On Steady Ground, Part 3

Leah and I were breaking up with Yellowstone Park. In the beginning, the park had welcomed us and offered us sanctuary. At times, it made us dizzy with excitement. Despite all the wonderful things the park had brought into our lives (the scenery, the animals, and the natural oddities), there was little doubt that the park was making it hard for us to breathe… most noticably by the basin springs belching sulfurous gas.

From the beginning, it was everything we could ever hope for–the park revealing its majestic views of the mountaintops; the regularity of the geysers; the explosive colors of the basin-bacteria; the rare excitement that only a new relationship can bring. And we were intoxicated by all of it.

It was easy to overlook or forgive some of the park’s flaws during our honeymoon phase: the thinning forests ravaged by fire, the intensity of the water from late winter thaw, and the wildlife fickleness. But none of it matters when you’re blinded by the lushness of the meadows, the clarity of the water, and the immensity of the spectacle.

But somewhere along the line, our relationship with Yellowstone soured. While we knew it was unreasonable to expect monogamy from Yellowstone–knowing that 2.2 million acres should be enough to go around for everyone– we couldn’t help feeling neglected, thanks to all the other visitors who were vying for the same attention.

I feared we were growing apart from Yellowstone. Could it be we were no longer compatible? Were our expectations too high and unreasonable? It’s true there were things we wanted from Yellowstone that the park was unable to deliver. In addition to less traffic and fewer people on the trails, we wanted shorter lines at the entrance gate, and quicker service and lower prices at the restaurants. Was that too much to ask for?

Bottom line, we were no longer getting along. The relationship was too one-sided. Leah and I were putting so much time and energy into the park, and not getting enough back in return. The memory of driving three hours, only to travel thirty miles left us disappointed, and frustrated. The imagined traffic violation from Ranger Painter felt like a “double-cross”.

We felt rejected by the park.

But I was still willing to give the park another chance. I thought that things inside the park could be different if it wasn’t a weekend–when the park wouldn’t be as stressed out. Leah, on the other hand, wasn’t as forgiving. “I’m done!” she announced. “I’m not going back.” She was determined to make a clean break of it.

“But it’s not entirely the park’s fault,” I argued, already suffering from an acute case of separation anxiety. However, in my heart I knew I was covering for a park that had let me down.

Maybe Leah was right. Maybe we should cut our losses, and stop beating ourselves up. We needed to put this abusive relationship behind us.

We agreed that we needed to put some space between us and Yellowstone to give us some perspective. A respite from Yellowstone would help to clear our minds and cleanse our hearts of our frayed feeling towards the park. I was tired of feeling angry at Yellowstone, and I wanted the magic to return.

As with any break-up, it’s always best to confide in a friend to gain clarity. Fortunately, a friend living only 100 miles away from West Yellowstone allowed us to overnight at his two-bedroom condo in Driggs, ID. While it was good catching up with George, it was also gratifying standing under a full-sized shower with constant pressure.

We discussed our soured relationship with Yellowstone over dinner with George, Kate (his daughter), and Kate’s husband Kevin, a full-time fishing guide during fishing seasons. It was an awesome reunion, sitting outside in a restaurant garden setting during the summer solstice.

“Crowded park conditions are to be expected this time of year, considering the park’s popularity,” announced Kevin. “It’s the best water for fishing right now, and it’s where I take my clients. It’s simply the best place to go.”

“I wish we had the luxury to return during a different time of year, but this is the only time we’re passing through,” announced Leah.

“I think that sums it up,” I added. “It’s really now or never. Sometimes you have to give a little to get a little,” I opined, sounding too much like Dr. Phil’s proxy.

The following day, we headed over the Teton Pass into Jackson Hole for bagels. We casually walked through town, bracing ourselves for the long ride through Teton National Park and into Yellowstone.

But we had to stop at Ox Bow for one last glimpse of the austere grandeur of the Tetons.

ox bow 1

By 1:00 pm, we crossed over to Yellowstone’s South Entrance. where an idle gate ranger awaited our arrival. Leah and I exchanged an optimistic glance, unwilling to jinx ourselves by stating the obvious. After a quick bite at Grant Village, we continued around West Thumb, where the road hugs Lake Yellowstone, showcasing its bedazzling blue splendor.

We justified a stop at Mud Volcano to stretch our legs…

mud volcano

buffalo mudders

sour lake

mud volcano bird

…before finishing with a rim trail hike to Lower Falls, and bearing witness to the power of water cascading over a sheer cliff,

Lower falls establishingthen crashing against the brush-stroked walls of Yellowstone’s Grand Canyon.

Yellowstone was the first National Park signed into law by U.S. Grant in 1872…

and you never forget your first love.

On Shaky Ground, Part 2

(picture credit: UUSS)

Leah and I passed through the construction zone with time to spare, thus avoiding the road closure, and reducing our stress level. It was 7:00 pm, we were tired, and I needed a break from driving since 10:00 am. If we could make it through the next 28 miles without incident, we’d be out of the park and on our way to dinner. We continued toward Madison junction at a normal pace, until once again, traffic stalled to a stand-still.

Cars were pulling over left and right, creating a logjam. The Gibbon River to my left and the foothills of Mt. Holmes to my right offered scant shoulder room to negotiate a roadside pull-over, yet I managed to maneuver the truck clear of the solid white line to investigate for myself.  Just then, a Park Ranger pulled his patrol car behind me with lights flashing.
“Finally,” exclaimed Leah, “there’s someone here to control this traffic mess!”
I dashed across the road to discover a family of elk dining on long grass on the other side of the river, while the ranger seemed powerless to control the many onlookers. Instead, he joined all us at the water’s edge to admire the scene.
Elk and fawns
I turned to ask Ranger Painter a question. “Is there any concern to the public about the earthquake swarm that’s been recorded since the weekend?”
Since June 12, the northwestern edge of the park (our location) had experienced over 464 events, with the largest quake registering 4.4 magnitude on June 15.
Scientists reported,
“This is the highest number of earthquakes at Yellowstone within a single week in the past five years, but is fewer than weekly counts during similar earthquakes swarms in 2002, 2004, 2008 and 2010.”
The last major eruption of the Yellowstone supervolcano was a magnitude-7.5 event in 1959 at Hebgen Lake–the same vicinity experiencing the latest seismic activity–resulting in a landslide that killed twenty-eight people.
Painter responded, “Is that your red F-150 parked over there?”
“It is,” I answered, “but it’s not for sale,” I added.
“There’s been a report about unsafe driving–that you’ve been passing on a double yellow. Is that true?” asked Ranger Painter.
Incredulous, I asked, “Are you sure you have the right truck? There must be a hundred or more red trucks in the park.”
“But your’s is the only one from New Jersey,” he asserted. “Another ranger witnessed you unlawfully passing, and put in a general call to pull you over. That means I’m supposed to give you a ticket from him for the offense. So, I’m gonna need to see your license, registration and insurance card, please.”
“Are you kidding me? This is extortion! There’s no way I did what he said. And if it’s true, then why didn’t your buddy pull me over?” I insisted.
“Look, I understand your frustration, and I don’t think this is the best way of doing things either.” Painter shrugged, “Personally, I hate doing someone’s dirty work, but I’m just the messenger. This is gonna take a little time, so you’re welcome to continue taking pictures if you want.”
After twenty minutes, the elk returned to the forest, and the crowds diminished. Painter returned to the truck, with my citation. “First of all,” he started, “I want to thank you for not being a jerk.”
“Not my nature,” I declared.
“Good,” Painter responded, “because I didn’t cite you for careless driving like the other ranger advised, which would have been a $200 offense. Instead, I wrote you up for unsafe passing, which only carries a $60 fine… and a $30 processing fee.
“What? A $30 processing fee on top of the ticket. You guys give new meaning to highway robbery,” I alleged.
“What can I say? Everything’s going up,” Painter posited. “Just sign at the bottom,” he instructed, offering the violation notice. “I’m also giving you this flyer, ’cause if you think this is unfair, then call the number and maybe you’ll get the ticket dismissed if you fight it.
“You bet I will,” I pronounced.
“Drive safely,” Painter forewarned, “and you’re in no danger of being caught in an earthquake.”
We finished the ride home to our Airstream in West Yellowstone without words or further incident after completing the Upper Loop in 10 exhausting hours.
The next day, we planned to follow the Lower Loop around, but we were grounded the moment we passed through the West Entrance. Our intention was to leave for the park on the earlier side of 9:00 am, but arranging future reservations in Canada’s national parks had proved more elusive and time-consuming. Consequently, traffic into the park was such a snarl by 10:30 am that cyclists with loaded side bags were making better time. After three hours, we managed to travel thirty ebb-and-flow miles. We were so far behind the tie-up that we could never figure why things were moving so slowly, although we surmised that it was animal-related.
We ate our lunch at Fountain Paint Pot, and walked the boardwalk through a desolate field of fumaroles, geysers, and hot springs, glad to finally stretch our legs. I chose to photograph the landscape as “abstract in nature”, sometimes compressing depth with a longer focal length…
blue flats
Fountain Paint Pot flats
bacteria trail
bacteria swirl
…or extending time by shooting at high speeds…
mud pop
…before moving onto Black Sand Basin to capture and accentuate true color through a polarizing filter.
Norris Geyser Basin
 emerald hot spring
prismatic pool
Leah and I agreed that it made little sense to continue the loop. It was already 4:30 pm. We called it quits before reaching Old Faithful, knowing full well that we would be driving into the eye of traffic turmoil, and realizing that the ride back to West Yellowstone could be unpredictable.
We originally planned to explore the park in five days, by pacing ourselves through the highlights, but allowing for a deeper connection by hiking some of the 1000 miles of available trails. But the Yellowstone crowds squashed our enthusiasm, and wore us out. Leah vowed that we would not return to the park in the foreseeable future, even through two more days were scheduled.
Part 3 reveals how we spent the remainder of our time.

Rocky Road National Park

With so much attention being paid to the over-crowded conditions at National Parks this year, Leah and I were optimistic that Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) would allow us some breathing room—despite a doomsday article recently published by Denver Post that boasted a 21% increase in visitor attendance at RMNP over the same month last year (Denver Post). According to the NPS, more than 1 million people will make RMNP their vacation destination in the next six weeks and that does not bode well for the visitor who comes to enjoy the park.

Apparently, when Trump announced a federal hiring freeze one week after taking office, the park was unable to move forward with seasonal hires, leaving the Park Service unprepared to staff its most popular and profitable parks. Additionally, there was no budget allowance for background checks and bonding of future employees, which has translated into longer lines at Park Service admissions, and fewer transactions at Park Service Conservancy Nature Stores. Penny-wise, pound-foolish economics!

We arrived in line at 1pm on Monday. After half-an-hour, we crossed the threshold into RMNP. Signs were posted along the way announcing full occupancy at all campgrounds. I felt fortunate snagging a camp-site for three nights at Glacier Basin—a no-services facility—through the NPS reservations web-site over six months ago.

I produced my Senior Pass credentials to the ranger at the gatehouse, and received an obligatory park map, but not a newspaper, because the official newspaper of RMNP had run out before noon. The newspapers are a vital resource to the park’s success, given the hands-on information that visitors rely on when planning their stay, notwithstanding: safety protocols, hiking trails, shuttle bus schedules, ranger-led programs, road and trail conditions, and visitor center(s) hours of operation.

After unhitching the trailer, Leah and I elected to tour the north side of the park, following the Trail Ridge Road to the Alpine Visitor Center,

rainbow curve
Rainbow Curve
forest canyon panorama
Forest Canyon
Iceberg Pass Panorama
Iceberg Pass

and past the highest point of any NPS road (12183 ft.).

Gore Range 2
Gore Range
Gore Range
Medicine Bow Curve

Several look-outs along the way provided ample opportunities to be blown about by sustained winds of 50 mph, admire wide-open views of nearby mountain ranges in the blistering cold, and escape from the occasional driver who negotiates a hairpin turn while pointing a camera outside his window.

With such a high number of drivers who suffer from altitude stupidity, it’s a wonder there aren’t more accidents like the one we came across that closed the road for an hour until a tow-truck arrived to cart away the collision. It’s also a special breed of driver who comes to the park and thinks it okay to stop in the middle of the road to observe a crowd watching something off the side of the road.

3 elk

elk portrait (3)

Sadly, it’s probably the same driver who lollygags at 18 mph, when all the vehicles trailing behind are aching to achieve the 35 mph speed limit. It’s as if people have come to the park to practice their driving, turning the roads into a fright of passage.

While it was difficult to completely avoid the road toads, Leah and I managed to steer clear of much the traffic tie-ups by exploring more remote regions of the park during our three-day visit. One 7-mile hike on the edge of Grand Lake took us to the top of Cascade Falls,

Colorado River

where so much run-off from late snow had produced a torrent of moving water.

Cascade Falls1

moving water

Drainage from the Ptargiman Mountain was becoming an issue, so a crew was dispatched to redirect the spill over from the falls.


The next day, a 5-mile hike off the Moraine Park spur led us to Cub Lake in the shadow of Steep Mountain.

cub lake

Considered an easy hike by the trail guide, Leah was unconvinced by the steep rocky incline to the gorge—narrow and muddy, and shared by horses—which led to lots of side-stepping.

trail horses cub lake

Not to be deterred, Leah would lobby for a label that was more suitable. After following the half-mile loop around Bear Lake, one of the park’s most popular subalpine locales–distinguished by its late thaw,

bear lake with mountains

and smooth-as-glass lake surface–


Leah stopped to ask a ranger’s opinion of the Cub Lake Trail. To Leah’s delight, the ranger agreed that the hike should be upgraded from easy to moderate, but only because of its duration.

The thin air and jaw-dropping views of mountain peaks, canyons, snowfields, lakes, meadows, falls and forests left us breathless. But we came for the animals as well. We waited patiently for nearly an hour at Sheep Lake with the hope that the park’s bighorn sheep and their lambs might descend from the mountain to graze and lick mud in the meadow below. The timing was right—no coyotes were spotted at the pond—but the sheep had other ideas, and stayed where they were.

But there was no shortage of chipmunks, squirrels and marmots.

RMNP is a delicate ecosystem that has been managed since 1915. With so many visitors eager to pilgrimage to the park, the importance of preservation and land stewardship along with proper funding will drive the next one hundred years, provided Sunday drivers stay off the roads.

A Park By Any Other Name*

If you could mix Sedona’s red rocks,

chimney rock
Not Sedona–Capitol Reef
scenic hwy1
Not Sedona–Capitol Reef

with Painted Desert’s colors,

capitol reef
Not Petrified Forest–Capitol Reef
rock faces
Not Petrified Forest–Capitol Reef

and Zion’s canyon walls,

canyon walls
Not Zion–Capitol Reef
scenic hwy canyon wall1
Not Zion–Capitol Reef

and Canyonland’s monoliths,

Not Canyonland–Capitol Reef
Not Canyonland–Capitol Reef

while also adding Arches’ arches…

Hickman Bridge1
Not Arches–Capitol Reef
hickman bridge2
Not Arches–Capitol Reef

in a geologic blender, then stir in one cup of Fremont River water,  Fremont River

top with orchard fruit,Capitol Reef orchard (2)sprinkle in some petroglyphs,

and season with Mormon history,school house (2)you would have a delicious National Park named Capitol Reef that few would ever taste. And that would be the greatest crime, because this is a four-course park that satisfies all the senses, and requires at least four days to consume all it has to offer.

And yet Capitol Reef stands out as a National Park that’s most in need of a publicist or a brand manager. For a park that has so much to offer, it defies logic that little more than 1 million visited last year. Maybe it’s the name. It’s connotation to Washington–as unpopular as politics are today–might have an impact. Or perhaps the mention of “Reef” confuses visitors who may mistakenly associate a park bordering on Utah’s shoreline. Either way, it’s time to re-imagine a name that befits this jewel.

A big regret when planning our itinerary through Utah was naively categorizing this park as “order-to-go” fare, when it clearly requires a more leisurely approach to appreciate all its hearty features and delicate nuances.

Our two days at Capitol Reef were full and varied. We hiked; we drove; we participated in ranger-led discussions; and we off-roaded. We also got caught in a flash flood just minutes after taking the scenic drive–with all the wash basins turning red from torrential run-off, stranding dozens of cars in the canyon until the rain ran its course.flash flood (2)But we would not be detained. The truck’s high clearance and V-8 muscle was more than enough to plow through two feet of fast water, cutting a red swath through the wash, and a sending a bloody spray across my windshield and windows. The benefit of beating the waterfall gave us the road ahead to ourselves, as all the other cars were left behind in our wake.

Conveniently, the rain passed the moment we approached the Capitol Gorge Road,dome dramaand coincidentally coincided with a Sirius-XM radio broadcast of Trump announcing the American withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord. It’s hard to relay the irony of negotiating the winding narrow passage between the canyon walls while listening to Trump rationalize his decision under the guise of job losses in front of a partisan Rose Garden rally. With every fractured sentence and every tired hyperbole, the crowd would erupt with enthusiastic applause, acknowledged by Trump’s demure, “Thank you, thank you.”

It seemed sacrilegious, listening to Trump’s politicized and pacified diatribe while zigzagging through the gorge and admiring nature’s wonders. Although the satellite signal would occasionally drift with the drive–interrupting the incongruity of his half-hour address–I was certain that Trump would never be discussing the benefits of tackling climate change, or consider the potential of adding green jobs that promote renewable energy.

The end of the Capitol Gorge Road fed into the Capitol Gorge Trail. Leaving the F-150 behind, we followed the gorge on foot,

Leah hiketracing many generations of footsteps before us.grafitti1 (2)These people left us a great treasure (discounting the grafitti–more on that later) to inspire us, but also assigned us a great responsibility to preserve and protect it so that future generations may also be inspired. Our legacy as moral and ethical humans relies on it. And our future as a planet depends on it.

And that’s when it dawned on me. Take Trumps’ tired mantra, and re-purpose it!

I hereby propose that Capitol Reef now be called “Tremendous National Park”!

What do you think?

* All photos posted are from Capitol Reef National Park. Any similarity to other National Parks is purely intentional.

Ouch! and Ahhh!–Part One

Big Bend kicked my butte today, but it also offered the perfect remedy.

Part One: “Ouch!”

Just beyond the Chisos Basin turnoff, I pulled the F-150 onto Grapevine Road, a rocky and powdery six-mile approach to the trail head of our next adventure: Balanced Rock. Far from smooth, but never boring, the ride to the trail head was a struggle between watching where I was going and watching the ever-changing landscape through the driver-side window.

Grapevine Rd

“Watch where you’re going,” Leah warns. To my ears, it sounds more like an admonition.

Over the past two month, I believe I’ve finally adjusted to driving the F-150–becoming more comfortable with its size; more reliant with its ability to haul and tow; and more familiar with all the technology built in by Ford. However,   unknown to me at the time I bought the truck is a pot-hole alarm that keenly scans the road terrain and sounds off when approaching a rough patch ahead; it’s a cool feature that’s intended as an alert to slow down and avoid the upcoming ditch when needed. While it’s worthwhile and dependable most of the time, the only way to disable it is to tell Leah to close her eyes.

Even through we’ve been off-roading for over a month now, I have hoped that Leah’s anxiety and criticism about my driving would have subsided by now. My defense is always the same.

“You’re welcome to drive anytime you like,” I offer, knowing how intimidated she is of the rig size.

“That’s not my job, that’s your job,” she always counters.

“So why are you complaining? We always manage to make it back alive, and in one piece!” I protest.

And her familiar rejoinder is always ready. “Well, maybe you won’t be so lucky next time!”

“Luck has nothing to do with it,” I say to myself.

Nevertheless, the ride is distinguished by all the outcropping of rocks so close to the road. There is so much to see that is awesome, that awesome becomes the new ordinary.

crazy face

We soon arrive to a smattering of 4 X 4-worthy vehicles parked on a plateau beside the road. Not wanting to crowd the trail, I elect to drive by and continue on Grapevine Road to see where it leads.

“You missed the trail head,” Leah advises. Her tone now borders on admonishment.

“I know, I answer, “I just want to explore to the end of the road. It’s not that far from here.”

“How are you gonna turn around if the road’s too narrow?”

I am completely unaware of the “narrow road alert” feature on the truck until now. “I’m certain there will be a turnaround at the end of the road.”

“But you don’t know that for sure,” Leah continues.

“Just a little bit of trust, please,” I manage, “and a little bit of credit to the civil engineers who built this road.”

When we get to the turnaround at the end of the road, we notice an occupied campsite with a blue pop-up tent and a folding chair. We both agree that this kind of camping is far too remote for the both us, and just like that, we’re on equal footing again.


I’m pleased to see that trail head parking has thinned out upon our return. The hike is considered moderate—a mild incline of desert terrain with a steep eighty-foot ascent at the end—but my right knee is acting up from a twelve-year-old skiing accident, and two subsequent arthroscopic interventions. All I can do is keep pushing forward, watching where I step and how I step.

“I thought you were gonna take some Aleve before you left,” Leah offered.

“But that’s not an option now, is it?” I say to myself. I never realized until now that the truck’s warning system comes with a mobile app extension. “I’ll just have to manage,” I reply aloud.

listing rock

We arrive at the uphill finale, which is not as terrible as I had imagined. While rock scrambling is inevitable, the footing is reasonable.

the thinker

Interestingly, the pain seems more tolerable the closer I get to the hike’s payoff, which in this case is spectacular—a distant mountain vista framed by a window of balanced rocks,

balance rock

…and a new twist on an old cliché:  NO GAIN, NO PANE!

Stay tuned for Part Two: “Ahhh!”


Road Toad

Driving across vast terrain of boring interstate highway can easily give rise to a semi-serious anxiety disorder called scenery-itis. It can make a person wistful and cranky after extended exposure, and at worst, it can turn other drivers into road toads–a chronic condition of a different sort, where motorists believe they can leap and fly.

Researchers have been studying this condition for as long as Sears & Roebucks have been offering driving licenses to the blind, yet they have very limited data to advance the science. Nonetheless, there are some fascinating behaviors they have chronicled to date.

For instance, three tell-tale signs commonly associated with scenery-itis that can trigger an onset are: disinterested animals grazing on roadside pastures; personal injury lawyers predominating the signscape with same-number telephone numbers (call me at 666-6666); and pecan pie outlets competing with beef jerky huts as the only available proteins.

Symptomatic drivers should pull off the road immediately after experiencing bouts of excessive yawning, blurry vision, and an inclination to count the bugs that kamikaze into their windshield.

There are two known variations of the disorder. One is called Buc-ee’s-osis, which is a knee-jerkey fixation with gas station mascots when your vehicle needs fuel.

buc ee's.jpgThe other condition is a more common affliction commonly known as drifting-into-ditch-itis.

Unfortunately, the only known cure is driving through Utah, which does little good for a driver in Texas.

Donations are now being accepted at this blog to get me to Utah as soon as possible.