a long black duster waiting for them with his hands poised above his set of pearl handled revolvers. 
Maybe I'm guilty of building up these Romanticized visions of what I hoped to encounter when visiting these western towns, but damn it, they didn't live up to my imaginary hype. What I got instead after passing a couple of mini-mart/gas stations on the outskirts was a flat little town lined with shops begging you to realize that this town indeed had a colorful western past, and trying very hard to capitalize on such with all sorts of predictable merchandise. 
There was the usual stetson hat and cowboy boot shops, a couple of jewelry shops featuring jade and silver, some western motif furniture venues, and a couple of restaurants with knotty pine interiors. Being the first true town we had visited since Jackson Hole we decided to stop and give Cody the benefit of the doubt. (Honestly we had no place else to go). We visited a nice antique shop down one of the side roads which actually had antiques in it. It's always fun to visit shops in different parts of the country because they always have collections of things you aren't used to seeing, and this Cody shop had a lot of western antiques that were quite old. It was fun to peruse and we spent a good half hour doing so. Hungry we walked back to the main street and found a little cafe that seemed popular, and sat down at a table surrounded by stuffed trophy’s of Wyoming wildlife. 
I ordered a chicken salad sandwich and Jerani got the Cobb salad. Our waiter seemed like this was a new gig for him, and although he tried hard, it felt like he would have been much more at home separating calves for branding. 
He forgot to clear all the past customers dishes from our table, didn't wipe off it, forgot to bring us silverware, and let another girl beat him back to take our orders. Usually I'd chalk this type of service up to hostility or laziness, but in his case you could just tell he was completely out of his element, and was honestly doing the best he could. The food was good though, and we weren't in any type of hurry so the servers ineptitude was easily forgiven. Jerani got a great looking Cobb Salad, and my chicken salad sandwich was made with red grapes, celery, and lemon and was really tasty. After lunch we drove up the one hill (mound) in town and found the post office where we mailed out a couple of bills. We let Max run un-leashed in a big grassy area adjoining the Library and post office while we took Erley for a stroll. Max loves to let er rip in a big open space and looks like a miniature version of a sheep dog when he strides out. You can just tell how much he enjoys getting off the leash for a little while and it does our heart good to see him run. After the animals leg stretching we filled up on gas and headed east and then north towards Montana. 
As we drove the scenery started to look less and less like scenery, as we passed low farms with rusty machinery dotting the dry cloddish soil, and past through at least a half dozen hamlets that were nondescript and completely forgettable. The skies had started to darken and the wind began to pick up, and our little RV was buffeted by gusts as we drove deep into a featureless no-mans land. Few vehicles past us as we headed towards Billings, and the ones that did were usually old pickups with dogs in the back. (Some sort of Western lyrics would apply here). 
The rain started in just about the time we hit the Wyoming/Montana border, and the wind was blowing so hard it was tough to keep the Pleasure Way in a straight line and away from the oncoming traffic. We had planned on staying in Billings for the evening, and although neither of us had ever visited before we figured as the largest city in Montana there must be something in the city worth investigating. We were wrong. Please forgive me if you are someone who dearly cherishes this city (I have know idea who that possibly could be) but Billings is one ugly hard luck town.
Gritty streets flanking small oil refineries and railroad tracks and lined with seedy looking establishments, mostly taverns, Billings was not the type of place anyone would consider a destination. 
We drove in the spitting rain, still rocked by the buffeting winds, and right then and there decided to find a Walmart parking lot to ride out the night in. This was not the type of city you wanted to spend a dime in. Jerani found a Walmart and our GPS guided us past creepy discount stores, car lots, gas stations, and fast food outlets, and finally to the Walmart's humorless parking lot. 
We pulled up next to a nice looking class A RV, and I went inside and asked permission to spend the evening which the assistant manager granted us. The clouds parted and the parking lot quickly became a eighty five degree steamy sauna. Without hook-ups, our only option was to run the generator, which we ran sparingly being that the air conditioner was still petering out after about fifteen minutes of use. We decided that it was cooler outside than inside so we took the animals for an extended walk around the gray confines of the parking lot, and as we were heading back to the RV we ran into the older couple who owned the class A just adjacent to us. We sat on the cement blocks that walled off the lot, and as the animals lazed in the shade we had a very nice thirty minute chat about RV'ing, Walmart camping, and travel in general. After retiring to the RV for the evening we ate a forgetful (I actually forgot what it was, so it must have been forgetful), watched a movie I had gotten from the Redbox in Walmart, and as the rain started falling again we turned in for the night happy to know that we'd be getting the hell out of Billings in the morning.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The fifty most beautiful miles...

With no room left at the Inn (Yellowstone was fully booked) we were set to take to the road Saturday morning. Not wanting to crop all the sadness out of this blog I will confess that Jerani and I had a bit of a melt down due to the tight conditions we find ourselves day in and day out. After a brief, we'll call it a “misunderstanding” (there I go cropping out the sadness again) we both sought some solitude and a little time for reflection in the Fishing Bridge campground's large showering facility. 
We share one shower toilet kit so Jerani took the first shift and when I was passed the kit in a semi-uncomfortable silence I headed down to the large building at the campground's entrance. There are a LOT of people at Yellowstone and the large room featuring over a dozen showers was bustling. I needed to unwind a little, and being that I love showers so much this was a perfect opportunity to chill a little and our argument and my leading role in it. I truly needed to DE-stress so as I found an open stall and started undressing I was looking forward to relaxing under a hot shower. I was just hanging my underwear on the hook when I heard a distressing and strange mewling noise coming from the stall directly next to mine. The sound went up and down in volume and then sort of trailed off to a whimper. I stood there, underwear in hand staring at the wood wall that separated me from the adjoining stall. What the..? Before I could recover and hang up my undergarments another series of loud curses erupted from the stall. #&*@!!! %^@#*!!! @*$&*%!!! Then a growling started and built and built in volume. GuurrrrGRRRRRGRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Suddenly a pair of very strong looking hands reached over the top of the low wall between our two stalls and gripped the top of the boards. The long fingers flexed and released, flexed and released. You could see the blood vessels bulging on the top of each hand. A soft voice, someone obviously also in the neighboring stall spoke quietly, reassuringly to whomever was in so much distress showering next to me. The hands relaxed enough for the caregiver to reach up and help pry them from their grip on the stall wall. This pattern continued pretty much unabated throughout my shower that morning. The poor man was obviously suffering from some form of Autism or mental disability combined with Tourette's Syndrome. As uncomfortable as it had made my showering experience, you couldn't really feel very sorry for yourself when compared to the person inflicted with such a combination of maladies and the adult who was caring for their grown child with such gentleness. It made me realize how good I have it and how small my problems are compared with how things could be. Needless to say I wasn't calm and relaxed after my morning shower, but I still had a slight attitude adjustment which helped to smooth out the rough morning. Jerani and I hit the road and headed for the eastern entrance to the park and on towards Cody, Wyoming.
It was a gray morning and we were soon surrounded by a desolate gray landscape of stunted trees burned in a past fire. Everything took on an ashy aspect as we continued to climb and climb up a steep pass. The roads were practically empty and it became apparent that compared to the southern, western, and northern entrances, that the eastern entrance was by far the least used in the park. 
We finally crested the pass and encountered an amazingly steep grade on the other side which seemed to go on forever. Sheer drop-offs fell to a river snaking far far below with only insufficiently placed barriers as a safety gap against a sure and horrific death some thousand odd feet below. 
It was one of those grades where you couldn't really downshift because the corners and steepness would soon have your engine screaming for mercy, you feared braking so as not to warp the discs, and every time you tried to let it ride a little the steepness of the descent gave your vehicle wings. After a little white knuckle driving we soon found ourselves at the bottom, thankful that the pass we had just descended may in fact be one of the last hilly obstacles between us and the Atlantic. After the Rockies the terrain flattens out a good deal, so we shouldn't have to deal with another drop like the one we just encountered until we head back West. 
We drove along the Shoshone River which meandered down a canyon flanked by tall cliffs on both sides. The landscape became more and more western in appearance, as if we were driving through Monument Valley in Utah, or Canyon De Chelly in Arizona. 
The sort of vistas that you'd expect to see hundreds of years in the past with Indians lying in wait on top of the high ledges for anyone brazen enough to ride up that exposed valley floor. Teddy Roosevelt once termed this stretch “the fifty most beautiful miles in America”, and he had a point. I think part of what makes it so remarkable is that it seems so remote, and as if you are driving through a hidden secret. 
We wanted to share this stretch of road with our friends and family and that doesn’t happen often, although funny enough it had happened several times in the past two days. That's an indication on just how beautiful and one of a kind this area is. The canyon started opening up and soon we were driving along a ever widening reservoir with water the color of green jade. 
In one small hamlet along the route we spied an amazing mine entrance of logs perched high above the valley floor and pulled off the road at the first available place to take a photo of it, a privately run RV campground. I pulled into the small parking area in front of the sites while Jerani rolled down her window to snap a picture. While she was lining up the shot I noticed a BOLDLY printed sign on a stake with the image of a camera with the traditional circle with a line through it, and the words “NO PICTURES” written underneath. At the same time I spied a fat man on a riding lawn mower heading directly towards us as fast as the machine could travel. Jerani had snapped a couple of photos and I informed her that we were getting rousted and put the RV in drive and drove slowly around the back of the buildings towards the campsites, and distancing ourselves from the burly lawnmower jockey. We came around the backside of the building and sure enough he had repositioned himself in order to cut us off and block our exit. You could just tell he was the kind of guy who has a bumper-sticker on his truck that reads “Warning-we don't call 911”, and his body language read that he was in a none too friendly mood. He had parked the lawn tractor halfway across the exit so I would have to stop, and his shirtless heavyset body glistened with sweat. I pulled up next to him and rolled down my window knowing that he wanted a confrontation, so I calmly asked him before he could start in, “Are there any RV sites available for this evening?”, all innocent like. He kind of just stared at me for a second having been cut off from his line of thought, but knowing he had been had. We were just two RV'ers checking out his beautiful campgrounds and inquiring about availability. We both knew it was a ruse, but I had played my hand perfectly and he knew it. “Nope, all full...” He said with a dead voice. I responded, “Every site?”, as there was probably a 20% occupancy at his park as we spoke. “Yep” he said, “All full”. I smiled my most winning of grins and said “Thank you very much, we sure appreciate it”, and with that I skirted his mower and got back on the road. 
We had a pretty good chuckle as we drove down the reservoir and towards Buffalo Bill Dam. 
Buffalo Bill Dam is a very steep, very impressive dam and was no doubt a bitch to build. 
We sped through a series of tunnels as we departed the area and as the canyon land opened up to high plain desert we made our way into Cody, Wyoming.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Fishing Bridge Campground

It was a beautiful day and we didn't want to check into our “Fishing Bridge” campsite too early so we headed north towards the West Entrance to the park. 
There is sort of a natural circumference of the park you can drive and we chose to head in a clockwise route. We passed numerous thermal pools, small geysers, and a couple of little rivers. Although there were obviously a lot of people in the park being that it was a Friday in late July, we never felt crowded and found plenty of areas where we felt as if we were exploring the park alone. It's a massive park, and the tourists can sort of get swallowed up in it if you don't hang around the most visited areas too long. When we connected with the road leading to the Western Entrance we headed east over a small pass towards Canyon. There wasn't a great deal of traffic, but it was definitely more than we had encountered up to that point. It obviously could have been due to the later hour, and the fact that the Western Entrance is a popular one and the road we were on headed towards numerous campgrounds. 

We climbed beside a granite gorge sparsely covered in pine and fir trees, and with a small river crashing through it. There was what looked to be an amazing waterfall towards the top of the climb, but it was very crowded in everyone of the pull offs so we decided to skip it. One learns to pace oneself when driving across the U.S. and come to grips with the fact that you just can't stop and see “everything”, no matter how much you might want to. It's REALLY BIG
We continued on driving on a road up and over another pass and were hemmed in on both sides by stunted trees that blocked out the view. It was a little boring having driven through such grandeur earlier in the day. Once we arrived at the Canyon Campgrounds we headed Southeast towards Fishing Bridge Campgrounds where we had a reservation for the night. 
The topography opened up and dropped down into large range land dotted with timber and cut through with lovely meandering streams. You could tell that this area was home to a number of animals as it seemed so perfectly suited to grazing. It was lovely, and reminded you of a lost world in the middle of this massive park, a gorgeous series of classic meadows and rolling wooded hills surrounded by smoking sulfur pots and burping mud-pits. 
Sure enough around the next bend we started to see cars and RV's pulled off to the side of the road, as the huge expanse of grasslands started to get sprinkled here and there with Buffalo. 
As we continued the lone heads of bison became herds, and it was amazing to be able to see them in much the same way as they would have lived before they were hunted to the point of extinction. Several times we either pulled over on one of the numerous pull-outs and watched them from afar, or actually had to stop in a line of traffic as a grizzled old bull slowly and deliberately made his way down the oncoming lane. 
You could almost sense his pride in being able to slow and then finally put a halt to this long line of metal interlopers. He passed by our RV just a arm length away and majestically walked off the road to join his herd. Playing “chicken” at it's finest. 
With the windows down you can smell the Buffalo and hear the snorts and coughs, and the plaintive cries of the calves. It's really nice to see them just doing their thing, and doing it in such lovely surroundings. Good for them. 
We also have to admit that it was a lot cooler than we thought it would be to see them in their natural habitat, and to be able to get so close. Max on the other hand thought they were stinky and loud, and didn't really see what all the hype was about. Erley slept through the whole event. 
We continued on down the interior plains encountering lots more bison and deer, and finally arrived at our campgrounds around four thirty. Man that's a BIG park. The Campgrounds are exactly like someone described them on Trip Adviser, "completely lacking in charm...". 
I mean they're fine if you are lucky enough to get the last site on a Friday in late July, but for such an awe-inspiring location the campgrounds are totally UN-inspiring. Just tight little open spaces surrounded by stunted woods and filled with campers. Oh well, beggars can't be choosers, and just the fact we could roll past the "Campground Full" sign and check in made us pretty darn happy. We found our site and walked the animals in an area that just screamed "a Grizzly Bear will emerge from these woods later tonight"; in fact soft sided tents and campers are not aloud in most of the campgrounds in and around Yellowstone on account of campers being yanked out and chomped on while sleeping inside such flimsy housing. 
After a walk we had a early dinner and then turned in for the evening never to venture back out again.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Gushing Geyser

We got a jump on the day as we headed north out of Jackson Hole on Hwy. 26 towards the Grand Tetons National Park. 
Jerani snapped a couple of photos just as the sun started to peek over the hills to the east as we drove in very light traffic through some of the most glorious surroundings ever. Everyone always says how beautiful this area is, but you don't really get it until you see it for yourself. 
Words don't really do justice, so here's a couple of pictures that tell the story much better than I ever could.
It was also a great idea to start so early; as we had many of the scenic pull-offs to ourselves, and the congested roads made it seem much more like we were the first people to view this grandeur. 
We made our way to the southern park entrance for Teton Park and paid the thirty dollar entrance fee that was good for Yellowstone too. 
Just a few miles from the Park entrance we pulled over and ate our breakfast and walked the animals in awe inspiring beauty. 
It also looks exactly like the kind of place you could encounter a huge grizzly bear, so while you are enjoying the perfect setting you are also examining the hillside for 900 lb. bears charging you from above. (We are not bear people, I mean we love em and all, we just don't want them to be sneaking up on us.) 
We took the animals for a little walk to get them used to the wilderness, and then continued north on Hwy. 89 towards the south entrance of Yellowstone. To say these two parks are huge is an understatement to say the least. They are gigantic. One of the amazing aspects to them is how much the topography changes as you drive through the parks. 
In one area you encounter steaming mud pits and geysers, and then just a few miles down the road you are in an alpine meadow with a stream running along side you, and an hour later you are surrounded by steep barren granite cliffs dropping into treeless gorges. 
This area must have seemed like the land of the lost to the first explorers who unwittingly stumbled across it. One can only imagine what they would have thought about all the thermal energy that bubbles and spews out of the earth here. It must have seemed like a gateway straight to the underworld, which still holds pretty true. You do feel very close to the molten core when standing besides thermal pools of boiling water stinking of sulfur.
We arrived at Old Faithful a little before 11 am and the huge parking lot was only about a third full. We did exactly what everyone else seems to do when they arrive at the lot and that is to get out of the car as quickly as possible, grab your camera, and then walk (or sprint) towards the geyser on one of the many paths leading to it from the parking area. EVERYONE does this. Even though it's called old Faithful, for some reason people feel they are going to miss it. We arrived at the Old Faithful information lodge and geyser seating area moments later, and were pretty pleased by how few tourists were there. 

You have to take into account that the geyser has a huge amount of seating surrounding it in what I thought was about as tastefully an arrangement as possible. There was no fence or cable keeping people away from the geyser, just signs warning you that the boiling waters will peel the skin from your face (or something to that effect), and the bleachers are in three rows in a semi circle with seating for several hundred if not a thousand. This is a big courtyard, with a boardwalk that surrounds Old Faithful and then a boardwalk trail that runs back behind it and follows a route in and out of the multitude of other lesser known geysers, mud pits, and thermal pools. There are a number of huge buildings and lodges built along the periphery of these natural wonders, but again I was not disappointed with the man made structures and in fact I was expecting a much more circus like display. We took seats on the geyser having thought we had overheard a park ranger tell another group that it was due to blow in another fifteen minutes. Smug as only people can be when visiting a hugely popular area only to practically have it to themselves by Yellowstone summer standards we leaned back and waited for the show. 

It poofed, and fizzled, and every once in a while blew steam thirty or forty feet into the air, but all in all it seemed pretty tame. We knew you could check in at the Information lodge to get the fairly accurate time it was due to spew, this was “Old Faithful” after all, but we hadn't wanted to go into the lodge only to miss the show so we waited. Fifteen and then twenty minutes went by and still just burps and puffs and we heard another group of people discussing how it's next eruption was scheduled for 12:20 to 12:45 pm, a good forty five minutes from now. No wonder we had the damn seating area to ourselves. We knew we wouldn't sit there for another hour straight so because Jerani's knee was aching she decided to walk back to the RV and take the dog and cat for a little stroll, and I would walk around the path that wound through the upper portion of the pools. 
We would meet back at the benches in forty five minutes, a good fifteen minutes before the window for the geysers eruption.
I set off on the boardwalk that weaved in and out of the gorgeously colored pools and bubbling thermal caldrons. 
The smell of sulfur was really strong and it was humbling being this close to so much thermal activity. 

I took a lot of pictures and it took almost the whole forty minutes to make my way back to the benches which were now almost completely filled. What happened to having the geyser all to ourselves? 
Oh well, I guess it's a pretty popular event, so we'd have to share the experience with others. I found probably the last two available seats along the benches and waved Jerani over about five minutes before Old Faithful finally started her show. 
The whole eruption lasted about seven or eight minutes and was roundly applauded by the expectant crowd. It really is quite the display of Mother Natures capacities, and reminds you that we are all treading lightly on earths fragile crust. 
After the show we massed exited to our RV along with seven hundred other tourists, but then as they all maneuvered for the parking lot exits we just kicked back inside the Pleasure Way and made a nice lunch while everyone else scrambled to get out. 
After lunch we continued on to a beautiful little creek-side where we pulled off and gave the pets a nice little stroll. 
It was another gorgeous day in a gorgeous setting and it wasn't even one pm yet.