Montana, Wyoming, and Everywhere In Between

On Sunday, I got back from a twelve day, eleven night driving, hiking, and backpacking trek through Glacier, Yellowstone, and Grand Teton National Parks. Over the course of the trip, we drove about 2,000 miles, backpacked 55 miles, spent ten straight nights in tents, and took maybe four showers. We ate enough granola bars and peanut butter to choke a grizzly bear, and in the course of our trek, we suffered a sprained ankle, a blister, sore shoulders, bruises, and the occasional bout of near-hypothermia. (Well, at least it felt that way.)

On previous trips, I’ve blogged and documented almost every single day, but given the vagaries of connections in the Montana wilderness, not to mention the difficulties of carrying a laptop into the backcountry, that just wasn’t possible this trip. So now I sit here, in the aftermath of it all– endless fascinating stories that don’t really connect unless I want to write something novel-length; several hundred pictures; a few amusing and/or weird videos that do not really belong on the planet Earth.

Heck, I’ll start with one of those. When people think of Yellowstone National Park, they think of bears, or crowds, or Old Faithful, or a volcano that will one day kill us all. But when you’re standing in or near the caldera, in one of the countless geyser basins that litter the area, the utter strangeness of the landscape makes it difficult to remember you’re still standing on our own planet. The stark muddy landscape, with orange and brown bacteria mats spreading as far as the eye can see, and bubbling hot springs that throw up a field of steam so dense it’s like you’re walking through sulfurous London fog… well, it’s not planet Earth. It’s the sort of place you’d expect to find Captain Kirk fighting a guy in a lizard suit, is all I’m saying.

While we were at Yellowstone, we walked around Shoshone Lake, which is believed to be the largest lake in the lower 48 states not accessible by road. Only hand-powered watercraft (canoes and kayaks) are allowed on it, and when you reach the top of a hill on the lake’s edge, you can essentially look out and see miles and miles of scenery– water, forests, and marshland– that looks no different than it would have to a fur trader in the area three hundred years ago.

On the southwest corner of Shoshone Lake is the Shoshone Geyser Basin, which is a prime example of one of those alien landscapes I mentioned. It has eighty geysers in a 1600×800 foot area, and, well, you’d best watch your step if you’re walking through it. It’s a landscape that smacks you in the head and says, “Why, yes, you ARE standing inside a 45-mile-wide volcano. Have a nice, non-terrifying day! Muwahahaha.”


Both Yellowstone and Glacier National Park are also famous for their wildlife. Before either park lets you camp in the backcountry, they subject you to a fifteen-minute video detailing how to avoid bears, and what to do in the event of a bear encounter (answer: not be an idiot). In fact, a large swath of Yellowstone was closed to hikers, thanks to a recent bear attack that resulted in a fatality. So we followed the advice in the video, but despite that (or perhaps because of it), we didn’t even see any bears at all. Darn it!

We did see plenty of bison, and chipmunks (see right), and one eighteen-inch long critter that looked sort of like a red fox, except that red foxes don’t climb trees.

There were plenty of elk, too, including a few lounging right in the middle of Mammoth Hot Springs Historic District, aka the biggest town in Yellowstone.


So Yellowstone was pretty awesome. Glacier National Park was pretty awesome, too– I’ll add a few pictures to the post, but otherwise I think my previously-posted poem about Glacier National Park speaks for itself. Yellowstone wins as far as weird scenery and wildlife, but Glacier wins when it comes to sheer, raw nature. (Until the day Yellowstone erupts and kills us all, that is.)

As for Grand Teton National Park, we only got to spend one night there, unfortunately, and didn’t get to hike in the mountains at all. But they were still darn impressive. Hopefully in the future I’ll be able to spend more time there. They’re only… fifteen hours away… through some of the most monotonous scenery this side of Texas. (Montana and eastern Washington are cool and all, but the driving does get old after a while.)

If you’re interested, here’s the full set of photos from the trip.

And, for one last obligatory video, I leave you with Old Faithful erupting. (Skip to 1:50 if you can’t stand the wait.)


A Love Poem to Glacier National Park

We’re in the midst of our 11 day trek through Glacier, Yellowstone, and Grand Teton National Parks.  Unfortunately, I don’t have the ability to get photos off my camera until I get back to Seattle, and can’t organize my thoughts well enough yet for a proper blog post. So in lieu of cool photos or interesting stories, here’s a poem I wrote by flashlight at 1 am last night, in a wind-buffeted tent in the backcountry of Glacier National Park.

It’s pulled straight from events and sights on our backcountry trek. It’s also the first poem of any length that I’ve written in years. The muse strikes in weird ways sometimes.

My thumbs got a workout typing this up on my phone. Forgive any typos- I’ll go back and fix them later, and pretend they never existed.

Update: Now that I’m back in Seattle, I did add some cool photos.


Some see the kingdom of Faerie
In the mountains and vales of Scotland,
Others in the forests and glades of Eire,
Or the dark and brooding
Woods of Eastern Europe,
The lands from which the gypsies hail.
But to me, the greatest Faerie Queen of all
Lives in the wilds of Northern Montana.
She is not a gentle mistress.
Her arms do not offer
Titania’s warm embrace.
She is perhaps a relative of Mab,
Agent of Winter,
And her beauty is ferocious and cold.
You can see it in the ragged rocky peaks
Thrust toward the sky like
Turrets of the greatest castle
In the world,
In clear green lakes
All but glowing with magic,
Their pristine, icy waters encased in
Shrines of pine trees
And protected by rock walls
Soaring half a mile high all around.
If you dare to climb her mountains
You can feel her anger
In the gusts of wind that tear at you
With hurricane force,
As if to throw you off the high passes
And back from whence you came.
But the chance to see her domain
From on high, to see the cliffsides
Thousands of feet sheer
Surrounding the forests below,
The glaciers that shroud the slopes
In blankets of white,
And to see it all from the level
Of her eyes,
It is a sight worth incurring
The wrath of a Faerie Queen.

Yet she is not entirely
A Mistress of Winter.
For if you travel the lush forests
And alpine meadows,
You can see her beauty in the
Yellow and purple flowers
That line the trail,
Taste her essence in wild huckleberries.
Bears, elk, and mountain goats
Are her agents and her friends,
And if you sit on a log
And talk for a time with a chipmunk,
Perhaps he will tell you of her secrets.
But beware, if you set your tent
In her lands on a cold autumn night,
You can hear her roar,
Her and her army of Night Chills,
Roaring overhead with the force of a gale,
Roaring at the interlopers who have
Dared disturb her domain.
You can hear her coming,
Hear her getting closer,
Then she slams into your tent
As if throwing herself bodily against it.
Be assured she is not happy
To have you here.
Yet her ferocity and her wild nature
Only add to her beauty and allure.
Keep your pixies and your changelings,
Your sprites and woodland elves,
My heart belongs
To the Faerie Queen
of North Montana.

Exploring Mt. Baker

Mt. Baker is an 11,000-foot mountain that lies about 90 miles north of Seattle, and is frequently visible from the city on clear days. Its snow-covered visage is almost as much a part of the local Seattle scenery at its more famous relative to the south, Mt. Rainier. So, in my continued effort to see more of the outdoor Pacific Northwest, I joined a group of friends, and people who would soon be friends, and headed north for some hiking and sightseeing around the mountain.

On Saturday we did a five-mile hike to Heliotrope Ridge. It felt a lot longer than five miles, thanks to a long uphill climb at the beginning and several streams which took us a while to ford. The trail took us up through dense, lush pine forest, into the streams and past meadows of wildflowers, to the edge of the Coleman Glacier. The glacier is the biggest on Mt. Baker, and even though it was at its smallest size of the year, it was still an impressive sight.

The weather was perfect: sunny, mid-70s, and not too hazy, which made for some very nice views, both of Mt. Baker and the surrounding scenery. Far up on the slope, where the snow and glaciers still reign supreme even in summer, we could see hikers and snowshoers making their way across the slope.

After a soak in the hot tub at the rental cabin, a huge and excellent dinner, and a night of games and conversation, we headed out again the next day, and stopped at Silver Lake near the Canadian border for lunch. Afterward, most of the group headed back to Seattle, but a few of us stuck around for a bit. I had originally planned to join the group heading back to Seattle, but I’m glad I didn’t. We got some excellent views of Mt. Shuksan (ninth-highest in the state), and made it up past the snow line to the Mt. Baker Ski Area. We had hoped to drive even higher, up to Artist Point, a viewpoint with a 360-degree view of both Mt. Shuksan and Mt. Baker. But the road was closed, and hiking there would have been an 8-mile walk. At that point, it was 4 pm, so we piled in the car and headed back to Seattle.

Now I’m in the middle of a two-day break between trips. Tomorrow, I’m meeting a friend from Texas, and early Wednesday morning we’re due to embark on a driving, hiking, and backpacking tour of Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks. There probably won’t be much tweeting or blogging during the trip, but there will hopefully be some excellent photos and stories when I return.

(For those interested, here’s the full set of Mt. Baker photos).

Halcyon Dragon*Con Days (or Was That “Daze”)

It’s hard to believe this was my third year at Con. I can distinctly remember the night over two years ago, when I was talking with some friends about this awesome-sounding thing called Dragon*Con, and decided to drive down to Atlanta pretty much on a whim and check it out. Since then, it’s been a crazy ride. Every year’s been different, and it’s hard to say whether or not this year’s was better than last. Last year I focused on the writing; this year I focused more on the con at large.

As usual, Dragon*Con had two sides: the daytime, full of panels and readings and costumes and the Dealer’s Room and the Art Show, and the night time, full of parties and dances and even more elaborate and/or skimpier costumes. So that’s how I’ll divide the report:


I spent most of my mornings and afternoons being fairly straight-laced and normal, attending writing panels and readings. I got to see Howard Tayler read again, and I was also particularly happy to meet Laura Anne Gilman, who I’ve conversed with on Twitter a couple of times. I heard Mur Lafferty read, and I heard a number of different editors and publishers hold forth on their favorite books that will soon hit the shelves.

I enjoyed readings, and those sort of “what’s coming soon” panels, far more than I enjoyed the panels on the actual writing process. I feel like I’ve reached a point where I know most of what’s going to be said on the process panels. Intellectually, I know how to write, thanks to writing groups, podcasts, scattered classes and panels, and my own accumulating pool of experience. So as I listened to these panels, I began answering each question in my own head, and comparing them with what the panelists said, and came away reasonably sure that I could hold forth just as expertly on pretty much every panel I attended.

That’s not to say I know as much as published authors. But sitting in on one of these panels is like sitting in on a “Basics of Writing” class: it keeps things at a pretty trite and uncomplicated level (there’s only an hour, after all), and once you’ve moved beyond that level, the panels are kind of useless.

I felt the same way about the “How to Get Published” panels. I know how to get published, I just have to do it, and the biggest step to getting published is to write more publishable stuff. It’s a fact that most of these panels tend to gloss over, even though it’s probably what most of the audience needs to hear. It’s so easy to get caught up in how to get published, or the commercial vs. self-publishing debate, that it’s easy to lose track of the actual writing.

One panelist even commented that he’s met people like that: people who go to writing panels, attend classes and workshops, but when it comes to actual writing output, they write very little. They’re utterly fascinated by the business and process of writing but don’t actually practice it. And more practice is the main thing I need right now, far more than panels or advice.


Ah, the interesting part of Dragon*Con, and let’s be honest, the biggest reason to go. You can get panels and readings at any con, but only one con has earned the title “Nerdy Gras.”

This year, I was determined to cosplay. Not as any character in particular; I prefer making up my own characters, which I suppose comes from being a writer. I don’t cosplay to show off my outfit-making skills (of which I have none), but I like the aspecting of transforming into a different character for a few hours. And makeup & special effects are closet hobbies of mine, so I packed some interesting clothes, a variety of prosthetic ears/horns/teeth and bodypaint, and headed out.

I hit a stumbling block when the TSA confiscated my airbrush. Airbrushed bodypaint is longer-lasting, easier to wear, and faster to apply than regular bodypaint, and as a result it’s usually what I use when I’m costuming. It wasn’t the airbrush itself that the TSA had a problem with– it was a small electric air compressor, about the size of a volleyball, which the TSA classified as “dangerous goods.” Why, I have no idea. It plugs into a wall outlet, so it’s not like it going to turn on or explode, or, um, compress anything, in the middle of a flight.

When I got to Atlanta, I recovered my ransacked luggage and a generic form note from the TSA telling me I’m not allowed to take lighters on a plane. Makes me proud to be an American, I tell you.

After a bit of fruitless raging at no one in particular, I got over it and cosplayed anyway, using cotton pads bought from a mall pharmacy in lieu of airbrush (I’m the one on the left– my cosplay isn’t that good):

On Sunday night, I skipped the bodypaint and went with vampire instead of elf-demon. Technically, I was a time-traveling vampire from an alternate reality– or at least, that was what I told everyone at the Steampunk & Time Travelers Ball.

In a sense, I feel like Dragon*Con is a big social experiment for me. The people who attend represent, in a variety of ways, a community I want to be a part of: from the professional writers on the panels, to the cosplayers who head out every night and party– but most of all, all of us geeks who spend four awesome days reveling in our geekdom. As I’ve said before, there’s a special combination of passion and independent thought that, for me, is at the heart of being a geek, and every year at Dragon*Con, I’m thoroughly immersed in it.

But because I started going to conventions only recently (Dragon*Con 2009 was my first), I don’t have the network of friends in the community that most congoers seem to have. My first year at Dragon*Con, I didn’t talk to anybody except the two people from Raleigh who I already knew. The second year at Dragon*Con, I did better– I had dinner with some professional authors, and attended some parties, but still spent a large chunk of time feeling introverted and out of place. This third year, I still felt introverted and out of place– but I cosplayed, I attended the Steampunk Ball with a few of my roommates and their friends, and interacted a little more with the larger community. Each year has been a little step forward, a little bit of progress in this weird social experiment.

But it’s a lot like my goal of being a professional writer– it’s about being patient, and playing the long game. In multiple senses of the word I’m remaking myself, redefining my identity, going through a stage that I feel like most people get past in their early 20’s. I didn’t like my first try at being an adult, so now I’m having a second try, this time as the person I want to be.

And yes, I realize that to some people, there’s an irony in dressing up in costumes and writing fantasy novels while talking about adulthood. If you’re one of those people, then conventions aren’t for you. And I kind of feel sorry for you, because you’ve let society define “adulthood” instead of doing it yourself.

Next year, Dragon*Con conflicts with the World Science Fiction Convention. It’s gonna be a tough call as to which one I go to, but Dragon*Con reminded me of one thing: among cons, it is unique. Every WorldCon is unique, too, but the business networking I can get at other cons. If WorldCon is a glass of fresh-squeezed, healthy vegetable juice, then Dragon*Con is an entire bar stocked with beer and mead and wine.

And rum, of course. Can’t forget the rum. (No worries, Captain Morgan is on it.)

My Dragon*Con Photos on Flickr