Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Here in the Real World...

There's a quote from the American naturalist John Burroughs (1837-1921) that I keep magneted to our fridge: "I still find each day too short for all the thoughts I want to think, all the walks I want to take, all the books I want to read, and all the friends I want to see."

Today, and all month, I've been feeling particularly akin to this idea that there's so much life to live, and so little time in which to live it. I'm sitting at my desk now at Brevard College, looking out onto the quad area as students pass, coats zipped up to the chin and tobaggans pulled low over their eyebrows. I'm wondering how I'm going to get everything done--essays graded, final exams created, Christmas shopping completed without putting a serious and regrettable dent in our finances, exercise myself and my dog so that I don't hate myself every time I look in the mirror, clean the house, write my next novel, and settle down to enjoy the season that I love so much--

(Well... it's Jan. 8 and I never finished this entry! So sorry. I thought I'd post it anyway.)

Monday, October 29, 2007

Bison and Elk and Fox, Oh My: Yellowstone Day 2

(Be sure to read & check out the photos from my post about our first day in Yellowstone below.)

On day two we awoke, partook of the continental breakfast at the Best Western in West Yellowstone--it was sorely inadequate, the only unfortunate aspect of our stay--and once again headed into the Park. There were several cars on the road; though the day began at 25 degrees and climbed eventually on a rollercoaster track to 50, it was sunny, and the Park was filled with fly fishermen and families. Ashley and I both decided that we'd never, ever come back in the summer when the Park sees almost 3,000 visitors a day.

Once inside the Park, we headed out on the Firehole Loop, the south loop of the Park advised to us by the friendly Sudoku-playing park ranger from Friday. We followed along the Firehole and Madison Rivers, saw more waterfalls, insanely colorful and often stinky geo-thermal features, great herds of bison and elk, Old Faithful erupting to cheers of onlookers, the dizzying heights of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, the blue infinity of Yellowstone Lake, volcanic mud, a couple getting married on a hill high above the winding Yellowstone River, and so many geysers hissing steam that it looked as if the world was on fire. We watched a fox on the hunt, and sunset once again take to the sky above and behind the white-capped Absaroka Range.

We ended our day at a local pizza parlor, drank wine in our hotel room and watched a crazy sci-fi flick on TV (I stayed up, a little mesmerized after living without television for 3 and 1/2 weeks), and looked at the day's photos blown up on my laptop. The next morning, thanks to my trusty Rough Guide of Yellowstone, we ate pancakes at the Running Bear Pancake House--another local favorite--filled the P.T. Cruiser up with $3.15 per gallon gasoline, and headed up Hwy 191 for Bozeman.

I'd picked that route back because the highway follows along the incredible Gallatin River, where the movie A River Runs Through It was filmed. The river, and the valley, were gorgeous, wide and flaxen, filled with red willow and embraced by steep mountains on both sides. We curled through mountain passes, took a detour to check out Big Sky and the ski resort there, and eventually made our way back to Belgrade, where the Bozeman Airport is. I dropped Ash off with time to spare, and we said goodbye to our weekend adventure.

On the way back to Basin I considered the past couple of days, and my time in southwestern Montana. Right now, the whole experience defies my descriptive and comprehensive powers. Our time in Yellowstone was breath-catching, heart-stealing, making me so proud and happy to be an American, and so hopeful that present and future generations will be able to see the value of the wild, our sacred obligation to it, and the hope involved in preserving our unique natural landscape. What glory there is in standing in a place encompassed by wilderness, and breathing it in knowing that its power lies in survival, in merely existing. I'm so thankful that I got a chance to be there.

Writing this, I'm taking a break from packing. I'll head out of Basin early tomorrow morning for the last time. I'm hopeful that after I get back from N.C., I'll eventually be able to write a post script sort of entry to the trip. Thank you all, so much, for reading along, and for supporting me with good thoughts and energy while I've been away.

God Bless Teddy... and Ulysses S. Grant (Day 1 in Yellowstone National Park)

Yellowstone National Park is definitely not seen in its incredible entirety in a two-day trip, but we sure as heck tried.

I picked my friend Ashley up at the Bozeman airport on Thursday. Her plane arrived early, and she'd exited with several fly-fishermen, all heading to southwestern Montana and the cinematic scope of the rivers here, to enjoy a last Fall weekend. We threw her bags in the P.T. Cruiser and took off up Hwy 15 towards Butte, through the golden hills. Ash is a talker (as am I), and I kept wanting to point out the rock formations and quarterhorses and cattle like an over-exuberant mother, urging, "Look, look--we're HERE." (Mom and Dad: think our first trip to Alaska, when y'all were trying to get Cal and me to get our noses out of books.)

After a quick trip through the historic uptown of sometimes sadly unattractive Butte, we took again to the road and for Basin, passing the former frontier settlements along the valley way and the now burnished red willow in the riverbottoms: these daily, ephemeral sights that I know will stay lodged in my memory, though I'll leave them soon. I introduced Ash to my friend Kate, then had to say goodbye to the latter: Kate had to leave early, on Saturday, to head back to Massachusetts for work. I handed Kate a CD of photos from our travels, hoping that my smile conveyed just how much fun I'd had with her these last weeks, how nice and easy it was to be in her presence, and how I'd truly enjoyed sharing the adventure. I know that we'll keep in touch, and I hope to see Kate again--maybe even convince her to come experience a future weekend in the Deep South.

After introducing Ash to one of my favorite Basin dogs, a street-vagabond who's a mix of St. Bernard and something else, who hasn't a name on his collar, we went to Helena for dinner. We ate at the Windbag, a former brothel/boxing venue/bowling alley where we drank local beer and people-watched. Then it was back to Basin, where Ash lived through sleeping with me in the tiny loft bed after bumping her head on the ceiling (it brushes the top of my head, and Ash is 5'8") and dealing with my alleged snoring (she did purposely steal both good, firm pillows before I got up there: punk). The next morning, we took to the open road, heading up to Boulder, where we navigated normally lovely Hwy 69 all the way to Whitehall (in a white-out sort of snow craziness behind a slow 18-wheeler who kicked up gravel). I hated for Ash to miss the views of the mountains and long, glacial-carved valley on either side, but we did see some antelope grazing through the fog and plenty of horses.

We hit Hwy 41 to Hwy 287, stopping by the stuck-in-time "ghost" towns of Nevada and Virginia Cities (I use the quotes here because Virginia City is halfway inhabited, and we stopped there to shop). We stopped in the quaint little town of Ennis, which I'd read about in novels, had lunch at the Pharmacy--a place recommended to us by a store proprietoress--with a room full of locals (great food). After sating our stomachs, it was off to the south, and towards West Yellowstone along Hwy 287 and the wide Madison River, with the Beaverhead and Gallatin National Forests on either side. The ranch land here is wide, separated by fenceline and peppered with cattle and homesites (looks like much of the land around Ennis is being chopped up and sold in mini-ranch lots to the highest bidders... mostly rich, California Hollywood types, according to the locals). Soon the white-capped peaks to our right and south began to emerge from clouds and into daylight.

A nice kid at the Best Western Desert Inn in West Yellowstone checked us in, stocking us with extra shampoo and conditioner. Our first stop was the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center, where we saw the bears and wolves kept there. Despite the obvious (and necessary) somewhat domestication of these animals, I still got a flash of goosebumps along my spine watching the wolves lie in the sun. There's something so familiar about their cock of brawny head, about the the keen intelligence in their eyes... and I am convinced, once again, that we humans are more connected to these creatures than we realize.

We headed into the Park, despite the lateness of the day, after a conversation with a knowledgeable ranger at the Visitors' Center--we interrupted his Sudoku game--planning out our route for the next day. Once inside the Park, we took the road up towards Mammoth, checking out waterfalls, bison in flaxen valleys along flashing cobalt rivers, and a herd of elk grazing quietly roadside. On our way back to West Yellowstone, we watched the sun sink over the peaked and white-capped Absaroka Range, far away against a thick forest of green-black lodgepole pines. The pink-gold light cast the mountains in stark relief, gilding the snow and making it all seem as if something out of a dream. I spent much of the drive back shaking my head and clearing my throat, uttering inanities like "gorgeous," "oh, my goodness," and "wow." Before the weekend was out I'd add "holy crap" and "dear lord" to my expanding vocabulary (sorry Mom... not a good combo).

We ate dinner at Bullwinkle's Bar and Saloon, and like everywhere else I've been in this great state, the service was excellent: friendly, helpful and kind. The bar was chock-full of fly fishermen, and we'd see them the next morning leave our hotel in the frigid dark, and later shin-deep in the icy rivers of the park, casting lines against a glistening backdrop of frosted field, grey cliffside and grazing giant elk.

A post from Day 2 will come later... when, I'm not sure. Today I'm packing up my Montana life, for I depart from Bozeman tomorrow around 11 a.m. I may have to take one last trip to Helena before the day's out, to buy packing tape and to just watch the skyline one last time.

P.S. To explain the title of the post... I thanked Teddy (aka Roosevelt, one of my all-time favorite American presidents) because he started the whole conservation-park thing. Grant, despite being one of the scourges of the South and a good general, but not a very good president all-together, signed the bill that made Yellowstone a national park.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Cowgirls in the House!

This may be my last post for several days, as the trip gets crazy busy from here on out. So, I thought I'd write tonight before hitting the sack.

This morning, Kate Kahn and I climbed into the PT Cruiser and headed north of Helena up Hwy 15, to Wolf Creek, where we pulled into the long drive of the Rocking Z Ranch ready for some horseback riding. There we met Anna Wirth, our 19 year-old guide, who grew up on the ranch with her brother, sisters, parents, horses, cattle, and assorted pets... including one adorable black goat. Anna led us to the corral, where we put halters on our horses (two mares: mine's name was Rue) and led them back to the stable to tack up. We loaded our lunch, water bottles, cameras and sunglasses--the day was perfectly blue and up to 70 degrees--into the saddlebags, and hit the trail.

We passed through gorgeous Rocking Z land, including a grove of aspens, across and into the river that winds its way through the property, getting used to our horses. I'd tied my long-sleeved shirt around my waist after only ten minutes, comfortable in short sleeves--a first in my month in Montana. For Kate and me, eastern girls through and through, the bulky western saddle and rough gate of the quarterhorses was a real challenge, but still fun. Anna let us loose to do quite a bit of cantering and galloping in the long valleys, which I loved (even when it hurt).

The land was incredible, infinite, breath-taking, and I won't bother to describe it, because there really aren't words. We rode for 14 miles across massive sagebrush country, alongside shining creeks, flushed several single white-tailed deer and watched a big herd race across a golden mountainside, chased by the Ranch dog. It all was certainly an adventure, one I'll not forget. And though I'm in definite pain (an old soccer injury to my knee is still throbbing), it was the ride of a lifetime.

Tomorrow, I pick up Ashley McMahan from the Bozeman airport at 12:30 p.m., and it's a good three hour round trip, so I need to get some sleep. We'll spend one night in my tiny Basin apartment before heading south to Yellowstone Friday morning. (We'll spend two nights in West Yellowstone before I take her back to the airport on Sunday, hopefully viewing tons of wildlife and geo-thermal madness.)

Enjoy the photos!

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Road Trip & Hike Along the Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway

Today, the trail kicked my butt. It threw me against the ropes and then clothes-lined me, and I ended up in a puddle.

Okay, so it wasn't that dramatic, but I really did pooh out on the hike today, which was up in the Pioneer Mountains on a straight-up forever trail called Bobcat Lake. After climbing steadily through lodgepole pine forest and slippery snow-covered rocks for over an hour, Kate and I turned back. (She could've kept going, but I was pooped.) So, we only ended up being out for a little over two hours, our shortest hike yet. And we saw elk tracks, but no elk. However, the sky was cloudless and azure, and we did get to drive out along the Big Hole River again, which is gorgeous, and then up the long. lovely Wise River valley to the Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway. We even saw some juvenile golden eagles feasting on roadkill along the way... pretty darn cool. (And, we caught a glimpse of a herd of antelope in the hills along Hwy 15, south of Butte.)

Did have an interesting time on a spur of the moment trip to Helena yesterday. In a Murdoch's store (ranch goods and wear) I heard a father and his young son arguing over a belt the boy wanted. (Keep in mind the kid was 7 years old at most.) The kid wanted what the father considered to be a "girly" belt, and refused to buy it for him. So the boy moped for a bit, and I paid them little attention. Then, as they were leaving the store, the father turned to the boy and said, "Now remember what I told you, son: cowboys lead, cowgirls follow." And as I turned in their direction, mouth agape, the boy repeated his father's words like a mantra all the way out the door.

As much as I understand a dad not wanting his son to wear sparkly belts, that pretty much stunk. All I could think was, way to teach your son about gender roles, big man. And even though I really love Montana, I've seen quite a few things that speak to the complicated, full-on traditional roles of the sexes out here. Men are men, and women are cooks and mothers. And you better not go beyond your father's saying (think Robert Frost). As for me, I have yet to see a Miss Kitty running her own dance hall, but I know she must be out there.

Tomorrow will be better: Kate and I have managed to find a ranch who will let us ride their horses. We're headed up to Wolf Creek, which is northwest of Helena, to a ranch called the Rocking Z. Should be fun.

Enjoy the photos from the day, and sleep well.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Hiking in the Tobacco Root Mountains

Well, I'm sitting at my computer at almost 9 p.m. on Sunday night, and though I'm so tired I could crawl into bed right now, I'm going to post about my hike today. It's either that or wash the dishes that have piled up in the sink... and I abhor washing dishes, as my husband well knows. (I've actually been re-using spoons, a bowl, and my travel coffee mug for several days now. I know: ewww.)

Kate and I headed out from Basin--where it was freezing and had snowed--this morning around 8:30 a.m., and took off towards Boulder, where we got onto Hwy 69 and headed south towards the Tobacco Root Mountains. The sky was brilliant blue and the day beautiful despite the biting cold, and we were having such a good time talking while traveling through the golden hills surrounding Hwy 359 that we missed a very large forest service sign with the road name we were looking for on it, and ended up all the way at Jct 283. Laughing, we turned back, enjoyed the views from the other direction, and found our turn-off: South Boulder Rd/ Forest Service Rd 107. We took the unlined paved road--which eventually turned dirt and rutted, and then snowy--through the tiny town of Mammoth with its adorably tiny cedar-planked and aluminum-roofed houses and up into the Tobacco Root Mountains. The road became increasingly deep in snow, and along the way we passed several trucks with orange-hatted and vested hunters inside, and one man unloading his horse. It's a non-motorized vehicle area, which means that most hunters either hike or use pack horses. I was glad I wore my bright yellow vest, no matter how much like a cracked out oompa-loompa it makes me look.

After eating our lunch in Kate's rental Subaru Forrester (which performed admirably in the snow and ice), we headed up the trail. It was bone-chillingly cold: about 25 or so degrees at almost 10,000 feet. We hiked along a half-frozen resevoir, then took the Lake Louise Trail (where the 3 mile standard was scratched and 4 added), crossed a bridge over the snowy Boulder Creek and headed up into the mountains.

The trail became increasingly thick, but gorgeous: snowy Douglass fir-filled woods that made me feel as if I were walking through a C.S. Lewis novel. Pretty soon we were trudging through snow
more than 10 inches deep, but the views out onto the jagged, white-capped Tobacco Roots, blue sky blazing above, was well worth it. We didn't quite make it to Lake Louise--it looked like a snowstorm was blowing up, and it was getting colder--but the hike was incredible, chest-expanding and unforgettable.

We ate delicious pizza in Butte, wet shoes, red faces and all, and headed back to Basin. Along the way we realized, sadly, that we'll only have a few more days left of hiking together. I will sorely miss my newest hiking buddy! But we're going to try to get in a couple more good hikes before the week is out... and hopefully a horseback ride.

Up next: back to the Hot Springs to soak aching muscles tomorrow night, horseback riding, more hikes with Kate, and then my friend Ashley arrives on Thursday for a weekend in Yellowstone. Ain't life a kick?!

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Saturday Road Trip to Big Hole National Battlefield

I attempted to wake up at 7:30 a.m. this morning, but that didn't happen... I think I disabled the phone alarm in my sleep. I did, however, manage to climb out of the loft by 9 a.m., and after piddling around on my laptop for a while and trying not to notice the blue sky outside my window, hit the open road.

I headed south on Hwy 15 towards Butte, kept going down to the town of Divide, where I took Hwy 43 into the Beaverhead National Forest. A wide, flat, and fly fisherman's paradise called the Big Hole River parallels Hwy 43, and I followed it all the way to Wisdom. Hwy 43 is a gorgeous drive along the river, and the land around--the Pioneer Mountains high and white-capped to the west, long flat fields covered in russet willow--was mostly enveloped in snow. After passing through tiny Wisdom with its antler-decorated saloons and the painting of a voluptuous Indian maiden adorning one of its larger wooden buildings, I took Hwy 43 about twelve miles through cattleland to the Nez Perce Historic Park/Big Hole National Battlefield.

During two bloody August days in 1877, U.S. Army troops and about 750 fleeing Nez Perce battled it out in the Big Hole Valley, a wide-open field and marshland along a flowing, winding creek. This bunch of Nez Perce were non-treaty, and so had refused to be removed to a reservation. They were resting in the valley, thinking that after long weeks of running and military skirmishes, that they were safe... and some even thought that since they'd crossed into Montana from Idaho, they'd left their troubles behind.

But a U.S. Army colonel named John Gibbon had received a missive from a commanding officer, requesting that additional troops intercept the Nez Perce after they'd crossed into a place called the Bitteroot Valley. So 146 enlisted men, 16 officers, and 34 local volunteers headed towards Big Hole. They made camp across the creek from the Nez Perce encampment, where children were playing and the women had begun to cook, and planned to launch a surprise attack. In the middle of the night, they'd even stumbled upon a huge herd of Nez Perce horses in a steep meadow nearby. But it wasn't to be: an old Indian found them first, and after they shot him the chaos began. The white soldiers charged toward the encampment, firing into teepees and unfortunately killing several women and children. It seems like everyone was confused, and the result was tragedy, chaos, and death. (The soldiers had also dragged a Howitzer along with them, but some Nez Perce warriors had seen what they were doing and attacked the men with it, then disabled the heavy cannon and stole the ammunition.)

Despite their lesser firepower, the Nez Perce rallied and the soldiers were forced to a grove of pine trees... with Nez Perce snipers tailing them through a thick bramble of willow. While the soldiers hunkered down and dug frantic ditches for themselves and their rifles, the battle continued among the trees. The snipers held the soldiers there until the last moment, when they left to join fleeing family members. The monuments there report that "casualties were heavy on both sides."

The Big Hole Valley, and the battlefield itself, is really quite eerie. There are frames of teepees that mark the spot of the Nez Perce encampment; some have been decorated with colored cloth and animal skins by people visiting. The whole place is considered sacred to the Nez Perce, because it literally became a graveyard to those that fell. The long valley is marked by willow, and in the distance you can see white-capped mountains. It's truly a hauntingly beautiful spot.

I left Big Hole National Battlefield around 4 p.m., and decided to head home the way I'd come, back along the river. A gray, forebodingly huge snowstorm blew up in the Pioneer Mountains, but because the roads had been plowed I felt like I'd be okay. I ended up veering from my route and taking scenic Hwy 569 alongside the Anaconda Range, and towards the town of Anaconda. I was one of few cars on that rough road--the others only trucks--and for a while the snow blew thick and relentless. But after keeping my eyes in permanent squint to watch for cattle (they open-range in the area), I passed over some kind of line of weather demarcation and into the sun.

Suffice to say, I'm home safe and sound, and it was a gorgeous trip. Tomorrow, Kate Kahn and I are headed towards the Tobacco Root mountains, to do a 7 mile round trip hike to Lake Louise. Hopefully the bubble blister on my big toe and the sore spot on my heel will take it easy on me!