Archive for May 2012

Montana, Day 6: The Shadow Proves the Sunshine

“Your sunshine’s here,” Dana intoned sweetly while I shook off the residue from the previous nights sleep.  (Amazing what a muscle relaxer can do.) I dragged my bum leg and bruised body to the back door where I feasted my eyes on Emigrant Peak, it’s sisters, and the valley below all lit up with sunshine just as Dana promised.  Beauty, unadulterated beauty. A perfect day for hiking. Unfortunately, hiking was no longer an option. Nearly all of the day was spent with my leg propped up and covered in ice packs while my new Osprey Aether 70 sat in the corner taunting me.  The good news is that it gave me a little time for writing. Occasionally I’d look up at a magpie in a burst of flight, with the Crazy Mountains as a backdrop.  I’ve gotta tell you,  it wasn’t a bad way to spend a day. It also gave us opportunity to visit Chico Hot Springs Resort and Spa for lunch where I discovered I most definitely do not like the taste of elk. Life lesson. Short and sweet entry today. We plan to be up by 4 am and on our way back to the Park, this time heading through the Lamar Valley toward Cooke City. Hoping to spot some wolves. So early to bed, early to rise…

Montana, Day 5: It’s Not A Vacation Till…

It’s not a vacation till a boulder rolls across your leg.

We rose early, jumped into our rented Subaru and pointed it toward Yellowstone.  The day before, I’d spotted a couple of signs in Gardiner boasting breakfast buffets and despite the fact that “nary a grit were to be found in these parts” (Tom Conlon quote), the organic, farm fresh eggs common to this area more than made up for it.  Unfortunately, either I’d imagined the signs or they’d been taken down since yesterday.  We ended up having breakfast in a little diner that was overflowing with sightseers as well as locals, staffed by one frantic, flustered and overworked waitress.  Almost 2 hours later we finally left the diner and drove under the Roosevelt Arch, the giant monolith that marks the Northwest entrance to Yellowstone. Most everything was still obscured in the billowy whiteness of snow and fog but we held out hope that the God who had made these mountains and had brought us here would lift the clouds to give us a glimpse of his handiwork.

Today’s destination was Old Faithful, 51 miles from the entrance. Neither Dana nor I were overly excited about seeing the geyser itself but moreso in walking for a while in footsteps my dad had  left there years before.  As a young soldier he had driven his Studebaker through the area, spending his nights sleeping under the stars. The summer evening he spent camping just outside of Old Faithful Lodge a family invited him to join them for dinner.  He thanked them for their generosity but explained he had some hot dogs he planned to roast over the fire. They told him to save his hotdogs for later, tonight he would eat steak.  Of course he couldn’t say no to steak. Years later the kindness offered to this young serviceman lives on.  I have to admit, I was combing the area looking for a soldier not unlike my dad I could extend the same generosity to…pay it forward.

We were told that no matter what we did, we just had to enjoy a meal at the Old Faithful Lodge. Famished, we sat down to what we anticipated would be a sumptuous meal, served buffet style. Unfortunately, like every other meal we’d had inside the park it was a huge disappointment, bland and overpriced. All of the concessions for the park are sub-contracted to a company called Xanterra. Seasonings, apparently don’t figure into their bottom line. Take this not so much as a criticism as a suggestion to bring a picnic lunch.  We looked jealously all around us at those who’d had the foresight to do this very thing.  Yellowstone is made for picnics…and its unbridled splendor more than makes up for a lack of good food.

The clouds parted just in time for us to see the 2pm eruption of Old Faithful. The old geyser must be getting along in years for it erupted with a whimper, not a bang. In the midst of it’s whimper , the clouds moved in and a cold rain began to soak us as we ran to the car.

If you know me at all you’re aware of my disdain for gloomy, white skies.  This had been our weather, with occasionally interruptions of rain, sleet and snow, since we left the airport. As hard as I fought to not let this affect my disposition, the weather coupled with hours of 30 mph driving, stopping every 1/4 mile or so to hop out and snap pictures had left me in a sullen funk. I looked on longingly as I saw 4 guys hoisting their packs for what must’ve been a multi-day backpacking trip into the wild. It didn’t escape Dana’s notice.  “Want me to let you out?”  “Nah, I’m fine.” “No, you’re not.” I wasn’t and I knew it. Surrounded by this veiled beauty and stuck in this horrid pattern of starting and stopping had made it’s mark on me.

At the sight of a sign marking the Continental Divide, we stopped again to snap a pic.  Pointing to a steep embankment, Dana said, “Crawl up there and let me get your pic.” The soil was loose but I made it a little ways and posed while bracing myself on an exposed root from a fallen tree. Once done, I scrambled the rest of the way to the top to find a spot out of view to, ahem, “make water” as my dad calls it.  I returned to the top of the hill and warned Dana and an older woman who’d arrived in my absence to move out of the way, in case this went bad.  Dana hid behind the sign and the woman moved to the side.  Best I can tell, when I began to slip I instinctually reached out and grabbed a boulder that sat loosely in the soil, dislodging it to chase me down the hill.  I was nearly at the bottom when it overtook me, slamming into my right calf, driving my knee and right shoulder into the gravel. Dana, the older lady and her husband all screamed as I fell. I hopped up quickly, dripping blood from multiple places and hoping, praying I’d not done serious damage.  7 hours later, after our continued “start-stop-snap-a-picture” method of travel back into Emigrant, I limped bruised and battered back into our cabin and took inventory of my injuries. Best I could tell I had a mild ankle sprain from hyper-extending my foot when I attempted a “Superman” off the embankment, a torqued and bruised knee, one seriously bruised, scratched and swollen calf along with an assortment of cuts scrapes and scratches from my trip through the gravel. Like I said, “It ain’t a vacation till you get run over by a boulder.”

 

Montana, Day 4: A Stay-cation, Plumbing Trouble and Samoyeds

Exhausted from the previous days adventure we opted to hang around the cabin today. We drove down to the Howling Hound Cafe (www.facebook.com/pages/Howlin-Hounds-Cafe/248852179382) in our snow-covered Subaru for some delicious, farm-fresh organic eggs, bacon and huge-chunked-fried potatoes for breakfast. You’ll not only find some great grub at this family run restaurant but you’ll also feel like you’re one of the family.  The effusive, amicable conversation makes this one of our favorite spots so far.   As I’m sure you’ve realized this day held little adventure and a lot of food. A rib-sticking lunch at the historic Old Saloon and Livery Stable held us over till the next day. Since we didn’t go looking for adventure, it kind of came to us. Twice our water at the cabin was reduced to a drip.  Local plumber Don Hinks interrupted his Memorial Day weekend to get it going again. Thanks Don.  Don and his four spoiled-rotten- snow-white Samoyed sled dogs that accompanied him everywhere were a great interruption to our lazy day and good medicine for our bruised and grieving hearts.

 

Montana, Day 3: Yellowstone

Subtle notes of her fragrance drift toward me on the breeze.  Intoxicating. My head swims with longing. I imagine her shadowed eyes sparkle with whimsy…a touch of the demure. Draped in opaque, pearl lightness she conceals her breathtaking beauty, teasing my imagination, revealing only a little at a time in her sensuous dance.  Seduction is her art and she is a master. We’d traveled thousands of miles, driven for hours and arrived in Yellowstone to discover that the spectacular mountains we’d come so far to experience were draped in mist.  The sun and wind would occasionally work together to expose some far-away summit radiant white or a snow-covered grassy slope low on the mountainside. It was most certainly a strip-tease.

2 hours earlier…

Awaking early and finding the sun already up (Had we taken a wrong turn and ended up in Alaska?), I stood in the living room, pointed my camera at the bedroom door and waited like a hunter for Dana to rise from her slumber. She opened the door, laid eyes on the winter wonderland on display through the huge windows before her, gasped and squealed like a little girl. I grinned like I’d planned it that way.  Even though we’d been greeted with snowy precipitation, this was late May!  We figured there was no chance there’d be any accumulation.  Boy, were we wrong. This kind of snow at home would keep us hunkered down, subsisting off of bread and milk.  That’s just how we do it in the South.  But we weren’t in the South.  This is Mon-freakin’-tana. We’re going to Yellowstone!  First stop?  Breakfast. We returned to our little bakery and enjoyed Montana’s answer to the McMuffin: Scrambled egg with pepper-jack and canadian bacon on toasted Ciabatta and freshly brewed black, dark roast coffee to wash it down with. A hearty, wholesome, tasty start for our first foray into Yellowstone.

As the Subaru took us into Gardiner, the mostly veiled landscape began to change before our eyes.  Even the few feet visible beneath the fog stood in stark, geologic relief against the snow covered mountains and meadows. Enormous jagged rock formations came into view just beyond the Yellowstone River paralleling Highway 89.

Main Street in Gardiner boasted a wide array of little shops and businesses.  Spotting an outfitter with the compelling name of Flying Pig Adventures  (www.flyingpigrafting.com) we parked down the street, blinking at the falling snow as we took the sidewalk back to the entrance.  We found a very similar inventory to the other store.  We also found the same friendly, courteous staff…if not more-so.  We took turns alternately chatting with the owner and playing with her sweet white lab. She listened intently and compassionately as Dana told her of our recent loss of Scooby. I picked up a small container of gas for my stove and our newfound friend threw in a really cool lightweight cordura shopping bag emblazoned with the Flying Pig logo. Her part to help assuage our grief. I responded with, “So if I tell you that Dana’s Dad just had extensive scalp surgery to remove melanoma and my mom just had a stroke…what do we get?”  She answered, “Chocolate?”  We all laughed and said goodbye.

This, our first excursion into Yellowstone, didn’t provide much in the way of scenery but plenty in the way of wildlife.  We were in awe at our first few close-up encounters with these giant, otherworldly creatures called bison. (Apparently, North America has never had a buffalo…only bison.  Who knew?) After a while, though it became nearly routine.  They were everywhere! Our exclamations of wonder were replaced by, “bison,” or “Another roadblock.”  “Bison?”  “Yup.”  Deer and mule-deer were everywhere, evidenced (even around the geyser vents) by their abundant scat. Every so often we’d come across a traffic jam caused not by bison but by a bear-sighting.  Of course, everyone (us included) wanted to spot a bear, especially a grizzly. Sightseers in rented RV’s would often stop in the middle of the road because they caught a glimpse of a black bear.  We’d all put it in park, jump out of our vehicles and run to the side of the road, camera’s flashing until a ranger showed up to break up the party.  This “start-stop-take-a-pic” mode of travel would become our way of life. Fun for a while but not a very efficient way to get from point A to point B.  It took us all day to get from Mammoth Hot Springs to Tower Falls and back and left us exhausted. It was well after dark by the time we made if back to the cabin. That’s saying something around here.  (Until this moment I wasn’t convinced it ever got dark.) We looked forward to a long soak in the hot tub (this was a 25th anniversary celebration 2 years late, for goodness’ sake).  Unfortunately it was not to be. T’was broken and would stay that way for quite a while.

Montana, Day 2: From Bozeman to Paradise Valley

After a decent nights rest in the Holiday Inn (Don’t they have great beds?) we had a delicious skillet breakfast in the hotel restaurant, packed up, bought a few necessities for the week and made our way toward Paradise Valley (or more specifically, Emigrant), Montana. Just a mile or so down the interstate, we were welcomed to the area by a snowstorm. Undaunted by the white stuff, our rented Subaru just kept on going (Oh, we could get used to this! The Subaru, that is.) Of course we stopped and snapped a few pics; snow is a rarity in our neck of the woods.  On the way in we stopped for lunch in a town called Livingston, eating at a little cafe/ coffee shop (the name eludes me) where we enjoyed a chicken wrap, organic fair-trade coffee and friendly conversation with the owners. We were there quite a while.  We’d soon learn that the pace of life is slower out west…at least in the restaurants. We visited the local outfitter, Timber Trails (http://timbertrailsmontana.com), where we were welcomed by friendly staff but a limited inventory. It was a small store. This seems to be the case for most of the outfitters we’d visit.  Instead of catering primarily to hikers, most of them were bonafide outfitters offering guided horseback and/or river rafting trips. The stores usually offered less in the way of gear than they did in apparel.  I mention this to encourage you to bring most of what you’ll need in the way of adventure gear with you unless, of course, you plan to avail yourself of the guided trips.  We did find that nearly all of the stores carried both iso-butane propane as well as bearspray, two items not allowed on commercial airlines.

We arrived in the sprawling metropolis of Emigrant (Population 372…make that 374) around 4pm. Since we couldn’t check in until 5pm we wandered through a few of the local haunts: The General Store, Howlin’ Hounds Cafe (www.facebook.com/pages/Howlin-Hounds-Cafe/248852179382), the Old Saloon and Livery Stable and our favorite, the Matson Rogers Anglers West Fly-fishing Outfitters (www.montanaflyfishers.com). We swapped fishing stories with two great guys whom I suspect are the owners. Dana picked up some Smartwool baselayer at a drastic discount.  If you think backpacking gear is expensive, and it is, you’ll be shocked at the price of fly-fishing gear. Finding a bargain in a fly-shop is unheard of.  So, needless to say, next time you’re in Emigrant drop by and see these guys. You’ll be glad you did.

We made one last stop at The Wildflour Bakery where we picked up a fresh-baked loaf of flax-bread loaded with sesame, poppy, flax and a dozen other seeds I couldn’t identify. It made hearty, delicious toast!

We arrived at our cabin via a series of telling road names such as Aries, Sirius and  Hilarion, taking note of an interesting trail nearby called the Buddhist Path.  After the last week we wondered just what we’d gotten ourselves into. The cabin itself, however, did not disappoint. Though the surrounding peaks were obscured by fog and snow, the house itself would make a nice home for a week. We loaded in our luggage and gear and fell asleep while it was still light to soft snow falling on the grassy meadow surrounding the house.

Montana, Day 1: From the Carolinas to Big Sky Country

I peered out the window just beyond my new friend Ed at the awe-inspiring mountains that encircle Bozeman International airport.  An absolutely perfect, stunningly clear day displayed the beauty of the snow-capped mountains as if created just for us.  The past week had left us stunned, senses-dull and wondering if we’d ever see this moment. Dana’s dad had undergone a scalp removal and skin graft (taken from his abdomen) in order to remove his melanoma;  Our big, beautiful, goofy, lovable friend, trail-guide (and yes, retriever/ St. Bernard mix), Scooby had undergone a series of daily seizures culminating in one that lasted over an hour forcing us to say goodbye to the best dog ever; and My mom experienced an eschemic stroke which brought her to the hospital by ambulance and destroyed her short term memory, caused hallucinations and rendered her speech 70% gibberish. We hadn’t slept much in over a week and up until 12 hours ago weren’t sure whether we wouldn’t end up cancelling this trip of a lifetime after all.  But at the last moment Mom had haled and improved pretty dramatically, Dana’s dad had shown continued improvement and though we were still devastated by the loss of our Scooby, we excitedly packed and re-packed last night missing yet another nights sleep.

“Two things pierce the human heart, beauty and affliction.” -Simone Weil

Terminal to plane to terminal to plane to terminal to plane to terminal since 4:30 am. Dazed and stunned by pain and beauty…here we were.  Wheels touched runway and the pilot locked down the brakes.  Our bodies strained against the seatbelts and I asked Ed,”  I wonder if he’ll pull a Starsky and Hutch at the end of the runway?” We laughed, said our goodbyes and filed like cattle out of the puddle-jumper into the handsome, lodge-like terminal. Dana and I stared out the window at the mountains, still wondering at the idea of it all.  Were we really here? Surrealistic is the only word that captures the moment…and it’s insufficient. We wandered into the gift shop and after what must have been a half-hour, it occurred to one of us that we hadn’t picked up our luggage.  We scurried down the escalator and found our bags had either been tossed or fallen off the conveyor.  At least they were here.  We picked up our Subaru Outback from Hertz, loaded in our luggage and set off toward the city of Bozeman to find a hotel for the night.  We’d planned to camp the first night but I realized we desperately needed a little comfort from a Holiday Inn.  We found one, surrounded by majestic mountains, showered and headed to the restaurant for dinner.  Moments before my Black and Bleu Sirloin Salad arrived my internal organs seemed to dissolve in my gut.  My body had had enough.  The weeks of stress, sleep deprivation and a day of airport food had caused my digestive system to revolt. I stomached a few bites then raced back to the hotel room while Dana finished her Four-cheese Penne. Bedtime early tonight.

The Best Way: El Camino de Santiago by Bill “Skywalker” Walker – A book review…of sorts

“Really, babe, I think you’re gonna like him.  He’s a great communicator.”

2 years ago Scat and I had opted to hike from Woody Gap to Neels Gap, spending a cold night on Blood Mountain, rather than join the girls for the Amicalola Falls AT Celebration/ Backpacking Clinic.  I wanted to go to the event…just not at the exclusion of a walk in the woods.  While Scat and I trudged uphill through snowdrifts 2 and 3 feet deep, Dana and Ma Fred attended some great presentations. One of their favorites was Bill “Skywalker”  Walker.  Not just aware of, but sharing my addiction to AT narratives, Dana bought me a copy of Skywalker’s book, Skywalker: Close Encounters on the Appalachian Trail.  She even had Bill autograph it. He wrote “Wayseeker, Katahdin is a mere 5 millions steps away.” Gotta love that! Like a kid at Christmas, I couldn’t wait to tear in. I quickly discovered that my high school diploma and limited college experience had not prepared me for the vocabulary I was to encounter…closely. Progress slowed to a crawl as I repeatedly reached for my Webster’s. Now, I realize that hackles are rising on the necks of Skywalker fans as you poise to fire off scathing e-mails. Well, let me have it…but at least finish this little review before doing so. I just didn’t enjoy it. I’ve been forthright about my sketchy education. I will most certainly confess that I have no right to pass judgment on another writers work.  Even that last statement implies that I see myself as a writer and makes me uncomfortable. Nonetheless…I just didn’t like it. C.S. Lewis has taught me that much…to be honest about my likes and dislikes. There were some good, even great moments but as a whole it was…and is my least favorite AT narrative. There, I’ve said it…and I pray Bill never reads this.

Flash forward to this years event. Digital recorder in one hand and event schedule in the other, I dragged Dana all over Amicalola Falls. (Not that she minded.)  Presenter after presenter entertained, educated and provided fresh new content for future All Who Wander podcasts.  We had a blast!  As I scanned the schedule I noticed something:  Skywalker’s presentation would be in support of his latest book and thru-hike…on the Camino de Santiago! What?!  I’d just discovered the existence of this ancient pilgrimage a year or so ago. I had waited impatiently for Emilio Estevez’ film on the Camino, The Way to come to Redbox since we had just missed one of the limited showings in Asheville. With my distaste for Bill’s writing warring against my confidence in my wife…we went…and were not disappointed.

Bill was absolutely charismatic.  His animated gesticulations, his passion for the Camino, his wry humor and engaging personality not only held my attention but struck fire to my imagination…enticing my heart to that ancient path and awakening a longing to walk this pilgrimage as well. My experience with the real Skywalker was as dissimilar to my experience with his book as it could possibly be. I thought, “Now, here’s a guy I’d like to share a trail with.”  I even began to re-examine my original assessment.

Just a few weeks ago all three of Bill’s books in Kindle format were free on Amazon.  I downloaded all three. I immediately dove right into his narrative on the Camino, The Best Way.  The very first couple of pages gripped me, It seemed so different from what little I remembered from his first offering.  I yelled to Dana, who was in  another room, “I like it!  This is really good!”  She laughed. Then I wondered…what changed?  Had Bill’s writing improved? Had he gotten an editor? Maybe.  Maybe it was the fact that I had met the real Skywalker and been captivated by his authenticity and his love for the Way. Maybe it was me that had changed.  Maybe both.

Well, since this is a book review…of sorts, I should give you my take.  The Best Way is part trail narrative, part travel guide, part history book and all Skywalker. I’d recommend that you pick it up on Kindle or some other e-reader format because The Best Way is also part vocabulary lesson.  Along with liberal splashes of espanol, Bill has continued his use of words unfamiliar…unfamiliar to me at least.  Whether Bill is trying to impress us with his expansive knowledge or he’s struggling to find words to express what can sometimes be almost inexpressible, I can’t say.  I can say that having a “close-encounter” with the real Skywalker has given me a whole new take on his books.  So would I recommend The Best Way?  Only if you’re willing to have a sehnsucht for hiking the Camino awakened in you.  (That one was for you, Bill.)