Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Coussoules' Great Western Adventure: Day 10, Cody to Keystone - South Dakota, here we come!

My watch alarm went off at the crack of dawn on Saturday, and despite being able to sleep another, oh, infinity hours or so, I repeated my morning mental motivational saying to myself to help me get out of bed: you never regret getting up to workout, but you almost always regret skipping it. Up I got, and out the door for a three mile run skirting the Buffalo Bill State Park in the Wyoming sunrise.
A lot of this trip has been about rolling with the punches and going with the flow, and this time it was my turn: no hot water!!!!! Reframe - shower pioneer style! Hoooo boy, must've been straight from the Shoshone River because it was chilly! Breakfast of bagels and coffee in the room, and we once again hit the road.  
Today's itinerary: head north to Montana to the Little Bighorn Battlefield, then back to Wyoming to see Devil's Tower, ending at Keystone, South Dakota where my mom and dad would meet us after flying in from Houston. 

As we drove north and east, the skies progressively grew hazier. Instead of Big Sky Country with never ending blue, we saw haze and smoke coming drifting down from the fires in Canada. A bummer for sure, but more than that, a reminder of how different everyday concerns are for our fellow Americans who live out west. 
After a couple of hours of driving, we arrived at the site of Custer's Last Stand:
What a fascinating hour and a half. The Indian Wars didn't get covered as extensively as other conflicts in our nation's history in all of my years of schooling. Seeing the terrain and trying to understand how and why Custer made the tactical decisions he did made it more real than any book could ever do. My reading list has grown during this vacation; I want to know more about so many of the things I've seen, and Custer and the Indian Wars are on the list for further study.

In our speed-touring mode, we stayed long enough to see the Visitors' Center; get the passport stamps; briefly walk the cemetery; and drive the auto tour road.

The next on-the-way destination: Devils Tower. In the northeast corner of Wyoming, it was another long stretch of road in front of us in these massive western states. A quick stop for lunch in Sheridan, Wyoming for pizza that turned into a to-go meal, and we were rolling down the highway.
As we turned off the main road onto the spur that would take us to America's first national landmark, Justin and I talked about how amazing it was to have the time and ability to see so many things. Little Bighorn and Devils Tower would never be destinations, but thanks to the route for the total vacation, we were close enough to make it work. What's another 60 to 90 minutes of driving when you've been in the car for a week and a half? And then, there it was in the distance - the Devils Tower, or the Bear's Lodge or Bear's Tipi, as many Native Americans prefer
How have I never seen Close Encounters of the Third Kind? Put it on the list - I'll watch that when I need a break from reading. On to the Visitors' Center! Passport stamps - check! 
Souvenirs - check! Pictures of amazing landmark - check! 
On the way out, bonus wildlife viewing - prairie dogs!! Fastest visit ever to Devils Tower, but there long enough to once more be awed by the diversity of the lands of America.
We arrived in Keystone around 7PM after a twelve hour day in the car, but were reenergized by the wonderful K Bar S Lodge that had a view of Mt. Rushmore from our parking lot. How exciting for Caroline, who'd been waiting for that the entire trip! That was the plan for Sunday, though, so we unpacked, regrouped, and headed out for dinner with Grandmommy and Granddaddy.

We had been excited to see them but little did I realize it was perfect timing - after a week and a half with nothing but each other's company, everyone was happy to have someone new to talk to and share some of our stories with. We ate at a local favorite, the Powder House Lodge, where I got adventurous and tried an elk steak. It was excellent, but the company was better - so great to see my parents!!
We collapsed in bed that night, excited to have another day of adventure in front of us.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Coussoules' Great Western Adventure: Day 9, last day in Yellowstone

As they say, all good things must come to an end, and so Friday the 18th dawned our last day to enjoy the beauty of Yellowstone. With another full day in front of us, I skipped the run and we took our time getting out the door, writing out postcards to friends and family:
The van was already packed with all of our stuff to head to our next destination after the fun of the day in the park had ended, and the only scheduled event was a boat tour on Yellowstone Lake in the afternoon. We had seen a good portion of the main areas of the park the last couple of days, but there were a few more that we wanted to make sure we spent some time enjoying before heading east. After a leisurely breakfast and relaxed morning, we headed for the west entrance, along with approximately a bazillion additional tourists for the day:
Summer at Yellowstone!
First up was the Artists Paintpots, another of the beautiful hot spot areas in the park:
My vocabulary isn't big enough to keep coming up with new words to describe the wonders of the park, but a lack of new words in no way implies that each day didn't bring its own sense of awe. It certainly didn't get old in just three days, but my heart tells me that it wouldn't get old in all the days one could spend there. As we drove east along the main loop in the park, we stopped at the Virginia Cascades, marveling at the water rushing over the rocks.
As we headed east, we continued to keep an eye out for the famous wildlife in the park; when we came upon an animal jam, it was quickly obvious just what was the cause for the delay. A huge bull elk was less than ten feet off of the road!
Of all of the animals in the park, I think the most recent of the superstars is the grey wolf. Controversially reintroduced into the park in the mid-1990's, it is today considered one of the great success stories of endangered species conservation. Most commonly seen in the Lamar Valley in the northeast part of the park (the only part of the park we wouldn't see any of on our trip), we didn't think we'd have the opportunity to see one of these elusive animals. As we drove through the Hayden Valley, though, we came across a very large gathering at one of the turnouts along the way - a wolf sighting! The alpha female and her cub were so far away, they couldn't be seen without the aid of the high powered scopes shared by the park personnel, but what a thrill! We spent a few minutes scanning the valley with our own binoculars, seeing a herd of elk not far from the wolf, and then later spying a group of bison. Simply amazing.
The Coussoules in the Hayden Valley
We arrived at the Mud Volcano area midday, and as it turns out, this is an area that delights the heart of a little boy. With a sign like this, how can you go wrong?
Once again, truth in advertising:
Truly fascinating - we could've stood and watched for a while, the randomness of the mud and the interesting patterns it created in and around the hole.
Time for our last lunch in Yellowstone, stopping at the Fishing Bridge Visitors Center and enjoying a picnic lunch in the shade. It's amazing how low humidity can make even the most committed indoorsman willing to dine al fresco!! Across the famous Fishing Bridge itself (which these days is, ironically, a No Fishing Bridge) to the marina at Lake Yellowstone.
A beautiful day for a tour, a little windy which made the lake choppy, but we were ready to go.
What we didn't realize was that in addition to the wind, there was smoke from forest fires that had drifted into the area, obscuring some of the views across the lake. Still, it was beautiful as well as educational, learning about the Lake Yellowstone Hotel and some of the history of the park, both geologic and human.
We all really enjoyed the cruise - well, almost all of us. A week into the vacation, I guess John really needed a break.
Asleep before we left the No Wake zone!
Back from the tour, it was time to bring our Yellowstone adventure to a close.
As much as we had loved Yellowstone and Grand Teton, we were excited to see what else was in store on our Great Western Adventure. Time for the second half of our Adventure to begin!

Friday, July 25, 2014

Friday Feature: Inspired Artwork

I think our recent trip must have the wheels turning in John's head about all of the different climates out there in our vast, beautiful country. I came across these drawings strategically placed on the coffee table where I would see them:

Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Coussoules' Great Western Adventure: Day 8, Second Day at Yellowstone

After catching up on a little bit of sleep and getting into the park around 9am on Day One, we changed course and got up early to be headed in the gate by 7:00. We had seen a ton of amazing stuff on Wednesday, but very little wildlife. We figured we'd increase our chance to see more of the iconic animals of Yellowstone if we were in the heart of the park early in the day.

We were right; before we even turned north, we encountered the first elk of the day, this time a group that included two fawns that still had their spots:
We were also surprised by roadwork; my guess is that the winter weather coupled with the 3,000,000+ summer visitors must wreak havoc on the roads, and there is a constant need for repair. We felt fortunate - we were on the roads so early, we were some of the first to get delayed after the road reopened at 7am! As we carefully made our way through the one lane construction area, we realized this was a major project, looking like a road widening. It seemed odd to have so much heavy machinery in a park known for maintaining the natural beauty of the surroundings, but at the same time, knowing how many people are in the park every summer, there is clearly a need for wider thoroughfares.
Having explored the Old Faithful area as fully as we could manage in the one allotted day, we headed north this time to the Mammoth Hot Springs area of the park. I expected to see more fascinating thermal hot spots from the road, and trees lining most of the drive. The park surprised me once again, though, with different landscapes than we had seen the day before. We stopped at one of the many falls in the park, getting some photos as the sunrise began to blanket the mountains:
Not long after making it through the construction area, we came across just what we were looking for: bison! He was just ambling down the road, totally unperturbed by the vehicles and the gawking tourists.
He was here first, I suppose.

We spent much of the day driving, as the Mammoth Hot Springs area is in the north part of the park. The sights were very different than toward Old Faithful; rockier, more dramatic, several waterfalls along the way. The bluffs and boulders gave way to open meadows and rolling hills; all of it spectacular, all of it a feast for the eyes. When we got to the Mammoth Hot Springs area, it was another opportunity to see the thermal activity up close, walking the boardwalks and seeing the springs and hot spots at work.
We stopped and talked to one of the Park Rangers, too. How did I miss out on this career opportunity?!
We made our way up to Fort Yellowstone at the north end of the park, and on to the famous arch welcoming all who visit:
Some of the can't-miss-them sights to see in Yellowstone are the Upper and Lower Falls, and the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. I think the waterfalls in the park may have been my favorite part about Yellowstone; someday, if I'm ever able to go back and spend a lot more time in the park, I'd like to hike closer to the water and just sit and listen to it run between its banks.
Caroline and I decided to take the trail all the way down to the side of the Lower Falls, and as she said, despite the steep hike back up, it was totally worth it!!

This was our day to see wildlife; there were pronghorn sheep near the north arch, a bison in the sun on one of the scenic loops we took, and even one of Yellowstone's famous black bears barely visible in the tall grass.
The wildflowers were remarkable; I'm sure I only saw some of the different varieties, but they were absolutely beautiful.
After an early start and a long day, we headed back to the cabin for a quick pit stop and then on to dinner - in IDAHO!! We couldn't be this close to Idaho and not go there; why miss an opportunity to cross another state off the list?! Thanks to TripAdvisor, we found a restaurant about a half hour away, enjoyed the beautiful drive, and had a great dinner.
The wildlife viewing continued; I saw a trumpeter swan on Henry's Fork of the Snake River, apparently a rare sighting, and we felt really lucky that we had decided to make the drive!
Back to the cabin after dinner with rain looming, but showers didn't stop the smores celebration. The fire pit right outside our cabin made it easy, and it was the perfect ending to another exciting day in Yellowstone!

Monday, July 21, 2014

The Coussoules' Great Western Adventure: Day 7, First Day at Yellowstone

We arrived in West Yellowstone, MT, early Tuesday evening via the John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Memorial Parkway, the road that connects the Grand Teton National Park with Yellowstone National Park. In the closest to camping we'll get, we stayed at the Explorer Cabins at Yellowstone in an adorable cabin that is outfitted with every modern amenity you could want, including wi-fi (be it slow and frustrating!). We once again fully unpacked the van, getting settled in to what we belatedly realized was the handicap accessible cabin. It was basically the same as a standard with the exception of the bathroom, which (after managing a couple of showers) was clearly not going to be functional for us. Frustrating, but we were tired, so we thought we'd make a go of it. We had to get to bed so that we would be ready to explore Yellowstone on Wednesday!

After several early mornings and a couple of very active days, we all needed a morning to sleep in. I skipped the run, we didn't turn on any alarms, and it did us all a lot of good. Of course, it also meant we sat in a bit of traffic to get into the park, but we were already prepared for big crowds based on what we'd always heard about Yellowstone, so no big deal. 

Not five miles inside the gate, we had our first summer Yellowstone traffic experience: we came to a dead stop and then slowly crept along. Surely it wouldn't be this way the whole 35 miles to our destination? We eased and idled along until we discovered it wasn't a traffic jam - it was an elk jam! 
Such backups are well known in the Park, affectionately called elk jams, bear jams, moose jams, etc. Hard to be annoyed with stop and go traffic when the cause is one of the very things we came to see. Rolling back along the road now to our first stop, Old Faithful! Is there anything more iconic when one thinks of the great American outdoors? 

Our phenomenal luck and timing that we've been so blessed with on so much of this trip held: we found a parking spot practically at the front door of the Visitors' Center. 
We headed straight inside to the passport station for the next stamp in the collection - the beginning of a collection potentially for a lifetime of Caroline and John. So, so grateful to Melissa for those!!
After a quick swing around the gift shop (trust me when I say we're doing everything we can to stimulate the American economy on this trip), we checked the estimated time of the next eruption, consulted our watches, and headed over to the Old Faithful Inn
This historic building, built in 1904 and the largest log structure in the world, is absolutely remarkable in its construction. With a 92 ft cathedral ceiling and a fireplace constructed entirely of local stone, it is breathtaking in its western grandeur. More recently, it was the inspiration for the Disney World Wilderness Lodge which we, by chance, had stayed at on our vacation two years ago. My opinion? Can't beat the real thing!
It was time to head outside to get a good viewing spot for Old Faithful. While consistent in erupting, it isn't exact in its timing, so we waited in the sunshine while the crowds built for the show. And the show did not disappoint:
There are few ways to feel smaller as an inhabitant of planet Earth than to see the awesome power of a geothermal geyser. As impressive as Old Faithful is, though, other geysers in the park supersede it in size and power. They're just not as reliable, so we didn't have the opportunity to see any of them up close in peak eruption.

After the geyser quieted back down, we followed our itinerary's recommendation to explore the Upper Geyser Basin, marveling at the hot springs and geothermal activity that was everywhere you looked. The aqua blue of the water is a result of an absence of impurities; there are some micro organisms that live in the extreme conditions, but the brilliance of the boiling water is a result of silica that reflects all wavelengths except blue. 
Due to the fragile nature of the thermal areas, all walkways are raised above the ground, and for obvious reasons you have to stay on the boards! That worked great for us, though, as it kept us right on track to tour the Basin, able to stop and look a bit longer at a hot spot and then catch back up together. Caroline was especially taken by this one:
As she and I moved on, we got lucky when the Grand Geyser erupted with Sawmill still going:

The kids were super troopers for the roughly two miles of walking; we've seen many families with very young children, making me realize that we are at a perfect point for these types of family vacations. The kids enjoy seeing new things; they're strong enough to make it on their feet for long periods of time; nobody asks to be carried or has a flat-out, flop-down fit. Even hunger doesn't cause a meltdown, which is great, because we were all ready for lunch by the time we finished our Upper Geyser Basin tour.

Big bonus of a driving adventure vs. a flying adventure: coolers and picnic blanket in the van. All we needed was a shady place to stop. With pull outs every mile or so on the Yellowstone highways, no problem!
On to the Midway Geyser Basin! Silly me, thinking it would be more of the same. Yes, it was hydrothermal activity. No, it was not at all the same. More hot springs than geysers, the landscape was unique and astonishing. We rounded out our first day inside the park with - what else - Lower Geyser Basin. Again, the landscapes were similar but unique, interesting, inspiring and spectacular. 
On any drive inside the park, it is impossible to miss the signs of the massive wildfires decades ago in the summer of 1988. Dead, fallen trees still mar the vistas, and wide swaths of forest are less than half the height of the old growth trees. 
I vaguely remember the news coverage of the devastating fires when I was thirteen; seeing the park for the first time, I obviously don't have personal knowledge of the difference between pre- and post-fire. For me, the impact is a desire to know more about the fires, more about the ecology of this vast park, more about the interdependence of all of its inhabitants and the cycles of nature. I think that is the legacy the establishment of Yellowstone created - a renewed sense of wonder in people of all ages, reverence for the beauty God created for all of us and a desire to preserve it for everyone's great adventures to come.