As a young boy growing up in the ’50s, I was fascinated by the circus. Toby Tyler, written by James Otis was a bedtime favorite, and fueled my fantasy of running away to join the circus. Alas, over time, the circus has fallen out of favor as family entertainment.
After incessant criticism by animal rights activists and the advent of video gaming and media streaming, the 1905 Gavioli Band Organ Wagon (with 367 wooden and metal pipes, 2 drums, a cymbal, and a 17-bar glockenspiel) which once heralded the arrival of the circus train…
has now been relegated to a circus museum with fifty other antique circus wagons within the W.W. Deppe Wagon Pavilion…
at Circus World in Baraboo, WI,
conceived on grounds known as the winter quarters of the Ringling Brothers,
who launched their first circus tour from Baraboo in 1884.
As we walked the grounds,
we realized that the circus is more than the sum of its parts.
It’s more than the costumes;
more than the animals;
more than the performers;
more than the sideshow attractions;
and more than the music;
It’s a longing for our youth,
and our feelings of wonder before we were forever trapped in our responsible, adult bodies.
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.
During our travels across America, Leah and I have cycled on several amazing rail trails–each one offering a variety of gorgeous scenery, interesting terrain, historical context, and wildlife features. The Black Hills of South Dakota boasts the George S. Mickelson Trail, which checks all the right boxes.
The trail follows 109 miles of Burlington Northern’s historic rail line from Deadwood to Edgemont–
crossing 100 converted railroad bridges…
and pedaling through 4 tunnels.
The result is breathtakingly beautiful.
Named after South Dakota’s governor following his untimely death in 1993, George S. Mickelson’s ardent support was instrumental in creating a non-motorized mixed-use trail,
from his dedication of the first 6 miles in 1991 to the trail’s completion in 1998.
Rather than limiting our linear miles, we rode the trail from Dumont (its highest elevation point at 6240 ft) to Hill City,
and hired a taxi service to transport our bikes back to Dumont.
The trail consisted of crushed limestone and gravel which was perfect for our road bikes clad with all-terrain tires.
While riding the trail was effortless (mostly a slow downhill roll), there were many reasons to stop:
whether to soak up the landscape;
or reflect on South Dakota’s cultural heritage–such as farmers using cyanide lids left over from Deadwood’s Gold Rush days to shingle and side their houses.
All of which made for a glorious outing,
which only adds to the allure of Black Hills lore.
Leah and I were prospecting for wedding bands along downtown Deadwood’s famed historic Main Street when we ran into a local miner–a chip off the old block–who told us that touring the abandoned gold mine on the edge of town was a hoot and a value-added experience.
Broken Boot Gold Mine has been running tours and amateur gold panning since reopening as a visitor attraction in 1954–long after the last ounce of gold was discovered.
The 15,000 ounces of gold extracted from Sein’s Mine (1878 -1904) through pickaxe and candlelight was hardly the mother lode the Sein Brothers had hoped for, but a rich vein of iron pyrite (also known as fool’s gold) ran through the mine, and that was just enough to make the mine profitable…for a time.
The mine closed in 1904, but reopened in 1917 to extract iron pyrite for the war effort. After a year, all mining operations stopped and the mine went quiet…
until Olaf Seim’s daughter (and sole heir) was persuaded by promoters to segue Sein’s Mine into Broken Boot Gold Mine–thereby creating a new tourist experience and de facto location for shlock horror movies…
According to the operators of Broken Boot Gold Mine, “[it] has operated longer and more successfully as a visitor attraction than it did as a working mine.”
Leah and I made a $14.00 investment (seniors get a $1 discount), which got us a 40-minute walk-thru and Wild West mining advice. We donned our plastic pastel safety helmets and entered a tunnel that was dim and chilly.
We crept through reinforced passages with 10 other investors,
and imagined a 10-hour shift in relative darkness–about the time it took to burn through one candle–while searching for precious metal,
and valuable mineral deposits.
Our guide reinforced the feeling of claustrophobia by switching off the lights and allowing our eyes to adjust to total darkness before lighting a single candle, a miner’s only light source.
Despite the price of gold hovering near $1,800 per ounce, few amateur miners were willing to spend an extra 10 bucks for gold panning lessons after the tour…
while Leah was completely satisfied with her bogus stock certificate.
Leah and I deliberately planned our arrival to Deadwood to coincide with the conclusion of the 81st Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, and for good reason. This year’s 10-day event brought 700,000 bikers to Deadwood’s neighbor town of 7,000 residents amid the highly infectious Delta variant–without vaccination, testing or masking requirements–which from a Covid-19 perspective is equivalent to shoveling 100 pounds of shit into a 1-lb. bag.
Adding perspective to our paranoia, last year’s event qualified as the nation’s #1 super-spreader of the summer when 462,000 gathered for the rally–infecting 649 with Covid, and contributing to soaring hospitalizations throughout the region, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Despite the many Harleys that lingered at our campground beyond the last tequila shots and freshly inked tats, the streets of Deadwood were relatively crowd-free. We weaved around occasional families, and dodged small gatherings of people dressed in leather vests when they were missing masks.
Because we had little interest in repeating the same activities that brought us to the Black Hills 4 years ago–albeit still wanting to be safe in the process–we decided on pursuits that would limit our exposure to the Delta variant, like: cycling on the George Michelson Rail Trail;
touring a gold mine on the edge of town;
and strolling through Mt. Moriah Cemetery…
which I’ll detail now, with the other activity highlights to follow in future posts.
On a clear day, the best view of Deadwood gulch and the surrounding Black Hills comes from Mt. Moriah Cemetery, rising 200 ft. above town. And from the look of early photographs taken from the edge of Deadwood’s Boot Hill, not much has changed.
Thanks to the 23 casinos across town, the revenue taxed from gaming has funded the Deadwood Historic Preservation Commission which provides loans and grants for large-scale restoration projects that manage to keep the 19th century vibe alive.
When strolling down Main Street, it’s easy to imagine the likes of Jack McCall sneaking up on Wild Bill Hickok while he played a hand of poker at Saloon #10,
and shooting him dead in the back of the head on August 2, 1876.
Wild Bill’s final resting place is just beyond the cemetery gates.
Calamity Jane, per her dying wish, keeps him company next door.
However, it was widely known that Wild Bill had no use for her and considered her a nuisance, which makes their graveyard union the cruelest of eternal jokes.
There are many distinct sections of Mt. Moriah Cemetery:
A children’s section of unmarked graves calls attention to a time of heartfelt tragedy;
In Section Six, an alter for offerings to departed spirits denotes the thriving community of 400 Chinese immigrants who followed their dream of striking it rich during Deadwood’s Gold Rush. Thirty-three souls were buried in Section Six, but only three remain, with the majority having been disinterred and returned to China;
There is a Soldiers’ Lot of Civil War veterans administered by the NCA;
But most interesting is the Jewish section, known as Hebrew Hill,honoring many Jewish pioneers who made significant civic, commercial and social contributions to Deadwood society, notably:
Harris Franklin, an immigrant entrepreneur from Prussia who amassed a fortune through banking, ranching, mining, and hospitality, and whose son became the the second mayor of Deadwood;
and Nathan Colman, who became Deadwood’s life-long elected Justice of the Peace, and lay Rabbi for the Jewish community for more than thirty years. His daughter, Blanche was the first woman from Black Hills to be admitted to the South Dakota Bar.
Oddly, Solomon Star is missing from Mt. Zion. He died alone on his Deadwood estate in 1917, and was thrown a lavish funeral fit for a king by the townsfolk…but he was buried in St. Louis.
Sol Star was a dedicated public servant, who served on Deadwood’s first town council before becoming Deadwood’s ten-term Mayor. He was elected to the State House of Representatives, and won a seat in South Dakota’s State Senate shortly after. He finished his civic career as Lawrence County’s Clerk of Courts for twenty years.
But if that wasn’t enough, Sol Star was also a long-time business associate of Seth Bullock, the undisputed king of the hill…
from where he shares unimpeded views of the Black Hills with his wife, Martha beside him.
Seth Bullock’s origin story is an essential part of Black Hills lore. He arrived two days after Wild Bill was murdered and was quickly appointed Deadwood’s first Sheriff. He was an imposing figure who got the job done without ever killing a man or woman.
He celebrated his deeply personal friendship with Teddy Roosevelt by building The Friendship Tower atop a peak in the Black Hills National Forest 2.5 miles from Deadwood…
and declared it Mount Roosevelt.
All the history that’s baked into the bones of Deadwood’s dearly departed, and all of the iconic imagery that’s scattered among them are references and remembrances of a time when people pulled together and persevered.
Together, they tamed the Wild West. Together, they defeated lawlessness with civility, and went on to create a diverse and inclusive community that was determined to improve their condition through mutual cooperation.
And they accomplished this in the midst of Black Hills, South Dakota…
Billings was our final stopover in Montana before continuing east to Deadwood, SD. Upon arrival, Billings health officials issued a local advisory restricting outdoor activity due to a blanket of smoke and ash that had invaded the valley from several regional fires that were burning unabated.
While we would have preferred exploring the winding trails through the Rimrock Bluffs–overlooking the Yellowstone River and town–we lowered our expectations, given the extreme heat and unhealthy air quality index, and opted for a brief walking tour through Pictograph Cave State Park, known for its natural and cultural significance.
Just a 5-mile jaunt south of Billings, we approached a sandstone bluff in the shape of a horseshoe, and turned into an empty parking lot. Surprisingly, the Visitor’s Center was open and filled with a variety of artifacts that WPA workers recovered from the cave floor between 1937 and 1941–considered the first major archeological excavation on the Northern Plains.
In all, over 30,000 artifacts were discovered, with some dating back over 9,000 years.
We cautiously hiked up a narrow, sandy footpath through sprigs of yarrow and juniper shrubs, hoping to avoid an encounter with a prairie rattlesnake or bull snake…
until we reached the mouth of Pictograph Cave, revealing a stone wall that was once part of a ceremonial lodge. The dotted line above the left side of the wall structure was drawn by WPA workers to mark the original floor line before they began digging.
We stood motionless for a beat to allow our eyes to adjust to the shadows, before scanning the cave in search of ancient charcoal and red markings. Even with the help of graphic displays that emphasized these creations,
it was no less a challenge to identify the drawings due to a veil of calcium that had formed over the pigment during a dry period. These figures were carbon dated between 1480 to 1650 A.D.
The red pigment was created from an ancient recipe combining ground up hematite (concentrated iron ore) with assorted binders such as animal fat, berries, blood and adjusted with water or urine while heated to form a paste that was applied by finger or stick.
A rack of flintlock rifles that were painted within the last 200 years is located no more than 15 feet away from the other figures.
While not the easiest to decipher, a nearby graphic makes it more apparent.
Continuing our walk along the cliff, we reached a middle cave with evidence of clams fossils and other sea life embedded in sandstone that likely lived during the late Cretaceous Period when this portion of America was under water.
Then up a rising that followed the curvature of the cliff, we reached the Ghost Cave. While no drawings were discovered here, a series of round boulders known as concretions formed as a result of a clam bed that was exposed when the sea eventually receded.
These cliffs continue to evolve as winter ice cuts through brittle stone; massive rains charge over the cliffs, turning into intermittent waterfalls; and smoke ash eats away at porous surfaces.
While the evolution of our landscape is inevitable, we must look for ways to tap the brakes on what’s creating the intensity and severity of our man-made issues, and allow nature to take its true course.
After all, it’s not supposed to be this hot; it’s not supposed to be this dry; and it’s not supposed to be this smoky during Montana summers.
The short answer is,”Not so great; it used to be greater.” But then there are those who prefer baldness to a full head of hair. Allow me to explain:
To be fair, my perception of Great Falls is not how it originally presented to Meriwether Lewis and William Clark,
while they mapped the mighty Missouri on their epic expedition from Pittsburgh to Fort Clatsop, at the mouth of the Columbia River.
Lewis’s impression of Great Falls was, according to Paul Russell Cutright, in his book Lewis & Clark, Pioneering Naturalists, “the grandest sight he had ever beheld, the water of the Missouri here dropping over a precipice more than 80 feet high. He stood motionless for a long time, completely enchanted by the beauty of the scene.”
In fact, as Lewis slowly portaged the Great Falls in June 1805 (his greatest challenge to date), he was amazed to find not just one “great falls,” but a series of five falls of varying sizes that dropped the river level a total of 612 feet over a 10-mile stretch.
Then came the dams. By harnessing the power of five falls with five 20th century hydro-power plants, the industrial age awakened the West, and “The Electric City” became an important crossroad for future settlement, forsaking the beauty long admired by the Blackfeet and other tribes.
Leah and I set out to discover the “falls”, by racing to Ryan Dam before the last light of day.
The gorge was aglow,
while the sinking sun was offering up a shadowless palette of pastels.
I imagined the falls as it once was and what it’s become…
and wrestled with my first impression informed by mountain and machine.
There is no denying that nature has carved out something very special…
but the landscape has been inalterably changed.
Big skies are forever interrupted,
and prairies yield to bounty over beauty.
The following day, we set out by bicycle on the River’s Edge Trail to “find” the other falls.
Nearly 60 miles of paved and single-track trail along the Missouri River provided panoramic views of scenic river valleys;
engaged us with public art created by local artists…
as we rode through neighborhood parks.
The trail carried us to cliffside lookouts of Black Eagle Falls and Dam…
Rainbow Falls and Dam…
and Crooked Falls (still untouched by a dam);
while also connecting us to historic downtown, filled with numerous casino options and burgers to die for…
at the celebrated Roadhouse Diner.
Unfortunately, our search for Colter Falls (the final of five falls) would remain unfulfilled, as the reservoir created by the Rainbow Dam has permanently submerged Colter Falls (making this the perfect metaphor for Great Falls) to the extent that we are left to debate if commerce is a compromise or a sacrifice.
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…
Leah and I crossed the great Mississippi on our way from Memphis, TN to Hot Springs, AK by-way-of I-55 after Tennessee DOT inspectors closed the I-40 Hernando DeSoto Bridge 16 days earlier, blaming a crack in one-of-two 900-ft structural beams.
It was a major traffic snafu, but I also remember thinking at the time that this was a bad omen of sorts, yet so apropos, given our divided nation debating whether a critical investment in infrastructure is necessary for our survival.
Things had gone smoothly during our first month on the road, until we hit this speedbump traveling from the eastern states to the western states. Absent a few nagging issues on the shape of Lay-Dee! (our newest-used Globetrotter), this was a minor inconvenience.
But any concern about its impact on our Memorial Day holiday quickly vanished after a hug from a nursery school buddy I haven’t seen in 50 years. And it was great reunion.
Lee and Debra’s hospitality extended to a tour of Crystal Bridges Art Museum,
and an overnight at their home near Wally World.
When we left our friends for OKC, our F-150 hit a new milestone which we mistook for a good omen.
However, the following family reunion with Carrie and grandchildren was temporarily delayed by an Airstream blowout the moment we crossed into New Mexico from Texas. Bad juju, right?
Once we were back on the road,
our visit with Carrie and the kids began in Santa Rosa, where we cooled off (62°F ) at the Blue Hole,
and continued at Dan’s house in Cedar Crest, where Lay-dee! dropped anchor.
Soon after, Carrie surprised Gabe and Devon with Lucy–from erstwhile riding pony to Aiken family adoptee.
It was a brief and bittersweet visit…
but we had to move on to Loveland, Colorado, where our African safari mates, Linda and Heather were expecting us for dinner.
We left Lay-dee! behind in Dirk and Heather’s hayfield,
While keeping company at Linda’s house with her goofy Newfie, Angus…
and Forrest the gentle giant, who passed away 2 months after our visit.
From Loveland, it was short drive to Cheyenne, WY to reconnect with NJ hiking buddies George and Tere, and meet their uni-corny granddaughter, Val.
Leah and I boondocked behind their house at night…
and enjoyed the local parks…
and museums by day.
Eventually, Leah and I worked our way to the Pacific coast, where African safari mates Michael and Brenda were holding a table for us at a popular Newport, OR fish house…
on the historic wharf.
At last, Leah and I arrived in metropolitan Seattle, where my son Nate has settled for the past three years, and we were there to pop his National Park cherry.
Despite being only two hours away from Mt. Rainier, Nate has never had the opportunity to get any closer, and we were determined to fix that.
Finally, we arrived in Spokane, where cousin Lisa, her son David, and partner Bob hosted and fed us for three days…
preparing us for the long trip back home…with plenty of new adventures and miles along the way.
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.
According to the latest business census, there are over 150 places / reasons to enjoy an adult grape beverage in Woodinville, be it a wine bar, a wine cellar, a tasting room or a winery. So many choices and so little time…what a dilemma!
So Leah and I relied on our friend Hali, who used to pour for DeLille Cellars when she lived in the vicinity, and she offered some helpful recommendations, which prompted us to make reservations long before our arrival, because time slots at popular locations can fill quickly.
Woodinville has become a popular weigh station for Seattle folks and world travelers to sample Columbia Valley varietals and blends without having to travel east of the Cascades to taste the fruit off the vine.
Much like Napa and Sonoma, hot, dry summers and cold winters make Columbia Valley’s climate perfect for cultivating fine grapes. Then the harvest is shipped west, where Woodinville vintners can perform their magic.
With wines now scoring in the mid-90s, Woodinville is stepping out of the cool vibe shadow of California’s Wine Country, and making a play for some of the best Syrah’s, Merlots, and Chardonnays in America, while serving in casual and laid-back surroundings.
Leah and I scheduled our tastings over three afternoons, with my son Nathan joining us on the last day.
Notable for its country charm, Chateau Ste. Michelle always earns a visit.
As Washington’s founding winery, and Wine Spectator’s 2004 American Winery of the Year, Chateau Ste. Michelle has become Columbia Valley’s global ambassador for its award-winning regional wines, which made it a good place to start our tasting.
We were seated outdoors and served a pitcher of water, a wine glass, and a placemat holding four mini carafes of our flight selections for $25 each. Because of COVID-19, our cheese plate came pre-packaged from a catering clerk for $17.
We had high expectations.
While all four wines were worthy of showcasing, none of them was especially worthy of purchasing a bottle. However, we did secure concert tickets for the Summer Night Music Series, featuring Kara Hesse at Chateau Ste. Michelle’s Amphitheatre.
Our next stop the following day was to DeLille Cellars,
where we enjoyed a flight of terrific Bordeaux-inspired blends…
in their newly, appointed tasting loft, repurposed from Redhook Brewery.
To our surprise, our wine tasting and cheese board was comped by Wine Club personnel in deference to Hali, which compelled us to ship home a 6-pack of their glorious 2018 D2.
On the third day of Wino Appreciation Week, Leah and I walked a stretch of the Sammamish River Trail–
all the while puckering our lips, jiggling our wrists and cleansing our palates–in anticipation of tasting wine from three new winemakers–but this time with Nate in tow for his first official pouring.
After lunching on flatbread pizza at Woodinville Wine Country, we sat around al fresco at a pouring counter representing Pepper Bridge and Amavi Cellars. Nathan gave each menu a thorough reading, but he was illiterate in wine-speak, uncertain of grape varietals, and unsure how wine might taste like cured meat and figs, so he followed my lead. I drank from the right menu and Leah from the left menu, although she shared her pours with me.
Leah and I walked away with a bottle of Sémillon from Amavi, and Nate walked away with a new appreciation of bourgeois culture, conceding that wine tasting could make an interesting first date.
We continued our wine crawl across the road at Guardian Cellars. We were seated under an awning and presented with a tasting menu. We had a chuckle over the names of wines before realizing that Guardian owners, Jerry Riener is a cop by day and a winemaker when he’s not a cop, and his wife Jennifer Sullivan is a reporter by trade and pours wine on the weekends.
Thanks again to Hali, who arranged to transfer her Guardian club membership to us for the day, so our tasting was gratis. But alas, we left the scene of the crime, empty-handed, only to be remembered by our finger prints and DNA residue on the glassware.
That evening, our last in Woodinville, we attended singer/songwriter, Kara Hesse’s concert at Chateau Ste. Michelle Amphitheatre–our first concert since the COVID-19 outbreak–and we came ready to party, but house rules clearly stated: Wine is welcome, but only if the Chateau Ste. Michelle label is affixed to the bottle. So we stuck with water.
The lawn was dotted with couples, friends and families enjoying picnics from lawn blankets and stadium chairs, and the atmosphere was festive.
Kara and her band had just taken the stage to cheers from the crowd when a hot air balloon sailed across the sky.
What? A balloon?
It was a small distraction, and one that was easily forgotten once Kara warmed up to give us her impression of what Stevie Nicks, Bonnie Raitt and Cheryl Crow might sound like if all three voices were put in a blender.
Two things I learned that day:
I would have enjoyed the concert more if I was drinking wine instead of water;
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.
Leah and I had a lot of ground to cover during our brief visit to the Oregon Coast. With so much to see and do before we moved on, there was little time to waste. We immersed ourselves in seaside activities until we were Ore-goners.
We set up our first camp site at South Beach State Park, and made a beeline to the beach. After 10 weeks and 9,000 miles on the road, we were finally celebrating “sea to shining sea.”
The following morning, we visited Yaquina Head to play in the tidepools;
observe the seabirds,
study the sealions;
and visit Oregon’s tallest lighthouse (93 feet), projecting its light beam 19 miles out to sea since 1873.
And then we were off to Newport’s Historic Bayfront,
where we lunched with our safari buddies Brenda and Michael, who drove from Portland to join us for the afternoon.
On our last full day at South Beach, we played nature tourist. We gawked at Devil’s Punchbowl;
the Seal Rock;
and Cook’s Chasm.
We combed the black sand beaches, searching for sea glass gems;
and we were entertained by surfers braving frigid waters along Beverly Beach to round out our day.
Typically on moving day, it’s clean-up, hitch-up and safety check before moving on to our next destination. Once in a while we’ll break up the drive by stopping for lunch at a roadside dive, but mostly we’ll snack in the pickup. However on this particular day, on our way up the Oregon Coast Highway to Cannon Beach, we were eager to stop at Tillamook Creamery.
And we were not alone. Hundreds were passing through the overhead exhibition windows with us…
before earning a taste of Oregon’s finest ice cream.
Once situated at camp site #2, we were free to roam the shore to explore a different kind of scoop, but still a rocky road…
along Ecola State Park.
Our evening was reserved for clam chowder at Dooger’s in Seaside, and then a walk along their lively beach at dusk.
The area is also filled with history. Leah and I spent the next day time climbing through the gunnery emplacements at Fort Stevens,
intended to protect the mouth of the Columbia River.
We also discovered the Peter Iredale, or what was left of the four-masted steel barque sailing vessel that ran aground in 1906 en route to the Columbia River.
Nearby, the Lewis and Clark Historical Park offered a replica of Fort Clatsup,
and a glimpse of early 19th century housing for Capt. Meriwether Lewis and Lieut. William Clark,
and their guide Sacagawea and son, Baptiste.
Finally, a day of walking through Astoria gave us wonderful examples of coastal living…
and coastal culture,
But a hike up 164 steps to the tower of the hand-painted Astoria Column…
offered us a scenic perspective…
that prepared us…
for our crossing to Washington’s Olympic National Park.
I’ve longed to experience Oregon’s rugged coastline in person ever since the 4th grade, when I was assigned to write an essay on Pacific Ocean sea stacks by my social studies teacher. I can remember dutifully tracing the shapes of coastal rock formations from an atlas I discovered at my community library in preparation for the accompanying poster that counted for 50% of my grade.
60 years later, I finally got to see this exquisite landscape with my own eyes, and it was worth the wait. So much so, that I decided to reenact the assignment and create a new poster of my own images.
(Click on any of the images for a full-frame slide show)