A tribute to Libby

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My grandmother Elizabeth, Libby for short, enjoyed traveling—even if it was just a Sunday drive sitting next to the love of her life, my Grandpa Paul. After they retired, the drives turned into longer RV versions.

I have a memory of a letter from her that she wrote while staying in Grand Tetons National Park. She described the feeling of standing among the jagged mountain peaks that climb doggedly to the sky over 7,000 feet from the valley floor.

I’m pleased to say that I relived that feeling today. And I’m even happier to say she was right. The Grand Tetons are beyond breathtaking. But it wasn’t enough to drive right up to the base of mountains like she and grandpa did; we had to get into them. So with bear spray and plenty of water, we hiked up to an emerald oval named Lake Phelps.

Once we arrived, our daughter claimed she had to put her feet in the icy water. So it was with utter surprise and a shriek (from me) when a wild brown thing splashed by, giving us all a scare. A fish the size of my arm? Not exactly. It was an otter—one who, we later joked, kissed her toes.

A lesson in consistency

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Today we viewed the quintessential wonder of the American world: Old Faithful.  Although I really prefer the hot springs with their color-coded rings of orange, green, yellow and blue, Old Faithful has a certain educational value. It reminds me to be consistent, to come back to the moment.

At day 12 of this trip, I have to admit, I am longing for home. I’m sore from sleeping on hard ground in a rain-soaked tent. Yet I am so enjoying being unplugged from world.

Therefore, I write this note to myself: Settle in for the last bits of this trip. Soak it up. Be consistent and live in the present. Again and again and again.

Thanks, Old Faithful. Lesson learned.

Jelly frog

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I attended another ranger talk tonight, this one about how the bison, bears, elk, wolves, coyotes and other animals in Yellowstone survive the long winters. If I understood the ranger correctly, when one frog species senses winter is approaching, it actually changes its cellular structure to a gelatinous state so that it won’t freeze solid in the mud.

Seriously? That is so cool.

I assume evolution somehow allows the frogs to change back in time for the spring thaw so that they can hop off in search of mosquitoes and the like.

Speaking of jelly, I sort of feel like my mind has turned a bit soft, due to travel experience saturation or TES. You’d think with all this extra time, I’d practice things that make me a better, more spiritual person—things like more yoga, better eating habits, bold decisions about my life. Instead, I’m in a free flow mode….simply fulfilling basic needs and taking in experiences as they come. I suppose that’s a victory in itself as it’s so rare that I get to do this.

At the same time, it’s a reminder that I have to take my travel in doses. In fact, on my next trip, I hope to have a home base from which I can practice my good-for-me daily activities with some diligence and then make excursions into the yonder.

Spa anyone?

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Today we stopped at Mud Volcano on our way into Yellowstone. While I’d like to write something deep and meaningful about the relationship between life and what transpired to create this unusual geologic formation, all I can think about is making an appointment for a facial when I get back home.

A taste of the Wild West

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I’ve noticed that I tend to consume travel in two ways: let’s call them appetizers and entrees.

When arriving in a new place, I take in everything in small bites as if I were sampling from an appetizer tray. After I leave, I keep thinking about the things I tried, and I find myself wanting to return to the place to take it all in at a deeper level, kind of like the main course.

I found this phenomenon to be true in our stop today in Cody, Wyoming, which is touted as the rodeo capital of the world. I tasted “appetizers” as I looked in store windows along the main street. I sampled “appetizers” from the choreographed gunfight that the locals put on each evening to draw tourists into town. And I tasted actual “appetizers” in the form of cowboy beans and biscuits from the back of a chuck wagon at the local museum.

At the end of the day (and ironically after a real meal of Mexican food), I had to ask: What’s for dessert?

There was only one answer. Seats at the nightly rodeo, of course. Where else but Cody can you see a rodeo every night all summer long? It turned out to be one of the sweetest memories from the whole trip.

In hindsight, all those experiences made me hungry to return to the area in the future, maybe for a week at a dude ranch. Don’t laugh…that definitely qualifies as an entree travel adventure!

 

Lessons from the heartland

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The terrain got decidedly flat and farmlike as we made our way to the far southwest corner of South Dakota. This location was one impetus for the trip…meeting my husband’s remaining relatives. While here, we learned about his great, great grandfather and grandmother, who claimed a chunk of this fertile land near the Missouri River and farmed it with their children, and children’s children, for more than 100 years.

Family is obviously a core value out here, which I can certainly respect. Everywhere I looked were family-style buffet restaurants. Entire families turned out to bowfish at the local dam. (Yes, I said bowfish, as in spear fishing with a bow and arrow. You have to see it to believe it.) Life feels slow out here and more than a bit unsophisticated to my city-honed tastes, but I still appreciate the family sentiment.

Being from Seattle, however, I was accused by the one remaining relative who still farms the land of preferring organic produce. Guilty. Then he and I proceeded to have a rather sophisticated conversation about global warming and GMO crops, and how hard it was to make a living off the soil. Last year’s drought wiped out his livestock; the corn he planted to feed them only grew knee-high before drying up. I certainly don’t envy his position.

Standing out there on that farm, however, I reaffirmed my belief in eating simply, locally and as organically as possible.  He may be family, but I have to believe my way is better.

Detour improves tour

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Ironically, after yesterday’s Big Thunder mine tour, it was thunder and lightning that woke us up at 5:30 AM. We packed up our campground and hightailed it out of there just as huge raindrops let loose.

Over breakfast at a local diner, we listened to a group of elderly men catching up over their Friday morning ritual. I caught snatches of conversation…about losing $11 at Bingo and the six inches of rainfall (!) that drenched a town the day before.

Then one man, who was obviously hard of hearing, asked his friends if he could recite a poem. They obliged and he launched into an eight-stanza poem about a blacksmith by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. I vowed to find that poem again as it so reminded me of my own grandfather and here it is:  http://www.hwlongfellow.org/poems_poem.php?pid=38

After breakfast, we got back on the road only to learn that the National Weather Service had issued a severe storm alert warning people to stay inside due to baseball-sized hail. To skirt the storm, we decided to take a detour through the Badlands National Monument. It was an otherworldly landscape of sculpted spires and striped dunes as if the innards of the earth had been exposed for continual erosion. Barren and raw, yet richly beautiful…that was the Badlands.

Let’s hear it for detours.

Tourist trap pays off

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Travel experiences rate much higher than travel destinations to me. So while we spent the morning at Mt. Rushmore—a must see in the Black hills of South Dakota–it was the afternoon that made the day so memorable.

I wanted to try gold panning and dozens of the brightly-painted billboards exclaimed that Big Thunder Gold Mine was the place to do it. Maybe it was a tourist trap, but I was willing to overlook that fact. Plus everyone in my family was excited about the prospect, too. (Sorry about the pun.)

The experience included a tour through the mine, complete with the opportunity to wear plastic yellow hard hats. In an earlier post, I mentioned facing my fears and one of them is going underground in caves and such. But I was determined.

At stops throughout the mine, I learned about the two miners who had worked this claim. Their story can be summed up in numbers: 35 years of work, 630 feet into the side of the hill and 10 ounces of gold total. That’s dedication, desperation and an unyielding sense of hope all mixed up into one.

Afterwards, we were handed gold pans and given a short lesson on how to scoop, shake and swirl water over a mixture of sand and gravel to reveal tiny specks of gold. We collected them into a water-filled vial. Tacky souvenir? Perhaps. I don’t care, though. It triggers an experiential memory that is much richer to me.

The goodness of guides

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I’m going to let you in on a secret. I have a crush on rangers…as in National Park Rangers. Some people collect celebrity sightings; I collect ranger talks. I admire how these people are so passionate and deeply knowledgeable about history, geology, flora and fauna. Thanks to park rangers, I’ve learned about the lives of cougars, what it takes to go caving, how sound from airplanes affects the ecosystem below the flight path, and much more.

Today, I was rapt listening to the story of Custer and Sitting Bull at Little Bighorn National Monument. That’s saying something since I’m not a battleground fan or military strategy buff. To be honest, this location is unremarkable to me—a green swath of prairie grass, rolling hills and a granite marker.

But thanks to a couple of ranger talks, it was almost as if I was the one wearing a blue Army coat, crouching behind my horse, feeling in my pouch for ammunition that wasn’t there, sucking on the metallic taste of fear, wishing for a way out. Those park rangers made history come alive.

Unfortunately, there is one thing that could be a deal breaker to me becoming a park ranger someday. I simply cannot abide by those long green wool pants and brown boots on 98-degree days. If they have shorts and sandals option for the National Park Service, I’m in.