Thursday, December 15, 2011

Gillian Welch at the Wilbur

Came back from a long weekend in Maine and went to see Gillian Welch and David Rawlings at the Wilbur Theater on Monday, 12/12.  We had tickets to the standing room section, stage center, and got there in time to get spaces right up against the stage to the left of David.

They opened with Orphan Girl, covered Wayside Back in Time in the first set, and closed the set with Eric Anderson's Dusty Boxcar Walls.  The second set was just drop-dead incredible from David's turns on Time the Revelator and Sweet Tooth to Gillian's incredible vocals on Dark Turn of Mind, Hard Times, and Tennessee.  They closed with two encores and their finale was Cash and Carter's Jackson.

If I have more time I'll try to describe how incredible it was.  They do the same act we've seen a number of times since 1997: same guitars, same clothes, same box ... but their presentation is what I'd call precisely spontaneous.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Dark Star Orchestra do Boston

I have to admit it, I'm slipping back into Grateful Dead fanaticism again.  After our great experience at Gathering of the Vibes this past summer and listening to the incredible Furthur show (Syracuse 2011) that Dave was just at, we were *very* psyched to see Dark Star Orchestra.  We'd never seen them before.

I emailed them soon after we got tickets a couple of months ago, suggesting that they take advantage of the fact that they were playing in Boston in late November at a site (the Wilbur Theater) just yards away from where the old Boston Music Hall was and that they [please] recreate one of my first three Dead shows, which were at the Music Hall 11/30/73-12/2/73 (see Dick's Picks 14).  There was no response from them so I figured well, they don't tell anyone what set they're going to play and they would have been nice enough to say "no" if they weren't going to, so I'll take that as a "yes!"  As it turned out, it was a "kind of."

Got into Boston through heavy traffic and parked in Sarah's building's basement in Government Center, and we walked through the Common in the rain over to the Theater District, where we slipped into Jacob Wirth's on Stuart Street.  We had a great meal there and some fine beers, served and cleared very efficiently by their remarkable staff.  Really, we both liked that restaurant a lot.  And the fun thing was that it was filling up with Deadheads (the ones who could afford it).  One guy was wearing an excellent cross between a Bruins jersey and a Dead jersey: the bears were the GD bears and the spoked B on the front was a skull (Sarah ran into him outside and he said it was a promotion from when the GD played the Garden sometime in the '80s).  One woman in tie dye was looking at the menu like she'd never seen one of those things before.

After a bunch of beers we pranced the half block over to the theater and climbed up to our great seats in the second row of the balcony.  The place was still very empty, but there was a good crowd eventually ... the balcony filled to about half full.  And the crowd was dedicated to the last man/woman to say the least.

DSO opened with Cold Rain and Snow, which was the opener at one of the '73 shows I'd been at, but then they went into Cassidy and that dashed my hopes for one of the '73 shows.  BUT what they were covering was the June 9, 1976 show at Boston Music Hall (that I'd been to of course) so I figure they took my email to heart!  This is a great setlist including such incredible sequences as Scarlet Begonias/The Music Never Stopped/Crazy Fingers (not a segue but a sequence) in the first set and Dancing In the Street into Wharf Rat(!) in the second.

But I'm getting ahead of myself (or behind myself).  I didn't have any idea during DSO's act that this was a concert I'd been to, though I could tell by the content of the show that it was the mid-70s.  Jeff Mattson announced it right at the end.  Writing and thinking about it now, the reality is that there were two concerts I have to tell you about: one of which I remember from long ago and one of which I'm still buzzing from.

I'd started attending Dead concerts in 1973 and saw them about 5 times before they announced in 1974 that they were taking a break from touring.  In that mid-decade interval I saw Garcia a good number of times, including a fantastic stand at the old Paul's Mall in Boston, and my and my friends' fervor for the Dead built to a fever pitch.  When they finally got back on the road and came East, we were beyond psyched and snapped up tickets for all four of their Boston shows.  They opened in Boston on June 9th and we were all devastated when the shows did not live up to what we expected.

In retrospect, those shows were incredible, mid-70s GD shows by a slightly rusty band who were just coming off a long break and playing it safe.  They did their big hits (of the time) but didn't get that close to the famous GD edge.  Listen to the 6/9/11 show and you can perhaps hear what we felt, that they were sleep-walking through it all.  The set lists all four nights were so similar that we actually got bored with the songs (can you believe that?).  But that's damning with too faint praise.  Wonderful things about the show were that they played St. Stephen again after they'd dropped it from their repertoire years before, they snapped out of their stupor to end the first set with a rocking Promised Land, and the Eyes Of the World in the second set was a religious experience.  You should read what this guy has to say about it and remember that when I say I was disappointed back then I would still kill most anyone now to go back to the '70s and see the Grateful Dead again, who cares if they play Cassidy over and over and over?

OK, let's rejoin Jon and Sarah in the balcony at the Wilbur in 2011 and talk some more about disappointment and ecstasy.  I was a bit freaked out by the stage layout because I'd read that DSO recreates everything *exactly* and I couldn't place it.  The keyboard was an electric piano (did that indicate Welnick era??) and was on the left, not the right.  What was probably the "lead" guitar was where Garcia stood in most eras but it didn't look like an authentic Garcia to me (so did that mean it was early, before he could afford his own designs?).  And the bass was far right but there wasn't anywhere near the stack of speakers Phil always commanded.  Maybe I'm picking nits here, but that was *not* an authentic recreation of their set/equipment.

Never mind that, DSO came out and played that '76 setlist with an incredible mix of talent and energy.  Rob Eaton as Bobby was leading the band at a great pace from the get-go and dropping jaws all around.  Mattson was fantastic on lead, Rob Barraco did some piano runs that just rocked our tushes off, Rob Koritz and Dino English on drums did a great job of recreating the Kreutzmann-Hart sound, Kevin Rosen hit the bottom end well, and Lisa Mackey was wonderful on vocals and Donna-dancing.

There was so much I liked about the show and you should have seen the way Sarah and I and almost everyone else in the balcony was dancing, raving, laughing, and freaking out.  I really liked Eaton's guitar and  I felt that Mackey's contribution to the sound was delightful, that she was incredibly successful at contributing what Donna had sincerely tried to (and succeeded at sometimes), and that she even went way beyond that.  I'd have to rate her as a big plus.

They had me at the first notes of Cold Rain and Snow (which Sarah had said they *had* to play as we slogged our way over there through the cold Common) and just ripped it up in that incredible Scarlet/Never Stopped/Crazy Fingers sequence.  The highlight of the first set was their cover of Cash's Big River and then they reprised the Dead's show-stopper for the set-closer with Berry's Promised Land.  Wow!!!!!!!!!!

Between sets I walked way downstairs to the basement men's room because they had closed the top floor one (trying to be authentic to the '76 show I guess) and then chatted up a cute chick in the beer line when I got back upstairs.  She told me about the Furthur and DSO shows she'd been to recently and I tried to impress her with tales of the many Dead concerts I'd been at.  I just happened to drop the fact that my first one had been in the Music Hall in '73.

"Gee," she said.  I was two years old back then!"
"What a coincidence," I said.  "I was too!"

At that point I did a little math and realized she was 40 ... so much for cute chicks.

Before I get back to criticism, I have to gush about the second set.  When I hear the tape of '76 I realize how accurately DSO recreated the incredible introduction to St. Stephen and I can remember the rush of hearing those chords coming out of the [1976 successor to the] Wall of Sound back then [which was still pretty awesome].  From that the Dead go into ... and DSO recreated it excellently ... what seemed to me to be a 15-minute (but other reports say 8) introduction to one of the best songs that have ever been written, Eyes Of the World.  I could and will go on: a well-baked Weather Report, a short and sweet Brown Eyed Women, an incredibly high-energy Lazy Lightning (let me go back to '76 for a minute and say that that was one of the dismaying moments of the concert for us back then, to realize that the Dead were going to play disco), a powerful Samson and then a beautiful It Must Have Been the Roses with Mackey providing some ethereal harmonies.  "Dancing" into Wharf Rat, Around and Around, and then Franklin's Tower for an encore.  We were in absolute heaven.

OK, time to criticize.  I know you'll be shocked to hear that they weren't the Dead.  They were better in some ways and nowhere near as good in others.  Plenty of positives (see above, plus the fact that they were so right to pay homage to the best band ever and so talented that they were able to pull it off so well), but they fell short in other ways.  Rosen kept up the [s]pace and the bottom for sure but was nowhere near the dominating influence that Lesh was.  Barraco had his rocking moments but wasn't Keith spacing out all over the big grand and surprising everybody with how seamlessly he lapsed in and out of duets with Garcia over and over.  And the big thing for me (as it was with Furthur) was that there was no Garcia.  Mattson was great, surprising, lyrical, dynamic, and could get that charge in his leads when he needed, and I loved every minute of it and I can't say that I got sad, but it made me miss Garcia and the way he could take things over and play sounds that would go on for a lifetime and you could just fall into his guitar and he'd rock all of you.  And I never thought I'd get nostalgic about his vocals, especially one of those mail-it-in gigs like this had been back in '76, but his way of whispering into the mike and singing like a folk singer in a rock 'n' roll band ... well, I've never heard anyone else do that.  Except for Kaukonen of course, and Kadlicek comes close ... but I'm digressing.

OK, this has been going on for too long.  We loved it and were exhausted from dancing and covered in sweat and spilled beer at the end of it and we can't wait to see Dark Star Orchestra again.  We were among the last people to leave, walked back through the Common and drove home, and got to bed a bit after 1AM.  Not bad for a school night!

p.s.  Sarah is disappointed that she wasn't asked if she was the one with the acid (which happened to her at the recent Rubblebucket concert in Allston).  Guess she's losing that look!

Saturday, November 12, 2011

NERAX North 2011

Back to The Tap in Haverhill for this year's NERAX North.  Suffered through a dry burger and a painful jukebox at Toma's and then hurried over to the back hall at The Tap when we finally got out of there.

Three excellent Thornbridge ales were featured in this year's tutored tasting (that we didn't attend, we were too busy) and were on at the bar.  Here's what we sampled, roughly in order:

  1. Portsmouth Brewing (New Hampshire) Bottle Rocket IPA - hoppy and floral but dark backtaste from wood chips; strong, good flavor; too heavy for a session beer
  2. Jack's Abbey (Massachusetts) Smoke and Dagger - smokey, roasted taste with bright hops; not as strong a black patent flavor as some porters
  3. Thornbridge (Derbyshire) Jaipur IPA - delicate, balanced, more hop kick than is normal for a UK beer, even an IPA but well done; overheard from the guy who sat down heavily next to me: "... the Jaipur beer I don't know what I'm saying but my wife does."
  4. Mallinsons (West Yorkshire) Witch Hop - light but distinctive body; bitter foretaste, not aggressive but dominant; not much malt; late bitter aftertaste; ok
  5. Breconshire (Wales) Bright Beacons - Surprisingly full body; a bit sour; goes down well, session best bitter
  6. Thornbridge (Derbyshire) Halcyon - 7.7% ABV; buttered toffee nose; rich, complex taste; very bitter but lovely malts on the tongue; very, very good; bit too metallic water
  7. Brays (Maine) Mt Olympus Special Ale - molasses nose, standard American "dark IPA;" thin, metallic taste; body hops but they don't last; candy flavored aftertaste
  8. Offbeat Brewery (Cheshire) Out of Step - sticky, musty nose; thick body; great chewy hops, not bitter but flavorful; molasses aftertaste; sour in mouthfeel but crisp aftertaste
  9. Lymestone (Staffordshire) Stone Brood - Dark beer with honey and chocolate malt; smooth but rich, subtle chocolate mouthfeel, very little hops
  10. Thornbridge (Derbyshire) Kipling South Pacific Pale Ale - beautiful nose takes you away to the South Seas from the off; light, fruity taste but full body; incredible balance; bright hops in the nose; bit of a flat tire metallic taste but I mean that in a good way
  11. Allagash (Maine) Interlude - 10.5% ABV; this was a powerful beer!, alcohol and grapefruit dominant in the nose; sour attack, almost like a strong cider; Sarah tasted tomato and graham cracker, I tasted apricot and plum; alcohol burning in aftertaste, winey, dry aftertaste because of all the alcohol; a very interesting beer
  12. Andrews (Maine) Pale Ale - very mellow but quality nose; cinnamon taste; fresh mown hay, fat and sunny like a baby; hard English water, very good English style from an American brewery; you'll never find this quality in a bottle

They called last call a bit early (give a bell to a guy and he'll ring it at his first opportunity) as far as we all were concerned, and you should have seen the rush for another round of the Halcyon.  We all agreed it had lots of flavour [sic].  That was the unofficial beer of the night!

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Best Band Around: Ollabelle

Went to see Ollabelle at Club Passim last night.  It seemed they thought it was going to be a slow Monday night at some obscure coffeehouse in a town that didn't know them that well and were kind of surprised by the sold out crowd of devotees.

We ran into Amy Helm outside before the show; she was trying to get in the locked back door and we pointed her around to the front door.  I asked her if they were planning to play Ripple that night ... if you don't know the American Beauty project they did with such musicians as Jim Lauderdale, Larry Campbell, and Teresa Williams (at their last concert, Aoife O'Donovan sat in for Teresa!) then you have to hear it ... and she replied nicely that I should request it of Fiona.

Went inside and had a vegan dinner, talked with our table-mates, and waited for the band to come on.  They came on and blew the place away.  They opened with You're Gonna Miss Me and their incredible cover of Dirt Floor from their new record; they did Ain't No More Cane, a lovely All Heaven's Pearls sung by Byron Isaacs, a soulful new song by Glenn Patscha that evoked a New Orleans vibe; and just made music that came directly from that place good music comes from ... they even jammed into John Lennon's I've Got a Feeling for a few choruses in the middle of a song.  Fiona McBain sang her great new songs, When I Remember to Forget and Wait For the Sun (possibly my favorite on their new album), and Tony Leone came out from behind the drums ((with some difficulty) while Amy traded off with him and did an excellent job) to sing the great Taj song, Lovin' In My Baby's Eyes.

And it just got better from there.   Byron sang Brotherly Love, Glenn did an inspired Jesus On the Mainline (the first song of theirs I heard on the radio and made me run not walk to get their first record), Fiona sang the whining, spooky murder ballad Butcher Boy, Amy rocked our world with Soul of a Man, and then they wound up their set much, much, much, too soon.

I hesitate to critique them at all because any gushing praise I might give to one of those amazing musicians would slight the others and that's one of the incredible things about their band, that it's so well balanced ... and balanced at the highest level.  One can't help but compare them to The Band, partly because of Amy's pedigree and partly because they attack songs with the same fervor, like they invented Americana music.  The also have great musicians and great voices in every seat, like The Band did.

But the wonderful part for me was when they did their encore and Amy had apparently passed my request on to Fiona, who did a sterling Ripple.  People sang along some but I think they didn't want to ruin the spell with too much crowd participation.  And then of course they couldn't leave us without just tearing down the rafters with Before This Time ... the five of them singing as hard as they could.  I *have* to see those guys again soon!

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Ipswich River Then Paul Thorn

Went for a not-lengthy kayak on the Ipswich River on Saturday the 22nd.  Beautiful Fall scenery and a great sky.  There were lots of people in rented canoes.

Went to Johnny D's to see Paul Thorn that evening.  He played a fantastic set, just him and his acoustic.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

After the West

Woke up a bit early … which was good.  We wanted to get to the airport with enough time to avoid stress.  We took advantage of the continental breakfast at the hotel (you could make your own waffles!  we didn’t) and packed up for good and hit the road South at 7:42.  Cheyenne was already bustling and the interstate had more traffic than we’d experienced all trip.  What was going on was that it was Saturday morning and everyone in that part of the world was going to “the game” … which for some people was a college football game and for plenty of others a high school game.

We entered Colorado about 10 miles South of Cheyenne and the Rockies appeared on our right, shining white in the early morning sun.  Farms started up, hugging the interstate and then spreading out some as we kept on South.  We passed the exit for Fort Collins and crossed the South Platte and the farms became interspersed with factories.  We saw the first huge building we’d seen in almost a week, which was the Budweiser bottling plant, then the second which was a Harley-Davidson factory.  Passed the turnoff for Lyons and we were retracing our steps, now East on 470 and then the exit onto Peña Boulevard, back to the Hertz car return at 9:10.  Red had taken us 2040 amazing miles of twisting and straight roads with no complaints and had proven to be a noble car.

We sprawled over an empty bank of seats in DIA while we finished off the bits of food we had left, then got our boarding passes for jetBlue 494 and took the train to the terminals.  Crowded into the security checkpoint with a million other people, and then we had time for a local beer at the Denver Chophouse and Brewery near our gate.  Boarding time came and a little after noon we were in the air and headed back for Logan, where we took a cab home.  That was it for the trip … we had a great time!

Devils and Presidents

The strange noises were trains and trucks.  Watch out for these in Wyoming.  In hotel reviews we’d read things like: “The trains kept me up all night, it sounded like fingernails on the blackboard from every direction,” and of course we didn’t believe that.  But believe it, the sounds of the trains around there can wake you up from the sleep of the dead and the rumblings of the ore trucks can bounce you out of bed in a second.  I slept ok but Sarah didn’t and she was finally getting some rest when my body told me it was time to get up.  I had awakened with visions of Devils Tower in my head and when I finally roused Sarah I told her that we needed to go there.  It was obvious that we should!  [This is an attempt at a reference to CloseEncounters of the Third Kind … I’ll now desist.]

Most of the people at the hotel were hunters or businessmen (or a combination) and so were gone by the time we stumbled down to the restaurant for breakfast at 8:00 or so.  Nice breakfast with lots of coffee, and then they gave us free take-away jumbo Starbucks coffees as a going away present!  We stowed the coffees in the car and went up to the room to pack quickly, then check out ($126.57 for two, including dinner, drinks, and breakfast) and get the hell out of Dodge/Gillette.  It was gray and spitting rain off and on through the first part of that morning but slowly cleared into an acceptable day.

We had seen Devils Tower National Monument on the map and thought it might be fun to go there, but in the push to get to South Dakota we’d kind of forgotten about it.  We hadn’t gotten as far East as we’d hoped the day before, but as it turned out this was great because we were perfectly set up for what we really wanted to see!  We got back on the interstate and traveled East for about a half hour and then took 14 North from Moorcroft, and then 24 to Devils Tower NM (first National Monument in the country), arriving a bit before 10:00.  The high mountain landscape was long gone by now but we climbed up to the western arm of the Black Hills NF from the prairie and were back in a beautiful environment.

“Devils Tower” is a white-man’s marketing name that was given to that spectacular igneous intrusion, but it is sacred to several Indian tribes and was always referred to by some variant of “Bear Lodge.”  I’ll use that name.  Stopped at the gate and flashed our pass, then had one of the most delightful interludes of the trip when we pulled over at the designated Prairie Dog Village and watched those industrious squirrel relatives.  Prairie dogs apparently need enough space to have large villages and have been eradicated from much of their original range, but they’re protected in this part of the NM in northeast Wyoming.  We got back in the car and circled up to the small, CCC-era VC, where we read all the informational displays and had a nice talk with the Ranger.  We realized that what we really needed to do was to take the “long” hike around Bear Lodge … about three miles on Red Beds Trail.  This was wonderful and we only saw one other group in that whole circuit.

The trail circles around Bear Lodge, which is striking from many different angles.  It’s a 867-foot tall rock of igneous phonolite and there are several theories about how it came about, the most likely being that it was forced up by a hot spot of magma about 50 million years ago and erosion has worn away all the ground/rock that used to surround it.  It’s dried into natural hexagons, like a mud field will, contracting as it cooled.  This makes the huge rock look fluted and fits in with a marvelous Indian story about a family being attacked by a bear spirit and being rescued by the rising of the rock into the air while it was clawed furiously by the huge bear.  The Red Beds trail samples the variety of zones you find where the Black Hills meet the prairie: long rocky creases in the hillside filled with pines, open meadows of tall grass, outlooks over the Belle Fourche River, banks of dried red hoodoos or yellow sandstone, gentle woods of ashes and oaks, and rolling conifer forests.  The trail goes way downhill and then back up slowly and was a wonderful hike in October, but in the heat of summer it’s probably murder.

We got all the way around Bear Lodge and then walked on the inner, paved trail a bit so we could see the monolith and its impressive boulder field closer.  You can definitely feel why it’s sacred to Indians and has been so totemic to generations of pioneers who’ve waxed eloquent about it.  There’s something compelling about the sight and/or the object, not only because it’s alone and unique but because it’s a handsome, graceful shape that buries itself into your consciousness.  Writer after writer comes back to the same point: that you don’t forget it.  And again, Sarah and I love the small National Parks and Monuments that don’t get a lot of visitors and seem so personable.  We were glad we went there, even if it wasn’t anywhere near as spectacular as some of the other places we’d seen.

OK, time for South Dakota (somewhere in the black mining hills of Dakota there lived a young boy named Rocky Raccoon).  We stopped for gas and got back on 90 East by about 1:00.  We could have cut southeast through the Black Hills but wanted to make some time and so sped around 90 for the 22 miles to the state border and then another hour or so to Rapid City.  There’s a sign on interstate 90 where it crosses the Berkshires (in Massachusetts) at 1729 feet, proudly proclaiming the highest point on 90 until you travel West to South Dakota.  Well, we were on 90 in South Dakota … on the other side of the looking glass … but we were still up over 4000 feet.  It’s not until you’re about to cross the Missouri headed East that you get down that low and we were far from that point.

At Rapid City we turned South on route 16 towards Mt. Rushmore National Memorial and we weren’t really ready for the garish schlock we had to wade through to see the Monument.  This is another place that apparently gets an incredible number of tourists and the billboards, cheap gift shops, miniature golf courses, fake Western towns, etc. just grated on our nerves.  There were mile after mile of them on route 16 but we finally made it to the Memorial, where they charge you for parking even if you have a Parks pass.  We held our noses and parked and walked in around 2:30, determined to see Mount Rushmore in the flesh no matter how weird it was.

And it was weird.  We’d been seeing natural beauty all week, and now this was something jarringly different.  People had actually turned a mountain in the lovely (if you looked beyond the billboards) Black Hills into a sculpture and they had paved over the surrounding hillside with huge smooth-granite walkways and turned every slope into a stairway or ramp in a blatant attempt to proclaim man as superior to nature.  This place wasn’t about nature at all, it was glorifying not only patriotism but the school of thought that reality is shaped by great men and their ability to change things to fit their vision.  You could dig that idea for a bit.  The creators/caretakers of the place definitely stayed solidly on message and did their best to hammer it home.

We did some people-watching and everyone there seemed to be buying into this concept totally … they weren’t there because it was a pretty environment, what this was all about was turning up Born in the USA really loud and thinking about what great guys Lincoln, Washington, etc. were and how man (the chief sculptor was Gutzon Borglum) could do whatever he wanted to his environment.  And that was good, nature can be scary and can trip you up.  They had everything going in the same direction in this place.  Like I say, they had a theme and they did not miss any opportunity to dramatize it.

Looking at Mount Rushmore technically and artistically rather than sociologically, I have to admit that I was very impressed.  They did most of the carving with dynamite and a few jackhammers, and when you look at it closely through binoculars you see how raw the chips in the stone are.  You can see the veins of the mountain running through the faces … something that doesn’t come over in pictures of it … and it’s really an amazing technical achievement that they could make such a holistic sculpture out of that raw material and those tools.  Borglum must have started with Washington, which is definitely a good likeness and an evocative pose, but then the sculpture falls apart artistically.  Jefferson is ok, but kind of squeezed in there and looks nowhere as noble or lifelike as Washington, and you can imagine Gutzon talking to his colleagues at that point:

“Jeez we got done with that one.  Yah boy, let’s call that good enough.  Who’s next?”
“Roosevelt, sir.”
Roosevelt!?!  Isn’t he the one with glasses?  How the %^&* are we gonna do that?”
“I don’t know sir, you’re the genius.”
“Oh God, this is not going to go well.  OK boys, get on up there with the dynamite and start blasting everything that doesn’t look like Teddy Roosevelt.”

Lincoln’s the worst.  His hair is a mess and his face is devoid of any character at all.  It looks like they just did what they could with the remaining rock.  Oh well, as I say I feel the sculpture as a whole succeeds in its intent and I was glad to see it.  But like Disneyworld, once is enough.  We didn’t stay there long.

We left Mount Rushmore at about 3:15 for the long road to Cheyenne.  We wanted to wake up the next day no more than a 2-hour drive from the airport and Cheyenne would be just right.  We didn’t want to stay in another chain hotel in another railroad city, but when Sarah looked things up on the Internet we realized we didn’t have much choice.  We drove West on 244 and thankfully the billboards stopped.  The Black Hills tried their best to look scenic and definitely did a good job, as we crested the shoulder of Harney Peak at around 6500 feet and turned South on 89.  If we had had another day we might have turned off to Jewel Cave NM or Wind Cave NP, but we had a long road in front of us and kept the pedal to the metal (I drove for the whole trip).  We fell off the edge of the plateau of the Black Hills and the Buffalo Gap National Grassland started up: miles and miles of open space with some rolling hills and lots of nothing.

We were following a truck that turned in to the City of Edgemont Rubble Site … this was the actual Rubblebucket!  In Edgemont we turned West on 18 for a bit, back into Wyoming, and then South on 85 for the long haul down to Lusk.  We stopped to try to help two young guys who had alternator trouble, and promised to call their mothers when we got cell reception.  By the time we reached the town of Lusk we still had no bars but a gas station guy with a mobile tried one of their mothers (just an answering machine), and then recommended we stop by the local tow emporium.  It occurred to the guys at the tow emporium that we might be trying to fool them, but they finally believed and set off to rescue the guys back North in the middle of nowhere.  There are lots of places I’d hate to break down and 30 miles North of Lusk WY is one of them.

Took a quick left on route 20 at Lusk and then turned South on route 270, cruising along as fast as we could on the straight and rolling narrow road while the sun slowly set.  Finally made it to Guernsey and crossed the little trickle of the North Platte (it was in a very large riverbed but was really only a trickle at that point … maybe it was dammed??) on route 26 and then at last got back to interstate 25, still about an hour and a half North of Cheyenne.

Sarah completed her research and we set our sights on the La Quinta hotel in Cheyenne.  We were back in chain-hotel and chain-restaurant land, but got a room at the hotel around 8:00 (freight trains were running nearby of course), and then headed for historic downtown Cheyenne (6067 feet) and Shadows Pub and Grill in the restored train depot.  This was actually pretty nice, downtown Cheyenne is scenic and friendly for the most part.  The pub served some good burgers (Sarah thought hers was among the best she’s had) and the beer was worth mentioning (see digression on beer).  Back to the hotel after that for a final round of downloading, blogging, posting, and charging, then bed.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Head East

Up to this point we’d been following an itinerary we’d sketched out before we left.  It wasn’t set in stone, but we’d made some hotel reservations and that determined an outline to our path.  But from here on in we had no plans and really hadn’t decided yet what we were going to do.  One option was to retrace our footsteps and mosey back to Grand Teton and spend the night in Jackson again.  We had loved Grand Teton and would have liked to spend more time there, and the idea of going back to the Jackson Hole Lodge and the Snake River Brewery was appealing.  But a) we’d done that and b) that would have meant a long drive on Friday to get within the radius of the Denver Airport that we had to achieve by Friday night.  Another option was to head South immediately and get back to Rocky Mountain NP, hoping that the ridge road would now be open and we could see the heights of the Rockies we’d missed.  But that looked like a time-consuming option itself and there was no guarantee we’d find joy that way.  Another option was to hang around Yellowstone for the first part of the day and then exit southeast by the quickest route … but going dead East to South Dakota intrigued us.  If we didn’t spend too much time at Yellowstone that morning and got as far East as we could that afternoon, we’d possibly be able to hit up Mount Rushmore and/or the NPs in far western South Dakota.  This was our plan.

We got up early, packed quickly (we were very used to the routine by now), and at a bit after 7:00 said a sad farewell to the Absaroka Lodge, which we really liked.  We headed uphill and went for the other breakfast place that had been recommended to us, since the Two Bit Saloon was not yet open.  This was the Eat Cafe in Wyoming MT right across the border from Montana WY, where Red Knuckles himself had been discovered (actually it was the Town Cafe in Gardiner MT, but it had “Eat” and “Cafe” on its windows and was very close to Wyoming).  We had a nice breakfast of eggs and toast (served by Mona we presume) and then picked up some things in their gift shop.  Not bad, but Red didn’t show and we were out of there soon and flying through the stone arch at the North Entrance and back up the hill, getting up to Mammoth Hot Springs by about 8:00.

Mammoth was under attack by a herd of hungry elk, who were nibbling the grass on the lawns of the historic buildings while magpies urged them on and snapped up the bugs that were disturbed in the process.  The Albright VC didn’t open until 9:00, and this was a bit of a setback because we were hoping to get another Ranger recommendation of where to hike along the road out toward the Towers-Roosevelt section and further to the Northeast Entrance.  Oh well, we had studied the advertised options at Towers-Roosevelt and settled on stopping at the Roosevelt Lodge and hiking on the Lost Lake trail, which promised a 2-3 hour trek and possible bear encounters.  This sounded like just what we wanted before hitting the dusty trail East.

We stopped at pretty little Undine Falls on the way and also at several pull-offs to take pictures of large elk and bison herds.  At one point I had to direct traffic while a line of bison lumbered across the road.  One herd was arrayed nicely around a small pond and one of them was delighting himself in kicking up the dirt and then throwing himself down and rolling in it, over and over.  The day was overcast and a little chilly but one of those promising days when you felt the sun might break out at any time.  We saw something red in the road and stopped, then realized it was a fox with a large, bottle-brush tail.  He walked right along the road with absolutely no fear of humans … much different than any fox we’d ever seen.  He was listening along the verge of the pavement for the noises of small rodents, ready to dive in after them at any point.

Made it to Roosevelt Lodge at 9:15 and encountered setback two of that morning: the lodge was closed and its large split-rail gate was swung shut.  The trailhead was up the road behind the Lodge and we hated to walk through a closed gate … did this mean that the trail itself was closed??  There was a Ranger Station nearby so we drove over to it to ask; it was closed but the Ranger was just leaving to do his rounds and stopped to talk to us:

“We’d planned to hike on the Lost Lake trail today,” we said. 
He nodded and said, “The trailhead’s up behind the Lodge.”
“But the gate at the Lodge is closed,” we said.  “Can we go up there anyway?”
“Well,” he said, “How’s your bear safety?  Do you know what to do if you see one?”
“Oh yes,” we said.  We’d been reading signs during the entire trip on how to handle bear encounters and we felt we were quite prepared.  “Uh, we have whistles!”
“Oh don’t use whistles!” he said.  That’ll just make them curious.”  He looked us over.  “Do you have bear pepper spray?” he asked.
“No we don’t,” we said, crestfallen.  “The apothecary in Estes Park laughed at us when we asked for it!”
“Oh,” he said.  “Well tell you what, follow me.”

He started up his Ranger-mobile and we started our engine and followed him way up the hill into the Ranger encampment (where normal people aren’t supposed to go), up to his personal truck.  He got out and got his canister of pepper spray (in a nifty holster) from the front seat and gave me a quick lesson in how to use it.  “Now keep this on your belt and always ready,” he said.  “Bring it back and leave it in my truck when you’re done.  You probably won’t have to use it, but…” he mumbled as he turned away.  He told us his name in case we were stopped by other Rangers when we came back.

This encounter made us a little nervous, but there was no turning back now.  We had to do that trail!  We returned to the parking lot in front of the Lodge, loaded up all our stuff, including the curiosity-inducing whistles (we figured we could throw them at least), water, cameras, and extra clothes.  The day had gotten even more chilly and there was a cold wind that might get stronger as time went along.  We ducked through the rail fence and hiked up among the numerous deserted cabins that surrounded the Lodge.  A small work crew was putting the last touches on closing down the plumbing there and we felt that the place possibly wasn’t as spooky as we had at first thought.  Then we got up into the woods behind the Lodge, found the trailhead, and there was a big “Due to BEAR DANGER, area beyond this sign CLOSED!” sign blocking it.  We didn’t know what to do!  We hated to walk through a sign saying “closed” and we definitely didn’t want to get eaten by bears, but the Ranger had as much as told us we could hike on this trail and he’d even armed us.  We didn’t think he was setting us up to get eaten, but then again…

We hesitated for a bit and then figured well what the hell, and started slowly up the path, which soon started to switchback sharply up a steep hill.  The woods were pretty open there and we kept a sharp lookout above and around us, as well as talking more and louder than we usually do … talking loudly is the best way to warn bears of your presence and encourage them to leave the area before you arrive.  We got up to the top of the hill and strolled along a beautiful ridge, at the end of which the path wound down into a fold of the hill that sheltered Lost Lake.  Late Fall wildflowers, water reeds, spruce and pines across the lake, and vistas of rolling hills covered with tall grass and sage were delightful.  But what was incredible was the number of tracks we saw in the trail and the surrounding area: horse, bison, pronghorn antelope, probably coyotes (or large foxes), waterfowl, and a few human boot prints.  Just standing still we could see more animal tracks than you’d see in a whole day of hiking back East, like this was some kind of highway or a meeting place in Narnia.  Oh, and I forgot to mention that we saw one very large and very distinct black bear print (we had learned the difference from a grizzly print back at the VC in Grand Teton).  And there was all kinds of scat too: coyote/whatever, huge piles of bison shit everywhere, and some very large bear scat filled with hair (no whistles though).  But none of the bear scat we saw was fresh and we saw no bears that whole hike.

We wound around past the lake and got to a draw between two steep hillsides that was screaming “bear ambush site!”  There were more CLOSED signs there and we hesitated again, but we felt that we were in for a penny and so might as well go in for a pound and continued on the trail, talking and clapping while we looked nervously around every corner.  Yes it was slow and nerve-racking, but the scenery was beautiful and we weren’t about to turn back now.  We passed the back of the Petrified Tree parking area, where some other tourists tried not to look at the people who were walking on a closed trail and were obvious bear bait, and then the trail went steeply uphill again and offered us even more lovely far views of endless meadows and rolling hills, and little hollows where bears were probably plotting against us.  The trail turned back downhill sharply after we’d been on it for three miles or so and switchbacked down through a meadow with scattered, lightning-struck Lodgepole pines to the back of the Ranger station and then eventually to the back of the Lodge.

We got all the way around to the trailhead without seeing a thing and laughed a bit with relief, that we had had such a wonderful hike and had had absolutely no encounters with wildlife (except for the tourists at the parking area).  We figured when we made it back to the car maybe a bear would pop out from behind it and say BOO!  Wound down through the cabins at the Lodge, ducked back through the rail fence, hit the vault toilets, and then drove back to the Ranger station to return the pepper spray.  We drove up into the compound and Sarah left it in the Ranger’s truck’s front seat along with a note she’d written, and then another Ranger (dressed to the nines in Ranger garb) held out a gloved hand to stop us.  I rolled down the window and told her it was all right, that John had lent us his bear spray and we were returning it.  She said “OH!” … and we all laughed that the pepper spray canister did look a bit like a pipe bomb.  Then she got a serious look on her face, “So where did you hike?” she asked.  I started to tell her that we’d gone on the Lost Lake trail and then saw her face turn even grimmer and I thought “Uh Oh!”

“Did you not see that the trail was CLOSED?” she asked with a menacing rising in tone.
“YES!” we told her (please don’t shoot us lady!).  “But John said it was all right to hike there, he knew we were going there!!”
“That’s strange that he approved of it,” she said.  “The reason we closed that trail is that there was a large bison carcass in that draw between the two steep hills.”

Well, we almost fainted at that one but told her that if we had seen a carcass we definitely would have turned back (every bear-safety sign tells you that).  She didn’t seem to quite believe us but let us go with a stern look.  Ever since that episode I go crazy wondering what the third act of this play was??

Act One, scene one: Sarah and Jon drive into Yellowstone and discuss where to hike.
Act One, scene two: Sarah and Jon look sad in front of closed Lodge gate.
Act One, scene three: Ranger John gives pepper spray demonstration and sends Sarah and Jon skipping away to their destiny.
Act Two, scene one: Sarah and Jon hike up to CLOSED sign, long tortured speeches about moral responsibility ensue.
Act Two, scene two: Sarah and Jon comically hike along while arguing about 70s TV shows to keep bears away.
Act Two, scene three: The Ominous Other Ranger gives Sarah and Jon a hard time about hiking on a closed trail.
Act Three: Ranger John and the Ominous Other Ranger meet and ?????

I figure Act Three would probably be either:

1. Ranger John laughs gently at the OO Ranger and says, “Oh that carcass has been gone for a while and I’m just about to re-open that trail.  Those folks were perfectly safe.”
2. Ranger John says, “Oh My God, I forgot that trail was closed!!  I sent those poor people to THEIR DOOM!!!”
3. Ranger John and the OO Ranger take off their human disguises to reveal their true ursine forms.  “I can’t believe those people escaped the clever trap we laid for them!” “Rats, foiled again!!”

We were out of there a bit after noon and we turned off towards the Northeast Entrance.  But there were miles and miles of Yellowstone still to traverse and we saw more and more herds of bison, beautiful rivers, and majestic hills.  We were slightly bummed though: all this and we had not seen a single bear!!  Geez, what did you have to do?  And then we turned a corner by the Lamar River and saw cars sprawled all over the road while people lined up their cameras.  Could it be?  Yes it was, a lone grizzly fishing in the river about 50 yards away from us.  We pulled over and didn’t get out of the car, but had a great view of him swirling his arms and torso around in one branch of the small river, split by a low island.  He found no fish there and so trundled his huge mass across the rise and over to the other half of the river, where he almost totally submerged himself, watching upstream for signs of fish, and then disgustedly got out, shook himself off, and started to lumber away.  A lone pronghorn stood as still as he possibly could while all this went on, trying to convince the grizzly that he was just one of the tourists.

Yay!  We had seen a bear!!  We high-fived and then hit the road for the Northeast Entrance, psychologically ready to put Yellowstone, mountains, and grizzlies behind us … we were headed for South Dakota.  There was only one problem: there was much, much, much more of Montana and Wyoming to deal with first.

Actually this was not a problem and was one of the most incredible, breathtaking parts of the trip.  We started to go up and up again along Soda Butte Creek and passed between the gorgeous, snow-covered and rocky Barronette Peak on our left, looking like some ancient Mayan tomb on an impossibly huge scale, and the steep and craggy Thunderer and Abiathar Peak on our right.  We crossed back into Montana and got dumped out the Northeast Entrance into the sister towns of Silver Gate (7388 feet) and then Cook City, still going up and up past thick trees and log houses.  We were on the precarious Beartooth Highway, part of which was already closed for the year.  We pulled over and had a few donuts and a grapefruit for a quick lunch where a river wound its way down the cliffs, and then headed back uphill.  We topped off at Colter Pass at 8040 feet and several miles past that the road split: the fork to our left up to Red Lodge was closed for the winter already but we followed the one to the right and started downhill on route 296, also known as the Chief Joseph Highway.  This was thick northern woodland like you wouldn’t believe, mixed in with steep bare hillsides of sharp rock, miles and miles of green and brown and gray mixed with swaths of snow lurking in the crevices.

Woops … we thought that now we were on our way downhill, but there were many miles of ups and downs, twists and turns, switchbacks and precarious straightaways to go.  We crested the shoulder of Windy Mountain and then stopped at Dead Indian Pass (8048 feet) to gape at the rugged Absaroka Range to our southwest and the Beartooth Mountains to our northeast.  They had an informational kiosk there and I read all about Chief Joseph leading his Nez Perce tribe out of the Yellowstone valley just steps ahead of the US Cavalry who were out for their blood … it was soon after the Battle of Little Big Horn and the US Army wanted to kill.  The tribe reached that pass and split up, then near there in an open meadow the horsemen ran their steeds around and around in a circle to make a confusing mishmash and then backtracked down to Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone to return to Idaho.  The US trackers couldn’t figure out which way they had gone and the only capture they made was of a dead warrior who was left on a nearby peak …hence the name of the pass.  Chief Joseph is all right with me and is one of the heroes of our Western heritage.  White or red, we’re all Americans and we’re still learning how to live together on this incredible continent.

Wow, this was beautiful and was just a small bit of northernWyoming.  We shot downhill after that to route 120 into Cody WY (5016 feet) and of course the prettiness stopped and the signs and trash heaps commenced.  We got gas and then followed Alt 14 out of town to the northeast again.  This is a civilized, agricultural valley along the Shoshone River in a gap between mountain ranges in northern Wyoming.  The route was flat for miles and miles, lined with potato farms and train tracks on each side (we saw several mountains of potatoes with dump trucks dumping more on them, kind of an incredible sight itself), and then passed slowly downhill towards the dammed lake of the Bighorn River in the Bighorn Canyon NRA.  We started to mellow out, and then the road dropped its mantle of civilization like a shoddy garment and the wild started again.  OK, the first bit of the uphill was graded and the highway curves were built up, but we were screaming uphill again into the way high and lonesome Bighorn NF.  [Here’s a video you’ve gotta see of going down the side of the mountains we went up.]

You might wonder how many times I’m going to say it, but this was it.  We were up above the sage, above the pines, above the aspens, up where the drifting October snow was deep and the vistas were endless and the sky was uninterrupted by anything.  We passed the Medicine Wheel NHS and then up to the unnamed summit at 9430 feet, where the temperature had dropped to the 20s.  We stopped there and got out of the car to see the most incredible views and feel the most incredible wind, height, exhilaration you could imagine.  The wind was so strong and wild that we had to hold our glasses on our faces or they would have been whipped away into the blue, white, and black distance.  And then it went on from there: the East side of the Bighorn Mountains stretches on for miles and runs downhill very gradually over those miles.  It seemed we were descending slowly through a dearth of oxygen but a surfeit of sky over an expanse without end as far vistas enticed us forward to the East, the sun dropped slowly behind us and drew our shadows out in front of us, and the high plains and snow went on and on and slowly disappeared.  Up in the heights the only signs of civilization had been ranchers, dragging trailers full of horses or snowmobiles or ATVs to check on their cows, adrift on fields of sparse grass up in the sky.  As we descended along the Tongue River to Dayton (3926 feet) and Ranchester, civilization with all its trappings started up again and we saw where those ranchers lived, in small but well-heeled towns centered on their high school football fields.

I think it was at this point that we rolled through a small town and noticed everyone gathering in the dusty town square.  We pulled over and I asked a guy what was going on.

“They’re gonna hang Brown Paper Pete!” he told me.
“Brown Paper Pete?” I said.
“Everybody knows Brown Paper Pete!” he said indignantly.  “Brown paper chaps, brown paper vest, brown paper hat …” he went on helpfully.
“Well what are they going to hang him for?” I asked.
Rustlin’” he said, hurrying away.

Wait, what did that sign say?  We were finally approaching the interstate we’d seen on the map of Wyoming, back when we thought we knew where we were going!  Seriously, the Absarokas and the Bighorns had blown our minds so much … we were amazed that we hadn’t been pasted into the sky by the wind and the endlessness of it all.  Great stuff.  Anyway, we were back on the interstate now (highway 90 to complete the troika, we’d gone as far South as 70 and were on 80 a bit in southern Wyoming) and we bumped the cruise control up to 80MPH and wondered how far we’d get that night.  It was already 5:23 when we hit 90 and Sarah started frantically working her Kindle II, trying to pick up a 4G signal long enough to get some web-based information on hotels between here and there.  We settled on a Best Western in Gillette WY and watched the miles roll by as we cruised.

Pulled off at exit 124 onto route 50 around 7:00.  In ninety minutes on the super-highway we’d done over half as many miles as we had in five hours over the mountains that afternoon.  We checked into the Best Western Tower West Lodge in the busy town of Gillette (4544 feet), and they took pity on us and give us free drink coupons for their bar and discounted breakfast coupons for the morning.  That was great with us and we were totally fine with unloading the car into our second-floor room in their huge hotel, staggering to the hotel restaurant and bar for some free drinks, and having dinner right there: the small steak for Sarah (and baked potato with bacon, cheese, and sour cream) and the Caesar with chicken for me.  This was serious cattle country and the guys at the next table were eating more beef (they were pretty beefy themselves) than you would find on all the tables at an East coast restaurant.  Even my chicken tasted of beef (or maybe that was just my imagination).

Back to the room for download, blog, charge, and post … there were strange noises in the background but we fell asleep quickly.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Yellowstone Is Awesome

Woke up to a lovely morning and enjoyed the view from the balcony of Yellowstone towering over us to the South: the bare, snow-covered Electric Peak (10,992 feet) to the West and lower, rugged-looking Mount Everts to the East.  In between was the path we’d have to climb back up the Gardner River towards Mammoth Hot Springs and a day of weird sights.

But first, time to walk across the bridge uphill to the highly-recommended breakfast at the Two-Bit Saloon.  We were perhaps a little bit of a shocking sight to the waitress, cook, and cowboy already there, but the waitress gestured towards the coffee table and told us to help ourselves and they realized we must be ok when we brought our coffee over and sat down at the bar.  I had a massive breakfast burrito stuffed with eggs, ham, peppers, onions, and cheese and Sarah had scrambled eggs again.  My burrito came with loads of chunky salsa and took me a while to finish, but I did.  We talked some and told the waitress and cook about the exotic East … to their fascination … and then after breakfast we moseyed back over the bridge in the now piercingly bright daylight to the hotel.

Took a while to pack for the day since we had no idea what we’d be doing in Yellowstone NP or what temperatures we’d encounter, stopped for gas and coffee at the Sinclair gas station, then drove through the arch at the North Entrance at 10:00 and climbed up to the historic Albright VC (that used to be headquarters of Fort Yellowstone) in Mammoth Hot Springs.  We told the Ranger there that we had to see Old Faithful or else no one would believe we’d been there (she couldn’t argue with that) but besides that we were open to her recommendations about what else to do.  She gave us some good pointers, but Sarah and I concluded from the conversation that we should head for Old Faithful and then just wing it … there was too much there that we could possibly see and do and serendipity would be our guide.

We hadn’t gone far from Mammoth when the fascinating landscape started to make our heads spin and we had to pull over and look at the mammoth(!), terraced hot springs overlooking the vista back to the North.  We strolled around on the boardwalks there in the surreal environment.  We’d seen this on television, as we had seen elk in the moonlight and the Grand Tetons and the Rocky Mountains on TV … but to actually be there and feel the steam around you and smell the sulfur and hear the ground bubbling was beyond real.  The cliffs were bleached white where the springs were not now flowing, and shining with all kinds of blues, greens, yellows, purples, and browns where they were.  We could see far, far away through the blue sky to the North, and off to the West and East around the scraggy cliffs.  We got back to the car and completed the circuit around the crumbling Upper Terrace Drive, past boulders gushing with spurts of boiling water and ground quivering with what was just underneath.  Then we got back to the main road and screwed South again, past hot cracks in the earth and bucolic lakes.

We stopped again at Roaring Mountain, where a landscape of little geysers and oozing springs was spread out up the hillside, crossed the 45th parallel (halfway between the equator and the pole) and then finally into Norris where we detoured into the parking lot at the Norris Geyser Basin for a pit stop and to consult the map.  We decided we didn’t need more information there, and proceeded West towards Madison, stopping soon at the Artists Paintpots, a great recommendation from the Ranger.

There was a small hike here to the start of the boardwalk, through pines and then over ground that you wouldn’t want to walk on for fear of falling through to the center of the earth.  We learned that for most of these boardwalks, rot is totally not an issue, as the mineral-laden water turns them into rock … removing them is the problem.  The boardwalk went around and up the hill, skirting around hot spots of all sizes and varieties.  There were bubbling gray mud holes, spurting and steaming little geysers like the devil was spitting at us, deep blue holes with water swirling around slowly in them, yellow around the edges with a sulfur stink, wide expanses of flowing white spackle, shining sweaty red clay, and trembling green and brown swampy areas.  We ended up going way up the hill to where it turned much steeper, but even there there were cracks in the rock and hard earth, letting out clouds of steam and oozing with red-brown goo.  The “artists” part was easy to see, there were some distinct, beautiful colors in it all, but to try to collect them would be putting yourself in danger.  We looped back to the car after a quick tour of 30-40 minutes or so and continued down past Madison, past the lower and midway geyser basins to the Old Faithful area.

We parked the car in the vast parking lot and took some time to orient ourselves.  The place obviously gets packed in the summer and it was hard to see where to go with the surrounding lodges, snack bars, gift shops, guest lodges, first aid stations, and VC.  But we got it right and emerged by the South of Old Faithful.  Nothing doing there yet, though people (including Japanese, Indian, and Italian groups we overheard) were starting to gather on the benches around it.  We took in the visitor center and filled our water bottles … a sign there said that the next forecast eruption would be at 1:40 … give or take 10 minutes, and that timing was just right for us.  We cruised the small gift shop and then went outside, taking a seat on the bench to the far South, away from the bulk of the crowd.  The eruption was ten minutes late that morning (it happens every 90 minutes or so), but then started up strong and continued for about 4 ½ minutes.  Again, seen it on TV but seeing it live was awesome!  The strong wind blew the water and steam away to the East and the profile from our viewpoint was probably a much better angle than the crowd by the visitor center saw.

We ate some peanuts while waiting there and then took off across the steaming (there were geysers in the riverbed, under the clear water) Hellhole River around Geyser Hill and up the mile or two of trail along the river valley (this area is over 7000 feet).  We saw quite a lineup of named geysers along the way, all different and all fascinating … especially the twins of Beauty Pool and Chromatic Pool.  We learned that the colors in them were just partly because of bacteria/algae and partly because of temperature, ranging from the hottest blue spots, boiling away in the middle of the big ones to the brown edges, which were cool enough to support trout.  Crossed over the bridge past Crested Pool and Castle Geyser back toward the Old Faithful Inn, stopped in the VC again and looked for hats in the huge gift store across the big parking lot (just stinky ones unfortunately), then wound up back at the car.  This was really one of the most fun parts of the trip as we had seen a landscape nothing like anything we’d seen before.  We’d just missed another eruption of Old Faithful but that was old hat by now.

Still plenty of time in the afternoon and so we got going and headed back up to Madison/Norris and then East towards the Canyon area.  A lone bison was stopping traffic on the way, and strolled by us like he belonged there and we didn’t.  Very astute of him.  We had mostly seen lone ones at this point but started seeing some herds that afternoon and by the next day we had seen plenty in all kinds of groups and were treating them as just a commonplace sight.  I’d still love to see the legendary herds of thousands stampeding across the plains, but those days are long past and we certainly saw lots of them at Yellowstone: a very majestic animal.

We were heading for the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.  “Hah!” we said to ourselves, “We’ve seen the Grand Canyon,” thinking that anything else with that name would be a weak failure.  But the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is easily the second most awesome, incredible river canyon I’ve ever seen, and even exceeds the big one in some ways.  The Yellowstone River is raging: it came over the Lower Falls right by the first viewpoint we stopped at along the North Rim with a force that just couldn’t be believed.  It was still solid green water 30 feet over the edge and though the body of the river dispersed some in falling several hundred feet, it absolutely hammered the bottom of the canyon when it cascaded down, making a roar like you wouldn’t believe.  The South side of the canyon it carved was as steep as at the Black Canyon of the Gunnison NP in southwestern Colorado, though much more colorful, and the North side was sloped and studded with hoodoos like Bryce Canyon NP in Utah.  This side was also dotted with some hot spots where fountains of steam jetted up and blew away with the wind.  By then it was late afternoon and the sun burned down with a brilliant light at an angle that put everything into relief and brought out the vast dimensions.

We stopped at several more viewpoints along the North Rim, including Grand View and Inspiration Point.  We were almost alone by now … just one other car there and then it left.  We turned away slowly past some (possible??) rare bristlecone pines, though the wind, the scary heights, and the still awesome roar of the falls made this anything but a peaceful environment.  We knew that soon we’d be watching this same river, calmed down some but still wrestling tumultuously with gravity and rocks from our balcony at the Absaroka Lodge.  In fact, we might see some of the same water molecules by the time we sped up there!

OK, we were toast.  We motored calmly past the turnoff to Canyon Village, then followed the path we had blazed in the dark the day before to Norris, up to Mammoth Hot Springs, and then down the sharp hill to Gardiner and the hotel, where a group of insouciant mule deer were munching on what was left of the garden.  We unpacked and straightened out a bit, then grabbed some adult beverages and sat on the balcony, watching the beautiful Yellowstone tumble by.  Got it together for dinner and walked up to Rosie’s for another meal and brews that couldn’t be beat.  That night I got their chicken, bacon, and artichoke heart special (warning: in most of America when they say “and bacon” they mean that bacon will be a significant part of the dish) while Sarah had the Elk Bolognese and we both had some more Bozones.

Back to the hotel after that (actually stopped at the gas station across the street first to pick up some more Rescue Rangers and a nice hat), charge devices, download, blog, post, and bed.

Rain, Moose, Elk, Mud (and Squirrel)

I could tell it was raining pretty hard when I stirred during the night, and when I woke up Sarah reported it was pouring and cold outside.  I took my time getting up, taking a shower, considering possible strategies for the day … and then went back to bed for a while.  By the time I got up again and we got motivated and packed it was still pouring out.  And this was not a summer shower, this was the kind of rain where large, frigid drops attacked you no matter which way you turned and got down your neck and in your face.  Besides that the weather wasn’t bad though.

It was 10:00 by that point and so we checked out of the hotel and went to the breakfast place they had recommended, Bubba’s BBQ across the street.  Had some good eggs, home fries, and toast as well as a lot of coffee and talked strategy.  The plan we settled on wasn’t much of a plan.  We were just South of Grand Teton NP and our first plan had been to hit up the Phelps Lake loop trail, which was advertised as offering fantastic views, but visibility at that point was non-existent and also Sarah had learned on Twitter that that section of the Park was closed with bear warnings.  So our plan B was to go to the Craig Thomas VC at the main entrance and get some ranger advice … and figure by then the rain would have stopped.

Just North of Jackson the National Elk Refuge was on our right and the scenery would have started on the left except the ceiling was pretty close to ground level.  We could see ahead, behind, left, and right ok, but not up at all … and that’s where the mountains are.  Also, the rain changed from “pouring” to “torrential.”  Lots of people working on the highway and stiles/fences for the Elk Refuge were just standing there getting drenched and wondering if they were being paid enough for this.  We took a left up the road to Moose, crossed the Snake River, and turned into the VC, where the parking lot had about 20 other cars, mostly with other people who wished the rain would stop sitting in them looking wistfully out their windows or using the WiFi.

The Craig Thomas VC at Grand Teton National Park is really very nice, with a large fireplace, a big relief model of the Park, lots of displays about geology, botany, sociology, history, climbing, skiing, biology, how to tell a black bear from a grizzly, tiles set into the floor that were showing movie loops, an exhibit of paintings of the Park, and a great bookstore.  We managed to spend over an hour looking at it all … and it was still pouring out.  The movie of the Park’s history and stuff was going to start again in their auditorium, so we grabbed a seat and watched it.  It was pretty good and it builds your excitement about seeing the Park and at the end the screen suddenly rolls up and the curtains behind it open to a beautiful view of the majestic Tetons.  At least that’s what we figured we would have seen if the clouds had let us and it wasn’t still pouring.  Oh well … no one booed but I bet everybody there was thinking of it.

So we went with the only thing left to do in the VC and talked with a Ranger about where we should hike.  She recommended the Taggart Lake loop trail and then heading up to the Oxbow Bend area where she said we would have a good chance of seeing otters or beavers or possibly elk at the end of the afternoon.  She told us we could pick up a brochure at the entrance station, but when we got to the Moose Entrance Station it was deserted (as was most of the parking lot at that point) and we had to return to the VC to get one; but the rain was stopping and so we figured our stops and starts had some purpose.  BUT … by the time we drove up to the Taggart Lake trailhead it had started pouring again and the visibility was as bad as ever.

But then it let up a bit and there was a rainbow as we drove slowly up the valley and pulled into the Jenny Lake parking area, planning to look at all their exhibits until the weather cleared.  But the VC there was closed for the season!  Nothing was going right here.  We got out of the car and put on our coats and then walked along the lake front a bit, thinking that at least we could head up to the Oxbow and peer out through the car windows.  But then we realized that we were wet but that we hadn’t died yet and probably wouldn’t for a while and that the trailhead for the loop around that lake was right there, and that even though we didn’t have our packs with our water bottles, extra clothes, and stuff (they were back in the car) we should just start up the goddamn trail and have fun.  So that’s what we did … and we had a wonderful 3-hour hike.

The trail was filled with puddles and was barely passable in some places, but the trees, the rocks, the lake, the bushes, and the sides of the mountains as far up as we could see were beautiful.  Sarah didn’t have her walking stick but some previous hikers had left their walking sticks by the trailhead and Sarah selected one her size.  The remarkable thing about the Grand Tetons is that they really have no foothills … they just rise straight up from the valley of Jackson Hole, basically because they’re on their own tectonic plate and the mountains are young and still lifting while the plain itself (“Jackson Hole”) is sinking.  This fracture is apparent in many places along the bottom slopes of the mountains.

We weren’t sure if we had to worry about bears, but we figured it was a good idea and weren’t shy about making noise talking and blowing our noses.  We passed a turnoff for the Moose Lakes trail but didn’t take it.  Then a few hundred yards later, there he was just about to cross the trail about 50 feet in front of us: a bull moose in the flesh.  I got Sarah’s attention and pointed and she got the camera up just in time to get a good shot of him crossing the trail.  He realized we were there and wasn’t too worried about us.  We continued slowly down the trail while he kept alongside it and gradually left us behind.  We got a couple more glimpses of him and definitely heard him for a while, lumbering through the bushes and complaining about the rain.

Also on the trail were some significant dumps of waterlogged, hairy scat … signs that bears had been here sometime.  We were having a great time, as the magic of the woods and the lake sucked us in, and we were energized by the thrill of our moose encounter.  We met a few other hikers, including a bunch of drowned rats who had been camping up the Canyon and were done, a couple a little younger than us dressed in matching rain gear, and a couple of single hikers.  When we were almost halfway around the lake we were nearing the dock where the boat (if had been running!) from the Jenny Lake VC docked, and at that point the trail headed uphill towards Hidden Falls.

We climbed up the beautiful lower slopes of Teewinot Mountain (one of the mountains at the forefront of every picture of the Grand Tetons you’ve ever seen) and eventually reached the Falls, which were as spectacular as we hoped, crashing over huge boulders for hundreds of feet before streaming down crevices in the steep mountain.  We’d left the couple behind while they broke for some food, but they caught up with us and had just had a moose encounter themselves, with a huge cow.  Signs warned us that bear encounters were common in that area too, which caused a bit of nervousness, especially when we started back down the trail around sharp corners without much choice of an escape route and the sound of the falls was drowning out most sounds.  Oh well, no bear encounters were had and we were back down on the lake shore soon, retracing our steps back to the VC parking lot.

By the time we were halfway back the rain was still misting, but the wind had picked up from the South and the clouds over the mountaintops were clearing.  We actually saw a few shadows and got beautiful, teasing views up long green slopes toward the misty, snow-covered talus and boulders that rose up into the swirling clouds.  We caught a few glimpses up to the top of Teewinot, but the signature peak of the Grand Teton itself (at 13,770 feet) remained shrouded.  We stopped at the Moose Lakes overlook again and this time we saw a bull moose, just hanging around the lake like he had nothing better to do.  I figured the first one we saw was named Bob and this one was Derek.  Got back to the end of the trail finally and Sarah left her hiking stick in the stack with the others.

Back in the car and we were filled with the wonder we’d just seen and felt … also we were cold, hungry, and wet.  And we were startled to see that it was already 4:40 and we realized we’d better get a serious move on if we were going to make it up to Gardiner MT that night for our hotel reservations.  We turned up the heater and the defroster, ate some food quickly, and then steamed up the road toward the North, though we had to stop for a few more photo opportunities including a beautiful vista down Cascade Canyon between Teewinot and Mount St. John.  Cruised up to the Jackson Lake Junction and detoured to the Oxbow.  It was filled with bird watchers but was very peaceful and pretty in the setting sun, especially with the Tetons now mostly exposed in the background over Jackson Lake.

We hit the road North with a vengeance at that point, but we had to get some coffee.  The Jackson Lake Lodge was also closed, but luckily there was a convenience store open at Colter Bay and while Sarah got coffee I was able to get through (one bar on my cell) to our hotel to let them know we were on our way but would be late.  We then floored it up the Rockefeller Memorial Parkway and past the closed South Entrance station into Yellowstone National Park at 5:50, where signs warned us that chains or snow tires were required.

By our original plan we’d have had plenty of time when we got to Yellowstone and be able to meander through slowly and maybe find places to stop … but at this point we were desperate to get to Gardiner, the sun was approaching the horizon, and then it got even more desperate!  It suddenly became really overcast and dark and then it started snowing hard, big wet flakes that were piling up on the road at an alarming pace.  The temperature was dropping and the road was going up and up and we had to crest the Continental Divide before we could even get to the first civilized junction in Yellowstone.  The outside thermometer readout on the dashboard dropped to 36, then 35, then 33!  The roadway started to feel slick and dangerous.  We knew we were going up into the sky because the car was struggling uphill, but it was so dark that besides that we had no sense of perspective.  We finally crossed the divide at the embarrassingly meager elevation of 7988 feet, and then everything changed!  The snow stopped, the clouds parted a bit and the last rays of the sun came out, and the temperature started to climb again as we sped downhill towards West Thumb.

We thought we’d seen big lakes before, but the West Thumb of Yellowstone Lake and then the main body of the lake itself stretched for miles and miles.  Could have been bottomless too but we didn’t have time to find out.  We spun the wheel back and forth as the road tooled along this beautiful, pleasant stretch.  Yellowstone can be an alarming place but we were only alarmed now and then in this stretch when clouds of steam surged up to our left with no warning.  We were now within the caldera of the volcano that was responsible for a good deal of the scenery we’d been seeing for hundreds of miles.  Snow and mist-capped mountains towered above us on the opposite side of the lake.  I had considered turning back when we were trying to cross the Divide, but the nearest town South was Jackson and that was far away.  We could continue East towards Cody at this point in Yellowstone, but that was far, far away itself and over another mountain range.  So we continued North at Lake Village/Fishing Bridge past more sudden clouds of steam and a few scenes of boiling mud towards the Canyon Village section.

The shining full moon came up and there were a surprising number of cars still out on the road, looking for wildlife.  We were determined we weren’t going to stop for anything (it was already 7:00) … like that porcupine on the road we just missed!  But about halfway between Fishing Bridge and Canyon Village we just had to pull over for one of the most incredible sights I’ve ever seen.  We opened the windows and turned off the car and there, just 100 feet away, was an elk bull and his harem in an open meadow.  The bull was keeping watch and his antlers were silhouetted against the full moon.  There was a little sound in the woods and they all startled for a second, their ears twitching in unison, then the cows went back to eating, the calves went back to being carefree, and the bull actually relaxed enough to start munching too.  Some of the moms and kids started strolling off into the woods, where it was apparently safer, while the rest took this opportunity for some good feeding time in the meadow.  We, and the other 4 or 5 carloads who saw this scene, were just entranced by the sight.  But we slowly pulled away as the herd decided dinnertime was approaching an end and started to file off into the woods.

We turned the engine back on and hit the road again, turning left in Canyon Village and then (after another 12 miles), turning North once more in Norris for the run up to Mammoth Hot Springs.  Normally we would have taken a less crooked route through Yellowstone but because of road closures we had to go this way, which was turning out great!  The only bummer was that our time for arriving in Gardiner was looking later and later, and there were still cars out on the road keeping us from going as fast as we might … which was probably good actually.  Coming down the steep twists into Mammoth Hot Springs there was a mule deer trying to cross the road that was brushed back by the car in front of us.  We finally made it to Mammoth and through the village there, and then went down and down some more, across the Wyoming border along the crease of the Gardner River.  There’s a stone arch marking the North Entrance to Yellowstone and when we eventually made it through that we were in Gardiner at 5314 feet, but were twisted around a bit.  Got our bearings in that tiny town and drove across the bridge over the Yellowstone River, finally pulling into the parking lot of the Absaroka Lodge at 8:10 where the desk guy was patiently waiting for us, sitting outside smoking a cigarette.

Many people would be freaked out by this hotel, but we loved it.  Check-in was pretty informal (the guy closed the office after we left), the hotel was a couple of cinder-block buildings, and there was a sign on the bathroom door saying not to wash your car with the hotel towels.  BUT the beds were comfy, the room was clean, the WiFi worked fine, and the location was great.  We were just outside Yellowstone and the rooms all had balconies overlooking the rapids of the Yellowstone River, lit up by the full moon.  OK, Gardiner WY isn’t the prettiest town but it was fine with us.

We had asked for dinner recommendations and there was really only one place in town to go: Rosie’s up the hill right next to their partner institution, the Blue Goose Saloon.  Our waitress was Emily and I had an excellent spinach and mushroom lasagna, Sarah had a buffalo burger (no meal tax!).  They also had great local beer (see digression on beer).  The place was closing down when we left and the streets were being rolled up in the small town, but we managed to ignore the spectacular moonlight over the Yellowstone River and download, charge, post, and blog before going to bed after a long, adventurous day.