Road Crew

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Wild Life

The Grand Tetons have to be the most stunning backdrop ever to watch wildlife. The prairie dogs have been left behind but replaced with an abundance of elk. Squirrels were exchanged for the adorable marmot. Each of the last few parks has added an interesting new ungulate to the mix.  This time it is the moose, a really hideous looking mammal honestly.  They are all legs and big lips, the animal kingdom’s version of Mick Jagger. The first moose was viewed from a pleasant distance.  The second was a bit more intimate.  She owned the trail and was not going to share.  I could climb up a rock cliff or jump down into the water to avoid her.  So I did what I do best and ran back down the trail.  The problem is that she insisted on following.  Eventually I hid behind a rock and watched her saunter by 15 feet away.  So I should have incredible up close pictures, right?  Nope.  This is what I have to share of the moment.


The two sets of nesting eagles (**cough**) I saw as I floated down the river also came out the same. I was much to excited watching the momma bear with her cub to even think of my camera.  It seems I need some lessons from the Goatographer who seems to have no problem catching me mid flight. Photography is simply not my gift.
            Let’s focus on other people’s flaws, shall we?  The most intriguing species by far is the homo sapien.  It brings a whole new meaning to “wild life.”  The recent buffalo-napping is only the beginning.  This was repeated with a baby pronghorn as well.  It makes me ill to speak of the graffiti decorating Arches National Park.  Or how about the men prancing through the hot springs at Yellowstone?  Such things just seem so obviously wrong, you have to wonder what motivated them.  Perhaps they saw a reward sign for a lost dog and thought, close enough.  Or maybe they thought the graffiti was a new interactive display provided by the park service.  The guys in the hot spring were probably just too cheap to buy a shower.  You wouldn’t think I would have such high expectations when I’m accustomed to people coming to the ER for hangnails.  I keep thinking that perhaps with a good night’s sleep and strong cup of coffee the American IQ will suddenly rise.  I might as well by lottery tickets.
            Even if I have never witnessed outright atrocities myself, the shallow bottom is easy to see. I have come across women carrying giant purses through the Badlands.  They require an assistant on the other side just to balance out the 20 lb bag they are carrying. I realize there are warnings to go to prepared but how much can really happen on a ½ mile trip down the boardwalk.  I doubt that Vera Bradley is full of first aide, splints, and rescue harness in case of emergency. There was the guy wearing flip flops walking up Guadalupe.  I can only imagine the toe jam after that expedition.  His poor pedicurist. On second thought, perhaps I should give him credit.  There is no way I would have made it that far in flip flops.

            Today’s sighting was by far the best.   A young woman showed up to the trailhead doing her best Taylor Swift imitation.  In fact the woman looked like the early version of Taylor with her long blonde hair and long skinny legs.  She was dressed in a thin long sleeve shirt and high waist shorts, the type that the gluteal fold falls out of with the slightest provocation.  To complement this, she had on knee high socks with leather ankle boots that had a 2-inch heel.  It was accessorized with a classy leather satchel hanging low and loose across her shoulders.  I am sure this is the absolute latest high school fashion however those of us in long pants, hiking boots and down jackets to protect us from the freezing temps were openly incredulous.  We might as well have stumbled upon a peacock strutting among the buffalo and elk.  I simply lack the imagination to empathize with what she was thinking when she put it on that morning but I am sure the wildlife were very impressed.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Huckleberry wild

I was raised on the huckleberry.  I had no idea for many years that this was unusual until I discovered that there were people in the world that didn’t even know what a huckleberry was.  Like a blueberry, they would insist after I described the small purplish berry to them.  Nothing like a blueberry, I insist.  It is on a whole other cosmic level.  It has a tart sweetness that I have never had a blueberry come close to.  You are never going to find the huckleberry languishing in a plastic bin in the grocery store like some commoner.  It insists on being elusive. The huckleberry is a wild berry that largely seems to reside in the Northwest, preferably at the end of a bumpy dirt road and several miles of hiking.  Much like myself, it resists domestication.
            As a community we took pride in being friendly and helping one another but all that stopped when it came to huckleberry picking sites and elk hunting grounds.  These were sacred family secrets.  This is because the huckleberry is incredibly tedious to pick, like the worst Easter egg hunt ever. This was learned one summer when my grandfather forbade my grandmother from paying $25 per gallon for the huckleberries dutifully picked by the elderly couple that clearly had a cash crop somewhere. Being a good student of the Depression, he thought this was a ridiculous price for what a little hard work couldn’t produce for free.  So we made the long trek to the woods and spent several hours picking. Although my brother and I in theory provided extra sets of hands, our contribution was small.  Our mouths on the other hand had a distinct purple hue suggesting our productivity was artificially low. By the time we were done we were covered in dirt, sweat and scratches from digging through brush.  We were all exhausted and we had barely scratched together a gallon or so of berries.  From then on my grandmother was given permission to buy as many huckleberries as she desired.
            The other challenge of huckleberry picking is the bears.  They, too, have a fondness for the berries.  They will happily sit in a patch and gorge without any intention of sharing.  It makes the whole berry picking process a little nerve racking when you aren’t sure if it is your brother rustling in the bushes or something a bit fuzzier.  It gives a whole new meaning to organic when you have to pry them from the jaws of a grizzly. 

            For years now I have settled for the blueberry, a second rate substitute for the finer things in life.  As if injected with steroids, they seem to be grown for size over flavor.  They are either mushy or tart.  My taste buds have grown nostalgic.  So when the woman checking me in at the campground encouraged me to try the huckleberry ice cream, there was no question that I would do just that, over and over.  Bear claws not included.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

South Dakota

From the beginning, I ruled out seeing national monuments as well as all the national parks because it just became too much.  There are stronger people than I attempting that particular goal. However, I am making a few exceptions to that rule,  one of them being Mount Rushmore.  I don’t think that there is any monument that better represents the quintessential American road trip better than Rushmore.  I mean, honestly, what is more American than driving hundreds of miles to see four white men carved into a slab of rock that belongs to a Native American tribe? Still it is an impressive feat given the era in which it was done and the fact that no one died doing it.  I hope that one day we have the audacity to make the Crazy Horse rock sculpture a national monument as well.



The other national monument I dropped by to see was Devil’s Tower.  This giant monolith is completely unique to everything else around it.  It has long been held sacred by the Native American tribes in the region.  However, being a tall, large, intimidating object, there is an innate desire to conquer it and climbers are drawn to it like ants.  I can understand the desire.  There are many places I wish to run because that is how I can best understand and appreciate my environment.  There is no question that the common theme of my park tour is disputed ownership and priorities among users of the land.  I never imagined my trip would by so morally conflicting.  I mulled the debate over a local hard cider at the Firehouse Brewing Company.



The rock tour continued in the Badlands.  The Badlands are an impressive formation.  They look like blades sharp enough to cut paper rising straight out of the ground.  What I find so fascinating is that they are essentially mud with rock cores and are slowly wearing away.  Some day they won’t even exist.  There are signs of partially decayed formations everywhere.  It reminded me of a giant sand castle that is slowly worn away by the surf.  You can still see that most of it is intact but eventually it will all be washed away.  I can see why some would wonder why we are preserving something that can’t be preserved but these are questions for another time. Underneath it all are the things that used to be.  The Badlands are a major fossil bed and as things erode, new discoveries keep showing up.  Someday it will be my car keys. 


What amused and baffled me were the numerous boardwalks on each trail.  I am accustomed to these when the park is intending to keep people off sensitive areas but this did not seem to be the case at all.  The primary goal was to “improve access”.  To whom, I wondered?  It would be nice to think this was accommodating those with true physical disabilities but mostly it seems to cater to the many flip flop wearing, out of shape tourists.  Tourists that weren’t even willing to leave the paved road, I discovered.  While have the parks has a lovely paved road with many beautiful view points, the other half of the park has a gravel road.  Promptly upon leaving behind the masses, I was rewarded again with animals galore: bison, big horn sheep, coyotes, prairie dogs, turkey vultures and a burrowing owl.  Worth every cent at the car wash. Never hurts to get a little dirty now and then!



Uncle Al

I once shot a man in Longmont.
            This was how my Uncle Al launched into a rather long, complicated story about a transgression that perhaps only another Harley rider would understand.   The shooting was revenge and a police chase ensued straight out of the movies.  The night ended with him escaping to Aspen to watch the forest fires from a boat in the lake.  It’s a wild tale both to be believed and be doubted because it was Uncle Al after all.  When it came to Uncle Al, trouble seemed certain.  A happy ending did not. 
            The mystery and legend of Al started young.  The family moved often as my grandfather was a career military man.  Maybe this allowed him to start over again and again or maybe it just left him isolated, never really setting down roots. When they found themselves in Japan, neither my father nor my uncle fared well.  My father escaped back to the states to finish his high school years.  My uncle was kicked out of the house after a fight with local boys made the paper, embarrassing my grandfather deeply.  It is hard to know what all transpired but I’m sure being homeless in Japan cemented whatever wandering tendencies he had to begin with.
            If Uncle Al did one thing, it was wander.  Al was a long time aficionado of Harley Davidson Motorcycles.  He was never the rich banker type that hauled a Harley around on a trailer to keep it shiny.  He was more the ride until I die type.   He wore his hair in a long braid and always looked like he needed a shave.  It was rare that he wasn’t dressed in his leathers.
            My only real memory of him growing up is of his surprising arrival at our house when I was about 7.  He took my baton and twirled it every which way.  Why does a hippy, Harley rider know how to twirl a girl’s baton remains a mystery but I was dazzled. He made rare appearances in the family life, skipping his own brother’s wedding but showing up out of the blue for my brother’s wedding years later.   There were long abscesses that worried my grandmother to tears.  Whether he was in jail or simply lost on his bike I can only really speculate because I hardly knew the man.
            According to Al and the legend that surrounds him, he was a regular at the Harley rally in Sturgis, SD.  It has been said that he is even in the hall of fame.  So when I found myself driving by that very museum and self proclaimed hall of fame, there was an understandable pull.  I stopped, I turned around but then I kept moving on.  While there was some part of me that wanted to know, I didn’t want one more disappointment, one more time he didn’t show up when he said he would.  I preferred to keep the story untarnished.
            Is it possible to mourn a man dead 6 years that I hardly knew but feel I understand better than ever? I think he would understand this trip better than anyone.  He would get it when I say that I don’t know why I have to make this trip but I have to do the trip to understand why. The need to be lost to find out what is worth living for. He is in heaven making hell for the angels but sometimes I imagine him playing hooky, riding shotgun in my car, making sure the next family gypsy doesn't lose her way.


RIP Uncle Al

Saturday, May 21, 2016

North Dakota

            North Dakota is well known for, well, nothing.  As in there is really not much there except recently for the oil boom.  Even that doesn’t exactly fill in the gaps much. As children in Montana, we told terrible jokes about North Dakota.   I am sure these were similar to any other rivalry between Georgia and Florida or Jersey and New York.  Perhaps it is because of these childhood jokes that I had low expectations for Theodore Roosevelt National Park.  It just didn’t seem like there could possibly be anything worth seeing on the border between Montana and North Dakota.  Endless flat land and scrub brush is all I could imagine.
            It took two days just to get to North Dakota from Indiana and then I still faced 300 flat, straight, endless miles across the state to get from Fargo to the park.  But North Dakota showed it’s absolute finest and as if to reassure me, gave me an appetizer of things to come starting with my run in Fargo. A solo run on the river path was interrupted to see my first ever wild beaver.  I will say that downtown Fargo is not where I would have expected to find it.
            I suffered the drive.  Like many parks, it is hard to imagine what could possibly be so interesting.  They are surrounded by the down right ugly, barren or benign.  It is not until you literally turn into their gates that suddenly you are overwhelmed with the stunning display of Mother Nature’s finest handiwork.  Within a mile of the park boundary, I saw the first of what would be many bison majestically standing so that its massive outline could be appreciated against the setting sun.  If was a relief to be back in the parks as once again any doubts about why I am doing this simply vanished.  I wanted to be nowhere else. 

            In spite of giving myself permission to sleep in, I was up early hoping to see some wildlife.  I was not disappointed.  Leaving camp, I slowly followed a motorcycle but focused on finding my turn off when a large dark boulder stood up on the side of the road.  That boulder turned out to be a buffalo, none too happy about being up before his morning coffee.  We slowed.  The motorcycle nudged forward to get around it but the buffalo charged the motorcycle.  Fortunately the beast missed or I would be checking off the first aid square. It left me a bit hyped up starting my run.  I wasn’t going to have a motorcycle to escape with on the trail.  Any large dark shadow became suspect.  Bush? Rock? Buffalo? 
            My anxiety was further reinforced by hitting the trailhead, looking up the side of the hill and seeing more buffalo.  They were plenty far away but it was clear that they were prolific and the scat indicated they owned the place, including the trail. It didn’t help that the run dipped in and out of a ravine.  I dropped in wondering if I would find company and then pop out hoping I wouldn’t find myself in the middle of a herd eating breakfast.
            Every fear was finally confirmed when that was exactly what happened.  I saw his big brown butt, tail flicking from the other side of the ravine.  Perhaps he wasn’t really on the trail.  Perhaps the trail would take me to the opposite side of the ravine.  Nope.  He had found a tasty patch right on the trail and he wasn’t going anywhere.  I watched for a while but decided that I didn’t have enough supplies to wait all day.  The only option was up the hillside.  I like to trail run.  I do not like to bushwhack.  But given the circumstances, I made and exception.  At one point I thought I could finally drop down off the hillside and rejoin the trail but that was when the buffalo locked onto me.  The mindless chewing stopped.  I scrambled back up the hill.  It was a very long detour to say the least and all went well until I came upon a snake 2 miles later.  After a good long scream, I actually looked at it.  It was not black, red or yellow and did not rattle so I waited until it finally slithered off. For once I was going to be pretty happy to get home without any more animal encounters.





            That doesn’t mean I didn’t go look for them from the safety of my car.  The park offered up pronghorns, bison, feral horses, and miles of prairie dog towns.  The rocky hills seem like a different world from every other bit of North Dakota I saw.  I wish I had the gift of photography.  I wish I could show how vast the plains are and the way the light changes the landscape.  No, it does not have the grandeur of the Yosemite or the waterworks of Yellowstone or the mass of Denali. Instead it feels like an old woman.  She is grayed with age, has deep wrinkles and gnarled joints. She has seen it all and sits in stoic solitude on the plain but she has many stories to tell if you are willing to stop and listen.  She can tell you about an ice age, a petrified forest, a president’s ranch, the Indian’s chant and the return of the buffalo.  She is easily the most underrated and surprising park so far. 



Tuesday, May 17, 2016

I'm running away to join the circus

Apparently that means you can find me in Baraboo, WI, where according to the historical marker, "The Greatest Show on Earth" started.


Monday, May 16, 2016

Highway robbery

I thought three straight days of driving to the next park would be pretty uneventful.  What could I possibly blog about when all I do is drive for hours on end by myself?  Alas, the road never ceases to give.
I am well aware that there are apps that tell you traffic and tolls and how to get there all at the same time but I have yet to have this work according to plan.  Most importantly, I actually need to have cell reception, which was non existent for long stretches on the prior trip leaving me following a blue dot on a grey grid.  Because of this, during my three week break a proper, non cell phone dependent, GPS system was on top of every list I made.  I responsibly Googled the difference between a TomTom and a Garmin, read the reviews which turned out to be from 2012 and went down to a large electronic store to see them in person.  That was where it all went wrong.  As I gazed at 8 different models, none of them corresponded with the models I had looked up on line.  The salesclerk came to my rescue telling me that the L2542 was exactly the same thing as the L61 but just a different year.  I doubted that since they were obviously two completely different models for the exact same price, an unlikely event.  He showed me another two models and repeated over and over that the only difference between them was that one was a glossy screen and the other a matte screen.  Again, I decided unlikely, given the $100 plus price difference between them.  Finally he showed me another but said they were all out of them.  At least this was his theory until we turned around to see the display case full of them.  I can only hope that this man had a purpose other than to know about GPS systems or else this may explain the financial difficulties of Big Box Store.  Frustrated, I left the store sans GPS unit and convinced myself that it was a long straight line across North Dakota.  What could possibly go wrong?
The mission today was to restock the camper and hit the road with the goal to get from Ft. Wayne, Indiana to Madison, Wisconsin.  This should be a straight forward six hour drive except for the fact that Chicago stands between these two cities and there is basically no way to avoid Chicago.  On close examination of the map, I think it is a requirement that one must pass through Chicago if choosing to pass through Illinois at all. Of course the traffic is bad there. 
The State of Illinois knows this as well.  Not only do they force you to go through Chicago, they also charge you for it.  Unless in an alley, every road had a toll.  As much as I zigged and zagged, I couldn’t escape them.  Inevitably I would have to roll up to one of the little booths were some bored attendant would lean out their window, see that I had a trailer and then offer up a charge.  $3.40. $2.55. $8.00.  I finally asked one of them if they were just making up numbers.  He laughed.  He actually thought I was being funny but seriously, how is one suppose to know how much change to have on arrival when it was different every time? I also asked one how to get off the damn thing.  She, too, just laughed.  I began to think that they were all high from the exhaust fumes. Perhaps they are friends with Big Box Store clerk and have reunions to laugh hysterically at helpless drivers.  In all it cost me over $30 just to drive across the state.  That comes to 25 cents per mile! I can only assume that their roads are paved with gold.

Needless to say, by the end I was furious.  Pete offered up that toll roads were common in the Northeast as if that was suppose to reassure me that getting swindled while doing nothing more than driving across a Midwestern state was somehow normal.  I am sure it is a matter of perspective.  Growing up, I lived 3.5 hours from the only interstate that bothered to pass through Montana.  So may you be driving a Tesla or a tractor, we shared it accordingly.  To me interstates are there to cover large distances efficiently. We do not build roads and then figure out how to deter people from using them, which strikes me as completely ass backwards.  The only tolls extracted from Montana are in the form of deer or elk waltzing across the road at a bad time, which could admittedly total a vehicle.  It is more of an all or nothing deal but when you live in the West that is the sort of lottery you play.   Sure you will probably get swindled by the sketchy looking car mechanic in the middle of nowhere but hopefully, you at least get to take home dinner.

Friday, May 13, 2016

BINGO


Last March, days out from heading out on the road, I was having periodic regrets, doubts and nightmares about starting the trip.  What had I given up?  Was this going to be financial disaster?  What if I hated the whole thing?  I will admit, the whole painful trip across Texas, I considered turning back.  I was anxious and exhausted. It took a couple weeks to relax into it but I can think of nothing else I should be doing right now.  I am on this journey for a reason even if I am not quite sure what it is yet.
I am days from heading back out onto the road to start the second leg of my journey and I could not be more excited.  I am looking forward to new places, people and stories.  Now that I am a little more comfortable, I have decided to push myself a little.  It is easy for me to crawl back into my teardrop and avoid interactions but my most compelling experiences were when I forced myself to do things well outside of my comfort zone. With that in mind, I started to make a list of things I wanted to do, a scavenger hunt of sorts, but I also wanted to engage my readers a bit more.  So here it is, an old fashioned classic: BINGO!
Yes, I have made a bingo card.  If you are following along, print it out and mark them off!  A national park centennial shirt goes to the winner!  

Sunday, May 1, 2016

#parkgirl

A colleague recently asked me, so what do you think of Prince’s death?
It sucks to die, was my reply.
The woman looked at me a little shocked.  I had clearly disappointed her.  Apparently I was supposed to break into a rendition of When Doves Cry but at that very moment, I couldn’t come up with a single song of his.  Once again I find myself in a generation gap.  At 36, I am on the exact break point between Generation X and the Millennials.  Surely it should put me in some all knowing position allowing me to easily transition between the two but more often than not I feel like I’m lost in a deep chasm somewhere in Antarctica.  Things like Watergate and the energy crisis happened before me and it was raining purple while I was still in diapers.  On the other hand, while I grew up with computers, I can’t say they are my first language. My own website remains rudimentary because just putting words down that perfect strangers may read seems like such a bold move.  The idea of linking pages and improving my Google factor is just beyond me.  I would like to officially dub 1980 as the washout year for all of us that are trying and failing to be both a Millennial and Gen Xer.
Nowhere is this generation gap more evident than in my experience with social media.  As an elder of the Millennial generation, I, of course, have a login to all the social media accounts: Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Linkedin, etc.  As a member of Generation X, I don’t actually know how to use any of them.  Facebook feels like one big public baby album and so when you don’t have kids, somehow you feel a little inadequate.  I think phone photography is now a required class in high school.  Everyone on Instagram has just the right filter and angle.  I am pretty happy if my finger isn’t in the way and my eyes aren’t closed for a selfie.
It is through these various electronic platforms that other national park fanatics have reached out to me.  I consider myself a big fan of the national parks but my interest barely registers compared to some of the twitter handles I follow. Many are self-proclaimed “trusted experts” and “professional fans of the national parks” per their Twitter bio, but the diversity is remarkable including young families, singles and retired folks. It is like discovering that you were adopted and your real family is kind of eccentric and maybe obsessed.  For perspective, my goal is to see all 59 national parks.  Many of these people are out to see all 400+ national parks, monuments, seashores, battlefields, etc.  I think there must be a prize out there for being the most avid park lover.  I am sure we will all find it at the end of the rainbow. 
As it turns out these online communities come together on a regular basis to “chat”.   I decided to join in on a couple of these events to connect with other park fans who might be able to give me the scoop on various parks, but mostly out of sheer curiosity.  Who are these people and how does one hold a conversation 140 characters at a time?
First you have to follow the chat host who presents a question and numbers it by Q1, Q2, etc.  Anyone that answers has to clarify which questions they are answering with an A1, A2, etc depending on the question.  All statements then end with a group hashtag to designate that it belongs to a certain conversation such as #parkchat. They debate pressing issues such as: If schedule and money were no object, which parks would you visit?  When is the best time to visit parks?  Park Rx day is on 4/24.  Do the parks = good health? Should visiting parks be proscribed a wellness benefit/prescription?
There are a few problems with this.  Just like in any group there is always that one person that knows it all and “speaks” a little too loud and often.  Also if they are anything like me, and they are, they tend to forget to label their answers to match the questions.  So there are a lot of lonely “agrees” and emojis that float out into the internet.  Then there is the problem that unless you happen to be following every person in the conversation, which is unlikely, you only get snippets of conversation.  Don’t worry.  There is the person that retweets every answer.  It is a lot like having a party in an echo chamber where you hear everything at once but nothing in context and always a little later.
In spite of this, I am excited for the next chat, #gearmeout.  They seem to be heavy into survival tools and techniques that I hope I never have to use. In spite of this I expect I will be able to add a degree in Outdoor Survival via Millennial University to my Twitter bio by the time I am done.  #expert