Kootenai Falls

On our way back from Glacier my folks and I decided to stop at Kootenai Falls, a nice little road side spot outside of Libby, Montana. The falls themselves are a short hike from the highway, and the feature is more about width than height. Had I been in charge of naming them I probably would have gone with Kootenai Rapids, but perhaps that’s why I’m not in charge. The main viewing area for the falls is from a large, open slab of rock. It made my acrophobic mother terribly nervous to have my father and I standing in the open without guardrails or clear paths.

Dad and the Rapids“I think we’re supposed to watch them from back here,” she yelled to us from her stable position on the trail.

After taking in the view and beginning our walk back, we came across a fork in the path that lead to a rope bridge over the river. We stopped for a moment and my dad looked over to the bridge with longing. My mom looked at him.

“How long do you think it will take us to walk there?” she asked, with a tone that implied, “because we don’t have time and should be getting on the road.”

“We don’t have to go if we don’t want to,” Dad replied, looking back at the bridge and shrugging.

“You want to go to the bridge, don’t you?” my mom and I said simultaneously. Dad laughed and we started walking.

Bridge with StairsThe bridge itself was suspended from the top of a tall and sturdy flight of stairs. “Oh boy” my mom sighed as she looked up at the stairs. I told her she could stay right there, she didn’t have to go with us. By the time I finished my sentence Dad was already at the top of the stairs.

I walked out to the center of the bridge with my father. It was swinging in a way that would make you nervous even if heights didn’t bother you. The drop was a long way down to cold, dangerous water. After enjoying the view for a minute, Dad and I turned to see my mom at the top of the stairs. Her arms were tensed up and her grip was solid on both handrails. She placed a single foot on the bridge and Dad and I froze. The bridge swung with every shift of weight, and we wanted to keep it still for her. She was staring straight down at the planks and moving very slowly. At ten feet she looked up at us with a nervous smile.

“I’m on the bridge!” she announced proudly.

“Nice job, hon,” Dad said, congratulating her with a smile.

Mom on BridgeThat was quite enough for my mother, who immediately turned back and shuffled her way to the stairs. Dad and I joined her on solid ground, and she looked like she’d just jumped off a cliff she was so jittery. We walked back to the cars and got back on the road to Washington.

I’ve said before that I don’t like it when people call me brave for having gone on my trip. I don’t think you’re brave by virtue of doing that which would scare others. It’s true that on my trip I did a number of things that scared me, though most didn’t compare with how much it scared my mom to walk out onto that bridge. Bravery isn’t how far you get, it’s how hard it was to get there.

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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.

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.

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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

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

Summer Snowstorm

There ought to be a word for the feeling you get when you realize you’re in danger and it’s too late to turn back. It’s a word I could have used at about 8400 feet as I crossed over the East Entrance pass into Yellowstone National Park. The volunteer I’d met at Wild Bill Dam warned me that he saw a snow storm on the horizon, but the clouds he’d pointed at were long gone by the time I entered the park. I thought for sure he was wrong. After all, the weather in Wyoming is extreme and unpredictable. Anyone could make a mistake.

By the time I hit the top of the pass the snow was coming down hard. I’d slowed my car down below a reasonable speed and turned off the stereo. It makes sense to shut out distractions like the radio when conditions are bad, but the result is almost worse: an eerie, dangerous silence. It seems like you shouldn’t be able to hear snow as it falls on your windshield, but you can. It’s a dull hum on all sides, and the quiet makes you hear sounds from your engine you never noticed before. My body tensed up as the my little cave reminded me of every other time I’d been unprepared in the snow.

On my way down the pass I caught up with a car in front of me, and someone else caught up with me from behind. We’re in this together now, I thought. I had my pace cars, and if anything happened to any of us the others would be there to help. I kept my eye on the pavement in front of me. It was still safe. The snow wasn’t that thick yet. Every time I went around another bend in the road I felt sure I’d hit a gust that would flood the area and leave me stranded in the snow. It wouldn’t take much for it to become too much.

I had packed for a summer road trip. I didn’t even have my ice scrapper with me.Snow at the General Store

The pass dipped down several hundred feet and the snow began to let up. By the time I got to my accommodations at Lake Lodge, it was still coming down but only enough to make everything beautiful. I went to check into my cabin space. The lobby was packed with people stranded by the snow. Some had intended to leave but didn’t trust the conditions. Others were supposed to be camping and needed some relief from the cold. I was so grateful I had opted to reserve a room back in April, rather than take my chances with a camp site.

I grabbed my room key and headed out back to where the cabins were located. My cabin was fully furnished and simple, but cozier than a standard hotel room. A bed, a desk, a few cozy furnishings. It was the sort of space I could almost call home, if I didn’t have so many possessions already. Someday I’ll get rid of them all.

I woke up in the morning to the sun rising over the glimmer of snow on grass, and steam rising from Lake Yellowstone. It was gorgeous, and I stood out in front of the lodge staring at it with all the other tourists. We couldn’t take enough pictures.

Panorama of the Snow and Lake

Camping Alone

At the campgrounds I would see people setting up their sites. They would string clotheslines between the trees. They would make a place for food and a place for supplies. Vehicles were parked specifically and purposely. There were special items, too. A table cloth for the picnic table and a cooler for the beer. A camp stove to heat meals, or a pan to put over the fire.

2013-06-03 17.43.09A lot of family camping seems to be about creating a new space to live in. It brings with it all the fun and challenge of moving into a new home, without a lot of the expensive downsides. You get to rearrange your limited furniture in the most pleasing way. You get to discover the best way to cook in your new kitchen, assign chores to family members for taking out the trash and doing the dishes. You get to make yourself a comfortable bed from scratch.

Unlike a typical home or apartment that is filled with walls and floors and pipes that you can’t fully see or understand, your campground home is one you build yourself. You take a rolled up collection of tent fabric and make it into a bedroom. You find a path to the outhouse and make it into your hallway. An ordinary wooden picnic table transforms into a kitchen. A piles of logs and matches becomes a stove. Setting up a campsite is like being your own fairy godmother, taking a pumpkin and making a carriage.

There is accomplishment clearly, but there is also control.

Every piece of your camp-home is something you created, and is therefore something you can remove. At home you may not like your kitchen sink, but a replacement is costly and time-consuming and requires a professional. At the campsite your sink is a rubber tub. If you don’t like your rubber tub, you can go to the home department of any number of stores and pick up a different one. Problem solved. The sink has been replaced.

But it’s not like that when you’re camping alone and camping for convenience. When I was camping on the road, I was never trying to build a home. I was barely building a hotel room. I didn’t want to set out a clothes line or table cloth. I wanted to do as little as was required to have a comfortable evening, then pack it all up again as fast as possible in the morning. Camping wasn’t an adventure, it was a nuisance.

Fire - postedI didn’t have the typical social aspect to my camping either. There were plenty of times when I was alone or mostly alone in a campground. I didn’t sit around a campfire with a group of friends trading stories. When I did bother to make a fire I was always trying to time it to burn out around sunset anyway, since I would much rather get into my tent early than stay up late waiting for the coals to die down.

I’m sure it would have been different had I planned to stay in any one spot for longer. Perhaps I would have set up shop and made more friends. But almost all of my camping stops were one night only. And when I really stop to think about it, I didn’t want to set up a home because I already had one. My car had become my home. That’s where I kept my things and spent my time. It’s what stayed the same whether I was camping or couchsurfing. My vehicle was the one unchanging part of my journey. The campsite was just some dirt to pitch a tent on.

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