I Suppose They Don’t Call it Glacier Because of the Sunshine

I meet up with Mom and Dad at a campground just outside of Glacier National Park. As Dad gets everything settled with the rig (leveling, hookups, etc), Mom puts together dinner. Because it’s my folks, there are drinks and appetizers to start us off, and fresh baked cookies for dessert. It’s good to be properly camping again.

Man in ShadowDad and I take a look at the weather for tomorrow and start making plans. It’s not looking pretty. The forecast calls for clouds and snow and rain. We certainly won’t be going on any hikes.

I’ve been wanting to see Glacier National Park for a long time. Despite how many times I’ve been to Montana, I’ve never been this far north. I’ve seen photos though. I use them as my desktop backgrounds at work. The photos of Glacier are astounding, and they look like they’re from some other distant place, like the Swiss Alps or maybe the Himalayas. The whole reason I opted to go south first rather than east was that everyone told me the roads in Glacier would still be closed from winter if I went in the spring or early summer. Glacier was something of a grand finale for my trip – the place I’d always wanted to see.

Turning Leaves

We get a late start in the morning, hoping that the sun will come out and burn away some of the clouds. When we arrive at the park, and large sign tells us that Logan’s Pass is closed due to a snow slide the night before. There is one major road that runs through Glacier called the Going to the Sun Road, and Logan’s Pass is almost exactly halfway down the road. The ranger says they’re already working on clearing the debris, but there’s no way to know if it will happen today, tomorrow, or not at all.

We decide we might as well see what we can see, and take off on the Going to the Sun Road. The weather’s still foggy, and all the mountains disappear into the clouds. It’s beautiful in its own right, watching the mountainsides turn to mist, but it’s not like all those gorgeous photos.

Snowy MountainMom is in the backseat and nervous the whole time. She’s afraid of heights and the road is narrow, winding, and constantly skimming the cliff’s edge. Occasionally we hear a quiet “Oh jeeze” from the back of the car, and every time Dad starts to look over the side to check out the view she says, “Look where you’re driving, Chuck.”

We drive up as far as we can go, and there’s a light dusting of snow coming down just before the road block. We join the other tourists in a large turnabout nearby to take pictures. It really is beautiful, both in spite of the clouds and because of them. It’s also freezing so we don’t stay long.

On the way back we pull over to feast on the sandwiches Mom had made for us that morning. There are chips and homemade cookies to pair with them, and I can’t help but think of all the times during my trip where I decided that graham crackers counted as a meal.

We stop to warm up in the lodge at the base of the park, and Dad and I try to figure out what else we can do with our day. On the map we see an interesting-looking road near the park entrance. We decide we should check out how bad it is when they say a road is unpaved.

Our mystery ride is bumpy and goes through fire-devastated areas, so there isn’t much to see. I mention that it’s nice to be with them, because I’d be too nervous to go on a bumpy road like this by myself.

“But now your mom can be nervous for the both of you,” Dad jokes.

River“Yep got that covered,” says a worried voice from the back seat.

We don’t see much else in the park, though after dinner Mom finishes a sudoku puzzle she’s been working on for three months. Small victories.

I can tell Glacier has the power to be exceptional, because it’s still great even when you can’t see most of it. Along with the city of Chicago and the entire state of Utah, Glacier National Park will have to go on my list of “just another reason to get back out on the road.” Perhaps that’s the best sort of finale a trip could have.

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Budget for a Four Month Road Trip

Four years ago I was sitting in my office back at my old job when I made the decision to travel the country. I pulled up a handful of cities on Google Maps to see how long it would take. My list only included 14 cities, so the mileage came out to 7915 (this would be about half of the actual mileage). The driving time added up to 132 hours, or 6 hours a day for 22 days. Then I started to do the real math.

I speculated it would take me 120 days, and guessed I’d spend an average of $30 a night. I don’t know where that number really came from, but it seemed right considering some of my lodging would cost much more, and some of it would be free. I looked up the average price of gas in the country, added a few dimes, and came up with $1400 in gas.

Adding together my speculative figures I came up with a number close to $8,000, which I rounded to an even $10,000 to be safe. This was my goal, and I had three years to do it.

Lodging: $3,164.96

The most I paid for a bed to sleep in was $184.31 for a single night at the Sunset Inn in Provincetown, MA on the end of Cape Cod. I probably could have found much cheaper accommodations, but I hadn’t planned ahead and was feeling especially tired by the time I had to pick a bed. I chose the Sunset Inn because it was the first place I saw with signs for both vacancy and free parking.

The cheapest lodging (excluding all of the fantastic friends, family members, couchsurfing hosts and occasional free camp site) was camping for $8.32 at Chickasaw State Park in Alabama. I was the only one in the park, which was fortunate when a thunderstorm rolled in and I had to move my tent into the pavilion.

Food: $1,512.33

The most expensive single meal I had was split with my sister the night we got back to the top of the Grand Canyon. We had decided ahead of time that we would treat ourselves to the place we had been assured was the fanciest in Grand Canyon Village. It cost us $59 each and was the weirdest dining experience I had the whole trip. For some reason the front of house staff was in a constant panic. When we arrived at 8:13 for an 8:15 reservations, the hostess actually told us to come back in two minutes. Despite the frenzy out front, the restaurant itself wasn’t busy. It looked like a completely ordinary dinner crowd. Our waiter had a strange voice like he didn’t belong to any dialect, and the food was decent but not spectacular. I have no idea what was going on in that place.

Car Maintenance & Gas: $3,711.38

The most I paid for a single tank of gas was $59.40 in Michigan, but that doesn’t say much. I did my best never to get below a quarter tank, and often filled up just after hitting the halfway mark, so it’s likely that I just waited longer to fill up that day in Michigan. I can say that the highest single price per gallon was in the middle of the redwoods in California. I only bought enough to get me out of the area, as it was more than $5.50 a gallon.

The largest single expense was getting my driver’s side window fixed in Kansas City for a whopping $427.92.

Entrance Fees, Audio Tours, Overpriced Internet: $820.72

Biltmore (the Vanderbilt mansion) was the most expensive attraction at $69. The lowest (outside of free) was a $1 donation I made to the Old North Church in Boston.

Gifts and Souvenirs: $123.81

When you have to carry everything you buy, you don’t buy much. There are really only three things in this category:

1) Site-specific gifts for my couchsurfing hosts. I would pick up little candies and soaps along the way that were indicative of the places I had visited, then leave them as thank you presents for hosts later on in the trip. Friends in Oklahoma got dried fruit from Oregon, that sort of thing. Most people got honey sticks from Pike Place Market that I picked up before leaving, which turned out to be the easiest gift to transport, and the most forgiving of high temperatures.

2) Shot glasses. I have a large shot glass collection that I have been curating since I was 11 years old. I tried to be a bit more reserved on this trip, and purchased less than a dozen over the entire four months.

3) Postcards for Rob. Along the way I purchased postcards from the places I visited, then sent them to my boyfriend with messages that confirmed my well-being but suggested impending doom. “HAVE NOT BEEN ATTACKED BY BEARS YET.” “DID NOT FALL OFF A BRIDGE.” And my personal favorite for Roswell, New Mexico: “NOTHING HAPPENED.”

The cheapest postcards were $0.30.

Public Transit: $77.70

San Francisco wins for most money spent on public transport, with Boston a close second. However both are only in the running because their transit systems are so good I barely used my car.

General Supplies: $222.71

This is the category for hiking poles and contact solution, as well as replacements for broken sunglasses, broken cameras, and whatever it was I kept buying at Walgreens.

GRAND TOTAL: $9,633.61

I know my numbers aren’t precise (they don’t align perfectly with the bank statements), but they are within an acceptable margin of error. I won’t bother doing a line by line comparison because ultimately it doesn’t matter if I spent ten extra dollars on gifts or twenty fewer on entrance fees.

I was told I’d spend a third of my money on gas, which was true. I expected the total would be between $8,000 and $10,000, which was also true. My original estimates for food and lodging ended up being switched – I overestimated the cost of food and underestimated the price of a campsite. My original gas estimate was off because it was based on the wrong mileage (once I plugged the correct mileage number in it was almost perfect). I also vastly overestimated the cost of “fun.” Turns out a lot of fun is cheap or free.

To me, staying under ten grand for a four month tour of the entire country is pretty good, though I doubt I’ll be selling any copies of “How to Do America on $79 a Day.” And in the interest of total honesty, there was another $1000 that I spent on reusable supplies like my tent, sleeping bag, backpack, etc. But I’ve already used most of these things again since returning (and will certainly use them more in the future), so it’s hard for me to count such items as trip expenses. That’s a slope that gets slippery fast. I bought shorts right before I left, are those trip shorts or my own shorts? Do I have to count the other pair of shorts I took, even though I’ve owned them for years?

I could have easily spent thousands less than I did. All it would have required was a bit more planning, and few different choices, and an alternative outlook about what kind of trip I was on. I could have couchsurfed more and saved hundreds on lodging. I could have eaten in my car more and saved on diner food. And I could have decided that I’d rather spend an extra day in a national park than a few hours touring a deadman’s indulgent home. I could have driven less and stayed in each location longer. But these aren’t the choices I wanted to make for this trip, and I was willing to spend the money.

I make this point because I don’t want anyone to confuse my budget with THE budget. You can do America on a lot less money, and many have. I spent $10k and could have easily spent half that. Ultimately the money doesn’t matter, as is often the case with money. And don’t forget I would have spent $6,000 over the course of four months back home, just putting in my normal expenses for rent, food, etc. After asking how I managed to take four months off work, people always ask where I got the money. But the cost of travel is what you decide it is. You decide if you need a hotel or a hostel. You decide to eat at world renowned restaurants or street corner hot dog carts.

The only thing that’s difficult is that you have to decide.

Stars Over Yellowstone

The parking lot was bright with moonlight when I arrived at Norris, just in time for the “Stars Above Yellowstone” ranger walk. As we started down the hill, Ranger Ken pulled out a laser pointer and told us stories about the night sky. We did our best to make out the shapes of rams and campfires in the constellations, and he told us old native legends and ancient Greek myths. We saw Cassiopeia, the Queen of Ethopia, and her husband Cepheus. We learned of her daughter Andromeda, who was sacrificed to a great sea monster to appease Poseidon, and of Perseus, who arrived on his winged horse just in time to save her.

Moon ShiningWe walked through the volcanic basin on a narrow boardwalk without handrails or sides. It seemed dangerous to be out there at night with no protection. One false step and I’d be face down in a pool of acid, or so I thought. I hadn’t been to Norris in the daylight, so I had no idea what I was walking through. The moon was bright but not bright enough to get a sense of where I was. I could see and sense a great open space, but I didn’t know how far the expanse went.

Ranger Ken explained how rain and snow fall on the park and seep into the ground, only to get heated up by the great volcano under our feet. When the heated water turns to gas it expands, eventually finding a way to push through to the surface in the form of a spring, a geyser, a pool, etc. He said that the water coming up around us tonight probably fell on the park some 500 years ago. Before he could finish his sentence, we heard a loud noise and turned to see the geyser behind us erupting high into the air. It was the first time any of the features had made a sound.

As I looked back in the direction we came I saw a scene from another time, another world. The bright, brilliant full moon was rising above the black tree line. It cast its light down on the basin, where it lit up the plumes of steam. The vapor came up straight from the mud, wispy but constant. All along the ground the light reflected off of thin streams of water caused by the geyser overflows. The image was layered perfectly: dark trees on the horizon with a lightly bubbling pool of water in the back, a patch of mud in the center, then a small stream in the foreground. I felt like I had vanished to another planet. I kept changing my focus as Ranger Ken talked, and in every direction I saw a perfectly composed image. I saw the light shine behind a patch of two dozen dead tree silhouettes, with their short, thin, broken limbs sticking out. It would be another two days before I learned that those trees were calcified, and had been dead and frozen for hundreds of years.

After the talk I ran back to my car and pulled out my computer. I typed as fast as I could, trying to remember every detail and moment, trying to find the perfect description for the scene. I wanted to hurl the damn machine to the ground because I knew I would never be able to explain what I saw to my satisfaction. I wished I was a photographer, the kind that would have had a case full of lens that could properly capture the layers of shadow. I wished I was a fantastic painter, the sort that could freeze the image in her mind and go home to a canvas where she could refashion the whole magnificent picture. But I am only a writer, and I could have sat there motionless for a thousand years and never found the words to describe it.

I didn’t even have my cheap little point-and-shoot camera, and perhaps that was for the best. I didn’t bother trying to get the perfect shot, or any shot. I just stared into the dark and chastised myself for the inferiority I knew I would feel later. Ranger Ken told us something I’d heard before, but it still gives me chills to hear it. He said that all the elements throughout the universe come from stars living and dying. All the metal on earth, all the air you breathe. All the iron in your blood came from a star that died millions of years ago.

In another eon or so, when the sun swallows us up and our galaxy collides with Andromeda, all the iron and oxygen we have left will be pushed back out into the universe to be broken down and made anew. We are star dust, and to stars we shall return.

__________________

Tourists Taking Pictures

As I saw yet another bus full of Japanese tourists take pictures in front of a steaming Yellowstone waterfall, I started to think about tourism. Yellowstone National Park has been attracting visitors for almost 150 years. The rangers tell stories and show photos of how people used to tour the park, riding around in a stage couch for $50 a head. People threw hankies in whirlpools and went fishing on top of geysers. Bison were hunted almost to extinction and invasive lake trout were brought in to entertain anglers. If you visited the park even 60 years ago, you would still be feeding garbage to bears. If it was only 20 years ago you’d see people fighting forest fires.

Kids Posing for PicturesMost importantly, 20 years ago very few people would have had cameras, and those that did would be using film. The advantage and disadvantage of digital is that the number of pictures is only limited by the memory card you bought, and most cards can easily hold several days worth of severe shutter bugging. I was surprised at how many people visiting Yellowstone had really big, expensive, fantastic looking cameras, though that might be skewed to the location. If you want to take advantage of a nice camera, Yellowstone’s the place to go. I’ve mentioned before that one of my travel hobbies is taking pictures of people taking pictures. It happened so often in Yellowstone that after a while I stopped taking advantage of the opportunities.

Large LensWere this 20 years ago, I would still see families and Japanese tourists. People would still be doing dumb things like getting too close to the bison. But I wouldn’t see cameras. More over, I wouldn’t see people experiencing the park through their camera. They look through the lens instead of looking with their eyes. I do it too, and I hate that I do it. But sometimes I just don’t know how else to “experience” something in a way that feels complete. If I just look at it I wonder, “Have I stared the right amount? Have I looked long enough to make a good memory?”

On what was going to be my last geyser stop before making the long drive back to my cabin, I ran into a couple I’d met on a ranger hike that morning. The woman stopped me and told me that I shouldn’t waste my time on this particular boardwalk, and instead should hike up the nearby hill at Fairy Falls for a bird’s eye view.

Selfie at Mammoth“This is just a long walk to see a lot of steam.” She lowered her voice, “plus there’s a lot of Japanese so it’s kinda loud.”

Her husband tried to argue that it wasn’t a complete waste to see this area as well, but she said it would be dark before long and I probably didn’t have time for both. She showed me the pictures on her camera comparing the view she just saw on the boardwalk to what she saw from the hilltop above. The hilltop photo looked amazing. They gave me directions on where to go, and warned me that I’d have to climb over logs to get to the top. I asked if they felt sure I could get to the top and back before nightfall, and the woman promised it would only take 20-30 minutes.

Photos of Mud“You’re young, you’ll be fine,” she assured me.

I parked my car at Fairy Falls and started down the wide gravel bike path towards the hill. Before long I was almost directly opposite the large geyser I had been heading towards when the couple stopped me. To my left I saw the makings of a trail, though it wasn’t marked. This wasn’t an official trail, but it was pretty well-worn. It was steep and dangerous looking, and I’m morally opposed to going off the official trails. However it occurred to me that this path was obviously popular, and the park hadn’t chosen to mark it off in any way. It was too tempting. I began to climb.

As promised, the hill was very steep. There were logs to climb over and around, and plenty of places where I couldn’t make my next step without grabbing onto something for support. It was about 50% steep hill hike, 50% dangerous wall climb. I was huffing and puffing and worried I might loosen a log and cause a landslide. I felt better once I started seeing other tourists above and below me. A group of Russians even had a 6 year old kid with them.

I stopped to rest, turning back to look down at the pool. I wondered if I had gone far enough to get the full view. I knew it wasn’t where the couple had gone, since there were still too many trees blocking the view and the photo she showed me was unobstructed. I’ve come this far, I thought. I might as well keep going.

When I reached the top of the hill I was immediately reassured that I’d made the right choice. Not only were the trees out of the way, but with every 10 feet in altitude the colors in the pool became more defined. I started to see the way in which they branched out from the pool, and the whole shape became more interesting. I took my pictures and sat down on a log. I stared for a long time. I was very tired and very hot, and I needed the break. But once I cooled down and got my breath back, I wondered if I should leave. It was so hard to get up there, I didn’t want to give it up unless I was definitely done enjoying the view.

But the view is there forever. There will never be a natural end to your experience. You can never look at a beautiful sight for long enough. I guess that’s why we take pictures.

Pool with a View

Honesty on Uncle Tom’s Trail

Stairs in the TreesI first heard about Uncle Tom’s Trail during a ranger hike along the south rim of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Our guide told us that it was named after Tom Richardson, a ranger from the early 1900s who used to take visitors on a treacherous journey to get the best view of the Lower Falls. Tom would row them across the river and take them down a rickety, 500 step robe and ladder climb.

Today Uncle Tom’s Trail is a 300 step steel staircase, and while it’s much more stable, it’s still quite a trek. The ranger warned that it wasn’t for anyone easily winded or afraid of heights. When the ranger hike was over and the group was walking back, she pointed the interested parties towards the trailhead for Uncle Tom’s. The interested parties turned out to be me and two others, a middle-aged woman and her husband. We started down the trail but hadn’t gotten far before the woman abruptly stopped.

Photo of Stairs“I think I’ll stay here,” she told us.

The man and I continued down, exchanging basic info as we walked. I learned that his name was Chris, and he and his wife were from Colorado. He explained how she is terrified of heights, but had wanted to try anyway. Not long after we left her behind, the dirt dropped off from below the staircase and I saw 50 feet of open air under my feet. The staircase was the industrial kind, woven and open to allow rain to fall through easily. I’m not generally afraid of heights, but even I felt queasy for a moment.

“It’s a good thing she stayed,” Chris told me.

At the bottom of the staircase we stopped to take in the beautiful view of the falls. Chris insisted on taking a picture of me in front of the view, something strangers often insist upon. People back home always complain about how few pictures I’m in, so it seems I’m the only one who isn’t the least bit interested in photos of myself. I suppose it’s because I think I look like a goofball in any picture where I’m standing and smiling rather than trying to look like a goofball.

Me and the Lower FallsChris and I headed back up the stairs, and I told him about my hike up the Grand Canyon in Arizona. He told me about his work as a therapist, and somehow it came up that his wife smokes. A while back they talked about how she needed to stop, and she promised to do so. Now she smokes and lies about it.

“But that’s what addicts do,” he said, “So I don’t ask anymore, because I don’t want to be lied to.” Funny, it still seems like being lied to if you ask me.

We rejoined his wife on the way back up. She had made it a little further down before stopping. Chris and I assured her that she made the right choice, the stairs would have scared anyone. The three of us walked back to the parking lot together, but something felt heightened in me. Somehow I was part of the wife’s lie now. I was an accessory to her smoking when she says she’s not. And I was a part of Chris’s lie too, pretending I don’t know so we don’t have to talk about it.

Chris and I at Uncle Tom'sI’ve been a part of lies before. Every family and group of friends has secrets, and I’ve had several jobs where I was in charge of sensitive information. But I expect to hear secrets from my boss or my best friend. I don’t expect to hear them from strangers. The funny thing is, it happens all the time. On the road, you’re everyone’s sounding board. There’s no reason to keep anything from you, because in 20 minutes you’ll be out of their lives forever. I did the same thing with the strangers I met, telling stories in an open and honest way I know I wouldn’t have done for most people back home.

I’m starting to wonder if we’d all do better with a few more strangers in our lives.

___________________

Old Faithful: Neither the Tallest, Largest, nor Most Frequent Geyser in All of Yellowstone

Smoking FaithfulThe only clear memory I thought I had from visiting Yellowstone as a child was of Old Faithful. As usual my memory was false. Not only was the picture in my head nothing like the famous geyser, I didn’t come across any spot in the whole park that seemed to match the vision in my head. This is what memory does, however. It adjusts and interprets every time it is replayed, until what you have bears no resemblance to what you saw.

This happens a lot with Old Faithful. Not only is it the most famous and well known feature of Yellowstone, it is the most misunderstood and misinterpreted. I went on a ranger Hill Walk through the Old Faithful area, and the ranger said they overhear the strangest claims about the geyser. Some say it’s the tallest geyser in the world (not true). Some say it sprays out more water than any other feature in the park (also not true). But most often people say it goes off every ten minutes. This isn’t remotely true and it never has been.

The real reason we flock to Old Faithful is a mixture of awe and predictability. There are certainly more impressive geysers in the park, but they go off at strange times, and sometimes with no warning at all. The ranger stations track all of the most predictable geysers, and they show time ranges of plus or minus 4 hours with 75% accuracy. Most people don’t want to sit in front of a geyser for eight hours with a 25% chance nothing will happen.

There are more frequent geysers, some that go off every 10-20 minutes or so. However these are small, bubbly things. I saw several of those little eruptions when I was in the park. They may be fun to watch, but they won’t draw a crowd.

Capturing the MomentIn contrast, Old Faithful is impressively tall, shooting up several stories into the air. And the rangers are able to predict the next eruption with pretty good accuracy and plus or minus only 10 minutes. The eruptions usually occur every 90 minutes, meaning any tourist who happens to drive by won’t have to wait long for the next show. It’s possible to plan your day around seeing the next eruption. This is so common that right after each eruption the rangers at the Old Faithful station put out a message to all the ranger radios announcing the next predicted blast.

My favorite fact I learned about Old Faithful was that it used to be even more frequent. When it was first seen by settlers, it erupted every 60 minutes. But Yellowstone is still a changing force, and a mysterious one at that. Sometimes features change in the park, and even the geologists and volcanologists can’t say why. But something shifted the pipes below Old Faithful, and now you’ll only see a 60 minute window if the last eruption was especially small.

Between the Hill Walk and my lunch break, I was in the Old Faithful area for some time. I saw an eruption early in the day, and thought I might catch a second one before I had to leave for the next ranger walk up near Black Sand Basin. I figured I could make the drive in ten minutes, which meant I had to leave by 12:20PM. The next eruption was due for 12:08, so I was sure to see it before I had to leave. That is, I would see it if the prediction was correct. I stood with the other tourists past 12:08, then past 12:18. After waiting as long as I could, I jumped in my car and rushed over to Black Sand Basin. Right as the Black Sand ranger was preparing to start his talk I heard the announcement come out of his radio, “Next Old Faithful eruption predicted for 1:57PM.” If had happened almost 20 minutes late.

The rangers can predict Old Faithful correctly 90% of the time. Wait around long enough and you’re bound to find the other 10%.

Old Faithful Panorama