Getting up close and personal with bison

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These lumbering giants gummed up traffic while we were at Yellowstone National Park.

These lumbering giants gummed up traffic while we were at Yellowstone National Park.

After our white-knuckle trip into Cody, Wyoming and a 2 a.m. arrival, we slept in. For the first time on the trip we weren’t worried about covering miles, making up for lost time or being stranded. That day, all we had on our agenda was exploring.

Cody is about 50 miles from the east entrance of the park, so we had an hour-long ride through some breathtaking Wyoming scenery a Big Boy statue – that we never did get a picture of. He was just hanging out near the road, double-decker burger and all.

When we arrived at the park the weather was a little … unexpected. We’d prepared for the trip expecting Glacier to be cooler than Yellowstone and it was actually opposite. The weather in Montana couldn’t have been more perfect. But in Yellowstone, it was raining — pouring at times — and the cheap fleece I was wearing did absolutely nothing to keep me dry. After our first stop, which was a half mile hike from a parking lot to a restroom, I was already soaked. Memo to myself: Pack for rain next time.

Yellowstone greeted us with a spooky fog laying heavily on the land.

Yellowstone greeted us with a spooky fog laying heavily on the land.

The morning’s cold rain created a dense fog over the park that blocked most of the hilltops and restricted our view. It gave the park a surreal, almost spooky feel.

It didn’t take long for the rain to let up and we decided to hit one of the trails and try to see some geysers. The trail didn’t lead us to any geothermal curiosities, but it did give us the opportunity to practice karaoke hiking — that is, our own soon-to-be-patented method of not sneaking up on bears, or any wildlife for that matter. We serenaded the Wyoming wilderness with “Colors of the Wind” from Pocahontas. And when I say we, I mean Lacey did most of the singing. I probably would have gotten us mauled.

One my least favorite things about going to parks is people stopping their cars in the middle of the road to take pictures of wildlife. Because that deer they see out in the middle of the field is so different than the ones that dart across the road back home.

Lucky for me, the traffic jam on Main Street, Yellowstone National Park was a bison herd ambling its way across the road. And before you ask, no. I was not one of the people weaving my way through the herd.  I have a little bit more respect for wild animals with horns (and brains in my head) than to try to get this close to them. Thank you, but I happen to like not being gored and I’m too clumsy to have to run for my life. I stayed in the car and still got eyeballed by a muncher on the shoulder.

Generally, I don't want to be making eye contact with something that has horns that large.

Generally, I don’t want to be making eye contact with something that has horns that large.

If you are an unfortunate person who hasn’t had the opportunity to see bison up close and personal, I’m sorry. They are beautiful beasts. You could call them bigger, furrier cows, but that’s deceptive. The animals’ size makes it seem as if they can only lumber along at a glacial pace, but they can actually run at speeds up to 35 miles per hour.

They’re kind of like that big, hulking football player you see in a line of scrimmage that looks like he’d be better suited at a table with a steak in front of him. But as soon as that ball snaps he turns into a graceful athlete, weaving through the other players and spinning down the field. That’s what a bison is like.

The Discovery Channel has a clip on YouTube of a cow defending her calf from wolves, and even though its a real nail-biter at times, it’s surprising to see how agile she is.

This herd was the first of two we got to see at Yellowstone. The other herd was a safe distance away – way out over the plain and across the river.

Though you can't see them in this picture, there were some people standing on the sides of the road where the bison were crossing. I applaud their idiocy. Fortunately, we didn't see any bison attacks.

Though you can’t see them in this picture, there were some people standing on the sides of the road where the bison were crossing. I applaud their idiocy. Fortunately, we didn’t see any bison attacks.

Because of all our lazing around we didn’t get to see much in the park that day. Just the bison and a few of the thousands of geysers in the park. We left in the early evening looking forward to a big, hearty meal fit for a cowboy coming in from a cattle drive. We’d been living mostly off sandwiches and snacks we kept in the car and hadn’t stopped for a really good meal in days.

The first thing we noticed when we got back to the town is how dead it was. I mean, it wasn’t particularly hopping when we left in the morning, but things were open and places were busy. It was just after 8 p.m. when we tried getting into a barbeque restaurant. It was on “winter hours” and closed at 8 p.m. There’s even a Cassie’s Steakhouse — kitchen no longer open when we got there.

By this time, we were starving. The Wendy’s lunch we had on our way out was long gone and I won’t lie. Lacey was starting to look a little bit like a T-bone steak. We gave up on good food and just tried a Dairy Queen. They have decent enough food and ice cream to boot. We walked into the dining room and waited at the register while several workers passed by, looked at us and never stopped to take an order. Completely disheartened, or maybe that feeling was just the low blood sugar, we got Arby’s and took it back to the hotel room.

To see more photos from Yellowstone National Park, check out my Flickr account.

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No fail recipe for stargazing

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This picture of a road was lifted from video in Wyoming. At least this road had reflectors on the edges, we didn't even have that on the way through Montana.

This picture of a road was lifted from video in Wyoming. At least this road had reflectors on the edges, we didn’t even have that on the way through Montana.

You’ll need one part wild west, one part white knuckles and a whole lotta darkness.

I got a surprise late Christmas gift this year  when I changed the memory card in my camera and found a few hundred more pictures from Yellowstone National Park. Talk about excited! But, it also reminded me that  I hadn’t ever finished posting to Flickr or blogging about the rest of the trip. Life intervened. But, let’s see if I can sum up what’s left of the trip.

I could go back and gush about Glacier National Park some more but I’ll move on. I still pull out the photos from that part of the trip and flip through them about once a week, drooling and wishing I could just pack up and head back to Big Sky Country — for good this time. But that good thing came to an end and we started on the last leg of our trip: Wyoming and Yellowstone National Park. The drive was to be another long one — our last, thank goodness. So we got an early start, knowing we’d be racing against the Montana darkness again. I think this will be the third time I marvel at just how dark a place can be.

Thankfully, we had an uneventful day of driving. No blown out tires, no getting lost, no hitting wildfires. Just crossing Montana country heading to the state line was quickly as we could. The quiet gave me the chance to get some school work finished  — because going back to school for a different degree seemed like a good idea at the time — and so Lacey gave me a break from driving until the sun set. And then the fun began.

For all we knew, the road we were driving was on the side of a mountain, like this part of Going to the Sun Road in Glacier National Park.

For all we knew, the road we were driving was on the side of a mountain, like this part of Going to the Sun Road in Glacier National Park.

Imagine darkness. I bet your imagination conjured something with faint outlines of objects, maybe a sliver of light under a door. Now, take that away. No more outlines, no more shadows. Now, as you adjust to that darkness, take it down another notch. You can’t even see the hand in front of your face. The darkness takes on a life of its own and you can feel it pressing in on all sides of you. It is terrifying and inescapable. That’s the kind of darkness I’m talking about.

Its a darkness I would welcome if I weren’t trying to cover almost 400 miles and knew what it felt like to be stranded on the side of the highway. 

The beautiful thing about not having a big city or any other kind of suburban civilization nearby is you don’t get light pollution. When the sun sets you only have the light you carry with you. In this case, that’s my headlights. So, I can only see maybe 10 or 20 feet in front of the car at all times. I can’t tell if there’s a curve or an animal up ahead until I’m up on it and there’s nothing I can do about it. Fortunately, there were no animals. But there were some tight, winding curves. The kind of curves you would encounter when you are driving along the sides of mountains. But we couldn’t tell what kind of geology was around us, and that made it still more terrifying.

I’m here to tell you that that old saying that goes something like dim lights shine brighter in the darkest night just isn’t true. The darkness eats the light until there’s nothing left. So I did the only thing I could think of and drove with my brights on for about 200 miles.

Our only companions were your friendly, over-the-road truckers, whose headlights in my rear view, and then side view mirrors as they passed me, only contributed to the blindness. We discussed calling the hotel, letting them know we’d be a day late and staying somewhere on the road, but my stubborn streak kicked in and I wanted to keep pushing through. We’d already lost a day, I refused to give up any more of my vacation.

On we went, knuckles white and eyes open wide with adrenaline and No-Doz. And about the time we crossed the state line and reached Wyoming, Lacey started staring at the sky. She said something along the lines of, “If you can, you may want to pull over and get a look at the sky.” On the side of a county road leading to Cody, Wyoming I beheld the most beautiful night sky I’d ever seen. I’m sorry I don’t have any pictures of it. It was a swirling mess of galaxy and glittering stars with a violet-black backdrop. We stayed, me leaning on the side of June, until a car started out of a nearby driveway. Then we moseyed on down the road to the Big Bear Motel.

Featured image of the Orion Nebula courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution via Flickr Creative Commons. 

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.

Adventures in Montana: Night driving

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One of the few touristy stops we made along the way to Glacier National Park - a memorial to a Lewis and Clark Expedition. And no, I don't know more details than that. I'm a little rusty on my expedition trivia.  Above photo: The memorial was surrounded by pasture and railroad tracks (and broken beer bottles). These horses were grazing a ways out in front of the monument.

One of the few touristy stops we made along the way to Glacier National Park – a memorial to a Lewis and Clark Expedition. And no, I don’t know more details than that. I’m a little rusty on my expedition trivia. Above photo: The memorial was surrounded by pasture and railroad tracks (and broken beer bottles). These horses were grazing a ways out in front of the monument.

Well, we were supposed to be headed to a Cowboy Cookout with Swan Mountain Outfitters in Glacier National Park, but day three dawned with me making a waffle in a hotel lobby while wondering when we’d get out of Laurel, Montana. Not that we had anything against Laurel – its a lovely place. That’s where we met Mike and Tina of Allstar Towing and the staff at the Locomotive Inn. I still can’t say enough good things about everyone we met in Montana. Even our cab driver on our way to the airport was charming. He told us all about the rims (the sandstone land formations that surround Billings) and the suicide cliff outside the city. The story goes that a group of Native American braves rode their horses off a cliff in the midst of a smallpox epidemic to try to please the gods and stop the sickness. It’s kind of a heartbreaking story.

This is from Lady Gaga's whirlwind tour through Montana. She went through the state    holding concerts at national monuments and tagging. Actually, I completely made that up. This is just another fine example of Montana graffiti.

This is from Lady Gaga’s whirlwind tour through Montana. She went through the state holding concerts at national monuments and tagging. Actually, I completely made that up. This is just another fine example of Montana graffiti. (Try to look through the bug guts on the windshield.)

Nevertheless, we made it out of Laurel, back to Billings and then back on the road and headed to Glacier. The most expedient route would have been to take I-90 and continue on north at Missoula. But the front desk clerk at the hotel gave us a different route that was supposed to take us around more lakes and – even better – avoid an area around Missoula in flames at the time. (At this point in time part of the West was still in raging wildfires, the torrential rains that flooded the Denver/Boulder metro areas hadn’t hit yet.)

Now, we made great time and few stops along the way to sight see. Lacey and I have a tendency to get wrapped up in exploring and photographing an area and before we’ve realized it, we’ve blown at least two hours. Its so easy to start looking through a lens and lose all track of time. But despite our frugal time spending, we lost our race against the sun. Before we knew it we were plunged into darkness going through Montana wilderness. I guess the benefit of this is that Lacey’s whole fear of falling off the side of a mountain didn’t kick in because we could see nothing. I may have mentioned the Montana darkness in a previous post, something about black. Nothing but black. And white knuckles on the steering wheel.

The Journey of a Lifetime

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The Journey of a LifetimeNew Gypsy Trip TagThere isn’t much to say about our last couple of days on the trip. After we left Yellowstone, we stayed in Deadwood, South Dakota in the nicest cabin of our entire trip. The next morning, we saw Mount Rushmore, and drove into Minnesota to sleep before leaving early this morning to come home.  Everything kind of ended slowly, with all of us sorry to see the trip end, but looking forward to sleeping in our own beds, with our own showers and real food. Not something from a gas station microwave or out of the cooler.

We traveled a staggering 7,500 miles on this trip. We covered 17 states in 13 days and 12 nights. We visited two UNESCO World Heritage sites, eight national parks and monuments and as much Pacific ocean as we could squeeze in. We camped in the tent four nights, stayed in cabins three nights and bunked with my aunt and uncle one night. We stayed in hotels in Hannibal, Mo., Manhattan Beach, Calif., San Francisco and Las Vegas. The Paris Hotel at that.

We started the trip eating only from the food we brought, but halfway through the trip we couldn’t stomach any more hot dogs or turkey wraps. That’s when we started living off the land, and by land I mean gas station food. (I really don’t recommend this.)

We did all of this without one time getting into a fight. Without much disagreement about where we should go or what we should do. And we stayed pretty well within our budget. Between the three of us, we completed this trip on approximately $3,000.

I’m trying to think of a more interesting way to end this chapter of my blog, but I’m really just in awe of what we just completed. I don’t think I’ll ever willingly cover that much ground in such a short time again, but there is nowhere we went that I don’t want to return.

SerendipityThat being said, I think everyone should do a road trip like this one. You need to camp. Setting up a tent in the dark in the rain isn’t as bad as it sounds. Just get you a bright lantern and it goes right up. You need to experience new things and see new places.

You need to rent a car and beat the tar out of it. Sailor Moon has no tire tread left and needs about two oil changes. Naming the car is also a must. You need a GPS that will get you lost and that has a split personality. And you need to take your closest friend with you and test the bounds of your friendship.

There’s nothing about this trip I would change. There’s a lot of things I wish I saw more of and more places I wish we had time to visit. I wish I had more photos of Sacramento. I wish my camera hadn’t died on day two and I didn’t end up with a $40 cheapie from Wal-mart. I wish I had more memory on my computer so I could store more media. I wish I could have made it through the trip without getting walked in on in the bathroom, or mistaking a urinal in the men’s room for a fountain. But all of these things were just part of the adventure. They’re part of the stories we will tell for the rest of our lives.