Long stretches of telephone totems tethered as far as the eye can see…
Free-ranging livestock sprinkled across the flatlands…
Barbed wire perimeters surrounded by pastureland and littered with cow pies…
From 1963 to 1993, one thousand Minuteman II missiles (ICBMs) capable of delivering a 1.2 megaton nuclear warhead to a Soviet target in 30 minutes were housed in underground silos like Delta-09 that stretched across the Great Plains,
with 150 launch sites dispersed throughout South Dakota, transforming the serenity of the prairie into a hibernating military zone.
The Minuteman Missile National Historic Site commemorates a period in America’s history when “Mutually Assured Destruction” (MAD) imperiled the world, and delves into the birth of the Cold War, the nuclear arms race, and development of ICBMs.
At the height of the Cold War between Soviet Union and United States there were more than enough nuclear missiles in both arsenals to destroy the planet 5 times over.
As I walked through a maze of interactive exhibits, childhood memories came flooding back.
While growing up in an era of “duck and cover” mindfulness, we were acutely aware of the danger outside our global window.
With the school claxon sounding in 3-clang intervals, my classmates and I responded by hunching under our desks in silence until the principal gave us the “all clear” over the PA. It was our way of showing the Commies that we were prepared and doing our part in the recurring struggle to keep ourselves safe from a political bogeyman.
Of course, as we got older (these drills lasted through middle school), we doubted that “duck and cover” would ever protect us from a nuclear firestorm or subsequent fall-out.
Because of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the realization that Pittsburgh’s steel mills were a likely military target, my father’s master plan in the event of a nuclear attack was to convert our basement closet filled with dusty canvas awnings and rusted paint cans. We painted the concrete blocks a putrid shade of green under the glare of a single dangling light bulb swinging from the ceiling, and filled the 6 x 6 closet with mattress slabs, jugs of water, and a box of batteries for our flashlights. I always wondered how our family of four (at the time) would survive inside this moldy space.
After touring the Visitor Center, we rode 15 minutes on I-90 West to a decommissioned missile silo roughly the size of a football field, and the feeling was ominous.
Locked beneath a sliding 9-ton hatch…
was a vertical rocket in-waiting. I pressed against the tinted, transparent armor and peered into a hole 185 feet deep for a first look and a photograph.
Despite being disarmed,
it was no less unsettling to consider that humanity holds the power of mass destruction, and the Badlands backdrop–75 million years in the making–could vanish in an instant.
There was a time 10 years ago, when Scenic, South Dakota was for sale–yes, all 10 acres of the town and 36 acres of the not-so-scenic, surrounding property.
It was originally offered up for $3M by Twila Merrill, local rodeo legend who earned a tough-as-nails reputation for never being thrown from a bucking bronc from 1956 to 1963, but with her health fading, it was time to sell.
She eventually sold the whole kit and caboodle to a Filipino church group for just shy of $800,000 in August, 2011.
Ten years later, Scenic looks unchanged. There is scant evidence that parishioners ofIglesia ni Cristo (Church of Christ) are welcome at this ghost town, although the pastel-colored Adirondack chairs on the porch suggest that a resurrection of activity is possible.
Back in the day, Scenic was a thriving hive of entertainment, with a full-scale rodeo arena, a racetrack, a manicured baseball diamond, a theatre and a dancehall.
Main Street was home to a General Store,
and a requisite saloon which was thoughtfully annexed to the town hoosegow.
It should be noted that Indians were allowed inside Longhorn Saloon, but only after Twila bought the joint and painted over “NO” on the marquis.
Meanwhile, the culture crowd would gather at Sam 2 Bulls.
Off the main drag, there’s an assortment of incongruous buildings: a couple of standing churches, a few warehouses and barns, a defunct gas station, and a post office behind a dedicated monument featuring a pterodactyl that defies logic or explanation.
Leah and I rolled through Scenic, on our way to an outpost of Badlands National Park known as Sheep Mountain Table, located in the Stronghold Unit within the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
At 3,300 ft. elevation, Sheep Mountain Table is the highest point in the park.
The good news is that we could drive to the top.
The 6.5 mile road was hard-packed and serviceable all the way to the top of the table, albeit a single lane and a handful of hairpins. Once we arrived, there wasn’t much to see on the surface except tall grass, road tracks and traces of spent and unexploded ordinance scattered throughout this one-time gunnery range used by the USAF and South Dakota National Guard. The wind was blowing furiously,
which kept us anchored a careful distance from the ledge overlooking the Cheyenne River Valley.
But there was much more to explore on the other side of the table, which we could reach by hiking 2 miles or driving the rutted terrain…
so I drove…pitching and rolling along…
until we arrived at an open plateau with dramatic vistas to the west…
and the White River Valley to the east.
These Badlands were once considered sacred to young Sioux braves who would trek to the tables for prayer and self-reflection as they approached manhood.
That’s when it occurred to me that Scenic, South Dakota was rightfully named, not because of the town’s location, but because of the Badlands omnipresence and its omnificent landscape. And that may also explain why the Filipinos invested in Scenic.
Pillars and spires, pinnacles and hoodoos, canyons and gorges, ridges and ravines, bands of colors and beds of fossils, mixed-grass prairies and resilient wildlife…the Badlands of South Dakota are a scenic recipe so fantastic that I sometimes wondered if my camera could adequately capture the range of strangeness that surrounded me.
But I was up for the challenge!
What follows is a visual diary of Badlands National Park…told in 3 parts.
The Yellow Mounds of Dillon Pass
From a distance, this mustard-colored landscape qualifies as the perfect location for a film shoot on an alien planet.
Leah and I were casually driving along the Badlands Loop Road near Dillon Pass,
when the Yellow Mounds popped into view…
and I knew that I had to explore this phenomena more thoroughly.
I climbed atop one of the mounds…
which overlooked a network of foot paths…
to the Pinnacles on one side of the hill,
and offered an outstanding overlook of the Conata Basin to the southwest…
And as I surveyed the scene below,
I realized that the scope of South Dakota’s Badlands defies framing.
The Badlands cannot be contained, and the sheer beauty and colors transcend any exposure.
This post originally celebrates the enormity of the General Sherman sequoia as I observed it 4 years ago. However, today it’s a reminder of the fragility of this ancient forest–currently facing a ravishing fire–where the largest living organisms on our planet are in peril. General Sherman has survived over 100 burns in its 2,200 years of existence, but the scale and intensity of today’s wildfires have become more commonplace, and threaten the world around us. I pray the fire can be contained and the forest survives, so future generations can appreciate nature’s miracle.
“Size matters!” has long been considered a hard fact among those who measure the enormity of things, and eagerly justify the value of their preponderance. Yet all things big begin from most things small, and that’s the long and short of it. While this may come as a relief to many who seem challenged by the limited extension of their personality, it comes as no surprise to sequoias that have sensed this for millions of years.
Giant sequoia trees are native to the western slopes of the Sierra Nevadas, where they grow exclusively in protected groves. Every tree starts from a firm cone no larger than a chicken’s egg–
–each one releasing thousands of seeds resembling oat flakes, hoping to take advantage of a litter-free forest floor made fertile by fire.
Flash forward 2400 years, and if the then-seedling hasn’t been logged…
Each and every time Leah and I applied online for an entry pass to Glacier NP we were too late, and we fretted that maybe we made the trip to Glacier for nothing.
Then I learned that if we make a reservation for an activity inside the park, that would guarantee our entry through the gate. So I booked a scenic rafting trip through the Middle Fork of the Flathead River with a third party vendor.
Problem solved…or so I thought.
It turns out our rafting outfitter operated in the village just outside the park gates, and our park entry was still in jeopardy. We could have canceled with sufficient notice, but we were still up for a float,
and decided to go with the flow…
through glacially carved flats,
and formidable canyons walls…
that were ideal for jumping into crystal-clear waters.
But there is another way in, and it’s not really a secret. Just get to the park anytime before the gate attendants arrive at 6AM, or visit the park anytime after the gate attendants leave for the day at 5PM.
We did both, and left tired each day…but satisfied!
There’s very little to say about Glacier National Park that hasn’t already been said. It’s acknowledged by many as one of the crown jewels of the National Park Service since its inception in 1910.
If there was a beauty pageant for National Parks, Glacier would win the crown, and wear it with authority:
There are more than enough peaks to pique a mountaineer’s interest;
plenty of waterfalls to satisfy a photographer’s wet dream,
and a fair share of elusive critters to make one’s heart beat fast.
Sadly, no bears wanted their portrait captured by me, despite ample park activity reported at the time of our stay.
While much of the park’s majesty is projected through its mountains, lakes, canyons and waterfalls, its easy to overlook the shimmering river rocks beneath our feet,
So much about North Cascades National Park reminds me that I’m at a very remote place in America. For starters, there’s limited phone service here which makes GPS plotting a nightmare, and probably explains the frequent mile markers that line North Cascades Highway (State Route 20). It’s the only road that winds its way through the park, and connects all the entities that encompass Stephen Mather Wilderness.
Of the 684,000 acres that Lyndon Johnson and Congress set aside in 1968, 94% of the land has been designated as wilderness. Of the remaining 6%, there is no formal camping and only a handful of designated trails, which may help to explain why the park hosts an average of 30,000 visitors per year compared to 2 million visitors per year at Mt. Rainier National Park.
By the time Leah and I reached the Pacific coast, we learned that the Cedar Creek Fire was burning out of control within the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest–threatening the eastern entrance to North Cascades NP, and compromising Winthrop’s air quality, nearby. To make matters worse, North Cascades Highway had been barricaded between mile marker 170 and 185, which meant that if we managed to visit the park–which was always part of our original itinerary–we had no way out.
SR-20 road closures are not breaking news to the people living east of the North Cascades. They’re used to it. In fact, every year from late fall to early spring, SR-20 is closed because of drifting snow across the road (measuring 12 feet) and the high risk of avalanches in areas of steep terrain. Anybody wishing to travel to Seattle must settle on traveling I-90 through the dreaded Snoqualmie Pass.
One week before our anticipated arrival, we phoned a park ranger to voice our concern about likely dangers, and help us determine if our plans were realistic. In return, she gave us a website address to track the daily conditions of the fire, and she reassured us that, “Every day in the park is unpredictable. It all depends on which way the wind blows.”
By the time we were scheduled to visit the park, the Cedar Creek Fire had merged with Cub Creek 2 Fire to become America’s largest forest fire with over 100,000 scorched acres and still burning wildly. Leah and I had an important decision to make: either we risk a visit, or we make alternate plans. There really wasn’t much debate. We were determined to stick to our plans, while well aware of the ranger’s mantra.
We camped outside the park in Rockport at an unusual location dotted with dated, theme cabins, a shuttered restaurant, a wine-tasting room, and a smattering of weedy RV sites overrun by rabbits.
After unhitching, we drove a half-hour to Newhalem, the site of a company town owned by Seattle City Light and the residence of employees working on the Skagit River Hydroelectric Project–a series of three dams and power stations along the Skagit River–
providing electricity to Seattle since Calvin Coolidge ceremoniously started the first generators in 1924.
As of this summer, the Upper Skagit Indian Tribe has petitioned Seattle City Light to remove the Gorge Dam in order to restore treaty-protected fishing rights to sacred grounds known as The Valley of the Spirits–a 3-mile stretch of the Skagit River area that has dewatered since the dam’s creation–causing the disappearance of bull trout, chinook salmon and steelhead, and consequently threatening the existence of killer whales in the Puget Sound that depend on the fish to survive.
If Seattle City Light hopes to win a new 50-year license to operate the dams, they must demonstrate that the dams cause no harm to the environment. However, regulatory agencies have noted that the dams limit fish passage, affect the water temperature, and prevent much-needed, mineral-rich sediment from reaching the river beds where salmon once spawned.
The following day, our excursion took us deeper into the park, where a faint scent of smoke was in the air. It wasn’t bad enough to impact a full day of activity, but it still managed to drop a smoke bomb on our vistas, turning the “American Alps” into an American disappointment.
We started our exploration at Diablo Lake, created by the Diablo Dam finished in 1930. While the smoke offered an impressionistic vision of the mountain, water and sky,
I much preferred clearer conditions the following day.
Nevertheless, we took advantage of calm waters,
and beautiful scenery.
Feeling like a hike nearby, we followed a trail that followed Thunder Creek,
providing the following views:
until we reached our turn-around point at the suspension bridge…
and reflected on flowing riverscapes north,
and south of the span.
The latest news on the Cedar Creek Fire brought tears to my eyes. Officials proposed closing North Cascades Highway for the remainder of the year. I immediately recalled the time four years to this day when we crossed the Continental Divide at the Vermilion Pass–outrunning the BC wildfires on Kootenay Highway–with the mountains ablaze on both sides of us (see Smoke and Mirrors).
While I had no interest in repeating history, I wasn’t looking forward to the two-hour detour that would return us to I-5 in order to reach Spokane to the east. But if that was to be our only way out, I was determined to travel the North Cascades Highway the next day for as far as the law allowed.
Of course there were stops to make along the way. When we reached Ross Lake at milepost 134, we took the opportunity to stretch our legs along the Ross Dam Trail. With so little traffic on the road, we were not expecting the parking lot at the trailhead to be a challenge. But then we weren’t anticipating a mule train either.
They were preparing to cross the dam to perform trail maintenance further up the Pacific Northwest Trail.
We crossed a dense forest…
to the edge of Ross Lake and across the dam road,
where we were soon joined by the pack leader and company…
for views of Snowfield Peak and distant glaciers.
Of course, we had to dance around the mule poo on our return to the parking lot before continuing our quest.
Our next destination took us to milepost 158, where we intersected the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail at Rainy Pass on our way to Rainy Lake for an easy, 1-mile, wheelchair-accessible hike, until we encountered a tree across the trail within 500 yards of the trail’s end.
Unfortunately, physically disadvantaged people could not appreciate the crystal clear water of this alpine beauty,
or enjoy a distant look at Rainy Lake Falls cascading 850 feet into its namesake lake.
Shame on the NPS!
We reached Washington Pass Overlook–our final destination at milepost 162– to ogle the Liberty Bell Group,
and Kangaroo Ridge–
the defining point between Western Washington and Eastern Washington.
And that’s when I saw it! In the distance, midway along the stretch of highway, 8 miles away was the end of the road. I steadied myself for the shot.
We had completed our mission. There was nothing more for us to see before returning west to resume our journey east on August 5th.
By August 10th, the road closure was lifted, and low-speed, one-way traffic resumed in both directions. But I was unconcerned and didn’t mind. I had already arrived at Glacier National Park.
It was our last day on the Olympic Peninsula, and we intended to visit the San Juan Islands, but time and weather never allowed it. Getting an early start in the rain seemed risky given the distance we’d need to travel, and the ferry reservation was an added hurdle and inconvenience.
Instead, we hoped and patiently waited for the early morning weather to abate. There was news of improving conditions by mid-morning, so we chanced a trip to Whidbey Island, where we were rewarded with thick, dismal skies, (yuck), and no rain in sight (yay)!
We drove to Mukilteo, where we just missed the 10 o’clock ferry to Clinton by 6 cars (damn!), but we were poised at the front of the boat for the half-hour ride to Whidbey Island at 10:30 AM (yay!).
After docking, we completed the half-hour ride to Ebey’s Landing, site of the Nation’s first National Historical Reserve (1978),
and a stunning landscape that befits the gateway to Puget Sound (wow!).
Just outside the Jacob Ebey homestead (now the Visitor’s Center) in Pratt’s Preserve…
stands a reconstructed blockhouse, originally built in 1854, and one of four still standing (who knew?). The blockhouse was built by Colonel Isaac Ebey to defend his claim against insurgent Skagit natives, who naturally resisted the pioneer settlement. Unfortunately, Isaac’s father, Jacob was beheaded in the cabin by a Skagit warrior in retaliation for the murder of one of their own chieftains (hmm…).
On the edge of the prairie, tangent to the Sherman-Bishop Farm…
is the trailhead that follows the bluffs along Admiralty Inlet.
We steadily climbed the bluff which gave us a birds eye view of Perego’s Lagoon–half wet, half dry–(huh?)
with a salt residue that could have resembled the surface of a different planet (odd)…
until I spotted the pentagram that an ambitious soul had designed from driftwood logs (very odd!).
While the landscape was certainly impressive, something was still missing (huh?).
Where were the picture postcard views of Port Townsend and the Olympic Mountains across the water that were hiding behind overcast skies?(right?)
Nevertheless, our spirits were undiminished. We finished the Bluff Trail (phew!), and continued by F-150 to the historic waterfront of Coupeville, Washington State’s second oldest community, and it’s teaming with century-old buildings (nice!).
Our stroll down Front Street, once a beehive of maritime commerce,
brought us to a gentrified collection of bookstores, wine tasting rooms, gift shops, ice cream shops and coffee shops (sad).
Discovering the birthplace of Seattle’s Best Coffee was of particular interest to me, as I served this coffee exclusively when I operated my boil-and-bake-from-scratch, bagel bakery in Denville, New Jersey (really?). Their company and my franchisor later became symbiotic partners when both companies were acquired by AFC Enterprises in 1998.
All of which has contributed greatly to my being able to gracefully retire and follow my whim in pursuit of images, impressions, and memories.
Mount Rainier is so imposing that it makes its own weather, and on most days the mountain disappears under its thorny crown of rain clouds.
In fact, weather analysts calculate the odds of “seeing” Mount Rainier likely hovers between once or twice a week, considering the 189 rain-days per year, producing 126 inches of precipitation annually.
On the other hand, July is Mount Rainier’s driest month, with an average of 7 days of rainfall, amounting to 2 inches on average, which improves the odds tremendously for the millions who live and travel the I-5 corridor between Tacoma and Seattle. They invoke a familiar colloquialism that captures the moments when Mount Rainier reveals itself. They say, “The mountain is out today.”
My youngest son Nathan, who lives in nearby Bellevue had arranged long ago to glamp with Leah and me for a summer weekend at the National Park so he could experience Paradise, up close and personal, for the first time.
Happily, during our visit, “the mountain was out,” and it was magnificent!
On our first day together, we sought out a few of the requisite park sites as part of Nate’s Rainier orientation, including:
a wobbly walk across a suspension bridge…
to gaze at ancient trees…
in the Grove of the Patriarchs;
a hike to Myrtle Falls, cascading 72 feet into a rocky gorge;
a gambol across Sunbeam Creek on the Wonderland Trail before it rolls into Stevens Canyon;
tracking iconic, Narada Falls,
as it plunges 168 feet into a canyon of split rocks;
admiring Reflection Lakes, sans the reflection (ruined by wind-swept ripples);
and relishing the trove of jaw-dropping, mountain vistas that seem to vanish into thin air–
which we reflected on while enjoying a soft-serve swirl at the historic Paradise Inn.
The next day, the mountain was still out, and it was a picture perfect day for hiking the Skyline Trail to Panorama Point.
Of all the trails I’ve trekked, I can say with cautious certainty that the Skyline Trail may be among the most magnificent of them. With the sun out, and blooming wildflowers dotting the landscape, there are few hikes that can compare.
We started on a paved path from the Paradise Inn at 5,420 feet elevation, and continued to climb through flower-carpeted meadows for a mile…
until we reached the Deadhorse Creek Trail spur, and looked back in wonderment.
We were now traipsing through packed snow and rocky terrain as we reached the tree line. We paused for a break where other hikers were keenly aware of something or someone through binoculars and long camera lenses. I scanned the mountain for movement through my viewfinder, and discovered the attraction–a team trekking across the glacier on their way to the summit.
Nisqually Glacier was now looming large in our sights.
The spectacle of watching the snowmelt pummeling the moraine below was thrilling.
It seemed to us that Rainier was so close, we could almost touch it.
With one last push, we arrived at Panorama Point, having climbed 1400 feet in 2 hours. I should have felt drained, but I was giddy with excitement with views from the overlook,
while also spotting Mount St. Helens far in the distance,
and capturing the Nisqually River as it meanders through the Rampart Ridge gorge.
On our return trip, we opted to take the Glacier Vista spur for a beauty shot of the mountain,
Returning via the Alta Vista Trail gave us a very different impression of the valley below,
but also prompted us to occasionally glance back to admire the source of all the magic.
I missed you, and that’s the truth. It’s why I wanted to see you again. But you sure don’t make it easy–playing hard-to-get with me. You had me waiting over 40 minutes outside your gates before you finally greeted me.
After the way things ended between us four years ago, I expected better, but I guess I was wrong about us. I realize that we got off on the wrong foot during my last hike, but that’s because I woke up on the wrong side of your park. If only I had paid more attention to your signs, then maybe I wouldn’t have driven myself crazy driving through your forest like a maniac in the first place (see An Olympian Apology).
While I’m grateful for all the photogenic landscapes that you provided in the past…
I’m here to make amends and some new memories…with your cooperation, of course.
You might think I’m asking a lot of you, but it would go a long way towards rebuilding our partnership if you could spare me a blue sky and high clouds during my stay.
In return, I promise to leave no stone unturned…
While in your presence, I will pay respects to your ancient trees and forests;
I will tread lightly through your Hoh Rain Forest;
I will resist the Sirens of your noble beaches;
I will appreciate the beauty of your mountains views;
I will treasure the pristine waters of your alpine lakes;
and I will appropriately distance myself from your wildlife, as you have requested.
My one-week stay with you was delightful, thanks to your moderate temperatures, and your smokeless, blue skies. I sensed you enjoyed it too, because I caught you basking in your own sunlight.
I hope that we can remain friends, because I find you so intriguing. I’m amazed that you have so many different ecosystems to juggle, and you manage them all so effortlessly.
When Mount Mazama, a 12,000-foot volcano exploded approximately 7,700 years ago, the mountain collapsed into itself and created a caldera–not a crater.
Subsequently, the caldera–not the crater–filled with rain and snowfall, giving birth to Crater Lake–despite not being a crater.
Craters, on the other hand are formed by the outward explosion of rocks and other materials from a volcano.
Given the current r/age of woke, caldera supporters from around the world have voiced their concern that calderas run the risk of becoming extinct because they’re misunderstood and so often mistaken for craters.
Yet this caldera is not giving up so easily. It may be dormant today, but that doesn’t mean it won’t blow its top in another thousand years if provoked.
And the caldera experts say they have solid, supporting evidence that science is on their side,
convincing them to champion a campaign that calls attention to the ‘Calderas Matter‘ cause.
There are also plans to petition the Department of Interior for a Caldera Lake name change to assure accuracy in earth science, eliminate caldera bias, and restore caldera dignity.
Eventually, a hearing conducted by the National Park Service will help to decide the matter, and weigh the importance of the Mount McKinley/Denali precedent as part of the woke defense.
The strategy may seem twisted to many skeptics,
and naturally, the Caldera Committee members acknowledge the uphill struggle–
considering that Crater Lake (aka Caldera Lake) was declared a national park by Teddy Roosevelt in 1902, which amounts to overcoming 120 years of fake news.
Nevertheless, Leah and I were immediately dispatched by the Caldera Committee to Crater/Caldera Lake for a routine site inspection,
but what we observed was anything but routine.
The day after our arrival, an ill wind blew in from the east bringing smoke from the Bootleg Fire,
which settled over the caldera like a blanket of blur, and interfered with our investigation.
We had little choice but to comb the mountain in search of alternate evidence, and found it on the backside of the caldera in the shape of giant pinnacles that rose up from the ashes to vent the volcanic gases.
Additionally, we followed the Pinnacles Trail to inspect Plaikni Falls,
and observe the habits of local insects.
We also trekked to Annie Creek to judge the wildflower growth…
against the ash canyon.
Ultimately, there will be a public forum on the issue, but the final decision will always come from those in high places.
If it wasn’t for Mount Mazama’s collapse from a major eruption approximately 7,700 yeas ago–which ultimately formed Crater Lake in Oregon’s Cascade Range–
then surely the Lava Lands surrounding Newberry Caldera would have become Oregon’s sacred National Park.
There actually was a fierce debate at the start of the 1900s on which natural wonder deserved this special status. Ultimately, Crater Lake was established as a National Park in 1902, and the Newberry Volcanic arc within Deschutes National Forest was eventually protected through Congressional legislation in 1990, and has been managed by the U.S. Forest Service.
That’s good news for any visitor who may be interested in the widest array of volcanic features of any U.S. National Park or National Monument.
Especially striking is the perimeter trail around Lava Butte–one of over 400 volcano cones and vents scattered over a 1,200 square mile area that’s equal to the size of Rhode Island…
and offering panoramic views of Oregon’s High Cascades,
and the surrounding lava fields and forest.
The current observation tower that rises atop the cinder cone’s rim is an active fire lookout that’s been staffed by the Forest Service since the original structure was constructed in 1913.
Aside from staring endlessly at Paulina Creek Falls as it cascades 80 feet…
from the lip of Paulina Lake,
no other park experience can compete with visiting the Lava River Cave, and taking a plunge into total darkness.
But first, there’s a mandatory briefing...
After listening to Ranger Dan’s orientation on white-nose syndrome and bat health awareness, he lectured us on what to expect inside the cave and cave etiquette.
For instance, Ranger Dan highly recommended that we pee before entering the cave.
“There are no facilities in the cave, nor is the cave to be used as a facility,” he announced. “It will be one-mile in and one-mile out. You’ll know when to turn around because you’ll come to a stop sign. Expect the hike to take two hours. The temperature inside the cave is 42o, so dress appropriately. Also, there is no electricity inside the cave, so take a reliable and appropriate light source with you that is NOT a cell phone. Watch how you step, because you will be walking on uneven surfaces, so I recommend footwear that are NOT flip flops. And remember to duck in low places, because you will come to a low ceiling halfway into the cave called Low Bridge Lane. Lanterns are available to rent at the gatehouse. Any questions before I let you go?”
A young voice from one of the 20 attendees seated behind asks, “Has anyone ever died inside the cave?”
“No human remains have ever been discovered inside the cave, and today is no exception,” predicts Ranger Dan. “So enjoy yourselves as you walk through something special that happened 80,000 years ago.”
First, we peed.
I returned with my flashlight, and Leah took my hand as we started down the first 50…
of 150 steps into darkness,
descending deeper and deeper into the abyss.
That’s when I realized that sharing a flashlight was an obvious mistake. It was a daunting challenge, trying to take photos in total darkness…
while navigating the terrain and guiding Leah simultaneously.
So I enlisted her as my key grip–coaching her to direct my flashlight beam where I needed it most–while I composed the shot, and prayed she wouldn’t run off, leaving me stranded with my cell phone.
Eventually, we reached the end…together,
where I stopped to reflect on our tandem accomplishment before u-turning…
Inevitably when hiking together, Leah walks ahead, as I’m more inclined to go at my own pace, taking photos. It drives her crazy that I’m deliberately slow at times: either waiting for the light to improve; or I’m busy framing an image; or I’m manipulating settings on my camera. However, Leah has come to accept my pokey photography habits. She realizes that she can explore ahead of me instead of waiting for me. Besides, I always catch up to her.
But this hike was different. With only one light source between us, we were forced to stick closely together and work as a team. And that made all the difference getting back to start.
Craters of the Moon is a deceptive name for a National Monument and Preserve. After all, the craters of Idaho don’t resemble the surface of the moon.
On the contrary, the upheaval of 600 square miles of basaltic lava as recently as 2,000 years ago was caused when the Great Rift fissure reawakened. Nevertheless, it was NASA’s preferred location to train Apollo astronauts to search for rock specimens because its harsh terrain is akin to a lunar landscape.
This patch of scorched earth along the Snake River Plains is still considered active, although unlikely to erupt in the next hundred years or more–which gives all of us plenty of time to explore the lava fields…
for stellar examples of lava craters,
and cinder cones.
Trudging up the steep gravel pile to the summit of Inferno Cone gave us sweeping views of the Snake River Plains,
an overview of the volcanic basin,
and a distant impression of the Pioneer Mountains.
Next attraction to explore on the 7-mile Loop Road was the Indian Tunnel and neighbor caves, stitched into an underground network of collapsed lava tubes.
Before arriving at Indian Tunnel, Leah and I consulted a ranger at the Visitor Center who helped to plan our day. She also permitted us to enter Indian Tunnel (stamping our park map), but not before allaying her suspicion that our clothing, shoes, and all personal accessories were carriers for spreading white-nose syndrome to a vulnerable bat population.
Traditional stairs and railings led us to the brink of the cave, but we were soon on our own–finding our footing over and around immense basalt boulders–as we descended deeper into a pit surrounded by colorful walls.
Available light came from a open dome whose ceiling had crumbled hundreds of years ago.
We scrambled through rock piles, feeling our way through the tunnel, until we reached another lit opening, signaling our exit.
We rounded out the day’s visit with a stop at Devil’s Orchard, a nature loop trail winding through cinder beds and hearty vegetation,
although, flourishing flora was more the exception than the rule.
The following day, Leah and I drove through the Craters of the Moon Wilderness,
taking a dusty, rutted, gravel road to the edge of civilization.
We were completely isolated in a desolate wasteland. Only the livestock had a half-hearted interest in our visit.
We were eager to find something significant on the drive, but we quickly reconsidered after discovering Piss Ant Butte in the distance.
At last we reached our objective: the end of the road, and Snowdrift Crater, a landmark detail on our map.
Back at Arco, I captured the edge of town beneath a cloudless sky, and I had low expectations for any kind of a sunset.
And then the winds pick up…
They’re gusting at 40, 50, mph…
and baby pinecones are peppering the aluminum rooftop…
and a storm cloud passes directly overhead, shooting crazy lightening…
and Leah is tracking the storm on her phone…
and the TV announcer is cautioning viewers to prepare for tornadic thunderstorms…
and I’m standing outside with my camera, wondering if the lava fields have come alive, after all.
Kissing the edge of the Ashley National Forest at the intersection of Wyoming and Utah lies Flaming Gorge.
Once underwater and formed over a billion years ago, the Precambrian Uinta Mountains showcase the dazzling red cliffs of a glacial gorge cut from a river system that also carved the Grand Canyon, courtesy of the Green River.
The Green River ends at the dam wall constructed in 1958,
and completed in 1964 as one of four storage units for the Colorado River Storage Project.
The dam impounds Wyoming’s largest reservoir,
providing water storage and hydropower generation to seven states,
and offers 91 miles of water recreation bliss behind its wall.
But scenically, the clear cool water is the perfect foil for a mesmerizing landscape of vivid colors and mountain formations.
Following the footsteps of Major John Wesley Powell and company, who explored the Green and Colorado Rivers in 1869, Leah and I set off on our own geologic survey…
for a closer inspection of castle rock…
and notched peaks…
which is more than enough to inspire future geologists.
While spending time with friends in Cheyenne WY, Leah and I scheduled a side trip across the state line to visit Scotts Bluff in Gering, NE. Nebraska was not originally part of our travel plan, nor did we consider Nebraska when we set out to explore America four years ago, but we caved to public opinion and we are now happy to endorse Nebraska as a state with a meaningful attraction.
This Bluff is a Butte, or this Butte is a Bluff? It don't amount to a hill of beans.
A wide range of arrangements are only future cliff-hangers for cave-dwellers.
Making mountains out of molehills or taking the high road, We all plateau on the summit or the plain.
Monumental achievement can only be measured at the peak of a towering task.
Leah and I have been planning our current trip since January–looking at various routes, places of interest, and RV park availability. At times it seemed like a logistical nightmare–having to shift dates and locations to accommodate timing, anticipated weather and RV park amenities (service hook-ups).
By April, most all of our mapped destinations (44 in all over 20 weeks) were booked. That’s about the same time the National Park Service (NPS) announced that two of our anticipated stops (Rocky Mountain and Glacier) now require timed-entry permits to be eligible to visit.
Because NPS is grappling with record attendance and overrun facilities at many locations, this additional measure is intended to relieve congestion at the park gates at best, and eliminate park closures due to limited parking and staffing woes.
At Rocky Mountain National Park, two reservation options were available for visitors between May 28 and October 11: Bear Lake Road Corridor plus full park access, which includes Wild Basin, Long’s Peak, Trail Ridge Road, and Fall River Area from 5:00 AM – 6:00 PM; and all park roads except Bear Lake Road Corridor, with a reservation period from 9:00 AM – 3:00 PM.
When the reservations window opened on May 1 at 8 AM (MDT), passes became available on a first-come basis—up to 60 days in advance–with approximately 25% of day passes held for guests planning to arrive within 2 days. I logged on torecreation.gov bright and early, and was eager to claim my permit, but apparently the rest of the world had the same idea.
When the online dust settled, I had my coveted entry pass, albeit with a 2:00 PM start time. While it wasn’t the most ideal situation–losing half the day–it was better than making the trip, only to be turned away. Yes, it’s happening.
On the day of our permit, Leah and I meandered through Estes Park for a few hours, breezing through art, jewelry, sporting goods, and general stores, where Leah found an eyeglass lanyard for a buck. We passed a dress-up cowboy spieling in front of Bob and Tony’s Pizza on Elkhorn Ave. and laughed it off, but we returned for some of the worst pizza we’ve ever tasted, although comparable to spreading Ketchup over a cardboard circle, which I did as a child.
Once we passed through the Bear Lake ranger checkpoint, we stretched our legs with a walk around Sprague Lake, the site of a one-time mountain resort, and immediately, we were greeted by a curious teenager,
who looks as if he had a bad reaction from a slice of pizza from Bob and Tony’s…
and is returning to a healthier diet of tall grass.
Half way around Sprague Lake, we encountered his girlfriend romping through the water, courtesy of Leah’s iPhone…
Completing the lake loop, we stood in awe at the doorstep of the Continental Divide and admired the view…but not for as long as I would have liked, since we only had a narrow window of time to explore our immense surroundings.
Naturally, being inside the Bear Lake Corridor gave us an opportunity to circle Bear Lake,
and its neighbor, Nymph Lake.
But running short on time, I abandoned my goal of hiking the rest of the trail to Emerald Lake,
and opted for time in the higher elevations. Our drive took us through Moraine Park,
till we reached Horseshoe Park at the junction of Trail Ridge Road.
Once we rounded the bend from Hidden Valley…
it was one spectacular lookout…
until we reached the Gore Range, the highest elevation on the park road at 12,183 feet.
We drove as far as Medicine Bow Curve, when a herd of elk happened to wander across the tundra to graze, as if to remind us that we were approaching dinner-time. It was our cue to U-turn.
As we doubled back, our conversation turned to the timed-entry, reservation system. The time we were allotted was just a teaser, considering the 355 miles of hiking trails throughout the park.
While I would have preferred a whole day or two or three to satisfy my craving for mountains, I support more people having a chance to appreciate this country’s beauty without annoying crowds, and to capture a lasting memory…
Just north of New Mexico, in the San Juan Range of the Colorado Rockies, Canby Mountain snowmelt and multiple mountain base streams join forces to form the Rio Grande. On its 1900-mile journey to the U.S. southern border, the Rio Grande passes through the Rio Grande Gorge near Taos, having carved out the 800 foot canyon over the past several million years.
Beyond Questa, NM, a dirt road bordered by sagebrush scrub distinguishes the gateway to the National Park.
It’s high desert all the way, as the road winds through 10 miles of overlooks, campgrounds and trailheads…
until its terminus at La Junta Trail–currently closed for maintenance.
While hiking into the canyon wasn’t possible due to trail closure,
the overlook provided a closeup of native flora,
and a distant glimpse of the confluence of Red River and Rio Grande.
But like so many others, we were not settling for amazing…we were looking for spectacular. So we drove a few miles north of our campground on US-64, and waited patiently for sunset on the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, an engineering masterpiece.
For the many who contemplate diving from the bridge,
there are strong warnings…yet sadly, two or three a year will never make the call.
With the sun fading, the sidewalks on the bridge begin to populate—
each of us patiently waiting for Mother Nature’s final curtain before we resume our sacred lives.
Leah and I were en route from Albuquerque to Taos when I noticed an early road sign for Bandelier National Monument. As we got closer to our destination and signs for Bandelier became more frequent, I proposed that we make it a stop–not for overnighting, but a daytrip to break up the travel monotony–considering it wasn’t more than an hour out of our way.
While there wasn’t hardcore support for the idea, there wasn’t serious objection either, which meant I still had a chance to sell the idea.
“I think it’s been 46 years since I was there–probably some side-trip while visiting Santa Fe during my first cross-country honeymoon trip,” I started.
“I think I was there sooner than that,” Leah commented, “like in the past 10 years.”
“Really? It couldn’t have been with me,” I asserted. “Do you not have an interest in going?”
“I don’t know,” she maintained. “I mean, is there anything there that we haven’t seen before?
I thought, “Are you kidding me?! Would you pass up Niagara Falls because you saw Victoria Falls?”
I said, “It’s the site of an ancient pueblo village. It’s similar to Mesa Verde, and I think you may be mistaking one for the other, because we last visited Mesa Verde when we flew to Santa Fe for Carrie’s wedding 12 years ago.”
“What do you propose we do with the Airstream, ’cause we certainly can’t pull it around the canyon,” Leah asked and answered.
“We can work that out when we get there,” I proposed.
Sometime that answer gets me in trouble…but not this day!
We first passed through Los Alamos (with maybe more nuclear physicists per square mile than anywhere else on earth), and climbed a ridgeline of the Jemez Mountains,
overlooking the Frijoles Canyon.
“Any of this look familiar,” I teased.
We followed a serpentine road that wound around the mountain, carrying us deeper into the canyon. A park ranger stopped us at the park entrance station.
“Sorry folks, but your trailer–nice as it is–doesn’t fit on our mountain roads. To get to our Visitor Center and trails, you’re gonna have to drive to the Juniper Campground parking lot and unhitch there,” he advised.
“Sounds reasonable,” I confirmed.
“You’re prepared to do all this work just to drive the park?” Leah asked.
“You’ll see. It’ll be worth it!” I said.
We walked the Pueblo Loop Trail, passing Big Kiva (a ceremonial underground chamber)…
and the 700-year ruins of Tyuonyi (QU-weh-nee) village—
originally a 3-story ring of sandstone rock debris exceeding 400 rooms.
From a distance we saw several families poking through the cavates, chipped out of porous rock.
We soldiered on, beyond the remnants of the Long House…
lined with protected petroglyphs,
and imagined what it once looked like…
when all that remains are chiseled-out rooms,
once hidden behind adobe walls.
We took the trail extension in anticipation of climbing to the Alcove House…
but Leah chose to sit this one out.
The climb was steep and narrow, and the ladder rungs were on fire from baking in the sun all day.
While Leah enjoyed the shade beside Frijoles Creek, I had an aerie to myself with a nestled kiva,
and sculpted rooms for meditation.
Which may have prompted me to say a prayer or two before my looong climb down.
Humans have been taking baths for millennia. The practice of releasing toxins in hot springs dates back tens of thousands of years to the Neolithic Age, when nomadic tribes would soak in thermal waters they accidentally discovered when seeking relief from winter weather.
And there is archeological evidence from the 1900’s from Pakistan, where the earliest public bathhouses were discovered in the Indus River Valley around 2500 BC.
In, fact, every known culture around the world has demonstrated a special bathing ritual with roots in therapeutic cleansing of body, mind and soul.
No doubt, Native Americans enjoyed the 147o F waters that flowed from the lower western slope of Hot Springs Mountain in Arkansas. This area was first occupied by the Caddo, and later the Quapaw, who eventually ceded this territory to the U.S. government in an 1818 treaty.
70 years before the National Park Service was established by Teddy Roosevelt, Andrew Jackson declared Hot Springs the first federal reservation in 1832, intending to protect this natural resource.
Scientists ran measurements and evaluated the springs’ mineral properties and flow rate. In journaling their finding, they numbered the springs and rated them according to temperature.
Immediately after, bathhouses began springing up around town to indulge the many guests who would travel to Hot Springs to avail themselves of the water’s restorative powers.
But trouble was brewing closer to the mountain. Ral City emerged as a community of indigents who had no use for fancy bathhouses, and subsequently dug pools beside the springs so they might enjoy the thermal water.
But not before the government put a stop to that and instituted policy that “preserved” and regulated the springs. Fearing contamination, the reservation superintendent ordered the pools filled in, and the transients relocated to a distant spring to appease the bathhouse owners in town.
Enterprising businessmen like railroad magnate, Samuel Fordyce saw potential in Hot Springs, and invested heavily in the town’s infrastructure. He financed construction of the Arlington Hotel in 1875–the first luxury hotel in the area…
and vacation residence to every known celebrity, movie star and gangster of the era.
Fordyce also imagined an international spa resort that could rival Europe’s finest, and opened the opulent Fordyce Bathhouse in 1915.
The National Park Visitor Center now occupies this bathhouse–which has been painstakingly restored to reflect the gilded age of health spas, and how turn-of the-century America tapped into Hot Springs’ healing waters to bathe in luxury and style.
There were many different ways to indulge in water treatments…
But a menu of ancillary services was also available, such as: massage, chiropody, facials, manicure/pedicure, and exercise, etc…
Bathhouse Row quickly filled with competition along Central Avenue,
each one designed with classic architectural details.
and anchored by Hot Springs Rehabilitation Center on the south end of the street.
Formally known as the Army-Navy Hospital, it was the site of the nation’s first general hospital for Army and Navy patients built after the Civil War–treating the sick and wounded through World War II. Subsequently, it became a residential resource center for training young adults with disabilities, but state of Arkansas shuttered the facility in 2019, and the building is now derelict and fallen into disrepair. Currently, it stands as the world’s largest raccoon hotel.
We visited Hot Springs during Memorial Day weekend, and the sidewalks were teeming with families and couples who were happy to return to the land of the living after a year of coronavirus hibernation. Businesses were enjoying record crowds, and the bath houses had finally reopened to the public.
Unfortunately, Leah and I were too late to the party; there were no spa reservations to be had. Water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink.
So we took a hike up the mountain, spotted a turtle in the middle of the trail,
and continued to the Mountain Tower,
offering majestic, mouth-watering views of hidden springs beneath us, while we massaged each others’ neck and shoulders.
After motoring through half of America in our Airstream for the past 1 ½ months and reporting travel highlights along the way (http://streamingthruamerica.com),
I’m temporarily suspending the chronological order of my posts to confess that I’m not as young as I used to feel. I’m usually up for a reasonable physical challenge, but I have to admit that today’s climb did not go as easily as I wanted it to.
Yesterday, Leah and I crossed from Taos, New Mexico to Alamosa, Colorado, and settled in at Base Camp Family Campground by midday. After hiking in Taos the past 2 days, we thought we had acclimated nicely to the thinner air (more to be said on that later), but we were feeling our age after our arrival. We took an early siesta in air-conditioned comfort, followed by a 27-mile sprint to the Great Sand Dunes National Park Visitor Center just before it closed.
The park ranger suggested a climb to the top of High Dune (699 feet), but to keep in mind that tomorrow’s high will reach 92o F. He recommended a 9:00 am start time in order to reach the top of the dune by noon, and before the surface temperature exceeds 150o F. The ranger predicted the 2 ½-mile trek should average 2 hours, round trip.
Since we were already at the park, we decided to have a look around. We found it very refreshing to glide through three inches of snow melt, ebbing and flowing from the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
Considering it was a Sunday afternoon, and peak traffic was winding down,
there was still plenty of activity around us;
far too many interesting vistas to ignore;
and surprising driftwood sculpture to admire.
We arrived at the Dunes parking lot by 8:45 am the next day, and we were not alone. Many other families were already parked and trekking across the sand flats with sandboards in hand. Canopies and shelters were already sprouting up throughout and within Medano Creek, and kids were romping in the water and shaping wet sand castles.
We surveyed the 10,000 acres of dunes and plotted our course as there are no marked trails, but we followed along the ridgeline like most others.
Looking back gave us some satisfaction, because it reminded us of how far we trudged,
but looking ahead reminded us how much more we had to cover. The closer we crept to the top, the deeper our feet sunk into hot sand, slowing our progress.
We took a lot of breathers along the way,
and rated the sand boarders as they attempted to carve out a run…
but mostly, it was uphill twenty steps, pausing to catch our breath, having a look around, sipping some water, and repeating the process. Slow and steady wins the race. Right?
Many hikers passed us on the way down offering words of encouragement, but Leah–realizing her feet were about to catch fire–decided to mush down the sand slopes and soak her feet in the creek while I continued to the top.
And so I pushed myself, and willed myself up the final ascent, foot by foot, grabbing air along the way, until I finally reached the summit with barely enough energy to greet the younger people who passed me on the way up, and wave my arms for Leah’s snap.
Perhaps it was self-gratification…
realizing that I can still push myself,
or maybe I needed to see the other side of the mountain.
Either way, it’s all good. Ironically, as I admit to myself that I’ve lost a step or two, to my surprise, I often find myself taking a victory lap. As I get older, I’ll eventually have to make do with being young at heart.
Eastern State Penitentiary (ESP), designated a National Historic Landmark in 1965, returns to life each day as a Philadelphia museum that’s open to the public year-round.
Completed in 1836, the imposing, neo-Gothic-styled architecture by John Haviland was intended to strike fear in all who might consider committing a crime. At the time, it was the most expensive public construction project ever built in the country. Famous inmates included Al Capone and Willie Sutton.
Decommissioned in 1971, ESP now lays in ruin, but awaits all who are fascinated by its unique radial design, towering castle walls and folklore.
Photographer, Tiffani Burchett Nieusma first visited ESP in 2016 and was awed by the unexpected beauty of the decay. Her recorded images eventually paved the way for a future gallery show during September, 2021 with a companion monograph of her work to be published on the subject.
Tiffani is currently seeking written word submissions to complement her photography for exhibition and publication. The deadline is May 31, 2021.