In 1967 my father bought a Pontiac Catalina and a dingy old travel trailer and took his girlfriend, my brother and me on a road trip. Over the next 8 weeks we drove 13,498 miles, visited 51 parks, and saw wonders like geysers, redwoods, grizzlies, and the Summer of Love in San Francisco. The trip made an indelible impression, cementing my appreciation for the natural world and the American landscape. This summer Pamela and I hope to repeat the experience for our family.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Dave: A Few Impressions of Seattle

Good to see Andy Davidson. Haven't seen him in ten years or so. Searching our memories, we weren't sure when. He looks like Steve Jobs these days. Just finished a 200 mile bike ride from Seattle to Portland. Andy is excited because he is trying to engineer a career change. In September he starts teaching high school--web design and related IT issues. I believe he said he's trying to get the necessary certification to teach math in the future.

We met Andy outside the Pike Place Market. Stopped at Lowell's for an expensive breakfast. Only the view across the Seattle harbor was worth the price.

After Andy went on his way, we strolled around the market a bit, grazing from all the good food options, watching the fish-tossing fish mongers, appreciating a good dose of city life after weeks in the outback.

After Pike Place we walked to the Seattle Public Library, a Rem Koolhaus building, I believe. It was pretty interesting, although I thought the exterior rather harsh. Inside, though, it really worked.

Next we did a quick drive around downtown Seattle, checking out the Frank Gehry EMP building, which was was cool, driving along the edge of the houseboat community, where they filmed Sleepless in Seattle, and then an obligatory stop at the REI headquarters. We stopped there 12-13 years ago and were impressed. I think LL Bean has one-upped them because it wasn't so impressive this time.

All in all, it was a short but nice trip to Seattle.

The night before we stopped at Cafe Bizarro in the Wallingford neighborhood for a fantastic Italian meal in a cafe with amusingly strange decor. When you combine the Bizarro trip with our quick tour of the central city, I got a different, and better, impression of Seattle. On previous trips there, I had concluded it was "LA with trees." That impression may well be somewhat accurate, but on this trip we saw several intersting neighborhoods and in general the city seemed more appealing.


July 19, 2010

9:00 Leave Ruby's Inn early because we are hoping to meet Andy Davidson in Seattle for dinner and we have a long day of driving ahead of us.

9:01 Stop for ice and a bottle of Bug Blaster at a gas station convenience store. We hope the Bug Blaster will help to keep the windshields clean.

10:20 Stopped in St. Regis to buy cherries from a guy who buys them from orchards near Flathead Lake and sells them here by the Interstate. Also stopped a nearby espresso drive-thru (they are now ubiquitous as we approach the epicenter of coffee, Seattle). We order a huckleberry smoothie. We declare that it is without doubt the best huckleberry smoothie we have ever had.

10:56 Entered Idaho (time change)

11:45 Stopped at a supermarket in Post Falls for provisions. Then proceed to eat a rolling picnic lunch of cheese, salami, bread, and leftover fried chicken from last night's dinner.

1:55 Stopped in Ephrata for gas, ice, coffee and a driver change.

4:10 Stopped at the Ashahel picnic area in Baker Snoqualmie National Forest for a most excellent cherry pit spitting contest. During the contest we consumed the very good cherried we bought in St. Regis. In this picnic area the picnic tables are huge. Instead of sitting at them, we stood on them, which gave the cherry pits better loft. Linden also filled our water bottles with some excellent water that she had to pump.

5:00 Arrived at the Moore Hotel in Seattle in downtown Seattle. Unloaded bags and Lark and I did the now familiar drill of removing the rooftop carrier and putting it into the back of the van. We always do this when we are parking in areas that humans frequent.

6:30 Dinner at the Bizarro Cafe in Wallingford area. An excellent meal in a very cool but strange place.

We couldn't meet Andy because he was in Portland after a bike ride and couldn't get a train back in time to meet us. We'll shoot for breakfast tomorrow.

8:00 Walked around downtown Seattle a bit before retiring.


Sunday, July 18th

9:50 Drove out of Bridge Bay campground. Not much sleep due to jerks in next campground.

9:58 Almost ran into a deer in the road.

10:15 Stopped at Mud Volcano. Linden thought the name lacked imagination. Dave renamed it Satan's Spitoon.

10:23 Buffalo jam. Big herd. Hundreds of them. Gave us an idea of what a real western buffalo herd might be like.

11:20 Ran into another wildlife jam. Turned out to be a mother grizzly and cubs. Once the mom started climbing up the embankment to the road. Everybody turns and runs to the cars. We did too, but not before we snapped a good picture of the bear.

ll:40 Amazing vistas of clouds, mountains, and hillsides covered with a multitude of wildflowers.

ll:52 Wow.

12:33 Saw elk snoozing at the post office grounds at park headquarters.

12:48 45th parallel of latitude. Halfway between the equator and the north pole.

12:53 Leave Yellowstone Park.

1:09 Stopped at Yankee Jim picnic area in Gallatin National Forest for a picnic lunch. Sat in shade at picnic table while the river rushed by a few feet away.

5:30 Stopped at Ruby's Inn in Missoula, MT.

6:15 After driving around Missoula for a while, we end up going to the Shack, which, despite its name, was a pretty nice restaurant. Almost everything else was closed on this Sunday night in Missoula. Dave had an excellent pasta with fresh Morel mushrooms, maybe the best meal I've had on this trip. Afterwards, we went to the Big Dipper, a local ice cream institution. Linden is on a mission to have a different flavor of ice cream every time she has ice cream this summer. Tonight's flavor was yellow cake.

Pamela: Jenny Lake

Jenny Lake was as magnificent as I remembered it. Dave and I had told my friend Pam, who had joined for a few days, that we thought it was the most beautiful place in the United States. Considering it was over an hour drive from our Yellowstone campground we hoped it would live up to our memories. It did.

When we drove down from the mountains of Yellowstone and got our first up-close look at the Grand Teton range it took my breath away. This same site is quite familiar to the whole family. We see it each time we have our teeth cleaned. Our dentist has a poster of the Tetons mounted on the ceiling so patients can view this majestic and magical setting while having excruciatingly painful things happening in their mouths. Painful memories aside, the real thing is quite spectacular.

As we descended into a valley near Jackson Lake we encountered a large (over 100) heard of elk. Considering our recent close encounter, we thought this a good omen. Another half hour brought us to Jenny Lake. The lake is nestled right under the brow of the mountains. It is a perfect combination of mountain-lake-tree-sky.

When I was a kid my mother and I rode horses round the lake while my bother and dad crossed the lake via motorboat. We met at the falls a mile above the lake. The horses are gone but the boat and the falls remain.

After a picnic on the lakeshore we crossed the lake to the Hidden Falls trailhead. The tail was steep and crowed but well worth the effort. You could hear the roar of the falls and feel the mist in the air long before it came into sight. I think it one of the prettiest waterfalls I have ever seen. It is a strange combination of majesty and intimacy. Dave, Pam and Lark continued on another mile to Inspiration Point. Linden and I stayed at the falls a bit to soak up the negative ions. I wanted to drink up its beauty so I could draw from an internal reservoir at some later time.

On our way home we stopped in Colter Bay to shower. The showers in the Tetons were much less crowded than in Yellowstone. How often can you say you have showered in one of the most beautiful spots in the Untied States.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Linden: Ferdinand the Peaceful Bison

I am a bison and my name is Ferdinand. I am sitting in a patch of lupines and tall weeds. I'm not a violent bison, so I'm slightly annoyed because my brother is always saying he's a wimp. Ferdinand just does not like to fight. Still, to impress my bother I have just knocked a man aside. My brother scoffed at me because there was no blood shed. And now I bear the burden of guilt for knocking over an innocent man.

I live among humans because that's where my ancestral grazing grounds are. When the humans came, I just refused to leave. my mother worries about me because she thinks some human is going to shoot me. But i think they are all too busy taking pictures to pull out a gun

I have been watching some crazy family go about their chores. They are not acting like the rest of the humans. For one thing, they keep singing. Also, they stand on logs and balance like cranes. Strangely, they seem to be having a good time as they go about acting oddly.

I keep munching on the sweet grass. I am not going to worry about the humans or my family for now.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Dave: A Quick Word About the Map

If any of you pay attention to our map, you will see much of the trip has disappeared.

Our map now includes so much information, Google Maps lists it on two pages. Evidently the default behavior of Google Maps is to only show the map associated with the current page. So the map associated with everything before a couple days ago is not displaying by default. You have to click on the little map, shows the full map in a separate window, and then scroll to the previous page.

I will attempt to concatenate this information. If anyone knows how to adjust this behavior, please post the answer.

The beauty of blogs. I can crowdsource.

Dave: I Will Car Camp No More Forever

I have to admit that I am a bit of a misanthrope. Car camping makes me think I may be justified in my opinion of humanity.

The campground at Bridge Bay in Yellowstone was a bit depressing. Mostly clear land with campsites positioned fairly close together. When you settle down in your folding chair to appreciate the wonders of nature, all you see before you is a dozen little family tableaus spread out before you. Kids playing ball. Men setting up fishing gear. Teenage girls tramping by in flip flops. Mothers scolding children. It’s far more humanity than I get at home.

That was strange enough. But, I suppose if you choose your campsites well, you could still have a good car camping experience. However, you’re still at the mercy of your fellow campers. And, scientific analysis shows that out of every 100 people, you’re always bound to get a few assholes.

Unfortunately ours took occupancy of a campsite two doors up. They arrived at 1:30 in the morning and proceeded to set up a tent, with lots of loud conversation about how to erect the structure, clearly without a thought of lowering their voices. At least one of the voices spoke with an Indian accent. I know that accent well after nine years at BladeLogic.

Their volume level was inconsiderate, to be sure. We lost an hour or so of sleep that night. But we got over it.

The next night was even worse. We bedded down around 10, when the quiet hours take effect at Yellowstone. That’s typical for most parks. Soon after we turn our lights out we realize someone nearby is talking, laughing, arguing. I could tell by the Indian accent that it was the same people who had disturbed the entire campsite the night before.

We lay there listening to them for an hour. From their conversation you could tell they were not even thinking about going to bed.

As I grew more and more annoyed I made a calculation. Should I get up, pull on my clothes and go out there and ask them to be quiet. That would get me all riled up, and I wouldn’t get to sleep for another hour at least. Or, should I take the chance that they will shut up on their own.

I kept waiting for someone else to intervene. Where are all the tough guys on motorcycles and pickup trucks? They are all camped nearby. Shouldn’t they be acting like the town marshal? Why should this fall to me, an aging technical writer driving a minivan?

Finally I couldn’t stand it any longer. I pulled on my clothes, grabbed a flashlight and marched over to the Indians. They were taken aback when they saw this dude coming at them, shining a mega-flashlight in their eyes, lecturing them about the quiet hour.

To their credit, they did tone it down to a more muted level.

I do not relish confrontation, and it takes me a long time to calm down from one. Finally, much later I fell asleep.

But wait. It wasn’t over. About 1:30 I awoke to a terrible scream. Lots of shouting. At first I thought, Is it a bear attack? Then I heard the Indian accent. The two guys at the nearby campsite were arguing. One is shouting, “I will fight you!” After a while the two women with them talked them down and they grew quiet. And eventually I went back to sleep. But not before I considered that one of the guys in the campsite, who seemed to be of an indeterminate ethnic background, might be an Arab terrorist doing some kind of deep background assignment by coming to Yellowstone. I also remembered that firearms are now legal in national parks and I was lucky those guys didn’t just pop me when I went over to yell at them.

Fortunately, I’m used to functioning on four hours of sleep. So I was able to enjoy the next day reasonably well until I got a splitting headache at about 8 PM.

All in all, I have to say I deal with enough jerks in my day-to-day life. Why expose yourself to even more by going car camping?

Dave: Breakfast with a Buffalo, Lunch with a Loon

Yellowstone National Park is full of interesting and beautiful things, but for us the most notable was the wildlife.

Coming from western Massachusetts, we are not wildlife deprived. We commonly see black bear in our back yard. During our first trip into the park, we were scoffing at the tourists who were creating huge traffic jams just to see a couple elk. (“Elk jams” soon became part of our vocabulary.) We were joking that they should sort traffic into different lanes by asking questions such as: “Have you ever seen an elk before? If no, then take this lane.”

A few minutes later, however, I have to admit we were impressed when we encountered a buffalo jam. A huge male bison was walking down the opposite lane of traffic as calmly as could be. It was almost as if he was cockily showing off his ability to disrupt hundreds of peoples’ lives. Of course, judging by the people hanging out of car windows to photograph this guy, most were delighted by the interruption. We passed the buffalo broadside about five feet from the car. That thing was huge!

INTERESTING AND SAD ASIDE: At breakfast in West Yellowstone we were discussing this buffalo encounter with another family at Running Bear Pancakes (an excellent place for pancakes). We started talking with them after they commented on the poor quality of the maple syrup. (Try the boysenberry syrup.) Turns out this family was from Vermont, near Burlington, so they knew maple syrup. I had noticed while we ate, that the wife looked stressed and the husband often had a far-away look in his eyes. Turns out they were visiting Yellowstone thanks to the Make a Wish Program. So I suspect that buffalo encounter was very important to their son.

As we spent more time in Yellowstone, I came to think that buffalo are the new bear.

When I was in Yellowstone as a kid, bears were everywhere. Here is a selection from my 1967 journal:

1:50 2 bears

1:55 1 bear

1:56 1 bear

On this trip we saw bears only twice, including a grizzly and her two cubs. What we saw lots of were buffalo.

When we arrived at our campsite at Bridge Bay, we were surprised to see a lone bull buffalo calmly surveying the campground from a point about six campsites away. There were people watching him. A few were taking photographs.

This buffalo became our near constant companion when we were at the campsite. He would stand there looking around. He’d graze for a while. He’d lie down and wallow for a bit, sending up a cloud of dust. Then he’d repeat the process. Eventually he’d get bored and move to a different campsite, sending the campers there scrambling to a safe distance.

It was strange. This buffalo was almost completely habituated (as the biologists say) to humans. I say almost because we stopped at the campground office to ask them about the buffalo. They said, “This is his home. You’re just visiting. Don’t get too close. If he comes close to you, move away. He attacked somebody this morning because the person got too close.”

Our first night there was a restless one. Our site was near the road and the restroom, so there was noise from both the whole night. In the morning we asked if we could move sites. There were very few sites that weren’t reserved. The one semi-decent site was two doors down from our friend the buffalo. We took it.

We staged an interesting parade up the campground road, moving our big tent, fully erected, to it’s new site at 136 Buffalo Wallow Road (not its real name).

Sometimes the buffalo would wander off and do its buffalo business somewhere else. But most of the time we were there, he was there. When I woke up first thing in the morning, he was there two hundred feet away watching my head emerge from the tent. While Pamela fixed dinner, she’d be cooking away while I was watching her back until I’d say, “You really need to move to a safer place.” During close encounters, Linden felt discretion was the better part of valor and she sat in the car. Even though the buffalo seemed to be headquartered at a site two doors up, he never decided to harass the asshole campers there (more on that in another post).

Clearly buffalo are more abundant than they were in 1967. And they are far more comfortable around humans. We’d spot buffalo in ones and two all over the place, sometimes right beside the road. On the road north of Bridge Bay we saw an entire herd, maybe 300 strong. I’d seen that scene so many times in movies, I expected to see an Indian hunting party descending on the grazing bison.

For me the highlight of the Yellowstone trip was not buffalo, but a series of wildlife encounters we had on a hike we took to a remote spot called Riddle Lake.

We hiked for 2.5 miles through a new forest of pines mixed with occasional meadows. Beautiful meadows (Much of Yellowstone is new pine forest growing up through the fallen remains of pines that burned in a big file some years ago. The remains of the ghost forest are everywhere.)

We passed only a handful of other people. (Walk for a half mile and you can escape 95% of the crowds at national parks.) Just as the lake came into view we saw a bull elk grazing amidst the fallen trees. We carefully passed him, with maybe 100 feet between us. Then we came onto the shore of this beautiful lake, maybe a mile or two wide, with snowcapped mountains rising in the distance to the east and south.

A few white pelicans were swimming in the lake, and we studied them with field glasses.

Lark and Linden got their feet wet. I was still studying the white pelicans (I’ve always liked them), when they took wing, joined up with a few of their friends, and then proceeded to stage some aerial maneuvers. They always fly in a V formation. At one point the V came down low right over us and we could hear the wind in their feathers squeaking with each flap of a wing. It sounded like they needed lubrication. Then the birds settled in for more paddling.

We enjoyed a picnic lunch while sitting on a log near the shore. Just then, the elk wandered back toward us. We watched him warily until he strode into the lake, picked a spot he liked, and casually chomped on some water plants. He kept one eye on us and we sat there quietly watching him. He must have been no more than sixty or seventy feet away. His big rack of velvety antlers (10 points) was very impressive. Pamela said it was like having lunch with Harry Potter’s patronus.

Just then we heard a loon crying in the distance. We couldn’t believe how lucky we were to hear that while we watched this majestic elk. Then, we heard a whippoorwill. I hadn’t heard one in decades. Then we heard another. Then whippoorwills began calling to each other all around us. Soon the whippoorwills fell silent. I don’t know what they were doing, making their calls in broad daylight. In my experience, you only hear them at dawn and dusk. We were forced to conclude that nature had decided to give us a little nod, or maybe the fairies were thanking us for the fairy house the kids and Auntie Pam made the day before. In any case, it was a few absolutely magical moments.

Then the elk decided to finish his bathing and he moved toward us. Fortunately I had earlier crept up to the beach and retrieved the kids’ shoes. We scrambled over our picnicking log and beat a retreat into the jumble of downed trees. We circled around back to the trail and headed away from Riddle Lake. Only on our hike out did we start to encounter people again. Again, for some reason the fates tipped their hats to us here on this special afternoon at Riddle Lake, giving us the entire lake to ourselves.


Wednesday, July 14

10:15 Left Clubhouse Inn in Billings, MT. Headed west toward Yellowstone. Ahead are beautiful snow capped mountains.

11:45 Spotted white pelicans flying above us.

12:10 Stopped for gas in Livingston, MT. Nearby the beautiful foothills of the mountains are littered with “ranchettes.” The hills are blanketed with a profusion of wildflowers, especially purple lupine.

1:00 Stopped in Bozeman, MT. Walked around for a while and finally had a good lunch at the Cat’s Eye CafĂ©. Bozeman lived up to its reputation as a nice, lively town.

2:15 Stopped at a Safeway in Bozeman for groceries.

4:01 Entered Yellowstone National Park.

4:21 Leave Yellowstone National Park.

4:50 After hunting for a room for a while, checked into the Yellowstone Park Hotel.

5:30 Entered Yellowstone Park

5:43 Encountered traffic jam caused by baby elk. Glad we weren’t going the other way because the elk jam going that direction stretched out for at least a mile.

6:00 Encounter a buffalo jam when we see a bull buffalo casually strolling down the road, demonstrating that he was the boss here. Tons of tourists leaned from their cars to photograph him.

6:05 Take the Firehole Canyon Drive. See lots of people swimming in the river. It looks like a good thing to do.

6:15 Take a walk through the Lower Geyser Basin and see lots of thermal features. Our favorite was a mud pool that bubbled in a comical way.

6:45 Take a drive through the Firehole Canyon Drive and see more geysers. I was able to make one erupt by chanting, “Geyser, geyser, glowing white. Won’t you blow your top tonight?” Lark wondered if there are geysers, shouldn’t there also be girlsers?

7:45 Returned to West Yellowstone after enduring buffalo and elk jams. Had a very satisfactory dinner at Wild West Pizza. There was a bit of a wait to get in, but the pizza was good. So was the beer.

Linden: Prairie Sky

When I first saw the Grand Canyon I thought that I’d never see anything bigger in my life except maybe the ocean. But now as I look around I find myself gazing out at something so vast my small human mind can barely wrap around. That thing is something you see every day in New England but you never really conceive how big it truly is until all the trees are gone which usually shield it and you have nothing but prairie grass swaying in the breeze. This large object is not actually an object it is the sky. Out here you could go into a field and look around only to see golden blades of grass waving in the wind with an occasional fence dotting the grasslands and that big blue sky all around you with cotton ball clouds scuttling across the horizon. An endless road forever traveling on.