Wednesday, August 24, 2016

ID/WY/MT Adventure Day Five - Oh, Deer...and Majestic Views

I thought today was going to be relatively boring. Until I almost crashed into a deer. But let's back up a bit first.

I left West Yellowstone under a thick layer of smoke; the fires in and around the park are only getting worse, so I'm glad I left when I did. However, no one was going the full 70mph speed limit; I could only get up to 40mph safely because of the dramatically reduced visibility. It actually felt like I was driving in a really bad Florida thunderstorm. Add to that the constant warnings of wildlife crossing the road and you find yourself on high road alert for long stretches, and that gets tiring.

After about an hour or so, the smoky haze finally lifted and revealed clear blue skies. I thought this 7-8 hour drive north to Whitefish might be uneventful and maybe boring, but I was wrong on both counts. The scenery in western Montana is some of the most beautiful I've ever seen in the United States. I entered a lush green mountain valley with a lake and river at the bottom.

And deer crossing warnings. Not long after seeing the sign, I had to come to a screeching halt because an 8-point buck decided something looked better on the other side of the road. Fortunately, the driver behind me was paying attention and I didn't get rear ended. I had a mild heart attack; the deer didn't even flinch. After I recovered, I kept driving down this stunning riverside road and was treated to some amazing views. Then came the bighorn sheep crossing warning. And the falling rocks warning. What sealed the deal for me was the sign pointing to a geologic sit called "Night of Terror"; I was convinced Montana was trying to kill me, lol.

Anyway, I made it through this gauntlet and spent the next few hours driving through golden valleys, along sapphire rivers, and next to rocky foothills. It became pretty obvious to me rather quickly that three things are huge in Montana: hunting, fishing (particularly fly fishing), and lumber. Weyerhauser has a huge facility not far from my hotel, and I must have past several dozen trucks carrying hundreds of logs each. If you've ever seen the amazing movie A River Runs Through It (one of my all-time favorites), it was filmed in the parts of Montana I drove through today. I can see why this is such a huge draw for outdoorsy people looking for peace and tranquility.

The road became more windy about an hour south of Whitefish, and cruise control was no longer an option. I was tunneled in by very tall pines on both sides, and I sped past a sign that said "scenic view." I wasn't planning on stopping until I got a millisecond glimpse of what I was going to pass up. I had to turn around and stop. Then I got first on-the-ground glimpse of the Canadian Rockies.

I finally made it to my hotel under cloudy skies (the first of this trip) and utterly exhausted. I settled in with yet another fast-food dinner, a hot shower, some TV, and an early bedtime to prepare for Glacier National Park the next day.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

ID/WY/MT Adventure Day Three - Geysers and Roadside Grub

After another good night's sleep, I started the two-hour drive north from Victor, ID to the west entrance of Yellowstone National Park. It was a mellow drive, and while I didn't have massive mountains nearby to keep me company, I (once again) had plenty of wheat. Honestly, I've never seen anything like these wheat fields. They go on forever, as far as the eye can see. And someone has to harvest all that acreage! It really is beautiful; a patchwork of amber mixed in with some green crops and recently tilled plots that make the rolling hills look like a big quilt. It was absolutely beautiful.

Before I entered Yellowstone at the end of my drive, I didn't really know what to expect. I mean, I knew Old Faithful was in there somewhere, and maybe some mountains, rivers, and large mammals. But I'm glad I had few expectations because it makes every discovery a surprise. 

The main loop road through Yellowstone is a figure eight, and since I had already driven two hours, my plan was just to do the southern loop before heading to my hotel. The western part of the southern loop is jam packed with great sights, and I had to be choosy about where to stop and make the effort of unloading (and later reloading) my scooter. My first stop was the Fountain Paint Pots. This was my first exposure to how incredibly alien the scenery in Yellowstone could become. But before I get to that, let me explain a bit more about the park.

Yellowstone essentially sits on top of a huge supervolcano. It's the result of a collapsed caldera from God knows how many hundreds of millions of years ago, so many miles down there's a river of molten rock that fuels constant geothermal activity across the park. There are constant reminders of this feature because there is steam billowing from what seems like every square inch of the park's almost 3,500 square miles. There are geysers large and small spewing boiling water either constantly or periodically, fumaroles (which are steaming vents), and "ponds" that are filled with acidic and sulphuric water and are also constantly steaming. It lends an otherworldly characteristic to a park that might otherwise be lumped into the "alpine fir and mountain" category.

So going into the FPP area, I was totally blown away by the rich glacial blue of the "ponds" and the corresponding rust orange of the bacteria growing around them. The mineral flats are a salty bleached white in the midst of the alpine green of the lodgepole trees and the amber of the surrounding plains. The FPP are partly named because they have a "pot" with bubbling mud that looks like (and probably is a lot like) grayish clay. There is also a good-sized geyser just off the (accessible) wood walkway that wraps around all the things to see there.

After spending a good hour at this site (and getting help from some nice strangers from NC with putting my scooter in the car), it was time to head to Old Faithful! I stopped at a few pullouts on the way and drove through some crowded parking lots, and unfortunately had to pass up an excursion at the Midway Geysers and prismatic springs to save some energy.

My arrival at Old Faithful was a bit of a shock. I expected it to be like most of the other sites I had been to or passed by so far--a large parking lot with a lot of people milling around. I had no idea that basically a small town had been constructed all the way around this one geyser. There were two hotels, a large and very modern visitors' center with a theater, a gas station, several large shops, and at least one restaurant. 

As for Old Faithful itself...well, the name is a bit misleading. The time between eruptions can vary from every 40 to every 126 minutes. When they do predict a time for the next eruption, it comes with a plus-or-minus 10 minute caveat. The initial eruption is actually pretty impressive. I can't estimate how high (I'm sure you can look it up), but it's at least 50-60 feet. However, that height is only maintained for 30 seconds or so. After that it drops to about 10 feet, then quits after about a minute--even though I was told twice the eruptions last between 3-5 minutes. Oh, well.

The real treat in the Old Faithful area actually wasn't that geyser itself; it was Geyser Hill above it and the mile-long loop that circled around at least a dozen smaller geysers, fumaroles, and ponds. Many of these erupted while I was right in front of them! The colors were incredible, and the steam from geysers was absolutely everywhere. I spent probably three hours total just in this area, and it was time well spent. This wrapped up my first day in Yellowstone, and I was already looking forward to what the next day would have in store.

Monday, August 22, 2016

ID/WY/MT Adventure Day Four - Smoke, More Steam, and Steak

I went to bed a little later than usual last night, so I had planned to sleep in before heading to see the north loop of Yellowstone. Then at 6:30am, I woke to the smell of burning wood. Normally I love that smell; it reminds me of fireplaces, campfires, and fire pit nights with friends. But this early morning, it reminded me of the Maple Fire that was burning only four miles away. I reluctantly got out of bed and looked out my hotel room window. The parking lot was completely fogged in--except that it was smoke, not fog. I immediately went online to see if the entrance road or park of the park loop was closed, but everything looked okay.

The ride into the park was definitely hazy, but the views were good enough for decent photos. I pulled out at a few stops to take photos from my car on my way to Mammoth Springs; this route was definitely less scenic and interesting than the southwest side. However, the steaming springs in Mammoth and just south of it are some of the most fascinating geological formations I've ever seen. A combination of mineral white and rust orange, they're a series of layered terraces with water flowing over them from the bubbling/steaming springs at the top of the plateau. I'm doing a terrible job describing it, so hopefully these photos will help a little bit.

Getting to the springs was going to be a no-go. The walkways are all wooden ramps and stairs like a scaffold wrapped all around the formations. The parking lot was crazy, so I did the best I could from as close as I could get.

After Mammoth, my next planned stop was Canyon Village and the loops along the "Grand Canyon of Yellowstone." It was a long drive, and mostly unremarkable. What is fascinating about Yellowstone is how quickly the scenery changes from alpine to high desert to grassy plain and back again. On this stretch, I saw some very stark reminders of the 1988 fire that destroyed almost 800,000 acres and caused the park to close for the first time in its history. A full 36 percent of Yellowstone was affected by the fire, which was made obvious by the millions of dead lodgepole pines strewn like match sticks across mountainsides. It was also strange to see the spires of burned pines among the much smaller new growth of pines below them. Fire is necessary in forests; pine cones can't spit out their seeds until the heat causes them to crack open. However, the 1988 fires were unprecedented and disastrous; the evidence of that was everywhere, as were signs of life and regeneration.

My next stop was pretty amazing. I've been to the Grand Canyon and canyonlands across Arizona and Utah so this one wasn't earth shattering, but it was still impressive. It has a double waterfall (upper and lower), then a canyon-length view at the end of the loop. It was crowded at every lookout and I was tired after a long day of driving, so once again I did the best I could photo-wise.

The drive back was pleasant; no more smoke, clear skies, winding roads, and peaceful plains. Overall, I saw one herd of bison, four solo bison in fields, one male elk wading in a river, and two female elk(s?) dining roadside. Not bad, considering I spent most of the time in my car and in busy places. The best times for wildlife viewing are at dawn and dusk--two times I was not in the park--and the best places on hikes, for which I'm not exactly suited. Hey, I was just happy to see any animals in their natural habitat and not in a zoo!

I was starving when I got back around 3:30pm, but I needed to kill time until the restaurants opened at 5pm. So I saw an IMAX movie across the street about (duh) Yellowstone, then did a little shopping. Dinner was amazing, and consisted of (duh) bison strip steak. Now I'm back at the hotel on a full stomach and watching Bachelor in Paradise (Olympics are over; don't judge) to wind down. Tomorrow it's an early wake-up for my online coaching class at 7am local time, then it's back on the road to Whitefish, Montana!

Sunday, August 21, 2016

ID/WY/MT Adventure Day Two - Grand Teton and Jackson Hole

After going to bed early and getting 11 hours of sleep (thank youuuuu, blackout curtains), I was ready to head out to Grand Teton National Park. The drive east from Victor, ID took about 45 minutes, and the northbound turn took me past Teton Village and the ski resort of Jackson Hole. Being a former [intermediate] skier, it's always odd for me to see ski slopes carved out of the tree line on a mountain without the snow. Anyway, after several miles of narrow and windy road, I finally entered the "meaty" portion of the park.

I should mention that Grand Teton isn't huge by any means, as national parks go. The main visual draw is the dozen or so major peaks of the Teton range to the west. There's a 45 mph loop around the park that only takes 1-2 hours to complete, depending on stops. I saw a ton of people on bicycles, and there's a beautiful system of lakes and rivers at the base of the peaks that are popular with kayakers (I imagine). I took at least a million photos of the peaks because they're just so stunning. I ended up staying in the car because I didn't come across anything that seemed worth the effort to haul my scooter out of the trunk. 

The east side of the park had a more mellow landscape, but I did get to see a huge herd of bison! Sadly I had nowhere safe to stop and take a picture. The view of the Teton range was more distant, but still beautiful with the grasses in the foreground.

As I left the park, my original intention was to loop back to Teton Village for a bite to eat and maybe some shopping before heading back to my hotel. I had to drive through the town of Jackson (interchangeable with Jackson Hole, it seems) before heading back west, but I ended up staying there. It is designed to look like an Old West town for skiers in the winter and outdoor enthusiasts in the summer--with all the touristy trappings that entails. I had to check it out.

After miraculously finding a decent place to park, I stopped to grab some lunch and enjoyed a delicious bison burger. After that, I headed out to see the town. To say Jackson, WY is not wheelchair friendly is an understatement. ALL the sidewalks are wooden, so it's a really rough ride. At least half the shops and restaurants have a step to go inside. The curb drops at intersections are really rough. And some sidewalks that start with ramps to go up end up in stairs to go down. I was able to eat and do some shopping, but after all the turning around I had to do, the crazy late summer crowd, and the disappointment of not being able to enter so many stores, I decided it was time to head back to my hotel for more Olympics on TV and another good night's sleep.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

ID/WY/MT Adventure Day One – Walking on the Moon and Amber Waves of Grain

I should preface this post by saying this technically isn’t the first day of my current adventure. When I started concocting the idea of another solo road trip that would culminate in a visit to Glacier National Park in Montana, it made sense to start in a driving-distance city where I had family. I flew into Boise, Idaho on August 17 so I could spend a couple of days with several family members and friends who live in the area. In sum, we had a wonderful time, I [surprise] featured at a local poetry slam (featuring is a big deal, and has been a HUGE goal of mine), and several adult beverages were happily consumed.

The morning of August 19, I got into my rental car to begin my second solo road trip since being confined to a scooter or power wheelchair full-time—and actually, since my MS diagnosis in 2005. You may have read my blog posts from my Canyonlands trip back in November 2015; that was an adventure I’ll never forget, and didn’t think I could ever duplicate. But here I am trying! The different with this trip is that I’m more anxious (and more than a bit scared) about dealing with breaking apart my scooter and putting it into and taking it out of the rental car trunk. This concern was exacerbated by the fact I haven’t been walking at all since I got my accessible Ford Explorer MXV in late May. To make myself feel more secure in the short hobble between the driver’s seat and the trunk, I bought a very lightweight folding walker in Boise, and that has made a huge difference.

Okay! I’m in the car. I have my walker in the front seat, my GPS, my SPOT GPS emergency beacon, two bottles of water, snacks, my phone charger, and selfie stick/monopod. Time to roll! My first objective would be Craters of the Moon National Monument, about three hours to the east of Boise. The drive was mostly uneventful; a few golden hills here and there, many treeless plains, a few foothills off in the distance, and an ever-present low amber haze—a byproduct of forest fires.

As I approached CotM, I could tell I was getting close by the black rocky mounds all along the roadside. CotM is a huge lava formation that wasn’t even considered a notable discovery until the 1930s. It was created by lava seeping up through fissures in the earth and through “splatter cones,” where lava would literally splatter out of small volcanic cones. Much of the park basically looks like 75,000 dump trucks came in and unloaded millions of tons of coal every day for a year. In addition to the rocky formations, there are hills made of black sand, much like in Hawaii. But the landscape isn’t lifeless; there are white lichens and flowers growing everywhere, as well as sagebrush and other greenery. Honestly, it’s the most bizarre place I’ve ever seen in my life—and that’s saying something.

After CotM, I had to drive another 3 ½ hours or so to my next hotel in Victor, Idaho. This second half of the drive was far more interesting than the first half. The landscape was more diverse, partly because I saw a wheat field for the very first time! I have been to roughly 35 US states, and while I’ve seen WAY more than my fair share of corn, I have never seen a wheat field. And apparently Fridays are watering days for every farm in east Idaho; every ginormous irrigation rig in the state must have been spraying, from what I saw. And then there was the harvesting absolutely everywhere! This may not sound like a big deal to many of you, but watching a huge combine harvesting wheat is something I consider to be so American (yes, I know wheat is grown in other countries)—blame it on all those EPCOT movies in The Land.

My (new) GPS showed I only had about half an hour left to my hotel when it was making me turn on this horribly rough dirt road. My fault—I forgot to set dirt roads as an avoidance in the navigation settings. I started freaking out because it showed me on this road for 20 miles, and I had no idea how far it would be unpaved. I was more freaked out at the prospect of getting a flat tire on this isolated road. But just when my anxiety was about to max out, I got the view of a lifetime…

And the rough road ended only a quarter mile after that. My best friend reminded me of that Robert Frost quote, “I took the road less traveled, and that has made all the difference.” I made it to my motel a short time later, and although I was disappointed that my rather Spartan (but clean) room did not have a roll-in shower as stated, it had a fold down bench that I felt I could work with. I was just so happy to be out of the car that I would settle for a sponge bath! Time to relax with the Olympics, and get a good night’s sleep in preparation for Grand Teton the next day.