Where the Air is Thin

Our national park adventures have kept us in the stratosphere for some time now, and our latest stop in Rocky Mountain National Park carried us even higher.

Longs Peak, elevation 14, 259′

During our visit to the park we took a few hikes, enjoyed some afternoon thunderstorms, and drove the Trail Ridge Road, which we soon learned is the third highest road in the US at 12,183’ above sea level.

The drive to the summit was spectacular.  Once above the tree line the views opened up, with more mountain majesty’s everywhere we looked.  At the visitor center we took a short trail to the top, climbing 100’s of stairs to reach 12,000’.  Even after supposedly being somewhat acclimated to the altitude, it was still a bit of a struggle with 30%-40% less oxygen than we are used to at sea level!   It was mind-boggling to learn about the alpine tundra with all the miniature flowers and adaptive plants, and how they survive in such a completely harsh winter environment.

It may have been due to the thin air, but at some point, my mind suddenly veered to veni, vedi, vici.  While the correct translation is ‘we came, we saw, we conquered’, in our case it can be more accurately described as we came, we ahhed, we huffed and puffed our way to the top!

Sadly, our mountain adventures in the Murph have come to an end for this year, but in true permanent picnic form we have begun yet another escapade!  Now that we’re back where the air is full of wonderful oxygen cells we’ll soon be regaling you with the continued adventures of Marty and Sue…stay tuned!

On the Road Again

As we’ve been visiting big name places and filling in the pages of our National Park Passport, along the way we’ve also had some pretty fun side trips.  We always keep our eyes peeled for historical markers because, oh my, oh my, McMartyMan loves historical plaques!!!

Here’s his favorite road sign along with a few other memorable moments along the byways…

Lewis and Clark Caverns is a beautiful spot, even though Lewis and Clark never saw the caverns, but they did camp in the valley nearby! We camped in the valley where we had huge views of the mountains all around and the river down below.  In the afternoons the winds would start blowing and we’d get thunder and lightning and even some rain.  It was gorgeous.  We took a fun tour into the caverns and it was pretty crazy!  Up and down steep narrow stairs carved into the rock, with even a few places where we had to slide along on our rear ends.  It was beautiful though and definitely well worth the huff and puff uphill hike to get to the entrance.

We also camped at the Headwaters of the Missouri (think LOTS of mosquitoes), and read all the historical plaques before leaving the campground early while we still had some blood.  It was a nice area, and we saw our first moose of the trip, but the campground itself wasn’t one of our favorites.  Being in the river delta we were surrounded by lots of cottonwoods and willows, so after being in the open valleys of the Caverns area it felt a bit closed in.  So we left!  Ain’t retirement great?

We took an unplanned side tip to a couple of ghost towns in Montana.  We camped at a cute park outside Virginia City, which is a Victorian town from the 1800’s that is frozen in time.  When the gold ran out and the town ran dry, the stores and buildings remained exactly as they had been until the 1960’s when Montana declared it a National Historic Landmark District (and added an ice cream parlor).  It’s a fun little town with LOTS of historical plaques, but still a bit of a ghost town; in other words, good marketing, not so great in reality.  We  took the nighttime ghost tour…spooky, and went to see a funny satirical Follies show at the Brewery.  A fun side trip but not one that we need to repeat.

We also went to Garnett, another well preserved ghost town up in the mountains.  We drove for nearly an hour up this crazy STEEP, bumpy, one lane dirt road, and surprise, surprise, when we got to the top there was a paved road coming up from the other side, and a full parking lot!  We had expected to be walking around in the hills finding falling down shacks; nope!  Lots more plaques and plenty of tourists – too funny!

So, sometimes we just have to laugh at our adventures, and when we’re feeling silly we take pictures to record the events…

While near Bozeman we went to the Museum of the Rockies and I highly recommend it.  The dinosaur complex houses one of the largest and most amazing collections of actual dinosaur bones anywhere in the world.  Somehow I’d always thought of dinosaurs as a Jurassic Park creation, but to see the real thing and to see the progression from all the research that is performed is amazing.  Since we had been learning all about the geology of the area, it was also very interesting to now place living creatures into the timeline.  My brain cells are getting a work out!

On our way south from the Tetons we spent a few days at the Firehole Campground on the northern edge of Flaming Gorge. It was totally unexpected to find ourselves in a landscape full of Monument Valley type rock formations, without a tree in sight, and TOTAL silence.  We had two afternoons of wild rain and thunder storms while there, so it was quite a change from Jackson Hole.

Speaking of Jackson Hole, we had our one “oh shit” of the trip while coming down Teton Pass.  The pass is a mere 8,432 feet high, and the valleys on either side are about 6,200 feet, so it doesn’t sound too intimidating.  The problem is that on the way down to Jackson, the grade is nearly 10% all of the way down.  We were keeping a reasonable speed when we started to smell something burning.  While trying determine if the smell was coming from us or a nearby truck, the dash light started flashing and an alarm went off with a loud squeal.  Marty headed for the nearest shoulder, stopped the truck, and out we jumped to investigate.  Yikes; get the extinguisher!  In the front wheel well we had a small fire that scared the poopie out of me, but thankfully went out before we even sprayed it with the extinguisher.  Long story short, we let everything cool down and got some much needed encouragement from the two Bobs (my bro and bro-in-law) and then we continued down the final turn.  We are now the proud owners of four new brake pads!  Note to self…next time, go around!

Okay, enough with the crazy photos and silly stories….but hey, I have internet…    Tomorrow we go bugle with the elk in the Rocky Mountains!

Parkin’ with the big boys!!

Critter Cam and other Scenic Delights! Yellowstone and Teton

As our mountain adventure continues, we remain awed by the boundless grandeur of this land we call home (we actually call Happy Dance home, but hey, I’m waxing poetic here!).  We’re talking purple mountain majesty on a huge scale, intact ecosystems (my new favorite science term) that live and breathe and change and excite; it’s all an unending series of oohs, ahhs, and – whoa, stop the truck I need a photo!!!

No elk were harmed in the taking of this photo.

Our time in Yellowstone and Teton National Parks was incredible.  We walked our little legs over many miles of trails and turnouts, scenic vistas and wildlife views.  Granted, there is so much more to explore, but on this, our first foray into the parks we were able to grasp at least some of the wonder and wildness of these great national treasures.  As one of the Park Rangers said; “as American citizens we all own a piece of these parks”.

One of our favorite hikes in Yellowstone was our hike along the South Rim of the Yellowstone Canyon.  Along the way we were treated to the classic views of lower Yellowstone Falls, as well as some pretty stunning panoramas of the entire canyon.  As we hiked along the edge we could look straight down to the rushing river, a mere 800-1,200 feet below us.  A few steam vents dotted the sides of the canyon to remind us of where we were, and the trees were hanging on by the tiniest of root holds in a very thin layer of topsoil.

The vast caldera that is Yellowstone, the rugged peaks of the Tetons, and the incredible geological history that is displayed throughout the west left us with a sense of how complex the earth is and how short a time man has been here.  For instance, in the Tetons “the granite on the summits of some of the peaks is more than three billion years old, which makes it some of the oldest rock in North America. But the mountains themselves are the youngest of the Rocky Mountains.  Only 12 million years old, they are mere adolescents compared with the rest of the 60-million-year-old range.” *

One of the Rangers helped us to visualize just how vast a history it is; hold out your arm and consider that to be a timeline of the earth beginning at your shoulder, then try to picture where the formation of the Tetons 12 million years ago occurred along that timeline.  Well, it’s out at your fingertips!  When you place human history along that same timeline we are just the tiniest of slivers out at the tip of your fingernail.  It’s pretty mind-boggling try to reconcile our place in the silent majesty of the Tetons with the thought of massive blocks being pushed up as the earth split along a north-south fault line to create the mountains and valleys.  Okay, enough, enough of the geology lesson; but it’s fascinating!

Mountain Majesty

Okay, so the mountains are beautiful, we get that, but what about those critter cams you promised?  Yellowstone provided lots of critter watching of antelope, elk, deer, bears, cranes, osprey, white pelicans, eagles, swans, coyotes, and of course; tatanka**.  One day we were sitting in our chairs enjoying our lunch while watching the herds of bison in Hayden Valley, when a huge male bison wandered down the hill, across the road (causing much confusion), right by our truck and down into the valley.  It was so funny to see this grand shaggy beastie stopping traffic and basically just saying; “out of my way, I own this place”!

Near our campground in Teton National Park we were once again sitting in our chairs enjoying lunch (do you sense a theme?) while watching four bull moose and one moose cow munching on their own lunch and cooling off in the river.  It was so fun to watch these big mangy moosekateers as they totally ignored the sound of cameras clicking from the other side of the river!  However, once they crossed over to our side the river we decided it was time to pack up and go!

We hope you’ve enjoyed more escapades of the not so rich and not so famous.  We continue to roam where the deer and the antelope play, and where the skies tend to open up in some pretty awesome cloud bursts!

*History: How the Tetons Were Formed

**In the Lakota language, the word “tatanka” is translated as “buffalo” or “buffalo bull.” However, according to native Lakota speakers, the literal translation is something more like “He who owns us.”

Pine Trees on the Moon (Yellowstone Nat’l Park)

It seems we’ve departed planet earth and landed on the Moon.  The vistas looks vaguely familiar, with pine trees and wildflowers, but everywhere we turn there is some strange upside down waterfall, or a hole in the ground blowing steam high into the blue sky.  Pools of boiling water in all colors send steam high into the morning sun creating rainbows and eerie, ghostly views.  Sometimes we find mud burping out of a smelly pit, creating big muddy bubbles on the surface that blow in the wind, with overwhelming smells, and steamy sauna winds.  What is this place?

Morning solitude…ahhh

Well, it’s a strange and somewhat unsettling place known as roche jaune*.  It’s a caldera, it’s a hot spot, it’s a crazy place!  It’s amazing to think that you’re walking around a very active and lively hot spot and that the volcano below you is still changing the surface and is only just sleeping.  Shhhhhh!

Mammoth Hot Springs

This is our first time to Yellowstone National Park, and it certainly didn’t disappoint!  We avoided the masses of selfie snapping tourists and their stinky buses by getting up at the crack of dawn and entering the park before the Rangers had even arrived at the gates.  By starting early we were able to see incredible sunrises through the steam rising off the rivers, and wildlife that was calm and well, wild.  It was the best time of the day.

We’d head of our chosen destination, park the car in a nearly empty parking lot and start off on a hike to somewhere.  We usually missed all the crowds with the exception of getting back to the truck and getting out of the parking lot.  Some days we just plunked ourselves along the edge of a valley with coffee and our comfy chairs and watched the elk and the buffalo roam.  We did a fair amount of people watching too, a.k.a. laughing at the Johnny Jackasses as they parked in the middle of the road, sometimes even jumping out of their cars to get a photo of some critter along the road.  It was fairly amazing.

We loved our visit to Yellowstone, and may return again someday, that is if the caldera doesn’t blow by then!

Here are a few of the gazillion photos we took…enjoy!

First….the upside  down waterfalls…a.k.a. geysers.

The hot springs…

And of course, the boiling pools and mudpots…

* Near the end of the 18th century, French trappers named the river Roche Jaune, which is probably a translation of the Hidatsa name Mi tsi a-da-zi “Yellow Rock River”.

Wows (Glacier Nat’l Park)

Wow…definitely the most used word after we entered Glacier National Park.  Once our senses went into overload our vocabulary deserted us.  Everywhere we turned there was another Wow!  For anyone who has been to Glacier National Park, you won’t be surprised or impressed with these inadequate photos and descriptions, but if you’ve never been to Glacier, let me just tell you it’s…WOW!!

For the first half of our visit, we camped in Fish Creek Campground on the west side of the park, next to Lake McDonald.  We grabbed the last available back-in site in the campground which as luck would have it included a charming 45-degree turn around a lovely tree, making the site barely long enough for our little Murph.  Marty and I shared a few exhalations of exasperation as the tree kept jumping out of line and getting in our way while we (Marty) proficiently and patiently parked the Murph while somebody (Sue) gave perfect hand signals.  Ahhh, Murph was soon settled in, and anchor beers were our reward.  Oh look, there’s a squirrel!

We’d been given plenty of reading material upon entering the park, so we set to work figuring out “the plan” for our week in this stunning area.  The next morning there was a Ranger led hike that sounded just about right for our stubby legs and creaky knees.  We met up with Ranger Randy at the appointed time and place and introduced ourselves to about twenty other hikers who ranged from the very young to the young at heart.

We’d chosen the hike to Avalanche Lake, which we later learned is the most popular of all the hikes in Glacier.  Since we wanted some Glacier education as we got our bearings (not the furry kind), this hike was the perfect start to our adventures.  The trail traversed some wetlands through a pocket of huge old growth cedars and black cottonwoods (a new kind of tree for me!) then we started climbing along Avalanche Creek through some colorful rock formations.  Ranger Randy explained how the glaciers carved the mountains and canyons in the area and how the green and red argilite (yay, we remembered!) rocks were formed.  At one point we stopped across the valley from the path of a recent avalanche, but the wow part was seeing the swath of full-grown trees broken off about 20-30 feet up and blown UP the mountain on the side of the canyon away from the avalanche.  Some trees were even pulled out at their roots, all from the blast of wind created at the leading edge of the avalanche.  WOW…the force of nature!

Avalanche Lake is gorgeous, ringed by steep cliffs with glacier-fed waterfalls pouring in to create the beautiful aqua color of the lake.  As we learned about the glacier’s role in the creation of Glacier Park, we also learned that the glaciers in the park are quickly disappearing.  There are only a few dozen glaciers left of the more than 150 that covered this area 100 years ago.  It’s estimated that in 12-15 years, all the glaciers in the park will be gone.  Avalanche Lake will become a seasonal lake driving immense changes to the environment that it now supports.  Sad wow…consider all the ecosystems that must adapt.

While enjoying our week in Glacier we took two other hikes, a boat ride and a trip up to Logan Pass in one of the historic red buses.  Our trip from Lake McDonald up Going to the Sun highway to Logan Pass in the red bus was great.  It was hot and sunny when we left the lodge and Marty and I scored on getting the last row in the bus all to ourselves.  We prairie-dogged (stuck our heads out the top) at all the great photo stops, laughed at our driver’s bad jokes, and ooh-ed and ahh-ed at all the incredible views.  As we neared the pass the clouds started rolling over the peaks and at Logan Pass we couldn’t see 10 feet in front of us; we were in a cold drizzly cloud!  Oh well, just another summer day in Montana!

In the middle of the week we moved to a campground that was at the south end of the Park.  The drives through Blackfeet country were probably some of the most beautiful.  It was also interesting (disturbing?) to read up on a bit of the history of the park and the ongoing disagreements with the local Indian tribes.

While on the southeast side of the park we took one of the scenic boat tours on Saint Mary Lake.  The boats are old restored wooden boats and the guides are fun college kids who come up for the summer to wow all the tourists with factoids and beauty.  During our stopover in the boat we hiked along St. Mary’s Lake up to the falls and back.  It was in an area that had burned about three years ago, so the area was going through a big change.  The scorched black tree trunks are still standing, surrounded by a zillion wildflowers…wow.  It was definitely a scenic boat tour and we loved it.

Our last hike was from Two Medicine Lake up to Aster Falls and the Aster Park Lookout.  This was a great hike to end our Glacier visit, walking through fields of wildflowers and marshy meadows, with rocky peaks soaring all around…definitely more wows.

We were extremely impressed with Glacier and not only for the beauty.  We were impressed to learn that it is an intact ecosystem and that the focus is to keep it that way.  Glacier is clean, well-organized, the volunteers and Rangers are all excellent, and the Park is maintained in such a way as to minimize the impact of the 2+ million visitors.  Sadly, it’s also being drastically affected by the changes in climate.  So big, so beautiful, so wow…

So, there you have it…Marty and Sue’s visit to Glacier.  I’m sure everyone who’s been there is remembering their own wow moments, and if you haven’t been there, go get your own Wow!!!

 

Coulee Country

Catastrophists unite!  We’ve been hiking and exploring the sights around Grand Coulee, and in doing so we’ve become believers in catastrophism as it relates to the creation of the Grand Coulee.  A self taught geologist named Harley (J. Harlan) Bretz in the 1920’s came up with the idea that the massive scale of the coulees, the scab-lands, the wide-ranging disbursement of boulders and moraines, and the rippled land forms could only have been created by catastrophic floods.  It took many years and the arrival of aerial photography and satellite imagery to get anyone to take him seriously, but his ideas were finally vindicated.  In 1979, at age 96, Bretz received the Penrose Medal, geology’s highest honor. He later reportedly told his son: “All my enemies are dead, so I have no one to gloat over”.

I was born in Omak, which is only about 50 miles from the coulees of eastern Washington, yet I still had to do some googling to learn the definition of a coulee.  I’ll make it easier for you though; “As a geological term, coulee means a ravine or deep gully, usually dry, which has been cut by water”.  In this area the water that cut the Grand Coulee is on a scale that is mind boggling.  We stood on the top of Dry Falls looking down the cliffs into the gorge and tried to imagine the flood waters from an ice dam bursting far upstream that swept water 300’ over our heads at a speed of 60 mph.  Yes, I guess that would carve some coulees!  I won’t delve into all the details, but if you’re interested you can google it for yourself; it’s fascinating history!  We’ve been ooh-ing and ahh-ing for the past week as we’ve hiked through Northrup Canyon, toured the dam, and camped along the shores of Banks Lake and Roosevelt Lake, and driven through miles and miles of rippling wheat fields high above the Columbia.

When I was little my friends and I would build dams in the gutters to create lakes and rapids for our leaf boats to float down so I guess it’s only natural that I should be captivated by the massive scale of Grand Coulee Dam.  It’s one of the largest concrete structures in the world; 550 feet above the bedrock, and 500 feet wide at its base.  It’s beautiful, functional, it put 1,000’s of people to work in the depression, it continues to provide clean electricity to millions, it provides irrigation over an area the size of Delaware, and it provides flood control.

All that being said, I’m still a tree-hugger at heart and I tend to sympathize with the cultures of those who came before us, so my heart is saddened by the loss of the salmon run and the destruction of the Indian culture that depended on it.  Yet, here I sit on the edge of Lake Roosevelt enjoying the view out our door, watching the fishing boats and house boats on the lake.  It’s the old “betterment for the masses at the cost of a few”, but sometimes one has to wonder and take stock of the sacrifices of those “few”.

We’re learning the art of camping in our new little land yacht, and we’re now moving east toward the mountains of Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado.  Along the way we always seem to gravitate toward the water, whether it be a river, lake, or creek.  We’ve stayed at “Bob’s Lakeside Hideaway”, my brother’s property on Lake Osooyos, where we had a great visit with my brother.  We got to pound a few nails and drink some margaritas with my sister who lives on the other side of the lake in the house she and her husband are building.  From there we moved on to a campground in Grand Coulee, right above the dam, and then went to nearby Steamboat Rock, a gorgeous State Park on Banks Lake, which is a reservoir created from water piped up the hill behind Grand Coulee Dam.  Now we’re about 100 miles further north on Lake Roosevelt, enjoying the mountains and pine trees around Kettle Falls.  Marty is learning how to relax (he’s a slow learner), and I’m loving the smell of pine trees and sage.  It’s just another version of our floating happy dance!

Beaches

We’ve visited 100’s of shorelines in the past five years, but the beaches along Puget Sound will always be home.  There is a particular friendliness to the sound of smooth round stones being jumbled over themselves in the waves.  The water is crystal clear and triple-gasp cold, the snow capped mountains float over the pine tree horizons, and the friendly green and white ferries continue on their invisible paths back and forth between the islands.  Yep, I’m home!!

But wait a minute!  How did we get back to the beautiful Pacific Northwest you ask?  We flew, but not until we’d had a few more adventures in El Salvador.  In our last few weeks in El Salvador we’d been exploring inland and enjoying time with our new cruiser friends.  One day a group of us went to the annual Mango Festival that is held in the nearby town of Zacatecoluca.  Think of any food or drink you could possibly make from mangoes and they had it.  It was a YUM fest, with the whole population of the state seeming to be there enjoying the day.  It was funny to be the only gringos in town, and people would stop us just to talk and practice their English.  Everyone is so friendly, it’s really a great feeling.

We also made a quick trip to El Zonte, a popular surfing beach near La Libertad.   We enjoyed a few days with our cousin Jim in a house we rented that was right above a long sandy beach where the huge swells rolled in from the ocean in wave after wave.  It was the perfect place for some chillaxin’ and we spent a good amount of time just gazing out at the ocean from our hammocks and listening to the booming waves.  Not being brave enough to tackle the surf, we settled for happy hours in our private pool watching sunsets over the ocean…I know, it’s a tough life we lead.

After spending time enjoying the sights and sounds, pupusas and mangoes of El Salvador, we put Happy Dance to bed in Bahia del Sol to enjoy the rainy season on her own, and then we started our trek north by land and air.  As we made our way to the Pacific Northwest we took care of a bit of car selling, truck and trailer buying, and soon found ourselves on the doorstep at Three Tree Point being welcomed by my Great Aunt Peggy and having a week of fun with family.

We had a wonderful stay at Hemlock Cottage, the house that my great grandfather built on Three Tree Point, just south of Seattle.  Unfortunately, my cousins were on their own adventures in Alaska, but that meant we had the added bonus of being able to sleep in “the bed with the view” next to the windows looking down to the beach and out to the sunsets over the Olympic mountains.  It was like being a kid again when I used to sleep in the same spot, albeit in a different bed!  (When I was little I always slept tucked away in the top bunk of the bunk bed that was wedged into the corner at the end of what was then, the sleeping porch.  My grandmother’s bed was just below me and it wasn’t unusual for me to wake in the morning on her bed, having fallen from the top bunk to a soft landing.)  I loved having the huge windows open so that we could listen to the waves on the beach and hear the early birds welcome the dawn.  Every part of me seems to utter a deep sigh when I return to Three Tree (Thanks Barb and Gene!!).

After my trip back in time at Three Tree we headed to another memory lane and another beautiful beach, this one in Coupeville on Whidbey Island where Marty and I first met!  Along the way to Coupeville we picked up our new land yacht, affectionately named, The Murph and we were parked on the shore at Fort Casey.  It was a busy week, as we unloaded “the shed”, our final link to a home base, and we sold or gave away a whole lot of history, aka “stuff”.  I was kind of surprised at how hard this final purging was, but once done there’s always a sense of lightening the load; less is definitely more.  Thankfully we had some time to walk the beach, watch the ferries come and go, and enjoy some awesome sunsets with Mt. Rainier floating in the distance.  I collected a few more beach rocks, because really, can you ever have too many rocks?

So now we’ve left the beaches of the Pacific Ocean and Puget Sound behind for a few months as we begin our new adventure of traveling the U.S. and Canada in our land yacht.   We’ll be roaming around in The Murph for a few months, without a plan, just a goal to explore and see new terrain.  Along the way I’m sure there will be plenty of beaches to put our toes in the sand along the lakes, rivers, streams, and maybe we’ll even have time to find the world’s largest ball of twine!  Once the hot, humid, rainy season ends in Central America we’ll park the land yacht wherever we end up and fly back to Happy Dance to float our way to Panama.  So, stay tuned for possible lake shore beach-capades and travels to twirled twine, in the ongoing adventures of Marty and Sue!