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.”

[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vOm53c52tis%5D

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.

[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DO-ABgs0mHo%5D

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.)

[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lau3SoQ1AcM%5D
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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.

Reminiscing from the Roan Highlands

The Roan Highlands is a stretch of the Appalachian Mountains in Tennessee, and it’s famous for having some of the beautiful mountain meadows in all of Appalachia. It’s also famous for its wildflowers, particularly the rhododendrons, which bloom in June… right when we happened to be visiting.

So with that in mind, I enthusiastically packed my camera and headed off, hoping that our worries about rain that weekend would prove to be nothing more than worries. The plan was to park at a bed and breakfast near the trail, then get the owner to shuttle us to a place called Carver’s Gap. From there we would then walk about 15 miles along the Appalachian Trail (and a third of a mile along a road) back to the bed and breakfast.

As we parked and unloaded our gear, it began to rain, and we began preparing for a long day’s hike through the wet. But almost as soon as we had donned our rain gear, the shower stopped. So when we reached Carver’s Gap and began our trek upward into the mountains it was cloudy and humid, but pleasantly cool and most importantly, not raining.

Sure enough, the rhododendrons were on full display, with countless clusters of pink blossoms scattered across the hillsides. Plenty of other wildflowers were competing for attention, too, and we saw lots of cameras mounted on tripods as seemingly hundreds of photographers swarmed along the trail, seeking to capture the beautiful displays of not just pink, but yellow, orange, red, white, and purple as well.

As we rose higher into the mountains, the number of dayhikers and photographers dwindled. Eventually we left the meadows for the cover of forest, and the wildflowers too became more scarce, though what flowers we did see were still impressive. The most interesting find of the day was a Gray’s Lily growing on the side of the trail. Gray’s Lily is a rare, possibly even endangered flower that only grows in a few locations in Tennessee, North Carolina, and Virginia, mostly high meadows above 4000 feet. Apparently one of the causes of its rarity is that it’s often eaten by grazing cows (more on this later), so we were lucky to find one mere inches off the side of the trail.

There were also entire fields of Queen Anne’s Lace (aka Wild Carrot), which unlike Gray’s Lily is an invasive species and generally to be considered an obnoxious weed. But it was still pretty in its own way, mainly for the arrangements of flowers which branched out by the dozens from the tall stems, and the flurry of tiny insects that created a hive of activity (no pun intended) on each bunch of blossoms.

By the time we reached Overmountain Shelter, a massive barn-like structure that was to be our stopping point for the night, the skies had cleared and the afternoon Sun was shining overhead. We discovered that we would be sharing the shelter with a few other hikers and a large crew of volunteers who were in the midst of doing a trail reroute, so we made friends (I cozied up to the people who were listening to the US-England World Cup match on a portable radio), and then spent the afternoon relaxing. We explored the area around the shelter (including traipsing down phantom paths that gradually disappeared into overgrown brush), and watched our fearless leader Josh Hartman stand on one foot and juggle. I even took a turn myself, just to prove that I could indeed keep all 3 balls in the air at once (ignoring the way they all fell to the ground about two seconds later).

As the sun went down, Josh and I used the zoom lenses on our cameras to take pictures of cows grazing on Big Hump several miles away. Big Hump is the largest of the Roan Highlands meadows, and we could see it quite clearly, stretching along the top of a ridge which loomed large on the left side of the valley. Conquering it would be tomorrow’s work.

As we arose the next morning, we were greeted by a foggy, humid day. Big Hump, which had been so clearly visible the previous night, was now socked in by clouds. Rain had fallen in the night, but except for a brief sprinkle as we were having breakfast safely under the shelter roof, it seemed to have tapered off. So we crossed our fingers, hoping that like the tease of a shower we had endured before setting off the previous morning, that would be the end of it.

But a few minutes after we began our ascent, the skies opened up, and soon we were trudging along, heads down, making our way up a steep climb in the pouring rain. As we walked, the trail turned in a muddy little creek, rivulets of water flowing down the mountain and soaking our boots and shoes in the process. The nine miles to the road was beginning to look like a very long hike indeed.

The reason I titled this post “Reminiscing from the Roan Highlands”, in addition to having an affinity (some would say ailment) for alliteration, is that the last time I hiked this stretch of the AT was in 2004, during my Georgia-to-Maine thru-hike. It was winter, so the landscape was brown, the trees were bare, and there wasn’t a wildflower to be seen for miles, but we did get some amazing views. In my trail journal entry from that day, I described being able to see Mt. Rogers and White Top in Virginia, Mt. Mitchell and Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina, and in general I remember this area as having some of the most spectacular scenery of the southern AT, sort of a Franconia Range for the southern Appalachians.

But views were not to be had today, so I had to make do with reminiscing. The rain stopped as we reached the top of the ridge, but the clouds stayed, and so we made our way across wide, grassy meadows that, while still pretty on their own, were completely socked in by the fog.

The climb up Big Hump was a long one, and since we could only see about fifty feet in front of us, it kept looking like we might be nearing the top. But whenever we moved a little further up the mountain, we would see that the length of our climb had extended by exactly as far as we had walked. Doug, one of my hiking companions, accurately described it as “Nature’s Treadmill.”

We reached the top, hoping for a miraculous parting of the clouds, but alas, it was not to be: the fog was as dense as ever. We did get some sporadic parting of the clouds on the way down, offering a few tantalizing glimpses of distant ridges, but by and large the clouds stayed with us until late morning, long after we had made our way off the grassy meadows. Back under forest cover, we began to push harder to get to the road, scrambling over long stretches of very slippery rocks (including one which gave me a nice bruise on my ass as a souvenir), which finally, a couple of miles before the road, gave way to a gently-downward sloping dirt path and a much simpler and more pleasant hike through the woods.

All in all a good trip– we missed out on some views, but the wildflowers were amazing, and I got a lot of practice with macro photography. If you’re interested in the full set of pictures, click here.

Tidbit of the Day: Mountain Streams Are Still Cold in April

Last weekend a group of us headed down to Caesar Head State Park in South Carolina. It’s a beautiful area, with lots of creeks and streams that course and burble their way through lush, picturesque valleys and forests. And because it’s on the eastern edge of the Appalachian Mountains, there are plenty of waterfalls as well– not just little rocky cascades, but tall ones, which drop tens or hundreds of feet down sheer cliffs and from jutting overhangs.

When I was about five years old and living in Houston, our house backed onto a medium-size creek that ran through a wooded area. It became known in our family as the Creeky Place, a little area I could go to watch the water flow over the rocks and under the canopy of trees. It was too dirty (and likely too dangerous) to swim in, but it was relaxing, and fun to go back and visit. Ever since then, there’s been something about forest streams and creeks that I love. Particularly if it’s the sort of area that runs over rocks and creates paths that you can scramble across, or calm pools amidst the chaos of the running water, or places you can sit and read a book. Simply being in the vicinity of a forest creek recharges my batteries, even inspires my writing, and serves as a great reminder that the simple pleasures in life really are the best.

For someone like me, Caesar Head State Park and the surrounding area was heaven. I could have spent
entire days not going more than 500 feet from our campsite on a creek, and that was just one little area. Creeks crisscrossed each other all over the park, and there were picturesque campsites galore… I’ll definitely have to visit here again, sometime when I can take it at my own pace.

This time, though, we had an itinerary, places to explore, and waterfalls to see– all of which were impressive. My favorite was Rainbow Falls, a 100-foot cascade where you could pretty much get right under it (hence the title of the blog post). Luckily, it was a warm Spring day, and my clothes dried pretty quick.

Moonshine Falls was another fun one, with a little cavern in the back where some old rusty barrels still sat, left over from the illicit operation that gave the falls their name. (Click here for the full photoset on Flickr.)

So all in all, a good trip. Spring is probably my favorite backpacking season; hopefully we can squeeze in another trip or two before the heat of summer sets in.

Back to Backpacking: A Trek Through the Highlands

After two months of not being able to do much backpacking thanks to lots of snow and ice, we were finally able to head out this weekend. The destination was Grayson Highlands National Park in Virginia, the temperature was chilly but bearable, and the weather was probably going to rain. Sounds like fun!

The plan called for us to hike along the Appalachian Trail, which runs through the area, from the parking lot to a camping area a few miles down the trail, and back again the following morning. Simple enough, really, as long as you can actually follow the trail. A winter with lots of ice and snow had rubbed the characteristic white blazes that mark the path of the A.T. off a lot of rocks, and following the trail was not always easy. We never got really lost, although we did occasionally meander a bit.

Grayson Highlands is famous for a couple of things: first, it’s dominated by wide-open meadows (called balds) that give it an Alpine feel, which is unusual for the Southeast U.S. Second, wild ponies are allowed to roam across the entire area. They’re very accustomed to humans, and will usually let you get quite close for pictures, although feeding them is forbidden (A.T. thru-hiker lore tells of people who fed them and were then followed for miles by pesky, hungry ponies.)

There was plenty of snow still on the ground, especially under the shelter of trees. This made things particularly interesting when we reached the campsite, as we had to either pick between a campsite that was out in the open and exposed to the wind or a campsite in the trees which was covered in six inches of snow. In the end, we chose a more exposed campsite, and as a result, that night was marked by fitful bursts of sleep punctuated by long periods of nervous wakefulness. Laying awake, watching the wind warp and bow the side of the tent like a particularly flimsy boat sail, and listening to the velcro-fastened vestibule snap back and forth in the gusts, I wondered how long it would be until the tent just collapsed. But as the light of dawn broke, the tent was still standing proudly. It held up just fine until a few minutes later, when someone tripped over one of the stake lines as they were walking by. (Luckily, by then it was time to pack up anyway.)

All in all, a fun trip. The first day was beautifully clear (albeit windy), and the second day… well, it was fogged in, wet, and cold, but still fun. Let’s face it, if you can’t have fun in bad weather, or at least bravely fight your way through it, then backpacking probably isn’t for you.

That said, I am looking forward to maybe one day having a trip that doesn’t involve testing my tent in rainy, high-wind conditions.

March Musings, on the Anniversary of an Adventure

March 8th. Unless it’s your birthday or your anniversary, it’s the sort of day that’s likely to pass unmarked and unnoticed, just another Monday ticked off the calendar.

The last time March 8th fell on a Monday was March 8th, 2004. It’s a day that holds special meaning for me because on that day, I started walking North from Amicalola Falls State Park in Georgia. I kept walking for about five months and 2,183 miles, and by the time I finished I had hiked the length of the Appalachian Trail. It’s still, without a doubt, the longest, craziest adventure I’ve ever embarked on. (The trail journal I kept during that time can actually still be found online at http://www.trailjournals.com/einstein. That also happens to be the longest blog/journal I’ve ever kept.)

It was an interesting time in my life. I had just graduated college in December 2003, but I wasn’t ready to get a job. I wanted to do something special, something crazy, and I settled on the Appalchian Trail. It was an odd choice… I had never been much of a backpacker, outside of what I did in Boy Scouts, but it represented an adventure, a chance to test myself, not just in terms of the outdoors, but in terms of making friends and meeting people, too. Mostly, it was a chance to do something different, something extraordinary.

Most people say that hiking the Appalachian Trail changes your life. For me, I was never sure if it did or not. After I finished, I came home, found an apartment, later a house, and got a job, which I’ve been at for over five years now. Nothing extraordinary happened, in fact things were pretty mundane… but I think my mindset did change. It just didn’t always manifest itself in an obvious way. It altered the way I looked at the world, subtly but definitely. And it got me hooked on travel, although even that took a few years to fully manifest.

Now, once again, it’s Monday March 8th. I think I’m on the verge of another moment similar to the one that launched me North up the Appalachian Trail, but I’m not yet at the point where I’m ready to post about it in anything but vague terms. But suffice to say, if I follow through with what I’m planning, in a few months this blog is going to get a lot more interesting. As they say on the TV news, stay tuned for details.

Getting my Feet Wet

Two weeks ago I dusted off my backpacking gear, which has sat unused for over a year, and went backpacking on Shackleford Banks, a little island on the southern edge of North Carolina’s Outer Banks. It’s only about nine miles long by half a mile wide (if that), but it’s a cool little island.

Among other things, the island is home to a population of about 130 wild horses. No one knows exactly how they got there, although one of the more popular tales is that they’re descended from horses that survived a Spanish shipwreck, back in the 1600s or earlier.

The plan was to get ferried across to the island, hike along the beach a mile or so, then set up camp and spent the rest of the day exploring. That part went pretty much according to plan; it was a beautiful day, and the temperature was in the 50s. Pretty nice, considering just a couple weeks before we had a really bad cold snap that sent temperatures into the twenties and teens. So we set up camp behind the dunes, in a nice flat area of scrub brush, and set off down the beach.

The beach was almost empty, except for a few fishermen casting their lines from shore, and even they disappeared as we walked further down the island. My favorite part of the whole trip may have been the massive number of sea shells that littered the beach; there were piles of them freshly washed up, and more conch shells than I’ve ever seen. Most of those were broken, although even the broken ones were pretty in their own artistic-looking ways. Inland from the beach, separated from the pounding surf by a line of high dunes, little patches of forest and scrub brush were able to grow. We saw plenty of wild horses roaming here, and as it got late and we began to make our way back to camp, there were dolphins jumping twenty or three feet offshore, seemingly entire pods of them moving down the coastline and accompanying us the whole way back.

Things got more interesting during the night. Rain was expected, but we were prepared for it; what we weren’t prepared for was to wake up the next morning and find that a storm was incoming, with possible lightning and wind gusts of up to 45 miles an hour. Needless to say, it was a long morning; about half the tents didn’t stay up in the wind, and of those that did stay up, at least one had to be moved when about two-thirds of our campsite slowly transformed into marshland. Luckily, this was all around 9 or 10 am, so it was light and we were pretty well awake. My tent is an ultralight tent, and was one of the ones that didn’t survive, so I put on warm clothes, my rain gear and went for a walk. Heading inland, we found a nice area behind some trees that was pretty well sheltered from the wind. In retrospect, it would have made a nice campsite.

Finally, the rain stopped, and not long after, the sky cleared. We had a sunny walk back to the ferry point, where we were picked up about noon, and after lunch in Morehead City, headed home…the trip was sandy and wet, but fun.

I like getting away from civilization, and I don’t mean little day hikes into a patch of forest in the middle of the city (although those can be nice, too). I mean backpacking in and setting up camp, someplace where you can actually see the stars at night (we probably would have been able to on this trip, if not for the rain), and where you’re really out away from civilization and amidst nature. It’s a great way to focus your mind on something different and get a release from the mundanity of day-to-day work (which has been threatening to overwhelm me lately… stupid deadlines). I’ll definitely be doing more of this in the near future.