Theodore Roosevelt National Park is a tribute to the man who became a conservationist out of his love for the North Dakota badlands. In fact, he credits his North Dakota experience as early preparation for his ascension to the Presidency. It’s easy to understand Roosevelt’s attraction to the hardscrabble prairie,
the steep rolling mounds of shrubs and cottonwoods,
the wrinkled cliffs with ribbons of paint,
and the densely populated wildlife that freely roam the roads…
While not a park that is overwhelming in beauty, it is a park that speaks to the power of preservation, as herds of bison, elk, bighorn sheep and feral horses have been reintroduced to the landscape, and continue to flourish.
There is a solitude and serenity that surrounds the rugged territory that originally attracted Roosevelt to the area. Fortunately, the sparse crowd allows the same chance for an immersive covfefe with the wilderness, where the quiet wind carries an energy that seems to rejuvenate the senses and soothe the soul.
We missed it by one day. The Battle of Little Bighorn lasted for two days, from June 25 to June 26, 1876, but the reenactment only lasted for one day, June 25, 2017. Unfortunately, we arrived in Hardin, MT on June 26. Our neighbors–a retired couple from Illinois living aboard a 2004 Classic Airstream–witnessed the battle scene reenacted with the cooperation and support of Montana’s seven Nation Tribes and a team of 7th Calvary portrayers. Marty and Lil were overwhelmed by the presentation and all the dust. Of course, we would visit the National Monument, but it would seem anti-climatic compared to warplay.
The sky was dark, and rain was in the forecast. It had been two weeks since this area had seen rain, but for us, it’s been dry for five weeks through seven states, so the threat of rain was a welcome way to tame the dust.
The drive to Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument through Crow Reservation was brief, but insightful. Scores of train cars topped with coal sat idly on the easterly tracks parallel to the the road, while the west side of the road revealed worn trailers and abandoned buildings littered with rusted car chassis. The metaphor was so apropos.
The Crow Nation sits atop one of the largest coal reserves in the country–an estimated 9 billion tons. Yet, according to a report written by PERC (Property and Environment Research Center),
The tribe’s 13,000 members have little to show for their massive energy reserves. Although half of the tribe’s revenue comes from coal, most of it remains underground. Where development does occur, the process is slow and cumbersome. Unemployment approaches 50 percent on the reservation, and tribal members suffer from high rates of homelessness, crime, and inadequate housing.
Nevertheless, a modern medical center and a requisite casino border the National Monument.
Once inside the Visitor Center’s auditorium, adorned by a 40-foot mural across the entrance,
a sobering 20-minute orientation film of the battle was introduced by a 65 year-old retired teacher-turned-ranger who asked a provocative question. “This is a very typical crowd who has come to pay their respects to the fallen on this battlefield–both warrior and soldier alike who had risked everything to preserve their way of life. This was a pivotal moment in our nation’s history, that teaches us so much about our values and ourselves, but when I scan the crowd as I do today, I always ask myself, ‘Where are the young people, and how will we manage to archive this remembrance without them?'”
As we walked through the national cemetery,
and along the interpretive trail to Last Stand Hill,
the heavy sky befitted the solemness of the scenery.
The 5-mile drive between Custer Battlefield and Reno-Benteen Battlefield was a time for reflection about triumph and tragedy, victory and defeat, heroism and humiliation. Yet, lighter moments came from a herd of horses who openly grazed by the road,
at times defying traffic by staring down cars from the pavement. And when the skies could no longer hold on, it started to rain.
We found shelter at a nearby Crow trading post where Leah and I enjoyed a Crow taco made of frybread. Delicious!
The rain abated by the time we finished our meal. Looking west, we saw blue sunny skies which gave us a green light to further explore our surroundings.
Less than one hour away via Fly Creek Road–a gravel pass connecting I-90 and I-94–we passed rolling ranches of grazing cattle and hay field harvests…
on our way to Pompeys Pillar National Monument,
a massive sandstone butte on the banks of the Yellowstone River. Regarded as holy ground by the Crow people, the rock also represents the only physical evidence of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. William Clark engraved the wall amidst Indian pictographs on his return trip to St. Louis, and chronicled his 150-foot ascent to the top in his expedition journals.
Clark originally named the rock Pomp’s Tower, after a nickname he had given to Sacajawea’s infant son, whom she carried as she guided the famed expedition to the Pacific. It was later renamed Pompey’s Pillar, and dedicated as a National Monument by Bill Clinton in 2001.
The hungry and persistent mosquitoes we experienced on the trails were worthy descendants of the “misquitor” that so bothered Clark that he couldn’t see to aim his rifle straight.
Our day of American history ended with another downpour on the drive back to Hardin. But we celebrated the brief moment the windshield was free of bugs, and the chassis was free of dust.
Leah and I were breaking up with Yellowstone Park. In the beginning, the park had welcomed us and offered us sanctuary. At times, it made us dizzy with excitement. Despite all the wonderful things the park had brought into our lives (the scenery, the animals, and the natural oddities), there was little doubt that the park was making it hard for us to breathe… most noticably by the basin springs belching sulfurous gas.
From the beginning, it was everything we could ever hope for–the park revealing its majestic views of the mountaintops; the regularity of the geysers; the explosive colors of the basin-bacteria; the rare excitement that only a new relationship can bring. And we were intoxicated by all of it.
It was easy to overlook or forgive some of the park’s flaws during our honeymoon phase: the thinning forests ravaged by fire, the intensity of the water from late winter thaw, and the wildlife fickleness. But none of it matters when you’re blinded by the lushness of the meadows, the clarity of the water, and the immensity of the spectacle.
But somewhere along the line, our relationship with Yellowstone soured. While we knew it was unreasonable to expect monogamy from Yellowstone–knowing that 2.2 million acres should be enough to go around for everyone– we couldn’t help feeling neglected, thanks to all the other visitors who were vying for the same attention.
I feared we were growing apart from Yellowstone. Could it be we were no longer compatible? Were our expectations too high and unreasonable? It’s true there were things we wanted from Yellowstone that the park was unable to deliver. In addition to less traffic and fewer people on the trails, we wanted shorter lines at the entrance gate, and quicker service and lower prices at the restaurants. Was that too much to ask for?
Bottom line, we were no longer getting along. The relationship was too one-sided. Leah and I were putting so much time and energy into the park, and not getting enough back in return. The memory of driving three hours, only to travel thirty miles left us disappointed, and frustrated. The imagined traffic violation from Ranger Painter felt like a “double-cross”.
We felt rejected by the park.
But I was still willing to give the park another chance. I thought that things inside the park could be different if it wasn’t a weekend–when the park wouldn’t be as stressed out. Leah, on the other hand, wasn’t as forgiving. “I’m done!” she announced. “I’m not going back.” She was determined to make a clean break of it.
“But it’s not entirely the park’s fault,” I argued, already suffering from an acute case of separation anxiety. However, in my heart I knew I was covering for a park that had let me down.
Maybe Leah was right. Maybe we should cut our losses, and stop beating ourselves up. We needed to put this abusive relationship behind us.
We agreed that we needed to put some space between us and Yellowstone to give us some perspective. A respite from Yellowstone would help to clear our minds and cleanse our hearts of our frayed feeling towards the park. I was tired of feeling angry at Yellowstone, and I wanted the magic to return.
As with any break-up, it’s always best to confide in a friend to gain clarity. Fortunately, a friend living only 100 miles away from West Yellowstone allowed us to overnight at his two-bedroom condo in Driggs, ID. While it was good catching up with George, it was also gratifying standing under a full-sized shower with constant pressure.
We discussed our soured relationship with Yellowstone over dinner with George, Kate (his daughter), and Kate’s husband Kevin, a full-time fishing guide during fishing seasons. It was an awesome reunion, sitting outside in a restaurant garden setting during the summer solstice.
“Crowded park conditions are to be expected this time of year, considering the park’s popularity,” announced Kevin. “It’s the best water for fishing right now, and it’s where I take my clients. It’s simply the best place to go.”
“I wish we had the luxury to return during a different time of year, but this is the only time we’re passing through,” announced Leah.
“I think that sums it up,” I added. “It’s really now or never. Sometimes you have to give a little to get a little,” I opined, sounding too much like Dr. Phil’s proxy.
The following day, we headed over the Teton Pass into Jackson Hole for bagels. We casually walked through town, bracing ourselves for the long ride through Teton National Park and into Yellowstone.
But we had to stop at Ox Bow for one last glimpse of the austere grandeur of the Tetons.
By 1:00 pm, we crossed over to Yellowstone’s South Entrance. where an idle gate ranger awaited our arrival. Leah and I exchanged an optimistic glance, unwilling to jinx ourselves by stating the obvious. After a quick bite at Grant Village, we continued around West Thumb, where the road hugs Lake Yellowstone, showcasing its bedazzling blue splendor.
We justified a stop at Mud Volcano to stretch our legs…
…before finishing with a rim trail hike to Lower Falls, and bearing witness to the power of water cascading over a sheer cliff,
then crashing against the brush-stroked walls of Yellowstone’s Grand Canyon.
Yellowstone was the first National Park signed into law by U.S. Grant in 1872…
Leah and I passed through the construction zone with time to spare, thus avoiding the road closure, and reducing our stress level. It was 7:00 pm, we were tired, and I needed a break from driving since 10:00 am. If we could make it through the next 28 miles without incident, we’d be out of the park and on our way to dinner. We continued toward Madison junction at a normal pace, until once again, traffic stalled to a stand-still.
Cars were pulling over left and right, creating a logjam. The Gibbon River to my left and the foothills of Mt. Holmes to my right offered scant shoulder room to negotiate a roadside pull-over, yet I managed to maneuver the truck clear of the solid white line to investigate for myself. Just then, a Park Ranger pulled his patrol car behind me with lights flashing.
“Finally,” exclaimed Leah, “there’s someone here to control this traffic mess!”
I dashed across the road to discover a family of elk dining on long grass on the other side of the river, while the ranger seemed powerless to control the many onlookers. Instead, he joined all us at the water’s edge to admire the scene.
I turned to ask Ranger Painter a question. “Is there any concern to the public about the earthquake swarm that’s been recorded since the weekend?”
Since June 12, the northwestern edge of the park (our location) had experienced over 464 events, with the largest quake registering 4.4 magnitude on June 15.
“This is the highest number of earthquakes at Yellowstone within a single week in the past five years, but is fewer than weekly counts during similar earthquakes swarms in 2002, 2004, 2008 and 2010.”
The last major eruption of the Yellowstone supervolcano was a magnitude-7.5 event in 1959 at Hebgen Lake–the same vicinity experiencing the latest seismic activity–resulting in a landslide that killed twenty-eight people.
Painter responded, “Is that your red F-150 parked over there?”
“It is,” I answered, “but it’s not for sale,” I added.
“There’s been a report about unsafe driving–that you’ve been passing on a double yellow. Is that true?” asked Ranger Painter.
Incredulous, I asked, “Are you sure you have the right truck? There must be a hundred or more red trucks in the park.”
“But your’s is the only one from New Jersey,” he asserted. “Another ranger witnessed you unlawfully passing, and put in a general call to pull you over. That means I’m supposed to give you a ticket from him for the offense. So, I’m gonna need to see your license, registration and insurance card, please.”
“Are you kidding me? This is extortion! There’s no way I did what he said. And if it’s true, then why didn’t your buddy pull me over?” I insisted.
“Look, I understand your frustration, and I don’t think this is the best way of doing things either.” Painter shrugged, “Personally, I hate doing someone’s dirty work, but I’m just the messenger. This is gonna take a little time, so you’re welcome to continue taking pictures if you want.”
After twenty minutes, the elk returned to the forest, and the crowds diminished. Painter returned to the truck, with my citation. “First of all,” he started, “I want to thank you for not being a jerk.”
“Not my nature,” I declared.
“Good,” Painter responded, “because I didn’t cite you for careless driving like the other ranger advised, which would have been a $200 offense. Instead, I wrote you up for unsafe passing, which only carries a $60 fine… and a $30 processing fee.
“What? A $30 processing fee on top of the ticket. You guys give new meaning to highway robbery,” I alleged.
“What can I say? Everything’s going up,” Painter posited. “Just sign at the bottom,” he instructed, offering the violation notice. “I’m also giving you this flyer, ’cause if you think this is unfair, then call the number and maybe you’ll get the ticket dismissed if you fight it.
“You bet I will,” I pronounced.
“Drive safely,” Painter forewarned, “and you’re in no danger of being caught in an earthquake.”
We finished the ride home to our Airstream in West Yellowstone without words or further incident after completing the Upper Loop in 10 exhausting hours.
The next day, we planned to follow the Lower Loop around, but we were grounded the moment we passed through the West Entrance. Our intention was to leave for the park on the earlier side of 9:00 am, but arranging future reservations in Canada’s national parks had proved more elusive and time-consuming. Consequently, traffic into the park was such a snarl by 10:30 am that cyclists with loaded side bags were making better time. After three hours, we managed to travel thirty ebb-and-flow miles. We were so far behind the tie-up that we could never figure why things were moving so slowly, although we surmised that it was animal-related.
We ate our lunch at Fountain Paint Pot, and walked the boardwalk through a desolate field of fumaroles, geysers, and hot springs, glad to finally stretch our legs. I chose to photograph the landscape as “abstract in nature”, sometimes compressing depth with a longer focal length…
…or extending time by shooting at high speeds…
…before moving onto Black Sand Basin to capture and accentuate true color through a polarizing filter.
Leah and I agreed that it made little sense to continue the loop. It was already 4:30 pm. We called it quits before reaching Old Faithful, knowing full well that we would be driving into the eye of traffic turmoil, and realizing that the ride back to West Yellowstone could be unpredictable.
We originally planned to explore the park in five days, by pacing ourselves through the highlights, but allowing for a deeper connection by hiking some of the 1000 miles of available trails. But the Yellowstone crowds squashed our enthusiasm, and wore us out. Leah vowed that we would not return to the park in the foreseeable future, even through two more days were scheduled.
Part 3 reveals how we spent the remainder of our time.
I know I’ve complained about crowd size at National Parks before, but now that summer is upon us, and we’ve arrived at Yellowstone, it seems as if this park is bursting at the seams. Today, we abandoned our plans to visit the Upper and Lower Falls of Yellowstone’s Grand Canyon because of traffic, and we’re not returning tomorrow.
We started out four days ago, driving to Yellowstone after an overnight stay at Colter Bay in Grand Teton National Park. Unfortunately, the campground was at capacity, without any opportunity of staying an extra night… and we would have stayed had there been a cancellation, despite the broken water valve at our site. (Leah negotiated a $5 discount for the inconvenience.)
It meant there was little time to explore, given our late arrival after driving five hours from an overnight at Rawlins, WY, a whirlwind dust-bowl of a town that features the Wyoming Frontier Prison, a retired state penitentiary-turned-museum as its biggest distraction. Sorry, but we had little interest in “doing time” at a prison.
With limited daylight at Grand Teton, a hike around a portion of Jackson Lake was all we could muster.
The transition between Grand Teton and Yellowstone is seamless, with the South Entrance serving as the gateway to both parks along the John D. Rockefeller Memorial Parkway.
Although we were towing the Airstream through the park to our West Yellowstone campsite, we elected to stop at Old Faithful to stretch our legs with a few thousand others.
But it was worth it!
After an abbreviated walk along the Upper Geyser Basin with half the population of China, we decided to call it a day. The setting and throngs of tourists left us uneasy to a “fault”.
Arriving at Wagon Wheel RV Campground, an open over-crowded sand pit in West Yellowstone presented its own set of problems. Our designated reserved site had been cut in half. What was once a long splinter of space that would barely accommodate a pull-through trailer with tow vehicle, had now become two sites. Our front-side neighbor pulled through yesterday, leaving me the compromised backside of the plot to back into from the street.
It was like threading the Airstream through a narrow tube, backwards.
Leah was furious. With no other available space anywhere in the park’s vicinity, we accepted our fate, but not until Leah wrangled a $20 discount for each of our five nights.
The next day, we completed the 70-mile Upper Loop. Our objective was to take the counterclockwise route to avoid early road construction delays between Norris and Mammoth Hot Springs. To complete the loop, we would need to leave Mammoth by 6:30 pm before the construction crew shut down the road. It took us ten hours to make the circle, but gave us many unexpected thrills.
We followed the road past Gibbon Falls,
to the Norris Geyser Basin,
where an Oregon idiot dissolved to death last year by slipping into a boiling spring. Apparently, he and his sister carelessly wandered 225 yards of the boardwalk trail near Porkchop Geyser. The Norris region is home to the oldest and hottest geothermal activity in the park.
There were no remains to recover.
Our leisurely drive continued uninterrupted, winding through numerous mountain passes and rolling meadows until traffic slowed to a standstill near a swarm of pedestrians who blocked the road with their vehicles parked and running. Parents with children were dashing across the road, weaving through an impromptu parking lot and up a knoll overlooking a valley. I managed to park the truck 50 yards away at a turn-in, and ran with my camera.
We arrived at Mammoth Hot Springs by 6 pm as the bright sun was casting tall shadows against the terrace wall.
Time at the top of the park was limited. Our newest concern was getting back to West Yellowstone before the road closed. Most of the way back was a work zone, with alternating one-lane traffic slogging through packed dirt until we reached the Norris junction.
With so much attention being paid to the over-crowded conditions at National Parks this year, Leah and I were optimistic that Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) would allow us some breathing room—despite a doomsday article recently published by Denver Post that boasted a 21% increase in visitor attendance at RMNP over the same month last year (Denver Post). According to the NPS, more than 1 million people will make RMNP their vacation destination in the next six weeks and that does not bode well for the visitor who comes to enjoy the park.
Apparently, when Trump announced a federal hiring freeze one week after taking office, the park was unable to move forward with seasonal hires, leaving the Park Service unprepared to staff its most popular and profitable parks. Additionally, there was no budget allowance for background checks and bonding of future employees, which has translated into longer lines at Park Service admissions, and fewer transactions at Park Service Conservancy Nature Stores. Penny-wise, pound-foolish economics!
We arrived in line at 1pm on Monday. After half-an-hour, we crossed the threshold into RMNP. Signs were posted along the way announcing full occupancy at all campgrounds. I felt fortunate snagging a camp-site for three nights at Glacier Basin—a no-services facility—through the NPS reservations web-site over six months ago.
I produced my Senior Pass credentials to the ranger at the gatehouse, and received an obligatory park map, but not a newspaper, because the official newspaper of RMNP had run out before noon. The newspapers are a vital resource to the park’s success, given the hands-on information that visitors rely on when planning their stay, notwithstanding: safety protocols, hiking trails, shuttle bus schedules, ranger-led programs, road and trail conditions, and visitor center(s) hours of operation.
After unhitching the trailer, Leah and I elected to tour the north side of the park, following the Trail Ridge Road to the Alpine Visitor Center,
and past the highest point of any NPS road (12183 ft.).
Several look-outs along the way provided ample opportunities to be blown about by sustained winds of 50 mph, admire wide-open views of nearby mountain ranges in the blistering cold, and escape from the occasional driver who negotiates a hairpin turn while pointing a camera outside his window.
With such a high number of drivers who suffer from altitude stupidity, it’s a wonder there aren’t more accidents like the one we came across that closed the road for an hour until a tow-truck arrived to cart away the collision. It’s also a special breed of driver who comes to the park and thinks it okay to stop in the middle of the road to observe a crowd watching something off the side of the road.
Sadly, it’s probably the same driver who lollygags at 18 mph, when all the vehicles trailing behind are aching to achieve the 35 mph speed limit. It’s as if people have come to the park to practice their driving, turning the roads into a fright of passage.
While it was difficult to completely avoid the road toads, Leah and I managed to steer clear of much the traffic tie-ups by exploring more remote regions of the park during our three-day visit. One 7-mile hike on the edge of Grand Lake took us to the top of Cascade Falls,
where so much run-off from late snow had produced a torrent of moving water.
Drainage from the Ptargiman Mountain was becoming an issue, so a crew was dispatched to redirect the spill over from the falls.
The next day, a 5-mile hike off the Moraine Park spur led us to Cub Lake in the shadow of Steep Mountain.
Considered an easy hike by the trail guide, Leah was unconvinced by the steep rocky incline to the gorge—narrow and muddy, and shared by horses—which led to lots of side-stepping.
Not to be deterred, Leah would lobby for a label that was more suitable. After following the half-mile loop around Bear Lake, one of the park’s most popular subalpine locales–distinguished by its late thaw,
and smooth-as-glass lake surface–
Leah stopped to ask a ranger’s opinion of the Cub Lake Trail. To Leah’s delight, the ranger agreed that the hike should be upgraded from easy to moderate, but only because of its duration.
The thin air and jaw-dropping views of mountain peaks, canyons, snowfields, lakes, meadows, falls and forests left us breathless. But we came for the animals as well. We waited patiently for nearly an hour at Sheep Lake with the hope that the park’s bighorn sheep and their lambs might descend from the mountain to graze and lick mud in the meadow below. The timing was right—no coyotes were spotted at the pond—but the sheep had other ideas, and stayed where they were.
But there was no shortage of chipmunks, squirrels and marmots.
RMNP is a delicate ecosystem that has been managed since 1915. With so many visitors eager to pilgrimage to the park, the importance of preservation and land stewardship along with proper funding will drive the next one hundred years, provided Sunday drivers stay off the roads.
Two weddings were scheduled today, and we weren’t invited to either one of them. To be fair, we didn’t know the brides and grooms or their families, but for now, to view the main sanctuary of the cadet chapel of the United States Air Force Academy, we would need invitations to their weddings.
All we could do was watch the guests file past us to witness a marriage between academy graduates,
while the rest of us–visitors and tax payers alike–stood outside, trying to imagine a ceremony staged under the soaring lines of this ethereal cathedral.
Time and again, the misinformed and uninvited would climb the stairs to the cathedral entrance, only to be turned away by Ret. Captain Richard Mosbach, class of 1964. “But we came all the way from New Jersey to see this chapel,” Leah implored. “I guess today wasn’t the best day to visit.”
Capt. Mosbach tried redirecting. “Probably not. I was surprised about the day’s schedule when I arrived. I was expecting one wedding today, but not two. So for that reason, the Protestant chapel is closed to the public. However, there are other beautiful chapels on the lower level that are available for viewing.”
It was disappointing. While the chapel’s presence is so dominant and dramatic across the campus landscape, it’s really the interior that sets it apart from being a vertical stack of seventeen tapered arrowheads… pointing to the heavens.
Reluctantly, we followed signs to the ancillary chapels beneath the looming aluminum panels. Ground level is home to a Catholic chapel, a synagogue, and a recently dedicated Buddhist temple. Additionally, a Muslim reading room occupies the chapel basement. Square footage has been appropriated according to academy demographics: 400 Catholic parishioners, 100 observant Jews, and 25 chanting Buddhists.
We happened upon an impromptu lecture/sermon delivered by the Academy’s Jewish chaplain emeritus, and foremost authority on the nine priceless Shlomo Katz paintings of biblical depictions that line the temple’s circular hall.
All of it was special, but still, it was the Protestant Chapel we came to see. Leah and I ventured around the perimeter of this revered and Historic Landmark,
and surprised Beth and Ivy–two of the bride’s cousins hanging out by the handicap access–sharing a cigarette and some giggles.
“Don’t worry. You’re secret’s safe with me,” I reassured. “All I ask in return are invitations for us, so we can see the inside.”
Leah continued, “We came all the way from New Jersey to see the chapel, and I guess today wasn’t the best day.”
Beth commiserated, “That’s a bummer.”
“Do you want me to take a picture for you?” offered Ivy.
I’d never met this girl before, and I couldn’t tell you if she was a reliable and responsible person, but on the spur of the moment, I shed my Lumix from around my neck, and handed it to Ivy without hesitation. I preset the camera to auto-focus and auto-exposure, and showed her very basic operation functions, before sending her off to document the chapel interior.
That’s when Capt. Musbach approached us for the second time. “I see you’re still here, and you’ve made a connection with the wedding party. Follow me!” he ordered.
He took the inside stairway to the back entrance behind the altar, and led us out to the edge of the chapel’s first arch. Beth and Ivy met us behind the wall to return my camera.
“I think I got some really cool shots for you. Do you wanna see?” she gushed.
“That’s okay. I’m certain whatever you shot has to be better than anything I was unable to shoot,” I confessed. “Thank you so much,” I intoned while replacing the camera around my neck, “And your secret’s safe with me.”
We stood in awe, bowed by the beauty of the chapel’s simplicity within the context of it’s complex geometry. We chatted with Capt. Mosbach for twenty minutes under the cool glow of sky-lit stained glass. As one of five volunteer docents who “works” every Tuesday and Saturday, he fed us factoid after factoid about the cadet chapel, making it abundantly apparent about this allegiance to the Academy, his fondness of the campus, and his affinity for sharing personal and academy history with strangers like Leah and me.
Just asking a simple question about the pipe organ housed in the choir lift at the top of the nave begets a five minute discourse about the 83 ranks and 67 stops, controlling 4,334 pipes.
However, more than 200 pipes don’t work due to continuing water damage caused by stained glass tiles that have leaked since the dedication in 1963.
Just as Capt. Mosbach was expounding on the the controversy surrounding Walter Netsch’s modernist design–when first unveiled by Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill in 1958–a couple of tourists arrived at our location with the intention of looking around.
Capt. Mosbach immediately switched over to door security protocol, and stated emphatically, “This area is closed to all public traffic while a wedding is in progress. So you’re going to have to leave, please.” Then he returned to his story, never missing a beat.
After fifty-five years of hosting weddings and ceremonies, the cadet chapel is to be shuttered at the end of 2018 for a complete interior overhaul. However, the chapel’s exterior will continue to remind us that man-made monuments are no less inspiring than the mountains that surround us, and can be a great catalyst for kindness.
Our thanks to Beth and her cousin Ivy who provided the photography below, and to Ret. Capt. Robert Mosbach who brought the pictures to life.
We arrive at the Garden of the Gods Visitor Center on the edge of Colorado Springs, not quite knowing what to expect other than what we’ve read. Yes, it’s crowded, and it’s hotter than usual–that’s also to be expected. But the park is free and open to the public, which probably helps explain why it’s so crowded.
Garden of the Gods is a 2 million-year-old geologic wonder of sandstone fins, fans and finials balancing in the presence of Pikes Peak, as if performing for an audience of one mountain’s pleasure. It is an impressive act, and beloved by the Colorado Springs stakeholders. But…having just arrived from Utah’s National Parks, and having seen miles upon miles of looming red rocks, it all seemed a bit underwhelming to me. We took a short trail to view the Siamese Twins with a keyhole view of Pikes Peak, but other than that, the hills left us flat.
The twisting road through the many park features and attractions carried us out to Manitou Springs, the gateway to Pikes Peak, and a pop culture village filled with hipsters, curiosity seekers, and wannabees.
Our drive to the top of town took us through droves of tourists filtering through the galleries, boutiques and juice bars. Leah and I found it hard to resist ice cream at Patsy’s, a local landmark on the edge of Amusement Arcade row.
We followed the rotary around, and u-turned out of town to tend to an errand, but we would return to catch the 5:20 pm cog railway to the top of Pikes Peak.
The parking lot was overflowing, as was the overflow lot, but I managed to shoehorn the F-150 into a compact car space as per the instructions of the gun-toting parking attendant. It’s as if I was required to undergo a motor vehicle coordination exam to determine my customer-worthiness. If I can park a big truck in a small space in a crowded lot, then I get to buy weed.
We were warmly welcomed at the service counter by effusive Eddie. “How’s it goin’ today? Are you guys first timers?,” he asked, taking our IDs.
“We’re visiting from New Jersey,” answered Leah.
“Welcome to Maggie’s Farm,” he gushed. “We’re here to take good care of you.”
“Is it always crowded like this?,” I wanted to know.
“It’s the weekend, and it’s summer, and the tourists are coming,” he responded. “This won’t take long,” referring to our driver’s licenses. “I just need to record these, and you’ll be on your way.” While typing, “By the way, we only accept cash. There’s an ATM by the wall if you need it. Okay?”
When he was finished, he handed back our IDs with a paper stub–the same kind of numbered ticket you’d pull at the deli counter in the supermarket. “Hold onto your number, and move to the next room past the door. Then take a seat, and wait for your number to be called,” Eddie advised. “And have a high time.” were his parting words.
We were number 57. We sat on a foam bench waiting our turn with six other people sitting on both sides of us, all of them different. I noticed three generations of women from the same family, a millennial on his phone, a middle-aged man who had to be a tourist since he was wearing a Tilley hat, and a tattooed Vet who seemed to still be fighting in the war.
A perky forty-something with a fire-red pixie haircut, pushed open the “employees only” door to announce, “Our budtenders are very busy, and the checkout line is backed up, so please be patient.” Then she disappeared, back behind the door. All we could do was stare at the wall four feet in front of us. There was a closed door marked “ROOM 1” and a closed door marked “ROOM 2” separated by a LED-TV monitor broadcasting the marijuana menu–breaking it down by strain, THC content, and price per weight. One could choose between flowers, concentrates, edibles, or patches. At the bottom of the screen was a tax disclaimer, breaking down the percentages taken by city (9.03%, and 6%), and state (10%). I couldn’t believe I was surrendering 25% of my purchase power to the government.
A tap on the glass by a bearded face peeking over the wall above “ROOM 1” beckoned us into the inner sanctum. “Me?” I mimed. He nodded and we stood ready to accept his religion.
The other side of the wall revealed an emporium of earthly delights displayed the way a candy shop would showcase their variety of fudges. “Buddy” asked for our IDs and scanned them with a UV pen. Looking up, he grinned and proclaimed, “Congratulations! They’re real.” Handing back our IDs, “So what would you like to do–smoke, eat, or vape?”
Leah and I glanced at each other, but I decided that smoke was the way to go.
Buddy popped open several containers of THC-laden buds of different shades of harvest green, and aromas ranging from musky to fruity to diesel fuel. Dropping our noses into the jars for a full-blown whiff gave us enough of a heady bouquet to prepare us for an anticipated revelation.
“These buds are huge and seedless,” I exclaimed, reaching in and extracting a jaw-breaker sized nugget of Triple Diesel Sativa hybrid.
“Uh, that’s a no-no,” Buddy cautioned. “No touching. Here, use these,” he suggested, handing me mini tongs to more closely inspect the wares.
“You’re looking at about 2 grams there,” Buddy advised.
“Looks good to me. I’ll take it,” I asserted.
“Sorry, you can’t buy this,” Buddy interjected. “These samples are just for display, but I’m entering your order now…[a few key strokes by Buddy at the computer], and it’s ready at check-out where those customers are standing. Thank’s folks, and have a high time.”
We joined the lengthy line where customers from both rooms converged against the far wall. Buddy was already engaged with the next customer ushered inside the room. “So what would you like to do–smoke, eat, or vape?,” I heard him ask.
The line reduced quickly. Finally, one of three cashiers motioned for us to approach the counter. “Got your number?” Money Man asked.
I fumbled around inside my pockets, but came up empty. “I must’ve left it on the other counter,” I apologized. “But it’s ’57’ if that helps.”
Money Man called out “57” to the pharmacist behind the wall, and soon returned with a plastic vial, offering it for inspection. Uncapped, it smelled as pungent as before. The transaction was finalized. I handed him cash, and he inserted a “Consumer’s Guide to Responsible Recreational Marijuana Use” in my paper sack before stapling it shut.
“Remember to wait until you’ve left the lot before lighting up, and have a high time,” he exclaimed.
The ride back to town had thinned, as most of the visitors had withered and wilted under the heat. But Leah and I were prepared with sweatshirts for our cog-way assault on Pikes Peak, the second most visited mountain in the world behind Mt. Fuji.
The rail cars were packed except for two seats directly facing us, giving us flexibility to change our inclined perspective between looking up the mountain or looking down.
The pull to the top was slow and steady at a 25% grade. The rail car cut through a trail of boulders and evergreens, climbing up the mountainside, eventually reaching Inspiration Point…
a sight so inspiring, that Katharine Lee Beats was compelled to pen “America the Beautiful” after seeing it for the first time.
Once we cleared the tree-line, the vistas opened on all sides, providing views of distant peaks,
and the valley beneath us.
It also exposed us to an uncommon drop in temperature, with shades of winter resting on the rocks,
and gusting gales blowing across the barrenness,
causing marmots to wonder what happened to Spring.
At 14,115 feet, Pikes Peak ranks as Colorado’s 30th among 53 fourteeners, but it remains more famous than all the other fourteeners put together, thanks to breath-taking panoramas on the summit,
and a cog railway that’s been bringing millions of visitors to the mountaintop since 1891.
Although the views are enough to distance you from the rest of the world, the cold is enough to bring you closer together.
Dedicated to Leah, who thinks I never post enough pictures of her. I hope this makes up for it. Love you.
BTW, this marks my 50th post and my first fourteener.
After spending eleven days exploring “The Mighty 5”, I believe I’ve inhaled enough red dust to qualify for the first NASA Mars mission. Utah’s red dust had infiltrated everything, leaving a veiled matte finish on every surface: inside the Airstream, inside the truck, inside our undies, and inside our lungs. Leah and I were more than ready to move on to Colorado’s cool, crisp mountain air. Or so we thought…
We also thought we were leaving the heat behind, but unseasonable high temperatures followed us across state lines, where records have been set. All we’ve heard thus far, is “It’s not supposed to be this hot until July and August.” And at the other extreme, ski resorts in Utah and Colorado have experienced a late spring ski surge, with the Rockies holding onto three feet of snow that fell three weeks ago, resulting in officials closing the east side of Rocky Mountain National Park, and posting avalanche warnings throughout the high country. If only the climatologists responsible for this hoax would go back to being less fake, then the rest of us would know how to prepare for normal weather.
Nevertheless, our first stop in Colorado has been encouraging, thus far. During our stay, the temperature at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park reached eight degrees over average for this time of year, which translated into a comfortable 90°F for us, down from customary triple-digit readings we endured while in Utah. It meant we could sleep with open windows at night, although it left us vulnerable to drifting cigarette smoke, and prone to a crying baby, a chatty family, a barking dog, and an occasional late-night motorcycle arrival.
Our visit to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park afforded us two different perspectives: from atop the rim…
and the water’s edge.
The scenic road above follows a serpentine road with several stunning overlooks that highlight dramatic changes in the cliff face,
as the roar of the Gunnison River echoes against the sheer walls of gneiss and schist.
The river’s pivotal role in carving out 2 million years of metamorphic rock has resulted in canyon walls that plunge 2700 vertigo-inducing feet at Warner Point into wild water that has been rated between Class V and unnavigable.
The view at Dragon Point showcases brilliant stripes of pink and white quartz extruded into the rock face, personifying two dragons who have symbolically fused color into a somber Precambrian edifice.
The view from the bottom up accentuates the towering spires laced with lush and vivid flora.and focuses on an untamed water system that’s required three dams to slow the erosion of the canyon floor.
According to Park Service statistics, left unchecked, the Gunnison River at flood stage would charge through the gorge at 12,000 cubic feet per second with 2.75 million-horse power force. Dams now provide hydroelectric energy, and have created local recreation facilities for water sports, including Blue Mesa Reservoir, Colorado’s largest body of water.
Black Canyon can be seen in one day, but a drive to the Curecanti National Recreation Area, 50 miles away, can easily turn into a two-day love affair with solitude and wilderness.
I already know what you’re thinking, so let’s address the white elephant in the blog room. Yes, the title is definitely suggestive and maybe controversial, and some would presume the blog post content is bound to be risque or even perverse. Some of you may also think that by titling a blog post with a gratuitous sexual innuendo, I am pandering to readers, trying to lure them to my blog site, feeding their “let’s-just-see-what-he’s-up-to” curiosity.
And I’m okay with that. But what if I told you that the blog caption is really about Arches and Canyonlands National Parks? Because everywhere you look across the landscape, it’s either a yoni or a phallus of varying shapes and sizes–sometimes alone, and sometime together. Need proof? Arches first…
I can think of two factors that put both parks in perspective.
First of all, both parks are almost next door to each other, separated by US-191 and thirty minutes apart. Imagine two National Parks being that close to each other without touching–making it possible to visit both parks in one day, but highly unlikely that anyone would have the stamina. It’s such a tease. It’s as if there’s a tantric energy between the parks.
Secondly, let’s take a look at the actual names given to each of the park’s attractions. Canyonlands is considered a backcountry mecca for campsites–some of which are called: White Crack, Potato Bottom, Candlestick, and Gooseberry (a cult aphrodisiac). Similarly, Arches has provocative names for its formations. For example, there’s The Organ, Garden of Eden, Fiery Furnace, and Double O Arch, just to name a few.
It’s not my imagination that almost everywhere around the parks, the sexual iconography is omnipresent. And then labeling the sites with sexual references is equally disturbing. So calling this post “Holes and Dicks”–while seemingly derivative of two national parks–is highly accurate, given the evidence.
However, beyond the Hieronymus Bosch backdrop, a landscape exists that can only qualify as other-worldly.
and from Arches…
However, returning to “Holes and Dicks”, another interpretation exists which is equally as worthy of consideration, and perhaps more significant.
While photographing the Turret Arch,
I noticed unusual activity at the vortex and eye of the edifice.
A small group had willfully climbed the structure despite explicit warnings, but my eye was on the “dick” in the red shirt, who had climbed inside the “hole”.
He seemed to be focused on the wall of the hole, but it wasn’t entirely clear to me until I zoomed in as far as my lens would allow…
and realized that this shmuck was defacing the arch. I was livid that this putz would disrespect a 350 million-year-old shrine by carving his name into the sandstone. I felt like I was caught in the middle of a “What Would You Do?” moment. I scanned where I stood to see if anybody else had noticed, but John Quinones was nowhere in sight, and I had the only window to this dick’s desecration.
I showed Leah the photos after returning to the F-150. “Are you fucking kidding me?” she exclaimed. “You need to show these to the park ranger!”
She left the truck, and wrangled the ranger assigned to traffic control to the driver side of the truck to view the incriminating evidence. Despite the glaring sun, he saw enough of what he needed to see to dispatch a call to park law enforcement on his radio He pleaded for us to stay, while apologizing that our vacation might be inconvenienced by waiting for the officer in charge.
Ten minutes later, Officer Busbee arrived, reviewed the photographs, and determined that they were essential to prosecuting the individual. I volunteered to email the files when able, and we were on our way back to the Airstream.
Downloading took longer than expected given such a weak signal (see Indebted to the Internet), but eventually the email was sent:
Dear Officer Busbee,
I hope these pictures are of service to you.
I’m a firm believer of protecting the legacy of National Parks for future generations,
and take offense when others spoil or jeopardize their preservation.
I trust you will keep me in the loop regarding the status and disposition.
All I could do was await a response, which arrived the following day:
Hello, Mr Lubetsky,
Thank you for the photographs.
Unfortunately, we were unable to make contact with the violators.
I appreciate your concern for the Parks. They are indeed very special places that are preserved for all to enjoy, now and in the future.
Thank you again.
While it was disappointing that the vandal got away, I felt vindicated in my effort to stop him from diminishing the importance of what the Park Service represents.
I trust my story justifies the title, but still, you’d have to admit that the scenery is provocative, and it is a worthy backdoor strategy to introducing other readers to my blog.
in a geologic blender, then stir in one cup of Fremont River water,
top with orchard fruit,sprinkle in some petroglyphs,
and season with Mormon history,you would have a delicious National Park named Capitol Reef that few would ever taste. And that would be the greatest crime, because this is a four-course park that satisfies all the senses, and requires at least four days to consume all it has to offer.
And yet Capitol Reef stands out as a National Park that’s most in need of a publicist or a brand manager. For a park that has so much to offer, it defies logic that little more than 1 million visited last year. Maybe it’s the name. It’s connotation to Washington–as unpopular as politics are today–might have an impact. Or perhaps the mention of “Reef” confuses visitors who may mistakenly associate a park bordering on Utah’s shoreline. Either way, it’s time to re-imagine a name that befits this jewel.
A big regret when planning our itinerary through Utah was naively categorizing this park as “order-to-go” fare, when it clearly requires a more leisurely approach to appreciate all its hearty features and delicate nuances.
Our two days at Capitol Reef were full and varied. We hiked; we drove; we participated in ranger-led discussions; and we off-roaded. We also got caught in a flash flood just minutes after taking the scenic drive–with all the wash basins turning red from torrential run-off, stranding dozens of cars in the canyon until the rain ran its course.But we would not be detained. The truck’s high clearance and V-8 muscle was more than enough to plow through two feet of fast water, cutting a red swath through the wash, and a sending a bloody spray across my windshield and windows. The benefit of beating the waterfall gave us the road ahead to ourselves, as all the other cars were left behind in our wake.
Conveniently, the rain passed the moment we approached the Capitol Gorge Road,and coincidentally coincided with a Sirius-XM radio broadcast of Trump announcing the American withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord. It’s hard to relay the irony of negotiating the winding narrow passage between the canyon walls while listening to Trump rationalize his decision under the guise of job losses in front of a partisan Rose Garden rally. With every fractured sentence and every tired hyperbole, the crowd would erupt with enthusiastic applause, acknowledged by Trump’s demure, “Thank you, thank you.”
It seemed sacrilegious, listening to Trump’s politicized and pacified diatribe while zigzagging through the gorge and admiring nature’s wonders. Although the satellite signal would occasionally drift with the drive–interrupting the incongruity of his half-hour address–I was certain that Trump would never be discussing the benefits of tackling climate change, or consider the potential of adding green jobs that promote renewable energy.
The end of the Capitol Gorge Road fed into the Capitol Gorge Trail. Leaving the F-150 behind, we followed the gorge on foot,
tracing many generations of footsteps before us.These people left us a great treasure (discounting the grafitti–more on that later) to inspire us, but also assigned us a great responsibility to preserve and protect it so that future generations may also be inspired. Our legacy as moral and ethical humans relies on it. And our future as a planet depends on it.
And that’s when it dawned on me. Take Trumps’ tired mantra, and re-purpose it!
I hereby propose that Capitol Reef now be called “Tremendous National Park”!
What do you think?
* All photos posted are from Capitol Reef National Park. Any similarity to other National Parks is purely intentional.
What a difference a day makes. Leaving Zion behind for Bryce Canyon gave us cooler temperatures, cooler tempers, and cooler views–now that we left the maddening crowd behind and were no longer limited by what we could see (Keeping an Eye on Zion).
After driving two hours through riveting scenery along 89 North, we arrived at a KOA in Cannonville bordering on the edge of nowhere, approximately 20 minutes past the National Park. We dropped the trailer and headed back to the park to get our nature fix. We followed the 18 miles of park road to its conclusion, and walked the Bristlecone Loop Trail, a thousand year-old alpine forest where the remains of a 1600-year-old bristlecone stands watch at the edge of Yovimpa Point,…offering panoramic views of the Colorado Plateau going as far back as the Grand Canyon’s North Rim. Clear days at Bryce can offer the longest views anywhere on the planet–beyond 100 miles away, thanks to the amazing clean air quality.
But it was the Rainbow Point lookout around the other side of the ridge that put smiles on our faces and brought the color back to our slack-jawed cheeks, giving us an early preview for the next day’s hike.
It was our first look at Bryce Canyon’s hoodoos–the world’s largest collection of stone chessmen formed by ice and water erosion–and they were magical.
Working our way back, we stopped at one of many scenic overlooks hugging the road side. Looking over a log rail, seemingly within arm’s reach was a formation called the Natural Bridge, an 85 foot span that is really a natural arch. So why it’s called one thing when it’s really another makes it just a bit confusing. Is it a bridge that’s an arch, or an arch that’s a bridge? Ask a ranger and you’ll get two different answers. Okay?
After pull-overs at Sunset Point and Sunrise Point, we were certain that the next day’s hike should take us deeper into the Amphitheater for a more intimate and detailed experience.
Passing through Tropic, Utah on the way to KOA, we detoured for groceries and a visit to TruValue Hardware to possibly resolve a nagging situation since we left New Jersey: how to adapt a quick connect hose between our Weber Q 2200 LP grill and the Airstream’s LP service port. While it may appear mundane to the average urbanite, the ability to bypass the LP tank, and connect directly to the trailer makes it a no-brainer and a classic time-saver for RV set-ups.
Thus far, at every newly arrived location, I’m constantly reminded of the additional time required to set up the grill, when I know my time could be better served by drinking a cold beer or replying to reader comments from a blog post.
Whether the weathered attendant behind the check-out counter could help me remained to be seen. I clearly demonstrated to him how the hose to the Airstream port and the fitting coming out from the grill needed a compression union to make the desired connection, and what I got instead was a lecture.
He led me to a wall of grill accessories and told me that what I was looking for was impossible to find, and I was better off buying his $65 kit to connect my grill directly to my tank.
“But I already have that,” I objected. “That’s how I do it now. I’m looking to circumvent the tanks and draw LP directly from the trailer through the quick connection. This part of the hose (I wagged it closer for him to see) feeds directly into the trailer,” I implored.
“So I got fittings around the next aisle over,” admitted Mr. Malcontent, “but I’m not gonna show ’em to ya, and I’m not gonna sell ’em to ya neither.”
“Why not,” I wondered.
“Well, I’m gonna tell ya,” he started, “and you’re probably not gonna like the answer, but those damn Democrats, especially Obama made it impossible for you to do what ya wanna do.”
He paused, waiting for a reaction–maybe to take my political temperature, but I let out a little more rope. “I don’t follow you,” I reasoned.
“Well, Obama spent eight years in office loading down OSHA with more and more rules and regulations, that you practically need a doctor’s note just to take a shit,” he claimed. “Maybe, you come back when there’s not so many rules.”
Leah arrived in the middle of our transaction holding groceries, and heard part of the exchange. “Let’s go! We gotta get back to refrigerate the milk.”
I left the hardware store in disbelief; it was like a Twilight Zone moment. “How does he stay in business?”
“He doesn’t need your money. Remember, this is Trump country,” she asserted.
All of yesterday was forgotten, when the next day we dropped into the Amphitheater from Sunset Point,through the Navajo Loop Trail following the steep switchbacks…
to Wall Street, where enormous Douglas firs have balanced in the rift for over 750 years, like sacred totems,and views of Thor’s Hammer are something to “marvel”.
another series of switchbacks dropped us to the Amphitheater floor. Rather than continue the loop, we opted to cross into Queens Garden, for cake and a spot of iced tea.
Along the way, we met the Queen’s subjects…
standing along side the Queen’s castle…
as Queen Victoria looked on high.
It was a “monumental” hike out of the canyon that left us tired, but enthused by the energy surrounding us. Perhaps it was hoodoo voodoo?
But one thing that we both agreed on… we were ravenous after spending time in this imaginary Fairyland world.
But dining out in Cannonville, UT can be a bigger challenge than hiking the Bryce Canyon rim trail. With only two food vendors in a town with a population of 168, we chose i.d.k. BBQ, a food truck with limited acclaim from social media. I don’t know how they got their name, but it was the only game in town, so we thought we’d take a chance.
Originally, Leah was skeptical. “BBQ in Utah?” she doubted. “From a food truck, in the middle of nowhere?… Really!!? Remember, there’s only one toilet in the trailer.”
“Why not?” I countered. “How bad can it be? In a town this size, there must be someone who could cook.
But first we had to find this truck. After cleaning up from a day drenched in fairy dust, we were ready for a night on the town. Boarding the F-150, we literally turned the corner into “town”, and rode four blocks on Kodachrome Drive until we knew it was time to turn around. How could we have missed it?
We turned around to cover our tracks, looking hither and yon for any semblance of a food truck, until we came back to the same turn that carried us into town. Nothing… except the Sinclair station that reminded us that filling up was a good idea before we hit the road tomorrow.
“So what are we gonna do about dinner?” Leah asked.
I shrugged. Standing at the pump, I scanned the horizon, and spotted a flapping BBQ sign just pass the Sinclair stanchion. That’s when I spotted the truck tucked behind the corner motel.
We rounded the corner of the truck, only to meet proprietors Emily and Kevin Clark and their four-year-old daughter cleaning up for the day.
“Sorry, we’re outta food,” he lamented.
Maybe it was our fallen faces, or maybe a little hoodoo voodoo, but Emily was soon offering us Kayla’s dinner in a closed container.
“It’s a pulled pork potato,” she proposed.
“What’s that?” Leah wanted to know.
“You’ll like it,” was all she had to say.
“I feel bad about taking your daughter’s dinner,” I responded. “What’s she going to say?”
“Don’t you worry ’bout her,” countered Emily. “She’s been wantin’ pizza anyway.”
After exchanging $20 for a monster baked potato drizzled with cheddar cheese and smothered with a pound of pulled pork, with a side of cole slaw and two warm cups of peach cobbler topped with whipped cream, we drove back to the Airstream for one of the most delightful and serendipitous take-out meals since we pulled out of Jersey.