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.

On Shaky Ground, Part 1

via Daily Post: loop

I know I’ve complained about crowd size at National Parks before, but now that summer is upon us, and we’ve arrived at Yellowstone, it seems as if this park is bursting at the seams. Today, we abandoned our plans to visit the Upper and Lower Falls of Yellowstone’s Grand Canyon because of traffic, and we’re not returning tomorrow.

We started out four days ago, driving to Yellowstone after an overnight stay at Colter Bay in Grand Teton National Park. Unfortunately, the campground was at capacity, without any opportunity of staying an extra night… and we would have stayed had there been a cancellation, despite the broken water valve at our site. (Leah negotiated a $5 discount for the inconvenience.)

It meant there was little time to explore, given our late arrival after driving five hours from an overnight at Rawlins, WY, a whirlwind dust-bowl of a town that features the Wyoming Frontier Prison, a retired state penitentiary-turned-museum as its biggest distraction. Sorry, but we had little interest in “doing time” at a prison.

With limited daylight at Grand Teton, a hike around a portion of Jackson Lake was all we could muster.

Flowers and TetonsLakeviewmoored boats

The transition between Grand Teton and Yellowstone is seamless, with the South Entrance serving as the gateway to both parks along the John D. Rockefeller Memorial Parkway.

Although we were towing the Airstream through the park to our West Yellowstone campsite, we elected to stop at Old Faithful to stretch our legs with a few thousand others.

old faithful crowd

But it was worth it!

people watching eruptionInside Old Faithful

After an abbreviated walk along the Upper Geyser Basin with half the population of China, we decided to call it a day. The setting and throngs of tourists left us uneasy to a “fault”.

UGB6Upper Geyser BasinUGB2UGB4

Arriving at Wagon Wheel RV Campground, an open over-crowded sand pit in West Yellowstone presented its own set of problems. Our designated reserved site had been cut in half. What was once a long splinter of space that would barely accommodate a pull-through trailer with tow vehicle, had now become two sites. Our front-side neighbor pulled through yesterday, leaving me the compromised backside of the plot to back into from the street.

back to back

It was like threading the Airstream through a narrow tube, backwards.


Leah was furious. With no other available space anywhere in the park’s vicinity, we accepted our fate, but not until Leah wrangled a $20 discount for each of our five nights.

The next day, we completed the 70-mile Upper Loop.  Our objective was to take the counterclockwise route to avoid early road construction delays between Norris and Mammoth Hot Springs. To complete the loop, we would need to leave Mammoth by 6:30 pm before the construction crew shut down the road. It took us ten hours to make the circle, but gave us many unexpected thrills.

full bisonBison profile1

We followed the road past Gibbon Falls,

Gibbon Falls LSGibbon Fallsmuddy water

to the Norris Geyser Basin,

Norris prismUGB1

where an Oregon idiot dissolved to death last year by slipping into a boiling spring. Apparently, he and his sister carelessly wandered 225 yards of the boardwalk trail near Porkchop Geyser. The Norris region is home to the oldest and hottest geothermal activity in the park.

smoke and water

There were no remains to recover.


Our leisurely drive continued uninterrupted, winding through numerous mountain passes and rolling meadows until traffic slowed to a standstill near a swarm of pedestrians who blocked the road with their vehicles parked and running. Parents with children were dashing across the road, weaving through an impromptu parking lot and up a knoll overlooking a valley. I managed to park the truck 50 yards away at a turn-in, and ran with my camera.

black bear dinnerbear2bears

We arrived at Mammoth Hot Springs by 6 pm as the bright sun was casting tall shadows against the terrace wall.

terracesUGB5Mammoth HS terrace1 (2)Mammoth HS terrace

Time at the top of the park was limited. Our newest concern was getting back to West Yellowstone before the road closed. Most of the way back was a work zone, with alternating one-lane traffic slogging through packed dirt until we reached the Norris junction.

That’s when things got strange…

Part 2 coming soon.