Thursday, September 12, 2019

In The Hole

“….Pulled my cap down over my eyes and headed out for the western skies;  So long, Yellowstone Park.  Howdy, Grand Teton.”---Bob Dylan (approximately)

A driver can scarcely emerge from the southern exit of the wonderland that is Yellowstone, turn on the radio and take a few puffs on his weed of choice before he finds himself in Teton territory.  The imposing mountains come rushing up from the west in a hurry and the Grand Teton border is barely seven miles from that of Yellowstone.  Jackson, Wyoming, headquarters for all that is Teton, is another 50 miles down the road.  Or is that Jackson Hole?  Inquiring minds want to know.

Jackson Hole is the valley in which the town of Jackson sits.  The Hole—or valley—is created by the mountains surrounding it.  Jackson is the town that grew up at the southern end of the valley.  The area was settled in the 1890s due to its arable farmland, but it was no picnic getting there.  To reach Jackson, pioneers had to cross a steep pass in the mountains.  Climbing to that pass was the easy part; getting the wagons down the hill was a much larger problem.  The wagons had to be turned so that the larger wheels were downhill and the small ones uphill.  Then, lodgepole pines were tied to the wagons to slow their descent down the hill.  When they finally made it to the valley floor, the trees were simply cut off the wagons and abandoned.  When it came time to erect the first public building in Jackson, no trees had to be felled.  The timber was already there, piled up at the base of the trail where the settlers entered town.

Jackson is famous for electing the state’s first all-female town council in 1920.  Wyoming, itself, was the first state in the country to allow women the right to vote, serve on juries and hold public office.  Maybe they’re open-minded in Wyoming.  Or maybe they have so few people they have to put everybody to work.  Wyoming has the smallest population of any state in the country, a mere 585,501 in 2016.  They do have a state dinosaur, however, unlike your state.  We knew you’d ask---it’s the triceratops.  Jackson Hole has seen many films shot on location; the ones you’ve heard of are Shane, Django Unchained, Rocky IV and Any Which Way You Can.  Jackson claims that the concept of whitewater rafting was devised right there on the Snake River, but they can’t prove it.

The Good Old Days.  More Or Less.

The last time we were in Jackson, many long years ago, we blithely arrived without a hotel room.  We promptly discovered downtown was no place to look for one, everything being in the $400-plus range, which was even more expensive than hotels on Central Park South.  We eventually found a Quality Inn outside town for $159, and no, it was not full of pickpockets and tattooed men selling motorcycle parts.  Despite the inflated cost of living, we liked Jackson Hole and Grand Teton N.P. was the site of one of our more memorable hikes.  We didn’t say it was one of our most beloved ones.

Bright and early one fine July day, we jumped on a boat and crossed Grand Teton’s Jenny Lake.  The vessel was filled with a jabbering squad of twentyish male would-be hikers, equipped to the nines with every hiking accessory on the market, a boisterous crew with delusions of gallivanting grandeur, whatever that might be.  When the boat landed, they marched off in pairs, clicking their walking sticks, baying at the sun.  If it was an earlier era, they would have been singing “Val-da-ree! Val-da-rah!” like the Happy Wanderer.  They barely paid us notice, the hopelessly old couple carrying remnants of their previous night’s dinner at the Granary Restaurant.  Bear fodder, they probably thought.

The Cascade Canyon Trail is a 13.6 mile round-trip without the boat ride.  Take the boat and it’s a nice 9-mile round trip, beginning with a pretty waterfall and immediately ascending 1000 feet to an overlook called Inspiration Point.  The latter name is like a hiker’s “Main Street” or “Springfield,” there’s one everywhere we go.  The trail levels off at that point.  We ambled along for a few miles, as is our custom, taking in the wildflowers, commenting on the moderate nature of the trail, when what to our wondering eyes should appear but nine tired men and a few empty beers.

“Salud!” we hailed, sauntering by on our ancient limbs, trying not to giggle.  They mumbled something inappropriate and went back to massaging their feet.  Down the road, we sat and devoured what was left of our duck l’orange, packing in the leftovers as the trail code demanded.   When we eventually got back to the spot our younger friends had been languishing, they were long gone, victims of overoptimism and undertraining.  “Tortoise and the hare,” I told Siobhan.  “No gloating on the trail,” she reminded me.  But I think I saw a twinkle of satisfaction in her eyes.

Who’ll Stop The Rain?

In all our years of long vacations, dating back to the year 2000, we have been remarkably lucky with the weather.  We hedged our bets, of course, by spending a lot of time in the American West, where summer precipitation is a rare bird, but we did visit rainy Seattle, where we never saw a drop, and even the Hoh Rain Forest in Olympic National Park, which was shrouded in clouds.  The travel guidebooks will tell you “It rains every day in the Hoh Rain Forest,” but forgot to add “…but not when you’re with Bill and Siobhan.”

We visited Acadia National Park in Bar Harbor, Maine one year.  Despite New England’s penchant for dizzy, quick-changing weather, no rain.  A terrible black cloud scowled over the harbor one afternoon, noticed Bill and Siobhan were there, tipped its cap and sped off.

The closest we came to rainfall in these almost-twenty years was in Alaska, where the sun barely shone for an entire week.  Still, it didn’t really rain.  A dense mist often hung in the air, other times it was merely cloudy, but no monsoons.  We got to feeling like Superman probably does, impervious to weather issues.  But somewhere on the Cascade Canyon Trail, there is Kryptonite.  On our way back, with about a mile to get to the boat dock, it began to pour.  We ducked under a huge boulder for awhile, waiting for a break in the deluge, moving on when it eased a bit.  Naturally, everyone on the trail fled for the boat when the rain started so it was full by the time we arrived, with a few dozen more soggy customers waiting.  We watched forlornly as the vessel sailed off, knowing it would be almost an hour before it returned.  In that hour, the heavens opened up and and the Thunder God threw everything he had at us.  Drowned rats never had it so bad.  There was nothing resembling refuge so we had to grin and bear it.  The woebegone waiting-room tried to make light of the situation but nobody’s jokes were funny.

By the time we got on the next boat, my body was shaking and seriously considering a bout with hypothermia.  Fortunately, the trip across the lake was fast and we had a change of clothes in the car.  A couple of miles from the mountains there was no sign of rain, it was a glorious, sunny day.  I looked over my shoulder as we drove off, the mountains glaring back in the distance, spitting out defiance.  “We make our own weather up here, buddy boy!  Why don’t you try us again tomorrow?”  Then a rumble of what had to be laughter.  “Hey, they have ponchos in town for $79.  Come back again when you’ve had your Wheaties!”  I never thought about it before but I really despise a smart-ass mountain.

The End Of The Line

After the Bunsen Peak hike, we were content to just mosey around Jackson for an afternoon, waiting for our flight the next morning.  The town seemed much as we remembered it from a decade-and-a-half ago, colorful, busy, tourists hustling from shop to shop.  Siobhan found a local minstrel in the town square park, strumming on a guitar, singing out his own compositions.  He didn’t take requests, was scarcely familiar with anything he didn’t write and his stylings varied from mildly painful to acceptable only in nursing homes, but Siobhan is a trooper not unwilling to help alleviate the plight of working performers on a tight budget.   And it wasn’t like the Ramones were in town.

Next morning we were up bright and early for our drive to the Jackson International Aerodrome.  We were rewarded with a brilliant sunrise which colored much of the sky orange.  The airport is somewhat smaller than LaGuardia, but to our surprise, six of its ten gates were getting ready to load flights.  And we only had to wait about half-a-year for the peppy restaurant staff to bring out our breakfast biscuits.  The flight left on time, as did our connector and we were back in Orlando twenty minutes early.  That’s where the weather took its revenge for our crystal-clear trip, lightning stalling us on the runway for almost an hour.  The altruistic Stuart Ellison picked us up at the airport and delivered us back to lovely Fairfield, which never even missed us.

As always, we’re grateful to Stuart and Mary Ellison for holding the fort while we were away and to Janis Peterson for house and pet care.  Not to mention Julie, Laura and Debbie, who kept Pathogenes, Inc. from falling into the sea in our absence.  Lila the Rottweiler deserves her fair share of credit for intimidating possible ne’er-do-wells who might wander errantly down our driveway.  Lila won’t bite anybody but she will check every inch of your body looking for food treats, which can be just as frightening.  Our true ace-in-the-hole is Sylvester the Wonder Cat, who thinks he is a lynx and will recognize a true varlet on sight, offering an array of interesting punishments, none of them pleasant.  And just when a miscreant thinks he’s escaped, there’s Casper the Unfriendly Goat to butt him into the middle of next month.  “Sometimes, you feel like a butt,” says Casper.  “Sometimes, you don’t.”

That’s all, folks….        

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Mammoth Undertakings

“What is so rare as a day in June?”---James Russell Lowell

“Let me tell you about this park in Wyoming”---B.K.

The grandeur of Yosemite National Park is legendary, the raw beauty of Glacier unrivaled.  Zion N.P. has its Narrows, Rocky Mountain its eye-popping skyline drive, Bryce Canyon its incomparable hoodoos.  Cadillac Mountain in Acadia welcomes the U.S. sunrise first each day.  And the Grand Canyon?  Well, the Grand Canyon has been known to transport its admirers to another dimension.  But there are more wonders in Yellowstone than this world dreams of.

Founded in 1872, Yellowstone is our first national park.  At 3400 square miles, it is also the largest in the lower 48 states, almost triple the size of Yosemite.  Yellowstone is home to black and grizzly bears, to thousands of elk, to roving wolfpacks and giant herds of bison.  You might spot a lynx or a wolverine, with or without one of those wrinkled blue M caps.  If you’re in the mood, you can visit Yellowstone Lake, 7732 feet above sea level and covering 136 square miles, with 110 miles of shoreline.  You will never run out of places to see and things to do in this truly magic kingdom.

There are more than 900 miles of hiking trails in backcountry wilderness.  There are thermal wonders, over 10,000 of them, like fumaroles (steam vents), mud pots, hot springs and geysers.  Of the 1283 geysers which have erupted in Yellowstone at one time or another, 465 are active during an average year.  There are Native American artifacts to discover, especially in the geothermal areas.  There are mountains to climb, like Eagle Peak (11,371 feet), Electric Peak (10,968’), Mount Washburn (10,243’) and countless others.  There is the spectacular Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River, replete with wowie waterfalls.  There is the brilliant, mind-altering Grand Prismatic Spring, which takes you in and holds you in its spell.  And, oh yes, there is one other thing you won’t find at Graceland or Disney World or anywhere else.  It’s called Mammoth Hot Springs and it is even rarer than a day in June.

(1) Bison lover at a respectable distance, (2) Bison lovers at car-repair distance.

Goodness Gracious, it’s Bodacious!

At Yellowstone each year, the rain and melted snow seeps into the earth.  Cold to begin with, the water is quickly warmed by heat radiating from a partially molten magma chamber deep underground, the remnant of a cataclysmic volcano eruption which occurred 600,000 years ago.  After moving throughout this underwater plumbing system, the now hot water rises up through a system of small fissures, interacting with hot gases charged with carbon dioxide rising up from the magma chamber.  As some of the carbon dioxide is dissolved in the hot water, a weak, carbonic acid solution is formed.

In the Mammoth area, the hot, acidic solution dissolves large quantities of limestone on its way up through the rock layers to the hot springs on the surface.  Above ground and exposed to the air, some of the carbon dioxide escapes from the solution.  Without it, the dissolved limestone can’t remain in the solution, so it reforms into a solid mineral.  This white chalky mineral is deposited as the travertine system that forms the famous terraces of Mammoth Hot Springs.  Mammoth has two terrace boardwalks, the Upper and Lower, accessible from a nearby parking lot or the Grand Loop Road.

Mammoth Hot Springs is just south of the famous Roosevelt Arch, the northern entrance to the park at Gardiner, Montana.  The area is accessible by car the year round, unlike much of Yellowstone.  Nearby is the Boiling River, one of the few legal thermal soaking areas in the park.  The Heritage and Research Center in Gardiner is a state-of-the-art facility that is home to Yellowstone’s museum collection, archives, research library and archeology lab.  Tours are available twice a week from June to September, but make a reservation or suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

Changing Times

Siobhan and Bill were here at Mammoth about fifteen years ago.  At the time, water was flowing over the travertine surfaces from top to bottom.  This time, however, we were concerned to find water only at the highest levels.  The park rangers contend that the springs are not drying up and that the overall activity and volume of water remain relatively constant.  Okay, if you say so, but it’s a big change.

We meandered around the boardwalks surrounding the springs, climbed to the top to get some pictures, then drove to the Roosevelt Arch near Gardiner.  The town, still very small, had grown a smidge since we stayed there years ago.  From many of the hotel balconies, it’s possible to see rafts jauntily bouncing down the nearby Yellowstone River.

When last we visited, we hiked to the summit of 9652-foot Sepulcher Mountain, an 11.2-mile lightly trafficked loop trail rated as difficult.  The excursion took from 7:30 in the morning until about 3 p.m., ending in a light shower.  The elevation gain is an impressive 3517 feet.  These days, Siobhan has become wiser and now personally checks the mileage and degree of difficulty of our hikes.  If the little guidebook says either “11.2 miles” or “difficult,” she makes an unpleasant face and puts a big line through it with her magic marker.  We asked for an easier alternative from a lady at the ranger station.  She recommended Bunsen Peak, just a few miles down the road.  Said it was her favorite hike in Yellowstone.  We’re very impressed by people in uniform who seem to know what they’re talking about, so we motored over to the tiny parking lot by the trail and nabbed the last of about a dozen spaces.  As Peggy Lee famously said, “We’re on our way to somewhere….to somewhere I don’t know.”

Bunsen Peak

There was a time when a 1300 foot climb through forest and meadow to the peak of an 8564 mountain was a walk in the park for Bill and Siobhan.  We’re here to tell you that time is over.  Though the overall distance of the Bunsen Peak Trail was listed as anywhere from 4.1 to 4.8 miles, the first half often seemed to be going straight up.  What happened to those compressed air cans we bought in Albuquerque?

If you’re scratching your head trying to remember who Bunsen was, think back to high school and your Bunsen Burner.  German chemist Robert Bunsen invented the thing.  He also spent a lot of time studying geysers.  His trail and the area in general is grizzly bear country, but the bears have apparently learned that the meat derived from old people is not so tasty and they left us alone.  We shared the trail with several ambitious hikers on the way up, none of them over 35.  “Bear entrees,” I told Siobhan, smug in the knowledge we were at the bottom of the grizzly menu.  “I don’t know,” she paused.  “All of them can run faster than us.”  To accent this sad truth, two 18-year old boys marched by like they were going downhill on a Matterhorn ski slope.  It’s hell getting old.

I can walk all day at a reasonable 4 miles-per-hour as long as I’m on a level surface in an air-conditioned health facility.  I can even jog about 7 mph for a short period.  It took us two hours to negotiate the 2-plus miles of the Bunsen Peak ascent, and not because Siobhan was slowing me down.  By the time we made it to the top, several other hikers had passed us, including the sprightly 18-year-olds.  “We didn’t think you’d make it,” one of them admitted.  “We only got here 5 minutes ago ourselves.”  Tortoise and the hare, I thought.  “Tortoise and the hare,” I said.  They looked at me oddly, like I was speaking Russian.  “It’s a bar in Liverpool,” I told them.

The boys took our pictures, good ones at that, and I went over to sign the registry of hikers who made it to the top.  I read a couple of the names, stopped abruptly and looked at Siobhan.  “You won’t believe this,” I said, registering great surprise, “but Shari Godano’s name is in here, just above mine.”  We were astonished to meet our Ocala neighbor a couple of days earlier in another section of the park.  “You’re kidding!” she protested.  And I was, of course.  “But what if I’d sniggled her name in the book, you’d never have guessed.”

She looked at me with her patented Siobhan Ellison Pout of Disapproval.  “That’s egregious!” she sputtered. “It’s a hideous breach of the Hiker’s Code.  I would have been forced to report you to the Happy Wanderer Foundation!”  Apparently, extremism in the defense of honesty is no vice.  Barry Goldwater said that.  I think it was Barry.

(1) Beginning of the Bunsen Peak Trail, (2) Steep going for senior citizens, (3) Bill records the hike at 8564 verified feet.

Next Week: Jackson Hole-iness

It’s a paltry 6.9 miles from the boundaries of Yellowstone National Park to the entrance of Grand Teton N.P. and a trip to one almost requires a visit to the other.  Headquarters for a Teton visit, Jackson Hole, is a little further, about 57 miles, and a lot more expensive.  Most Jackson hotels think room rates of anything less than $400 is scandalously cheap and living in a Motel 6 is considered homelessness.  Bill and Siobhan meander down to take a look in our next semi-exciting episode.

Yellowstone Lake.  It's BIG.

Grass Roots Pandemonium

While lesser candidates fall by the wayside on a daily basis, the Bill Killeen For President campaign rumbles on.  Our man Bill will surely be among the final six left standing when the dust has settled and the wheat has been separated from the chaff, whatever that is.  Seen below showing the colors are Mary Ellison, a financial planner from Ann Arbor, Michigan and Kathleen Ellison, a dermatologist and campaign organizer from Washington, D.C.  Kathleen likes to tell everyone she has skin in this game.  Stop it, Kathleen.

Killeen supporters at future residence of President Bill.

That’s all, folks….

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Ain’t It Grand? Of Canyons & Prismatic Springs

The subject dearest to most photographers in Yellowstone National Park is not its sprawling Grand Canyon, its imposing waterfalls nor its gallivanting bison herds.  Not even its internationally-renowned Old Faithful, a geyser of impeccable dependability and spectacular photo ops.  Enticing as these all may be, your everyday lensman will invariably head for the the park’s Midway Geyser Basin and its multicolored pool of many layers, the Grand Prismatic Spring.  The GPS is the third largest spring in the world at 370 feet in diameter and deeper than a ten-story building.  But the real attraction is the Grand Prismatic’s brilliant array of colors, bright bands of orange, yellow and green ringing the deep blue waters in the center.  The multicolored layers get their hues from different species of heat-loving bacteria living in the progressively cooler water around the spring.  The deep blue center is created because water scatters the blue wavelengths of light more than other colors, reflecting blues back to our eyes.  The colors change with the seasons, deepening in the summer months, fading in the winter, but the high temperatures at the center make the water sterile and it retains its brilliance all year long.

The Grand Prismatic Spring was first officially described and named by the Hayden Expedition, a federally-funded exploration of the Yellowstone area in 1871.  The expedition’s leader, Ferdinand Hayden, was enchanted by the place and wrote the following: “Nothing ever conceived by human art could equal the peculiar vividness and delicacy of colors of these remarkable prismatic springs.  Life becomes a privilege and a blessing after one has seen and thoroughly felt these incomparable types of nature’s cunning skill.” 

Most of us are prepared for the natural wonders we visit in our travels.  We have seen them in books and in videos.  But imagine taking a twist in the trail and suddenly coming across a phenomenon like the Grand Prismatic Spring.  It’s mind-bending.  It’s awe-inspiring.  Why, it makes a man want to open up a booth and start selling hot dogs.

Up Close And Personal

The Midway Geyser Basin is about halfway between the Madison and Old Faithful regions of the park.  There is a parking lot adjacent and a trail south toward the Firehole River which eventually brings you to several of the area’s colorful springs.  In peak seasons and at prime visiting hours, getting a parking space is but a dream so you will probably find yourself using the auxiliary lot (it’s called the side of the road).  Be prepared to walk a bunch.

Although you can get terrific photographs from the boardwalk surrounding the springs, a little elevation is necessary to secure the classic Grand Prismatic Spring wonder shot.  This can be accomplished by hiking up to Midway Bluff, which offers a sweeping view of the entire basin and the hot springs below.

You can get entirely different photos from the boardwalk, which offers amazing perspectives of a constantly changing pool, vapors emanating from the waters, colors slightly different from how they appear at a distance.  Its temperature is a sweaty 160 degrees Fahrenheit.  It has a compelling, unearthly presence, a slowly swirling inevitability….it will draw you in with its hypnotic ethers.  Tourists crowd the narrow boardwalk clutching small children to prevent a quick trip into the boiling cauldron.  Amazingly, accidents here are very rare, though a lot of caps and sunglasses dot the landscape, captives of windy days like this one.

There are times, however, when visitors have trouble separating the hot springs you relax in and the ones you definitely don’t.  An Oregon man died in June, 2018 at Yellowstone’s Norris Geyser Basin while looking for a comfortable “hot pot.”  Colin Scott, 23, slipped and tumbled into acidic boiling waters while reaching in to check the temperature of a 10-foot deep thermal pool.  Colin and his sister, Sable, who was making cellphone videos, had illegally ventured off the boardwalk near the Pork Chop Geyser when the hysterics began.  Do they have a TV program for America’s Unfunniest Home Videos?  Asking for a friend.

Grand Canyon Of The Yellowstone

About 640,000 years ago, give or take a century, a huge volcanic eruption occurred in the Yellowstone area, emptying a large underground chamber of magma and spreading volcanic ash for thousands of miles.  The roof of this chamber slowly collapsed, forming a giant caldera 30 miles across and 45 miles long.  The caldera began to fill with lava and sediments, and infilling of lava continued for hundreds of thousands of years.  Scientists believe the oldest Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone formed in rock and sediments about 160,000 to 140,000 years ago but this paleocanyon was not as deep, wide or long as the one we have now.

Past and current hydrothermal activity altered the rhyolite, making the rocks softer.  The Yellowstone River eroded these weakened rocks to deepen and widen the canyon, a process that continues today.  The current canyon begins at Lower Falls and ends downstream from Tower Fall.  The 308-foot Lower Falls may have formed because the river flows over volcanic rock more resistant to erosion than the downstream rocks, which are hydrothermally altered.  The 109-foot Upper Falls flows over similar rocks.  The large rocks upstream from Upper Falls are remnants of a lava flow resistant to erosion.

The multi-hued rocks of the canyon result from the hydrothermally altered rhyolite and sediments.  The dark orange, brown and green areas near the river are indicative of still-active hydrothermal features.  Their activity and that of water, wind and earthquakes continue to sculpt the canyon.

Hiking The Abyss

There are several hikes which allow spectacular views of GCOTY.  We decided to follow the Rim Trail.  Sounds easy, right?  The rim, after all, suggests a comfy walk along the lip of the canyon.  On the other hand, there’s the matter of getting to the other side of the thing.  Which means that unless there’s a bridge (there isn’t), a hiker must meander down to the bottom, then come back up the other side.  We asked if anyone had explored the idea of an elevator.  Not yet, apparently.  We went anyway.

The trail begins with a pleasant stroll through piney woods to the Upper Falls viewpoint, where you will mingle with the masses looking for a good iPhone shot.  The falls are impressive, spilling 109 feet over a dense rhyolite lava flow to the depths below.  At this point, the amateur photogs peel off and return to the parking lot while the hikers proceed to the turnoff for Uncle Tom’s Trail to the bottom of the canyon.  This walkway uses a series of steel stairways to descend more than 300 feet in 0.3 miles.  Then, it’s up again, way up, to spectacular views of Lower Falls (a lot of imagination goes into the Yellowstone waterfall-naming process).  Picturesque views of the canyon and falls await each time you break through the trees, allowing varied angles from which to capture the 308-foot tumble of Lower Falls.

In the course of all this traveling, Siobhan will be on the lookout for the ideal walking-stick.  She greatly misses her priceless Leki stick, the bottom section of which fell off undetected somewhere in the bowels of nearby Sepulcher Mountain many years ago.  In punishment for her inattention and gross negligence, she has refused to allow herself to purchase another sleek manufactured product and now stoops to locating an acceptable alternative somewhere along the trail, usually a tree branch of some substance if little beauty.  This occasionally prompts unwary hikers to ask if she might be one of those mountain men they’ve heard so much about.  The smile quickly disappears from their merry countenances as the mountain girl deftly raises an elbow and pokes them into the great abyss.  Siobhan owns a vast library of tomes describing the incredible variety of accidental deaths in our national parks and she’s not afraid to use it.  If you ever encounter one of those unaccountable long, lingering screams in the distance while hiking America’s pathways, now you know what’s happened.

Here It Comes Again

The Beast has clawed its way across the luckless islands of the Caribbean, excusing Puerto Rico with a sneering head-slap, and now is heading directly for….well….us.  The storm is following the dictates of its Monopoly card: Do not pass Go.  Do not collect $200.  Go directly to Florida and do the twist again like we did last summer, head-butt a few trailer camps, uproot a couple thousand water oaks, inundate the low-hanging fruit and—oh yeah—dehouse a mess of those honkers in the Panhandle.  Be afraid, Sunshine State, be very afraid.

Surely you jest.  We who have withstood the wrath of Andrew, Irma, Michael, Ivan and Charley are not going to be spooked by a storm with the sissy-name Dorian.  Send us a Brutus, a Rocky, a Bubba, a Matilda and we might be worried, but please, don’t make us laugh with a Dorian.  The last Dorian we remember was less than brilliant, having made a deal with the devil to remain young and vivacious.  Everybody knows what happened to Dorian Gray.

Some people warn Don’t throw stones at the Bogeyman, even one in drag.  We are unfazed.  We will stand our ground.  We shall camp on the shore and glare at the darkening clouds and the roiling sea.  We will guzzle ceremonial nectars at our hurricane parties.  Evacuate, schmoovacuate!  We are tough!  We are mean!  We are Floridians, and we know no fear!


“Holy Moley, Agnes, grab the dog and head for the root cellar!  It’s comin’ the tornaduh!” 

The Ongoing Saga Of Captain Noonan

Every Day of the Dead (November 2) weekend in Austin, Texas, local hero Jim Moriarty celebrates with a large party for his seventy-ish friends, at least those of them who can climb the long stairway to his staging area.  He calls it the Not Dead Yet fete.  Costumes and common sense are optional.  This year, our pal Captain Noonan, recently diagnosed with ALS, could be going.

In answer to the many questions we’ve received since our column on the Captain several weeks ago, he rambles on.  There have been good days and bad, including one four-day spate of severe allergic reaction to medication which landed him in UF’s Shands Hospital for a spell.

We have consulted virtually every expert on the subject worth talking to with little encouragement.  ALS doctors and scientists are overwhelmed by the dire certainties of the disease, the lack of an occasional spark of success, the need for long studies and incremental progress.  There is no sense of urgency about Captain Noonan’s particular case because all hope has been relegated to the distant future. 

This will not do for Siobhan Ellison (secret identity: Stubborn Girl), who has probed the Earth for answers and discovered a hopeful drug off in the far reaches of the Orient.  This secret weapon is on its way as we speak and Captain Noonan sits primed for recovery.  What will happen as our heroes battle the Forces of Evil to save the famous aviator?  Will he fly on to salvation or crash to the earth in flames?  Tune in next month for further updates on this battle for tomorrow.  If the Captain is not ready for Moriarty’s bash this year, we may have to schedule a future party of our own.  We can see it now---Not Dead Yet: Fairfield, 2020.  Everyone 65 and up (and vertical) will be welcome.  Don’t forget to bring a pastry.

That’s all, folks….


Thursday, August 22, 2019

Yellowstone Pheromones

“Tom Jefferson’s vision would not let him rest/An empire he saw in the Pacific Northwest/Sent Lewis & Clark and they did the rest….”---Woody Guthrie

While there is evidence of human habitation in the Yellowstone area dating back more than 10,000 years, its geographical wonders were completely unknown to the outside world until the 19th century.  The site’s first non-Indian visitor was most likely John Colter, brought west as a member of Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery expedition, who later embarked on a career as a fur trapper and all-purpose mountain man.  In the winter of 1807-08, Colter made a solo journey into the Yellowstone region and returned with fabulous tales of canyons, waterfalls and thermal wonders.  People who heard these fantastic stories thought ol’ John had been chewing on too much calamus root and began referring to the area as “Colter’s Hell.”  Nobody put Yellowstone on their bucket lists.

A few miners and fur hunters wandered into the area in the years after Colter’s visit but the first organized surveys didn’t begin until the late 19th century.  During one of these excursions, a Montana bureaucrat named Truman Everts became separated from his party, got hopelessly lost and was given up for dead.  After losing his horse and most of his supplies, the 54-year-old Evert spent over a month surviving on thistle while enduring snowstorms, delirium and a painful scalding from a hot spring.  By the time he was found, he weighed a mere 90 pounds and was suffering from frostbite so severe that his feet were worn to the bone.  Everts’ rescuers described him as looking like “nothing but a shadow.”  But Truman was a tough old cayuse.  He eventually recovered from the ordeal and wrote about it in an account titled “Thirty-Seven Days of Peril.”  His amazing descriptions of his trials and the wonders he discovered have been credited with helping publicize this unique region and ultimately the movement to make Yellowstone a national park.  It was established by the U.S.Congress and signed into law by President Ulysses S. Grant on March 1, 1872, the first national park in the country and likely the world.  The park only hit its high point in notoriety, however, when the internationally famous Yogi Bear moved his corporate headquarters there in 1958.

As we go to press in the summer of 2019, discontent has broken out in Yellowstone’s famous bison herd.  The boys have been running around bonking errant children indiscriminately and on August 21st several dozen bison stampeded, bashing into tourist vehicles in the park’s Lamar Valley.  Bison leader Aldrich Reynolds attributed the shenanigans to significant salary cuts for the herd in the new park budget and claimed work stoppages could be in the offing. 


We’ve Got Trouble.  Right Here In River City!

“With a capital ‘T’ and that rhymes with ‘P’ and that stands for pool!”

Chock-full of exciting options for fun and frolic in the daytime as they may be, at night the national parks turn out the lights and the party’s over.  Since most of them, including Yellowstone, are in the middle of nowhere, it’s often early-to-bed for tourists.  All of which makes the frabjous Playmill Theater in adjacent West Yellowstone, Montana all the more special.  Each summer, the playhouse rotates two or three plays with a pair of performances nightly.  On July 17, our first day in town, it was an old favorite, The Music Man.  The actors primarily come from area colleges with theater programs, many of them from Brigham Young, and these young whippersnappers are far more talented and experienced than might be expected.  The Playmill has also adopted a clever and profitable intermission stunt; instead of the playgoers herding into a small, crowded lobby, the actors come whistling out of the wings carrying plates of various refreshments, available right at your seats.  You can simultaneously buy some popcorn while telling Harold Hill he is doing a terrific job in the playNo Moon Pies, though.

West Yellowstone, itself, is a bustling little town full of restaurants, gear shops and trinket stores, even an IMAX moviehouse, located hard by the west entrance to the park.  It is the only town to consider when visiting YNP unless you want to travel a couple hours down the road to Jackson Hole, which is overrated and hideously expensive.  The municipality at the northern entrance, Gardiner, Montana, is a snore but okay for one night if you’re spending the day in the Mammoth Hot Springs area.  In West Yellowstone, we stayed at the large, roomy and well-located Holiday Inn, on the fringes of downtown but quiet, even if your room is across from the elevator.  Where else can you do your laundry for free and share the pool with four 300-lb. women from Canarsie?

(1) Siobhan inspects steamy Biscuit Basin; (2) Mystic Falls. (3) Bill with the long-lost Shari Godano.

Fancy Meeting You Here!

When it comes to hiking, we like to start out with a modest degree of difficulty.  For openers, we chose the Mystic Falls hike in Yellowstone’s Biscuit Basin, which begins on a classic YNP boardwalk, meandering through paint posts and geysers to a peachy 70-foot waterfall.  It’s always nice to have a big splashing waterfall at the end of a hike.  It’s like getting your reward for plowing through that sticky box of Crackerjax.

The trail is relatively flat and wide for the most part, traveling through new growth forest alongside the friendly Little Firehole River.  The river begins west on the Madison Plateau.  If you like wildflowers along your path, they got ‘em.  After a little elevation and some narrowing of the trail, you arrive at fun-filled Mystic Falls.  At the culmination, we were joined by a jaunty father and his two teenaged boys, who rambled up and down the rocky banks of the river like surefooted monkeys, reminding us of what it was like to be 15 (the little bastards).

On our way back to the parking lot, we passed several oncoming hikers headed for the falls.  Siobhan took note of one of them, remarking “That looks like Shari Godano,” an old Ocala pal unseen for several years.  But what are the odds?  Two people from faraway Ocala colliding on the little Mystic Falls trail in the wilds of Wyoming?  We thought not.  We thought wrong.  Shari’s traveling partner said, “Shari, that woman just mentioned your name.”  Miss Godano turned around, Siobhan looked back and there we were, together again in the fond embrace of the Biscuit Basin.  Shari’s party of several was camped out in Jackson, but up for the day.  Important world problems were discussed and solutions ironed out between hugs and squealing while the menfolk stood around with their hands in their pockets.  A good time was had by all.  We told Shari we’d see her in another four years on the Grinnell Glacier Trail in Glacier N.P. and wished her a fond farewell.  We promptly called Ripley’s Believe it Or Not but they weren’t  interested.

(1) Waiting for the Robert E. Lee; (2) The Robert E. Lee arrives.

Old Faithful Lives

You may have already seen it 200 times, but if you are going to Yellowstone National Park, you will be going out to renew acquaintances with Old Faithful.  It’s against the law to renege.  Besides, Americans like dependability and this cone geyser is nothing if not dependable, rocketing into action at predictable intervals and shooting its plume of water some 106 to 185 feet in the air more than a million (count ‘em—1,000,000) times since Yellowstone became a national park in 1872.  That’s not soggy gingerbread.

Old Faithful is conveniently located in the park’s Upper Geyser Basin in the southwest section of the park, along with a batch of other geysers happy with their roles as warm-up acts.  A wooden boardwalk winds through the geyser field allowing easy access and a good soaking if you’re not careful.  On the morning of our visit, intermittent 50 mph winds replied to Popeye’s famous quote “Well, blow me down!” while temperatures rattled around in the fifties.

Aware of the geyser’s schedule, a crowd of several hundred gathers on the arc of benches set out about 300 feet from Old Faithful, cameras and iPhones at the ready.  The playful geyser teases the mob with a few dekes and feints, raising hopes, then quiets down.  It currently erupts around 20 times a day for a duration of between 1.5 to 4.5 minutes, dispatching between 3700 to 8400 gallons of 204-degree water.  The steam surrounding the water is much hotter, up to 350F.  Upwards of 4 million people a year attend this ritual, though the great majority show up before 6 p.m., so if you want the experience all to yourself, arrive late.

Eventually, Old Faithful roars into action, this incarnation lasting around three minutes and satisfying one and all.  The crowd murmurs, then buzzes excitedly and finally hoots and hollers as cameras snap and photographers rush for a better view.  Fathers raise their tiny tots to their shoulders for a moment to remember, kids drop the ice-cream from their cones, old people stumble to get closer.  It’s Nature at her wondrous best, delivering yet another boffo performance as the crowd goes wild at this once-in-a-lifetime spectacular.  Oh-oh, did you miss it?  No worries, we’re back for an encore in ninety minutes.  Go buy some postcards for those poor saps stuck back in Birmingham.

Norris Geyser Basin, home of the nefarious Steamboat Geyser, here seen singing 'Ain't Misbehavin'.  The park staff isn't so sure.

What Would Robert Fulton Think?

If you’re impressed by a geyser shooting water 185 feet in the air, and we sure are, how about one that blasts the stuff almost twice that high?  The Steamboat Geyser in Yellowstone Park’s Norris Basin Area has major eruptions spewing water over 300 feet in the air.  Unlike Old Faithful, however, Steamboat’s displays are extremely unpredictable.  In the weeks just prior to our visit, eruptions became more frequent---25 of them in just over a half year as opposed to 2018’s record 32 eruptions.  Naturally, we went to see it.

Scientists aren’t quite sure what’s behind the recent increase in activity, but the short answer is geysers operate on their own schedules.  “They’re mostly random and experience phases of alternating eruptive activity,” according to Michael Poland, the USGS scientist in charge of the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory.  “So while fascinating, it’s not cause for concern.”  Maybe not, but park personnel are buzzing around the area, keeping a close eye on the critter and giving some thought to backing up the viewing area.  While we were there, the geyser put on an impressively steamy show, sans eruptions.

Until 2018, the Steamboat Geyser had been relatively calm for 15 years.  Poland speculates that heavy snow in recent years probably created more groundwater to feed geysers and hot springs.  Steamboat is erupting more frequently as spring snowmelt is at its peak.  Mr. P. would like to assure everyone that increased geyser eruptions are NOT related to earthquake activity, so stop worrying about The Big One that would take out most of the Pacific Northwest, including Marty Jourard.  Geyser plumbing systems are within a couple of hundred meters of the Earth’s surface while magma systems start several thousand meters below.

The last volcanic eruption at Yellowstone occurred about 70,000 years ago at Pitchstone Plateau.  Today, scientists estimate the probability of an eruption in our lifetime is minimal.  According to USGS, the year-on-year risk is about one in 730,000 or 0.00014 percent, about the same as the odds on a Beatles reunion.  Just in case, though, Deb Peterson, our pal who lives in the Yachats area of the Oregon coast, has constructed a magma-proof underground fortress stocked with gluten-free snacks and sumptuous aperitifs for any Flying Pie afficionados who can make it there before the lava flies.  First come, first serve.

Sundown at the Holiday Inn after another busy afternoon.  There are no bad days at Yellowstone.

That’s all, folks….

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Craters Of The Moon

“Yo-ho, yo-ho, it’s off to the fields of lava we go.  We’ll take some pork rinds and a raspberry pie and we won’t be back til the Fourth of July!”---BK

An innocent pilgrim wiggling down the road from Carey, Idaho east toward the undistinguished hamlet of Arco might gather his wits about him as the landscape mumbles and begins to darken.  “What’s all this?” he may wonder, abruptly pulling his map from its sheath, checking the route to see if cartographers have marked off a spot where “Demons Be Here!”

The wary traveler has unknowingly drifted into a twilight zone, a vast portion of southern Idaho’s Great Rift volcanic zone, an expanse that stretches out to the south and east as far as the eye can see.  He has stumbled onto Craters of the Moon National Monument, an extraordinary lava field which covers approximately 1100 square miles on the Snake River Plain.  The Great Rift begins north of the monument, about 6 miles from the topographic edge of the Snake River Plain and extends southeasterly for more than 50 miles to an area beneath Pillar Butte on the Wapi lava field.  The rift zone is a belt of open cracks, eruptive fissures, shield volcanoes and cinder cones unparalleled anywhere.  The Eldhraun Lava Field in Iceland is considered the largest lava flow in the world, a mere 218 square miles by comparison.

Being roughly in the middle of nowhere, Craters of the Moon is not overrun by chubby tourists in shorts and sandals.  Less than two dozen prowled through the visitor center in the time it took us to watch a 20-minute film, with another 60 or 70 meandering around the lava cones outside, accessible via a winding road which snakes through the monument.

Craters of the Moon was formed during eight major eruptive periods between 15,000 and 2000 years ago.  Lava emerged from the Great Rift, a series of deep cracks which begin near the visitor center and stretch 52 miles to the southeast.  During this time, Craters of the Moon lava field grew to cover 618 square miles.  The smaller Wapi and King’s Bowl lava fields also formed along the Great Rift during the most recent eruptive period (about 2000 years ago). 

The volume of past eruptive events suggests that slightly over one cubic mile of lava will be dispersed during the next event, which is expected to begin along the central portion of the Great Rift inside the monument but may propagate to the northern section in the proximity of the loop road.  Eruptions from potential vents on the northern part of the Great Rift may be explosive and could produce significant amounts of tephra—airfall material ejected from a volcano.  Such eruptions would likely destroy cinder cones by both explosion and collapse, then build new ones.  It is virtually impossible to predict a time span for future eruptions, but management suggests you let them know when you are coming and they’ll see what they can do.

On To Rexburg!  Say What?

Speaking of shield volcanoes, the city of Rexburg, Idaho rests right on top of one.  Eruptions are not expected in the area anytime soon, but who knows?  The Mormons may have some secret information about all this because they’re flocking to the area, building sedate housing units and installing temples lickety-split.  The relatively new Brigham Young University-Idaho sits smack in the middle of one of these volcanoes so maybe the LDS Church got the property cheap.  At any rate, 95% of the Rexburg population is Mormon.  More important, Rexburg leads the country in the number of pet schnauzers per capita.  There is one of the critters for every 6.12 people in town.  Before you go off worrying about a secret LDS conspiracy to corner the schnauzer market, the next highest schnauzer city is Orono, Maine.  There are approximately no Mormons in Orono.  The mystery deepens.

(1) Siobhan, over the boardwalk, down by the sea of lava; (2) A lovely Spatter Cone; (3) Giant lava rock about to collapse on unwary tourist.

Has Anybody Here Seen Spencer?

“Yo-ho, yo ho, it’s off to the opal fields we go!  We’ll take a good map and a compass or two since where the place is we haven’t a clue.”---BK

We overnighted in glamorous Rexburg because facilities in Spencer, site of Siobhan’s opal mines, do not exist.  Matter of fact, according to all the maps we could find, neither does Spencer.  Astute detectives that we are, however, we eventually managed to track the place down.  You’re not going to believe this but we were the first customers of the day, just like at the Eagle City gold mine.  The opals are sequestered in a gigantic rockpile just behind the owner’s cozy cafe, which, by the way, makes a mean cinnabon (bigger than a pieplate, more sugar than Dolly Parton).

Siobhan might not know much about opal-hunting but she learns things fast.  When we were at Fenway Park recently, she probably knew as much about baseball as 20% of the sophisticated New England crowd, having gleaned a raft of information from watching UF softball.  She is nonetheless disappointed that baseball does not allow fat men to be replaced on the basepaths by sleek young sprinters and subsquently return to the game.  We’re beginning to see her side of the argument, but we digress.

The fee to search for opals is a very reasonable $20, but the same levy on innocent photographers (me) is outrageous.  Or it would be if the nice lady and her family who own the place weren’t floating barely above the Mendoza Line for income.  Siobhan took her hammer and gem bucket and headed for the mother lode, picking over and poking suspect rocks trying to identify the little buggers.  After about ten minutes, Leo, the teenaged mutant ninja son of the owner, came out to lend a hand.  Leo is like an attack eagle—he can spot a tiny opal at 100 yards with his eyes closed.  He taught Siobhan some tricks of the trade and pretty soon she was finding her own gems.  This revelry continued on for roughly an hour, or until Siobhan’s bucket got pretty heavy.  We had to arm-wrestle Leo’s mother to leave him a $20 tip (she said it wasn’t good manners to accept largesse, but we weren’t going to buy seven cinnabons); fortunately, we were in better shape.  The lady gave us clear directions on the two ways to get to Yellowstone: (1) a 150-mile glide over exemplary highways, or (2) a squiggly bouncealong over 75 miles of narrow gravel byways.  Do we even need to tell you which route was chosen?  We didn’t think so.

(1) The Road to Rexburg; (2) Exotic Spencer opal mine; (3) Leo the Great and rookie hunter; (4) Working in the Opal Fields of The Lord.

The Road To Yellowstone

“Yo-ho, yo ho, it’s off to the Yellowstone geysers we go!  We’ll drive on a road where the antelope roam and hope to arrive ‘ere the cattle get home.”---BK

“It’s a long and dusty road, it’s a hot and a heavy load, and the cows you meet ain’t always kind.”---Tom Paxton

Siobhan, of course, argued for the superhighway, which has absolutely no chance of providing blog fodder, but some of us have work to do.  Besides, the gravelway was half the distance--how bad could it be?  Well….

The first ten miles of hard-packed gravel were just fine, thank you, but eventually the road narrowed, the gravel loosened and Bill started wondering  what he might tell the rental car man if the little rocks kicked up by the front tires start pockmarking the nice Nissan.  Before long, there was a pronounced peak in the center of the highway, obviously created by a road-grader somewhere down the line.  As mentioned in a previous Pie installment, our vehicle didn’t take to anything higher than six inches popping up on the road, so we gravitated to the right even when the road didn’t.

Eventually, we ran across the culprit working on the road.  Siobhan asked for a consultation.  The driver peeked out of his large yellow machine and assured us the going down the line was satisfactory, but I think I saw him giggling up his sleeve as we pulled away.  The pathway alternated between hard ground and loose gravel for much of the way before we reached a surface which looked suspiciously like dirt.  And then, just to confirm our suspicions, a dust cloud appeared a couple of miles ahead.  If we didn’t know better, it looked like there might be a herd of cows on the road in the distance, but that was silly, right?  What would a mess of cattle be doing on a perfectly respectable highway?

(1) Beginning of the gravel road out of Spencer; so far, so good; (2) Gravel turns to dirt; roadblock ahead; (3) The lowing herd winds slowly o'er the lea.

“Git Along, Little Dogie!”  Big Dogie, Too.

Now, it’s not like we’ve never seen a cattle drive, but aren’t they supposed to travel over hill and dale across land which provides something to eat?  Not this one.  Just a few hundred feet ahead, at least a couple hundred Angus cattle shuffled down the highway and the modest ditches on each side, surrounded by a half-dozen or so cowboys twirling lassos, goosing laggards and shouting words of encouragement to the loudly complaining herd.  They appeared to care not one whit when they saw our vehicle come nudging along.  Siobhan, of course, was out of the car by this time taking videos.  “How do you like my road NOW?” I asked with smug satisfaction.  “It’s getting better,” she admitted.

About to reach the back of the aggregation, I rolled the window down and asked a mounted member of the rear guard what was the proper etiquette here.  “Just meander on through,” he advised, with a big smile.  Meander, right.  I could do that.  After I had meandered a reasonable distance with unhappy bovines baying loudly on both sides, a young cowpoke darted boldly to the center of the road and began to aggressively create an aisleway through the cattle, sort of like Moses parting the Red Sea.  We eventually broke on through to the other side, just like Jim Morrison told us to do back in 1967.  Waving goodbye the gang, we assured ourselves it would be all downhill from here.  Five miles later, we stopped to let a tour group of a dozen riders on horses cross the avenue.  Then, as if by magic, the blessed Highway 20 appeared in all its radiant splendor and the access to West Yellowstone was assured.  Siobhan looked down at her timepiece.  “It took just as long to navigate your short route as it would have to go on the highway,” she said, somewhat unkindly.

Ah, these young pups, unfortunate never to have heard the stirring words of The Lettermen: “The New Year’s Eve we did the town, the day we tore the goal post down.  We will have these moments to remember.”  The quiet walks, the noisy fun, the day when we were overrun, we will have these cattle to remember.

(1) Highway hijinks--it goes with the territory.

Next Week: Return To Yellowstone

‘Twas over a dozen years ago we first cast eyes on Teddy Roosevelt’s first National Park, a wonder for the ages with its spouting geysers, rampaging waterfalls, wide-roaming bison herds, endless hiking opportunities.  Has anything changed in the interim?  Surprisingly, yes.  Tune in next week as The Flying Pie sees all, tells all.

That’s all, folks….