Unexpected Adventures

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.

Pompey’s Pillar

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.

Yellowstone

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.

Southern Yellowstone

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.

Bears

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.

West Yellowstone

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.

Jackson Hole

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!

Peace and natural beauty in North Dakota

This past week or so has been characterized by much calm and peace.  It seems that Susan’s reassuring and soothing words had a calming effect and really stuck with me.  Sure, I never completely shut my brain off, but I’ve done very little obsessing over things.  I’ve hardly thought of career at all, and even had a pleasant realization about my most recent relationship that I don’t mind sharing.  I’ve mentioned previously that it was a rollercoaster with intermixed periods of great times and us treating each other badly.  It was a very important relationship, the kind that leaves a mark and takes a long time to really get over.  Well, I’m pleased to say that I feel a strong and persistent sense of acceptance.  Not just acceptance that it’s over, but rather, that it all happened the only way it could.  She was doing the best she could and so was I.  Neither of us was our best selves with each other.  We are both capable of so much more.  There is no need for explanations or apologies.  It just was, and that realization brings on a new layer of peace.

 

Badlands National Park & Wall Drug

 

Two days of rest didn’t hurt in terms of relaxing either.  I don’t want to give the wrong impression.  The trip has always been amazing, but my last update included some unpleasant experiences and a small but clearly present sense of angst.  Happily, it passed.  I spent 4 days in the badlands of South Dakota, two of which were essentially focused on cleaning, laundry, cooking, bills, that sort of thing.  It was nice to take some real down time from travel and to get these chores done without feeling hurried.  There’s a campground in Wall, SD, right off Rt 90 and not far from the east end of the park.  The east end is where most of the touristy stuff is.  It has all of the hiking trails and the main scenic drive.  There are several vistas with gorgeous views.  Its incredible.  Some of the vistas have short walks.

 

The first day in the area, I did visit Wall Drug since it was walking distance to the campground.  It is an experience.  I’ve wanted to go here for decades, although I had a pretty different impression of it.  It was described to me as essentially a lone small wooden drug store that for some reason exists something like 400 miles down a dirt road.  What does that say about me that I’d be up for that?  It’s true that it’s in a small town, and that it takes up a reasonably large portion of the few main streets, but it’s right off a major interstate.  I guess western South Dakota is not a booming metropolitan area, but I’d hardly call this out of the way.  It has many crafts for sale in its many shops, and yes, there is actually a drugstore inside.  It’s more like a campy pioneer indoor mall than anything.  There are lots of Native American and pioneer crafts.  I wondered if the Native American goods were authentic.  Much of it seemed more like cheap touristy crap to me, but I don’t really know.  I’m glad that I went, but these goods don’t speak to me and this time in history is very dark in my opinion.  What we did to the Native Americans is nothing short of genocide.  We have numerous war criminals in our history, prominent seemingly respectable figures.  Honestly, what I’ve learned about Andrew Jackson is appalling.  What an absolute monster.  He sought to conquer countries, take their land, and eradicate an entire race of people who he considered less than human.  Can you think of any other historical tyrants with such goals?  The only difference is that Jackson and his contemporaries were successful and history is typically told from his point of view.  It bears repeating.  Andrew Jackson was a war criminal and the worst kind of human being every to exist.  In addition to harkening back to a dark period in our history, Wall Drug glorifies hunting, guns, leather products, and ranching, none of which I am for.  Still, I accept that our society is where it is, and that these are still important parts of American life.  I just hope that changes in time.  It was good to go to see it even though it wasn’t what I expected.  The campiness was fun.  So many mannequins and strange figures!  It’s worth stopping in, no matter your personal beliefs.  No one says you have to buy anything.

 

On the last day there, I took the long hike.  It was a hot and clear day.  You can hike the trails from end to end and back for a round trip of about 12 miles.  There are others on the trails, but they are few and far between which was perfect.  It was among the happiest and best days of the trip so far, alone in such a strange and fascinating land for hours to just explore and take it all in.  The occasional passing hiker was a welcome break, and some even paused for a short talk.  One told me about a hike in the coming days at Crazy Horse Monument.  I went there earlier and covered it in my last blog post, but I never got close to the carving.  This was an opportunity to go hike it!  I couldn’t believe my good fortune that I happened to talk to these guys and they happen to mention it!  Do check out the pictures on Facebook.  They are breathtaking, and not because I’m some kind of amazing photographer.  It’s hard to take a bad picture there.  At the very eastern edge of the park, the scenic road has a group of vistas with 3 short hiking trails.  If you’re up for hiking, but not interested in 12 miles across an arid landscape, I strongly recommend these, the Door, Window, and Notch trails.  Door and Window allow you to hike in and among these crazy features, but Notch offers something more.  It’s longer and more strenuous, but still less than 2 miles round trip.  You hike into this ravine surrounded on all sides by tall features.  Then, steps of a sort bring you up to a ledge.  The steps are really just round wooden posts on their sides held in place by steel cable.  It moves as you walk on it and is a little treacherous.  Still, I saw a guy come up them in flip flops while wearing a child on his back in some sort of pack, and this was a large child, the kind that should have been expected to do it on their own.  They were conversing!  Well, he didn’t die so you probably won’t either.  The coolest thing about the Notch trail is its end.  It terminates at a notch in the tall features where you get a unique view into the valley floor below, out over the diminishing erosion features that characterize this landscape.  It’s a gorgeous view, truly.  It’s very worth it.  Don’t pass it up.  Oh, and a final thought on this park.  This is one of the places that make the pass worth it.  I mentioned all the fees to see things like this in my last post along with the fact that the pass doesn’t cover a lot of it.  Well, it was $15 a day to enter the Badlands and I came in 2 days, so that’s $30 right there towards the $80 I paid for the pass.  As I write this, I’ve recouped $58 of my $80 so I guess it really will be worthwhile afterall.

 

Devils Tower

 

Coming up from Nebraska the way I did landed me right in the center of things I wanted to see.  As a result, I found myself headed east from the Wind Cave in the Black Hills area to get to the Badlands, and now I was driving right back through the Black Hills to get to Devils Tower in Wyoming.  This, of course, after learning about the Crazy Horse hike that would take me right back into the Black Hills before finally leaving the area.  I guess some research might have lessened the driving, but I really don’t mind.  I like driving and I get to see different parts of the region without feeling stuck in one place for too long.

 

Devils Tower is super cool.  If you don’t know, it’s the vertical rock structure featured in the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  It’s a small park but worth stopping at.  You can do all of the hiking trails in a day.  What I love about this part of the country is that there is a common theme to all of the geology, and yet it all looks so different.  It was the bottom of a shallow sea.  Then it was lifted up as the Rockies formed.  It dried and became a forest followed by a African Savanna like plains. This all took millions of years, and only recently, in the last half million years or so did erosion set in and create all of this wonder.  The formations and colors differ appreciably throughout and its wondrous.  Devils Tower is a great feature on its own, but if you do some of the longer hikes, you pass by interesting red rock formations which are entirely different than the yellow rock formations, which is entirely different from the plains and woodlands you pass through, all for just a 3 mile hike.  Then there’s the paved 1.5 mile trail around the monument.  It’s sooooo cool.  They know it’s cooled magma, but not really how it formed.  It might be the bottom of an eroded volcano, or maybe magma that never reached the surface and perhaps had various forms before eroding.  The mostly symmetric hexagonal columns are due to cooling of the magma, contraction, and fracture at the equidistant stress points.  Cracks formed at these points and propagated towards each other forming the columns that you see from the outside of the monument.  You can climb it, but they prefer you not in June since it’s sacred to so many tribes, particularly so in June.  That’s fine.  I’m not that good a climber.  There’s a difficulty rating system in climbing.  Climbing once a week, I can build up to a 5-11, but when not, only a 5-8.  I have not been practicing.  There is a 5-8 route, but its 500 feet high.  I’ve never done more than 100 feet at a time.  I’d need specific lead climbing skills I don’t have to do it.  It is encouraging, though, that the remaining skills I have yet to acquire to climb this could be attained with a reasonable amount of practice.

 

I stayed for just one night and made my way back to Crazy Horse for the hike on Saturday, June 4.  One small disappointment was that a Native American group was coming to put on an authentic dance for the park, but they didn’t show up.  A kind park ranger put on a presentation about the park which was still nice.

 

Crazy Horse (again) & Jewel Cave

 

I really don’t like backtracking.  Once I leave an area, I have found I didn’t want to go back, at least for the most part.  Everywhere is great and there’s more to see there, but there’s too much ahead to look back.  Still, I just HAD to go hike this monument.  They allow it just twice a year, and I happen to be in the region at that time.  It was meant to be!

 

Well, the hike was a brief 6 miles.  It was packed and not your typical hike, often traveling along dirt service roads, but walking along what will become the arm, just below the carved face was magnificent.  I’m glad such a meaningful monument is being created to commemorate the heroes of the cultures we slaughtered.  It was impactful to stand beneath his gaze.

 

Here again there were plenty of people to talk to.  I spent much of the time with a family from Columbus who now lives in eastern South Dakota.  I believe it was their fifth time.  Its been days now, but I believe their names were Chris and Sarah with a son and daughter along with Chris’ friend Edwin, a serviceman from the guard.  Every time they do this hike, they meet people and enjoy the day with them.

 

That night, I planned to drive up to Theodore Roosevelt National Park, but it was still early in the day.  We were done hiking by a little after 10 AM.  It’s a fast hike.  Since it was so early, I decided to make my way over to Jewel Cave National Monument.  This was suggested to me as an option when I was in the area the first time, but I just didn’t get to it.  The worst thing is I drove by it from Devils Tower to Crazy Horse, but I accepted the extra zig zagging as I needed to ensure I could park my big rig at Crazy Horse.  That’s why I got there so early.  So I back tracked to Jewel Cave and bought a ticket to the 2 PM tour.  That gave me enough time to hike the grounds above the cave which proved interesting.

 

The trail itself goes through Hells Canyon.  There’s a lot of demonic names in the area come to think of it.  There was a fire in Hells Canyon and you can see several burned and toppled trees all over.  The bottom of the canyon is flat.  It would be easy to imagine a gentle river flowing through here, but apparently that was never the case.  The most interesting part, though, is that the trail takes you by the natural entrance to the cave.  It’s gated, but you can see far enough in to tell that it’s an active tour starting point when it’s open.  It was very tempting to crawl through a small but passible size hole up the wall a little.  Concerns of both trespassing and getting stuck in a generally abandoned area got the better of me and I moved on.  I encountered a couple of other holes into the cave that I passed up until I found one that I just couldn’t.  It was too perfect.  I crawled in a little on my belly using my cell phone light.  Just inside the hole was an area where you could stand up.  Up and to the left was an area you could climb up, but the area was littered with large fallen rocks.  Ahead just a few feet was a black hole of unknown depth.  I’ve got reasonable rock climbing skills, and while that does give me confidence, it also has taught me to respect the danger.  Who knows if this area is stable or safe or if it even connects to the main cave?  I enjoyed my moment of solitary spelunking and then exited.  Rangers later described that area.  It has a name which I forget.  That hole is 15 to 20 feet deep and unsafe without ropes, and it doesn’t go much farther.  It doesn’t connect with the main cave.  In fact, it takes hours of belly crawling through a maze of dangerous cave to get from the natural entrance to the current tour entrance.  Proper spelunking requires teams of 3 and I was in no position to give it a shot.  I’m glad I didn’t.  Besides, it was beginning to get towards time for my tour.

 

The tour itself was cool.  This cave is distinct, which by now is not a surprise.  They’re all so unique.  This one has large caverns with interesting large and small features.  The lighting in it was great as well.  It’s worth checking out.  It filled with water and drained twice in history which has lent it it’s unique character.  In one place, thick crystalline mineral deposits grew on the wall during the first flooding, and then were left essentially free floating when a second flood dissolved the limestone on which it rested.  I guess the floods came from surface changes over time in which natural reservoirs were created and then drained into the cave.

 

Theodore Roosevelt National Park

 

The Jewel Cave tour ended close to 4, so it was dark by the time I got to Teddy Roosevelt Park.  Rest stops are a great place to spend the night in such instances as a way to save money.  It’s often against the rules to set up late anyway, and why pay for a night when most places will let you come in early if spots are open.  Having no idea where I was going to stay or if places even had availability, I started calling.  My first choice campground right near the park entrance had a spot so I nabbed it.  Before leaving the rest stop, I took Peggy for a walk and was shocked by what I saw in the daylight.  The rest stop is on the eastern edge of the park, and the view stopped me in my tracks.  There were also buffalo grazing in the grass of the parking lot divider.  No wonder Peggy was going so nuts!  We couldn’t see them at first since they were behind other trucks.  What a great way to start off the day!

 

I set up quickly and took the scenic drive through the park.  It takes at least 90 minutes, but longer if you do some of the short hikes and stop at vistas.  Just like caves, each section of this region has its own character, and it’s so interesting to be able to see them all back to back.  It was also a good way to spend a restful and still active day.  I had done much hiking in the preceding days and the rest was nice.

 

STOP READING HERE MOM

 

I got some great recommendations from the visitor center on hikes and mountain bike rides.  It was high time I put that new bike to good use!  There were more chores to do, so I figured I’d spend the following morning doing that and then go for a short mountain bike ride in the midafternoon, maybe 2 hours tops.  Well, that’s not how it worked out.  First, I tried to find the Maah Daah Hey Trail.  It’s very long.  The ranger wasn’t sure, but he did say that the part he knows is 70 miles long with other trails shooting off of it.  He gave me a pretty good map, or so I thought, and some vague description of how to find the trail.  In his defense, its outside the park and not something he can reasonably be expected to know.  There were multiple options of where to find the trail.  My first attempt found a section that disappeared into thick grass after a very short distance.  My second attempt found a section that required fording a wide shallow river, about 2 feet deep, and lengthy rides through deep sand.

 

Finally, I found a section that was to my liking.  This section was within my skill set, but was definitely a reach and took me out of my comfort zone.  It climbed and descended steeply up and down numerous bluffs along narrow trails with sudden sharp switch backs, typically with a cliff on one or both sides.  It took a lot of focus to stay centered on the trail which was at times perhaps 4 inches wide.  As with skiing, horseback riding, or even driving, you go where your eyes go.  The only safe way to enjoy the scenery was to stop.  I posted some pictures, but the most beautiful spots were the most dangerous spots, so I didn’t bother trying to take pictures there.  I was comfortable and building confidence as I went.  Anyone who does a lot of cardio will attest that when you first start a strenuous cardio exercise, its tough until you get past the anaerobic phase into aerobic.  That first bluff was so tough that I’m not ashamed to admit I almost turned back.  I didn’t think I had a second bluff in me.  Then I realized it was just that I was gasping for air and that my muscles felt fine.  I pushed through and found my stride.  It felt great and the views were incredible!  This would not have been possible on my red lead weight.  I owe this magnificent day to Fred from Door County Wisconsin and his generous gift of this bike.

 

The trail is clearly marked and easy to follow.  The map shows it running parallel to a road with several other vague rancher roads crossing it.  Each of these represents a bail out point.  My plan was to ride for a couple of hours and then take the main road back.  I had ridden for 2 hours and was beginning to consider turning around.  Bail out points were coming along often enough and the map showed several, so I figured I’d take one more small section and then head back.  The problem was that it wasn’t entirely clear which bail out I was at.  While the trail is well marked, the markings do not include mileage or location.  The roads do not have signs.  They all look like dirt rancher roads.  I don’t know if I road far enough to end up off the map I was given or what.  I have no idea how far that trail goes headed south of the park.  However, the next bail out point didn’t come along as quickly as the previous many.  In fact, it was so long that I began to consider turning around.  It was getting towards 6 PM.  It’s light out here until 9 now, but shadows can make riding challenging and it gets very cold at night.  I didn’t want to be riding at dusk or hiking the bike back an unknown distance through the cold night along cliffs.  I was still calm and enjoying myself, but beginning to feel increasingly tired and worried.

 

Finally, I came along a road, if you want to call it that.  All of the previous roads were dirt, but they were wide well-groomed things which appeared to see reasonably frequent traffic.  This was two wavy parallel ruts in the grass.  I was skeptical that this was on the map, and I suspected that I hadn’t ridden off the edge of the map yet.  There was a chance that the next bail out was right around the corner.  I kept riding for another 30 minutes.  By now my legs were getting near shot.  Thankfully I had a cliff bar with me.  That lifted my strength and spirits.  During that last leg, I did see a road in the distance, but there was no way to get to it and I’m not going cross country in snakeville.  I’ll take the cold hike thank you very much.  Well, I finally gave up.  The gps on my phone was working, but poorly.  It kept showing me in different areas, but always far from roads.  I decided that I was too tired to keep riding bluffs for much longer, so I returned to the ruts which thankfully was mostly down hill.  I tried the GPS again and this time it placed me on a road.  It seemed like it might even have me depicted on the correct road!  I began riding towards the main bail out road that I always intended.  It was hard to tell, but it appeared to be a 7 or 8 mile ride along these roads back to the truck.  This means that I had probably biked much longer over the bluffs given all of the turns, I’d say at least double but maybe more.

 

It was now nearly 7 PM and I had been on the bike since just after 3.  So much for a 2 hour ride.  My legs were tired and cramping a little, but I was in good shape and spirits.  I knew now that I’d be home well before sunset.  There would be no knocking on a random farmer’s door, sleeping in an unattended vehicle, tromping cross country, all of which had occurred to me as options at one time or another.  Honestly, I was never overly worried.  I was happily enjoying nature the entire time.  I reluctantly admit that I did ask the higher power for a little guidance and to get me home before dark with a minimum of pain and cold.  Be careful what you wish for.  That’s exactly what happened.  I hadn’t yet encountered the most dangerous part yet.  I finally build up a good head of steam on rut road.  I’m feeling home free.  The sun is shining directly in my eyes making it very hard to see, but I figure anything dangerous enough to hurt me will still be visible.  I even consider taking off my helmet to put on my baseball had to help block the sun, but I decide against it.  Thank god!  Moments later I come upon a barrier that remained invisible, drowned in the bright eye level sunshine until the last second.  Rapidly approaching was a fence across the road, but this was no normal fence.  It wasn’t made of wood or any substantial material.  There was no sign or warning.  The fence was constructed of a small number of barbed wires strung horizontally from ankle level to neck level and I was closing fast upon it.

 

I slammed on the breaks and flipped over the handle bars, my upside down backwards body slamming into the barbed wire.  It was the strangest sensation.  It all happened in slow motion.  The wires gave way and caught me far more gently than expected.  They seemed to have been there for some time, tied to a rotting fence post which broke, at least in part.  This dissipated my forward momentum in an acceptable way.  It also caught me in such a way as to dissipate my newly acquired vertical momentum, and it did so in the most peculiar way.  First, one of the horizontal wires impaled itself on my back pack.  One on my shorts, and one across the top of my helmet.  I still struck the ground with enough force to hurt, but I was essentially unharmed!  The helmet had a deep linear gash across the top. Some barbs must have made contact with my scalp, enough to draw a little blood, but not enough to matter.  The top of my forehead struck the bare ground as my helmet was pulled backward slightly, but only enough to cause light abrasions.  My arm was skinned, but not enough to bleed.  A hole was torn in my shorts and boxers, and a 4 inch scrape was cut across my butt, but it had no depth!  It bled, but really was fine.  The most significant injuries had nothing to do with barbed wire contact.  I banged my knee and right hand, both of which swelled up painfully, but all things considered, I was stunned to be standing in one piece.  Had I not seen that wire even at the last second, it could easily have slit my throat.  Had I removed the helmet or not been wearing a back pack, the injuries would certainly have been more severe and possibly life threatening, especially considering that there wasn’t a soul for miles.

 

I stood calmly for a moment.  I didn’t even feel symptoms of shock!  I climbed over the fence and continued on!  Oddly, the one sign of civilization here are small pumping stations.  They look like oil pumps like you see on TV or in movies, but they’re all alone randomly placed at great distances to each other throughout the bluffs.  There are small holding tanks and other pumping components.  It’s a shame to see these in such beautiful places, but I guess that’s life.  I finally made it back to the truck by well before 8.  While a little shaken, I felt lucky to have had such an astonishing day.

 

The next day, my last at this park, I planned to take a 10 mile hike through the petrified forest and possibly a 5 mile hike through the painted canyon.  Instead, I walked just 2 miles to sample the petrified forest and didn’t bother with the painted canyon.  I had seen it from the rest stop already and hiked sufficiently similar stuff already.  I needed the rest.  I came back, napped, and wrote this.  I guess my hand is feeling better!

 

What’s next

 

Tomorrow I drive to Yellowstone!  The main event for this trip!  I’ve got a spot at the west entrance in Montana for a week.  I’ll check out the park as well as nearby Montana and Idaho from there.  That will leave me with just 4 states to visit to complete all 50 in my lifetime which feels pretty cool.  After that comes my Boston break and then I resume with nearby Grand Teton National Park.  I hate to get overly planny, but as we get towards the 4th of July, it seems parks are in increasingly high demand.  I’m tempted to book Glacier now, but I just can’t bring myself to look that far into the future.