Leaving Teddy Roosevelt Park
I lied. After posting the last update, I visited the Painted Canyon, not once, but twice. I went in the evening and smuggled Peggy in for a bit. It’s not just that she’s not allowed in the park, but she insists on sniffing in places that snakes would love to hide. If she was hurt, I’d feel awful. Still, I can’t keep her cooped up out of fear. We covered one beautiful mile, returning to the parking lot in time to watch sunset with a young Vermont couple on their honeymoon. They started it! I wasn’t invading their space. I promise. They’re on a 3 week road trip around the country. They’ve described moving very quickly, especially by my standards, and yet are having a great time and seeing tons of stuff. It just goes to show you there’s no wrong way to do this. They were great, just starting out in so many ways. It sounded like there will be a baby in the picture by this time next year. Honestly, it was super cute. It would have been picture perfect if the sun had set behind the landscape and not behind clouds, but it was still pretty. The next morning I wanted to see the canyon in better light, so I returned to repeat the quick 1 mile loop before hitting the road. It’s a little over 500 miles to Yellowstone from there, so it would be a long travel day.
On about half way to Yellowstone, we all needed lunch and a break for an hour or two. Out of nowhere rose Pompey’s Pillar. Apparently most tourists learn of this place from the highway sign as they go whizzing past it, making a split second decision to pull in. It’s not even listed in the National Park Passport App which has hundreds of parks, historic sights, forests, and monuments, not just the big parks. It is an official national monument though. The annual pass works here. Here is the only physical evidence of their entire trip. Clark, of the Lewis and Clark expedition, carved his name into this high feature, the only one for miles around on this side of the Yellowstone River. It is remarkable for a number of reasons. It’s a great lookout and affords a fantastic view through the only gap in the cliff on the opposite bank, a gap traversed by large herds and hostile tribes in those days. Clark was accompanied by Sacagawea, said with a hard G apparently, and the pillar is named for her son. What an interesting story! She had been kidnapped when she was 14 and taken west. She escaped and made her way east, learning the languages and customs along the way. Now, perhaps 10 years later, she was guiding these explorers to the west and back, through a land apparently governed by her long lost brother who was now a chief! When they came by this pillar, they were actually on their return trip. This was a portion where Lewis had broken off to follow a different river that more or less makes a loop, explaining the name of the camp at the end, Camp Disappointment. No one really knows what ever happened to Sacagawea. She died in obscurity not long after the expedition, but no one knows where or why or how. She apparently sent her son to live with Clark who raised him as his own and gave him an affluent life and robust education. Later, Pompey just became a hunter and trader I gather. I learned all of this during a 1 on 1 tour that I conveniently showed up in time for, a group tour with no other guests. The place is small, but worth a visit. They’ve got other authentic features like canoes and the like.
After touring the monument and tending to the critters, I continued on almost all the way to the park. There’s a rest stop that you can spend the night at on the edge of the park, far enough away that it’s free and legal, but close enough to be worth a short drive in the morning. Campgrounds hate when you show up late anyway and why pay Yellowstone prices for an extra night? It worked perfectly, other than a sprinkler giving me a heart attack as it popped out of the ground next to me. I was certain it was a snake! The drive south from Bozeman to West Yellowstone is beautiful in the morning. I recommend it. In fact, almost all of the drive from Teddy Roosevelt had been through gorgeous Montana landscape, and I loved every second of it. The 500 miles was nothing.
Set up doesn’t take long these days. I’ve got the routine down now. Wagon Wheel Campground let me check in early and I headed straight into the park, to Old Faithful. The park is huge. Literally the size of Rhode Island, there are totally separate sections of the park with their own visitor centers that are substantial drives apart from one another. With the winding roads, speed limits, and slow moving tourists, it takes a few hours to drive across it. When you come, plan to rush, not see it all, or stay a long time. As it was, I rushed for 2 days and saw only the touristy parts of the south half of the park, none of the back country. It was great, though, despite moving quickly. Yellowstone’s touristy bits are a lot like a museum. You walk along boardwalks past features as though paintings in a gallery with the pizza / beer / donuts crowd. These aren’t your hard core adventure seeking adrenaline junkies. There’s no harm in that, but its worth setting the scene properly. It’s decidedly different from, say, what I expect Grand Teton to be like. Despite the crowds, people were well behaved. It would have been easy to see impatience and grumpiness, but people waited patiently for things, didn’t hassle one another, and generally seemed to be having a great time. I met a Russian couple who is about to return home after 3 years working in Houston, a chatty and helpful convenience store attendant with bear advice, and various other tourists who commented on their trips or the jaw dropping beauty of it all. The park rangers are particularly patient, helpful, and up beat here. I bet you’ve got to be some kind of superstar to get a post at Yellowstone. I don’t even recall hearing fussy kids! Oh, and the super friendly bike rental guys sell their good condition used helmets for $4. Score! It’s a really happy place.
The immediate vicinity of Old Faithful itself has a couple of miles of trails, and it represents a small fraction of the southwest corner of the park. There’s a short hiking trail up a hill behind Old Faithful that is a great place to view the eruption from. That’s where I met and hung out with my new Russian friends. By the way, if you travel alone, be ready to take a lot of pictures for people. You’re a prime target for … “would you mind taking one picture of us?”. It’s no big deal, but do factor it in to your time planning for the day. It adds up, especially if you’re scurrying from place to place. Geysers are spread over a wide area, but along these short walks from the Old Faithful visitor center, you see a large number of them. There are pretty pools here, too, but it’s really about the geysers from this spot. Just wandering along, you come across so many that it’s hard not to see several erruptions. I was lucky to see Bee Hive go off nearly simultaneously with Old Faithful. It would have been a really rare event for them to go off exactly at the same time, but it was still cool. It was hard not to be at least a little disappointed, though, since they totally would have gone off at the same time if Old Faithful wasn’t strangely and abnormally late. Stupid geyser! Grumble grumble. Then a third geyser erruped all viewable from the same location.
Geysers seriously come in all shapes and sizes. They don’t even work as I thought they did. It’s an open system, so pressure is not building in the way kids are told that it is. What’s really happening, at least at Old Faithful, is that it’s shaped like an empty beer bottle with no bottle cap, totally open to the outside air. An underground waterfall fills the bottle. As it fills, the water pressure rises at the bottom simply due to continuously increasing depth. This has absolutely nothing to do with the heat that is also being applied at the bottom. The boiling temperature of water depends on the pressure. As pressure goes up, so does the required temperature, meaning that as the bottle fills up, it takes more and more heat to make it boil. The water is constantly getting hotter, but also deeper. More and more heat is required to reach the constantly increasing minimum boiling temperature. Eventually, though, the heat overtakes the pressure and the large supper heated steam bubbles form. As they rise, they push water up the neck of the bottle and that’s what makes it erupt. Once water starts being ejected, the pressure at the bottom of the bottle goes down since the water depth is now shallower. This lowers the required boiling temperature to below the current temperature of the water down there. It instantly burst into steam all at once without any additional heat. The process accelerates as more and more water is ejected from the top until most of the water is ejected, remaining steam can easily escape, and the relatively cold water from the internal waterfall starts the process all over again. Please stop telling your kids that geysers erupt because steam pressure builds up until the geyser bursts. That’s just totally wrong. You may as well be telling them that the tooth fairy lives in there and makes it go.
All that being said, geysers come in all shapes and sizes. Some are isolated like Old Faithful. Some are strongly influenced by the activity of adjacent geysers in the same system. They can be regular and frequent, or rare and totally unpredictable. The entire area is subject to frequent earthquakes that can permanently change the behavior of the different features. Apparently I slept through a 4.8 magnitude quake while I was there. Geysers and all manner of other geothermal formations abound here. Just walking around will ensure that you randomly see multiple eruptions, some far more spectacular than Old Faithful. There are brightly colored pools of all sizes and shapes, cold and hot, some so acidic they’ll dissolve flesh. Think battery acid. Most of the time they are surrounded by bacterial mats, thick layers of bacteria that color everything. They thrive on the strange cocktail of chemicals and temperature bubbling up from below. Every now and then, such as when I was there, some dummy ignores the signs, strolls across the unstable ground, and boils / dissolves in a pretty pool. Apparently it took some time to extricate his remains. I gather it was extremely gruesome. Do obey the signs. There’s apparently a book called Death In Yellowstone. It’s pretty easy to die here.
The pools range from crystal clear bright blue water to green to brown to thick and muddy. They often have irregularly shaped bright orange or yellow borders. There’s no such thing as normal behavior. They’ve all got their own character. Some boil in the way you might expect. Some boil beneath the surface, but the bubbles collapse back into liquid water before reaching the surface. Color is dictated by temperature and acidity which influence what bacteria grow there and how readily the local rock is dissolved. One feature, called the Dragon’s Mouth, is a cave with waves of water crashing out of it. The water gurgles up loudly from below, creating a low roaring sound, and plumes of steam and stinky gasses bellow from the mouth of the cave. It’s mesmerizing. This is one of those times that you really should go check out the pictures and videos on my Facebook page. I could write about these for pages and not even begin to capture them adequately. I’ll just add that interesting formations go on for miles and miles. You won’t want to miss any of them, and you’ll need a lot of time. Plan accordingly when you go.
In order to see a little more of the park, you’ve got to venture into the back country. There are short trails and long back packing treks. Either way, people talk like you’re definitely going to see a grizzly bear, and if you’re alone and unarmed, he’s going to attack you. They don’t ban hiking alone, but they strenuously insist it’s a bad idea. Your best bet is to hike in groups, make lots of noise, and carry lots of bear spray, supped up pepper spray. The can is small, but apparently has such kick back that you have to hold with 2 hands when firing. You might recall that bar tender in the Nebraska bar who knew people who used bear spray. It only upset the bear who finally left after he sustained several gunshot wounds. Still, they insist that bear spray helps more often than it hurts. I hear that bear attacks really are rare. In the last 25 years, there have been 3 deaths, all in the past 3 years. They all had extenuating circumstances. Stories conflict, but here’s what I’ve heard. One guy ran, prompting the bear to give chase. One guy may have been a death by bear suicide. One was a trail runner with headphones on and no bear spray. One might have been a photographer who intentionally got closer than one should. It’s not entirely clear, but it sounds like all of the deaths involved rookie mistakes. I’m told that most locals hike alone, although they tend to do it in areas where other hikers are likely to be making noise and could go for help. I’ve decided that the little 1 to 2 mile offshoots from the touristy areas are probably fine. Anything bigger than that will require a group or public traffic. Yellowstone doesn’t really attract hard core hikers like Grand Teton, just to the south, does. I decided to wait on hiking Avalanche Peak in Yellowstone until the ranger led hike on the 27th of June. I’ve left Yellowstone, but I need to go back to see the north half of the park anyway, where this hike is. I saw the south side, but ended up meeting people which I’ll describe in a bit. I ended up spending days out of the park, so I’ll go back after Boston and Grand Teton National Park. That Built To Spill show is in Bozeman on the 27th anyway, so I’ll just do both that day. I did buy bear spray for what its worth. As with snakes, I educated myself a bit. Bears are more of a risk, but not so bad as long as you’re smart about it.
Yellowstone really is several parks smooshed together. Geyser, lake, river, mountain, and canyon areas are reasonably isolated from one another with some degree of blending of course. Having spent 2 days touring the southern portions, geyser, lake, and river (including an impromptu swim), I decided to take a day off for chores and checking out the town of West Yellowstone. This also gave me more time to exercise Peggy more rigorously which she enjoyed. Later in the day, I decided to check out the local transportation museum. They have old autos, rail cars, stage coaches, and movies / plaques about it all. The locals there are great. I ended up talking to them for quite some time. Hearing that I am a mechanical engineer, they sent me over to check out the old generator that ran the train station and part of the town. It’s apparently in working order, although the museum staff doesn’t know much about it. They sent the museum director, Marin, out to meet me to discuss it and see if I could offer any insights. I recognized her from earlier in the day when I had seen her walking down the street with a train conductor hat on with normal every day clothes. Now it made sense! The generator was a super cool 3 cylinder diesel with giant manual fly wheels and huge exposed generator coils. A large and simple board of enormous switches and dials monitored and controlled the energy output of the device. It was sooooo much fun to discuss it with Marin.
Marin (pronounced like Mary but with IN instead of Y) is an extremely interesting person. She’s a historian by education and is happy to discuss a broad variety of historical topics in real world terms, much like that Howard Zinn history book I’ve mentioned previously. She knows all the sordid details that you don’t find in the tourist friendly publications and how it all relates to what’s going on today. We hit it off right away and decided to go grab dinner together at the Buffalo Bar, a local watering hole that will make you a vegan burrito. She was very helpful in this area since she’s a vegetarian / borderline vegan herself, and the year round locals really take care of each other in this town. She’s not originally from Montana, but has lived here for 2 years. She’s from Virginia and spent a few years in Portland, OR. Marin hikes a lot and had some interesting stories and guidance about how to do it safely in bearville. It was great to spend time with her. We have a lot in common and talked easily about many topics. We ended up hanging out a lot over the next couple of days until it was time for me to head down to Jackson for my flight to Boston. I didn’t get to see the northern half of the park, but spending time with new friends is way more important, plus I’m heading back up that way anyway. I hope to see Marin again when I’m up there. Neither Marin nor I are entirely available for a proper relationship, but it was still a wonderful few days. True connections are rare. Its funny, I was just discussing that with a friend by phone earlier that day and met Marin maybe 1 hour later. Despite traveling the country and meeting many people, I’ve really hit it off with a small number of people. Sure, I’m not going out of my way to date or even meet women, but I’m pretty social. It’s a little surprising that it doesn’t happen more often, but realizing how rare it is makes it feel all that more special. Casual friendships are frequent, but anything deeper is not. In the time that we had, we visited a trendy little coffee shop and a local brewery, took a scenic drive (I finally got to see Idaho!), relaxed with some pizza and TV (I guess I’m right there with the pizza and beer crowd, way to judge, Keith), and just generally had fun. She’s got great taste in music, literature, tv, podcasts, art, and is also super outdoorsy. I’m glad I’ve gotten to know her.
I drove to Jackson Hole on June 15 to put the trailer in storage. The local animal hospital has cat and dog care, both of which are pretty nice. I checked Hank in there, but stuck with Dog Vacay for Peggy. This doggy caregiver seemed nice and responsive, and I later found out that she’s been taking Peggy hiking which is nice. I hope they’re happy. Its funny how quickly I miss them. Jackson is even bigger and more touristy than West Yellowstone, but still totally walkable in part of an afternoon. I do like to pop into shops from time to time, but traveling alone I skip over most of them. It’s just nice to enjoy the vibe from all the happy vacationers. On a recommendation, I popped into the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar where all of the bar stools are western saddles. I met a few people there and relaxed with a couple of beers. Having spent over a week above 6000 feet now, I’m starting to feel more acclimated and less bothered by dehydration and gaspyness. I hope I don’t lose anything visiting Boston! There’s also a Grand Teton office in town. It’s a foundation, not a visitor center, but they do have maps and will talk to you a little about the park. It’s early season so you can hike, but the highest peaks are still covered in snow and ice, impassible without technical gear like ice axes and significant experience. There are many open trails though, and lower peaks are reachable. The storage facility in town let me sleep in the trailer before my flight which was nice, and I’m writing to you now from O’Hare. Tonight I see The Cure with my friends, the same friends (mostly) that I met in Chicago coincidentally. You’ll have to wait until next week to hear how that went. Peace and love everyone!