TBT: Yellowstone National Park Part 2

This is one of the many crystal clear springs in Yellowstone. The water is so transparent, you can see several feet down into the pool.

This is one of the many crystal clear springs in Yellowstone. The water is so transparent, you can see several feet down into the pool.

This Throwback Thursday is more of a Flashback Friday, but instead of finishing the video and posting this entry last night, I decided to go see the Minion movie. (It was hilarious and adorable, by the way.) But, hey! At least I finally have it finished. It only took two years.

In the world of Vagabond Girls adventures, I last left you in Cody, Wyoming, on the last full day of adventuring in our trip cowboy hunting out west in 2013.

Spoiler alert: We never found cowboys – or at least not the kind we were looking for. Apparently they go out of season, along with everything else in Wyoming, and Cody turns into a ghost town. The only cowboys we ran into were of the retired variety, and while they seemed to be pretty awesome in their day, we would have preferred to find cowboys still in their day.

You can look just about anywhere in the park and see steam rising from the ground.

You can look just about anywhere in the park and see steam rising from the ground.

It was the last day of our trip, we had one more day to adventure and then head back to Denver to fly home the next day. Our goals were twofold:  To have plenty of time to explore the park, and to get back to town before all the restaurants closed up for the night. We really wanted a dinner that didn’t come from a cooler or a fast food window. The night before, the only place we could find open past 8 p.m. was an Arby’s; everywhere else was observing off-season hours.

So remember: If you visit Cody, Wy., after peak season, be prepared for nothing to be open.

The day before, we had a sleep-shortened visit to Yellowstone National Park where we got to see some bison and do some light hiking before heading back to town. The second day, we got to check out some more wildlife and more of the geothermal spots around the park – including Old Faithful.

Old Faithful! This time, I got to see it from the front row with all the other off-season travelers.

Old Faithful! This time, I got to see it from the front row with all the other off-season travelers.

The last time I visited the historic geyser, it was August and the place was so packed we were practically in the parking lot watching it erupt. Thanks to our off-season vacation, we were able to get front-row seats with the AARP crowd, all of them taking pictures with their iPads.

It was awesome.

Yellowstone is a place everyone must see before they die. It was America’s first national park and it’s the crown jewel. I haven’t seen all of the national parks, but I’ve seen many of them, and nothing I’ve seen come close to this.

Seeing bison is almost a given at Yellowstone. But don't be that guy who walks up to them and ends up getting gored. They're still wild animals, yo.

Seeing bison is almost a given at Yellowstone. But don’t be that guy who walks up to them and ends up getting gored. They’re still wild animals, yo.

Both times I’ve visited Yellowstone, first in 2010 and again in 2013, I’ve gotten to see bison herds and elk. Once, I saw a moose and antelope. No bears yet, I’m happy to say. As cool as it would be to see one, I’d rather not have to test my survival skills.

Then there are the crows, following you around until you are about to lose your mind from the ca-cawing.

And of course, the geysers. You could be in the middle of a field of wildflowers, and a vent will be right next to you, spewing steam into the air. It’s a constant reminder that under all the beauty, a wild, uncontrollable force continues to shape the land.


Ghost Town in the Smokies

As we’re rustling though wet leaves, its hard to imagine that this tranquil plot of land has been the subject of so much controversy. In fact, its pretty easy to overlook the community entirely. The only sound is some laughing teenagers somewhere around a bend in the road ahead, and, if you’re close enough, streaming water from the Little River.  If not for the leafless trees granting glimpses the near century-old vacation homes, you wouldn’t even know they’re there.

DSC_3875Elkmont started as a logging base in 1908. Within a couple of years the logging company had a bunch of cleared out land and no way to make more money from it, so they started selling plots to hunters and fisherman, drawing outdoor enthusiasts out to the wilderness of the Smokies. Cottages and hotels started popping up on the mountain and an elite social club – the Appalachian Club – was established. But not everyone carried enough snobbery to get into this club, and the Appalachian Club rejects wanted their own fraternity as well. So, made their own group – the Wonderland Club – and Elkmont continued its transformation to an elite vacation spot for wealthy Tennesseans.

To keep shuttling people into Elkmont, the logging company let people travel in on its railroad, even creating a nonstop shuttle from Knoxville. But once the loggers had finished with the mountain, they left like a thief in the night and took their railroad tracks with them.  Of course, the Appalachian Clubbers – including the then-Tennessee governor – and their lower-class counterparts the Wonderland Clubbers were not to happy about this. But never fear – the path left by the railroad was perfect for roads, so transportation was soon restored and everyone went back to their hunting, fishing and socializing.

DSC_3952When my parents visited Elkmont last summer, they walked past several of the decaying dwellings before they realized there was anything around the path. Some of the old homes from Elkmont — those that were determined to have some kind of historical significance — have been moved to a display of sorts called “Daisy Town” that’s maintained by the National Park Service. But the ones that remain are in various states of disrepair. The decision to let these cabins be claimed by the mountains was about 50 years in the making.

With controversy one – the railroad debacle – out of the way, Elkmonters moved on to what would become controversies two through 575, and all because someone went to Yellowstone.

Willis P. and Anne Davis suggested creating a National Park in the Smokies, but didn’t follow up on it. However, David C. Chapman took the idea and shared it with some influential Tennessean legislators. (Remember the Appalachian Club? Friends in high places.) Once the National Park designation started rolling, opposition sprang up. A group consisting of logging companies and mountaineers wanted to have the spot designated a national forest instead of a national park – because that would give them more freedom to use and develop the land instead of it being returned to and maintained in its natural state.

DSC_3962They ultimately lost that battle, but their fight did result in Elkmonters being excluded from eminent domain. Instead, they were able to sell their land for half its value and get lifetime leases in return. These leases let the owners keep the land until the last person on the deed died, and then the property would go to the park. People in other parts of the park weren’t so fortunate; many of them were forced to sell their land to the Park Service and relocate.

These lifetime leases were renewed in 1952 and 1972, but not in 1992. By that time, the area was again wrapped in controversy.

The park’s management plan at the time called for all of the Elkmont buildings to be removed so the area could be returned to its original, wild state. But all that changed – again – in 1994 when several buildings were placed on the National Register of Historic Places. A 15-year debate ensued. On one side were the conservationists – those who wanted everything removed and no trace of humans left. On the other – those who wanted to preserve the area, or at least the parts that represented the history of it. Finally, a compromise of sorts was reached. The Park Service decided to restore the Appalachian Clubhouse and 18 other cottages and outbuildings. But while the argument raged, the Wonderland Hotel, among other buildings, had already decayed to the point of collapse and the even the buildings they decided to keep had fallen into greater disrepair.

Today, you can see the cottages that were kept in “Daisy Town” or rent the restored Spence Cabin. If you’re feeling outdoorsy, you can reserve a spot at the busy Elkmont Campground and pick up one of the trailheads in the area.

Overall, the area is very accessible. Daisy Town has convenient parking and is mostly level. The road and paths that took us through the abandoned homes were also mostly level, but there were some inclines.  I’d rate it a three on the Gus Scale.

To get there, take Little River Road past the Sugarland Visitors Center and follow signs to the Elkmont Campground.

Getting a taste of Yellowstone in Kentucky

Seeing bison tagged and penned in as if they were cattle didn't exactly feel like Yellowstone, but it isn't bad for being more than 1,600 miles away.

Seeing bison tagged and penned in as if they were cattle didn’t exactly feel like Yellowstone, but it isn’t bad for being more than 1,600 miles away.

Its late January and we’ve been getting hit with cold and snow pretty consistently  for a couple of months now. Taking the dog for a walk has become an exercise in endurance for both of us — and that’s on the days where she doesn’t just run out, do her business and then make a bee line back to the door. Cabin fever has set in.

Don’t get me wrong, I love winter. I would much rather be dealing with temperatures on the southern end of 70 degrees, wind chill or not. Pulling on a pair of thermals under my pants is no big hardship to me. And living in that big, bulky hoodie for a few months? I welcome it. But what do to on those days when you’re tired of being cooped up and you feel like if your dog runs a circle around the room one more time you just might hog-tie her and hang her from the ceiling fan?

I slap on one more layer of clothes, grab the long leash and take the dog on some nature trails. In the spring and summer we love to hit Shawnee Lookout and we’ve been to the Cincinnati Nature Center. But this time I wanted something different. I’ve been looking at pictures from Yellowstone National Park lately and it got me thinking. Why not go see one of Kentucky’s own geological masterpieces? So last weekend we headed to Big Bone Lick State Park.

Emme was impatiently trying to drag Dad up the hill going back to the bison pen.

Emme was impatiently trying to drag Dad up the hill going back to the bison pen.

All right, we’ll pause here for a minute. Yes, I said Big Bone Lick. I know, so many jokes. I had been living in Kentucky for almost a year before I realized there was such a place. So I asked a friend who grew up here what, exactly, is a big bone lick?

“Its … a lick. … A land formation. …I don’t know,” is the response I got.

Well, the story behind Big Bone Lick, according to the park service, is once upon a time millions of years ago it was a marsh that drew all sorts of big animals to feed around the mineral deposits in the area – in this case, salt. Then those big animals died and left their big bones behind. Actually, nothing specifically said where the “big bone” part of the name came from, but scientists were pulling enormous bones out of the earth for several decades, so its not a far stretch. (Anyone feel free to correct me if I’m wrong on any of these points.)

So, its one big salt lick that used to have some big dinosaur bones in it. Bison have been reintroduced to the area, and we even have a sulfur spring. (Take that, Yellowstone.)

One of the things I love about snow is being able to see the trails that my mutt sniffs out in the woods.

One of the things I love about snow is being able to see the trails that my mutt sniffs out in the woods.

So, bright and early last Sunday morning I set out with the dog and my dad to get a little nature and exercise. As the humans trudged through the couple of inches of snow on the ground to get back to the bison herd, the hound darted back and forth, taking full advantage of the 16 feet afforded to her by the retractable leash. And I realized another thing to love about snow: It reveals to me the tracks of animals that Emme is attempting to hunt down. Instead of me just rolling my eyes as she runs to and fro, I can see the rabbit and deer tracks crisscrossing the path. So while Emme busied herself hunting wabbits, I had some fun taking pictures of snow tracks.

And of course once we got to the bison, my little 40-pound, hound dog mutt thought she should have a crack at one of them. She barked at the bison, pulled on the leash and pawed at the ground until I swear I saw one of the giant beasts roll his eyes at her.

Glacier Nat’l Park: Worth It.


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What. A. Week. I’ve recently begun getting a Mary Kay business started (I’m an independent beauty consultant now, yay!) and between that and schoolwork, my week has been eaten up with doing everything but working on my blog. Except for that day I made an outline of the rest of the posts for my vacation and then accidentally posted it. It took me about 24 hours to realize it was live before I pulled it down. So if you saw something with a lot of typos that didn’t make any sense, it was a complete booboo.

I think I left off when we finally made it to Whitefish, Mont. We made it through the epic tire blowout, the stranded in Billings and part one of white knuckle driving through Montana. (Look for White Knuckles Part Two in the next post or two.)  First off, let me tell you we loved the Cheap Sleep Motel. It is cheap as in price, and definitely not a luxury hotel, but the reviews were right when they said it was clean. With its cinder block walls, I kind of felt like I was back in elementary school. But my elementary school didn’t have better Wi-Fi than the Microtel we stayed at in Cheyenne or a bigger flatscreen TV than just about anywhere else we stayed. Or an understanding staff that worked with us when we were stranded and a day late for our reservation.

Did you know Glacier is a rainforest? I didn't until I got there.

Did you know Glacier is a rainforest? I didn’t until I got there.

So, finally, we made it to what we realized is our holy place: Glacier National Park. We were able to move our reservations with Swan Mountain Outfitters from Monday to Tuesday, albeit we lost our Cowboy Cookout. Instead, we had a two-hour ride scheduled in the afternoon. So, in the morning we decided to take a little time and check out Flathead Lake. We wanted to venture down to Wild Horse Island State Park, home to  – you guessed it! – wild horses and bighorn sheep, but with all the hangups we experienced in the trip to that point, we were just worried we’d never make it to the corral. So we just took a short walk around part of the lake, got a few pictures and headed out to Glacier.

Let me just tell you right now that if I had to go through everything on that trip again just to get to Glacier, I’d just about do it. That being said, next time, we’re still flying into Missoula anyway. The most accessible way to see the park is to take the Going to the Sun Road that divides the wilderness into northern and southern parts. But to truly experience it, you have to get on some of the miles of hiking trails into the back country. Sadly, we didn’t get the time to get off the beaten path this year – remember we lost a day to car trouble early in the trip – but Lacey and I are both doing our best to get back next year so we can hike out to Iceberg Lake, among other places.

That's right, pictures of rocks and water. I'm mesmerized by clear water (I'm used to the Ohio River!) and I can't get over how pretty the rocks are in McDonald Lake.

That’s right, pictures of rocks and water. I’m mesmerized by clear water (I’m used to the Ohio River!) and I can’t get over how pretty the rocks are in McDonald Lake.

Even though my explorations in the world are admittedly limited, I can’t imagine a place closer to heaven. We didn’t have a lot of time for sight seeing before our ride, but we did get the chance to stop at McDonald Lake. A picture is worth a thousand words, so I’ll just direct you to the photo at the top of this post to see what I mean. I had never seen water as clear as Flathead Lake until I saw Lake McDonald. You could look out into the water and see, in detail, the rocks lining the bottom of the lake, and see the line under the water several feet out where the lake went from inches deep to a seeming abyss. I’ve never seen anything like it.


Portland Head Light, most photographed lighthouse in Maine.

As lame as it sounds, I’ve always wanted to go to Maine. It’s not a metropolitan place, its more of a wilderness and that’s just the kind of thing that suits me. I’m happy with a little ocean, a little rocky beach, a few lighthouses and the chance to spot a moose – as long as I’m safely in a car or somewhere the moose can’t get me. Sunday morning around 8 a.m., I finally got to see Maine.

The only bad part of the trip is that we only had time to venture in to see one lighthouse, grab a lobster roll and start bookin’ it back to DC. We were in a race to get back before the Metro stopped running.

After getting some tips from the best welcome center worker ever, we plotted a trip to go up to see the most photographed lighthouse and then stop to walk along some cliffs and see another lighthouse on our way back out of the state. We were all so amazed — and frozen — at the first lighthouse that we spent too much time there and didn’t leave ourselves enough time to stop again on our way back to the District.

We did stop for lunch at Becky’s Diner, featured in publications from “Roadfood” to “Esquire.” My travelmates enjoyed the lobster and crab. I enjoyed my burger.

Becky’s Diner

In our original map, we were going to swing back through Vermont on our way back. But like we had to sacrifice cliff-walking, we also had to sacrifice adding the last New England state to my count. We just didn’t have an extra hour to spend seeing another state. But, this trip, like my Gypsy Trip over the summer, gave me a taste of some new areas I want to go back to. Sometime in 2011, I’m heading back up the East Coast. Next time, I’ll have more than two days to cover 700-plus miles up the coast. And I will get to see the Liberty Bell in Philly.

My travelmates:


Nothing like a cemetery to cheer you up

Arlington National Cemetery

There was a “One Nation Working Together” rally Saturday on the Mall, and I absolutely wanted nothing to do with it. I avoid dense crowds and large gatherings of people at all costs. I had no idea what I wanted to do yesterday when I woke up. I just knew I wanted to stay as far away from the Mall as possible. I ended up at Arlington National Cemetery.

I got there  late in the afternoon, so I didn’t get to see much.  I did get to see Kennedy’s gravesite and the Tomb of the Unknowns.

The ceremony of the Honor Guard was the most elaborate thing I’ve ever seen.

I’m not one to stand on ceremony. I try to stay barefoot as much as possible and just do things without much fanfare. The Changing of the Guard was about a 15-minute ceremony where the guard on duty is replaced by a new one. The relief commander comes out to announce to the crowd that the ceremony is about to begin and requests everyone stand. Then, he does a white glove inspection of the new sentinel’s weapon. After the inspection, the two guards and the relief commander meet in front of the tomb, salute and then pass orders from one guard to another.

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

I was more impressed by what the soldiers have to do to become one of the guardians of the tomb. In addition to conforming to height and body build requirements, the soldiers memorize pages of facts about Arlington Cemetery — and that’s just the first part of the process. After being admitted, they begin learning the ceremony and 300 facts about Arlington Cemetery and the Tomb of the Unknowns. Once they pass a test of 100 randomly selected questions out of the 300 facts they learned, guards are awarded a Tomb Guard Badge. The first badge is temporary, and they get an official, silver badge after spending nine months guarding the tomb.

I found my favorite part of the cemetery after leaving the Changing of the Guard ceremony. It was a memorial for journalists who died covering the wars.

Note the hem of his pants.
The handicapped entrance was full of veterans who came to watch the changing of the guard.
Left: Relief Commander. Right: Sentinel going on patrol.
War Correspondent Memorial