The last few stops have been about two cultures clashing. The Americans and the Native Americans were frequently at odds. The Black Hills were the Indians’ most sacred place and we carved tributes to presidents there. Then take Devil’s Tower. The Natives call it Bear Lodge and find “Devil’s Tower” extremely offensive. Imagine if we had a cathedral that somebody wanted to rename after a devil. Then to make matters worse, people want to climb it. The park service does issue climbing permits, although not during June, which holds special meaning for the Indians. It is a compromise, although not one that really satisfies either side. The geology is intriguing and resulted in vertical columns in hexagonal shape. It is also home to the largest colony of Prairie Dogs I’ve ever seen. The ratty little critters were so abundant that it gives the illusion of waves in the field. Harry called it Old Country Buffet for Eagles.
The Black Hills of South Dakota get their name from the plethora of pine trees that grow on them. Seen from a distance, they do in fact look black. To get to Rushmore we drove through the town of Sturgis. This is apparently the site of a famous yearly motorcycle rally. I guess around 500,000 bikers descend on this tiny town every year in August. Not being bikers, we were happy to avoid the crowds, although it does sound like they plan some fun concerts for during that time.
Rushmore is such a crazy thing. I mean who looks at a mountain and decides, “Gee, I think it would be fun to carve that?!” But that is just what happened. Somebody wanted to carve famous “Old West” characters onto the mountain. They hired Gutzon Borglum as the artist. Given that work started in the midst of the Great Depression, there was no shortage of people who wanted to work on the project. Borglum decided that it should be a tribute to America and chose Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt to represent the best of our history. The project was not without hiccups. First, there was a problem with Jefferson’s nose. It had to be redesigned and moved several feet to the other side as there was a crack which Borglum feared would make the statue lose his nose. Also a shelf of Mica was discovered along the bottom of Washington running all the way to Lincoln. It was too soft to carve and thus the original plan of including a coat on Washington was scrapped. In a slightly different vein Borglum was not without quirks. Apparently his vision was of an “American Pyramid” which would house such treasures as the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. He misdirected federal funds to accomplish this vision to allow him to blast a chamber deep in the mountain. Yep, there really is a “secret” chamber. Sadly, this put him over budget and behind time. In fact, he didn’t live to see the end of the project, but his son Lincoln was left to wrap it up.
The monument to Crazy Horse is a work in progress. Because it is funded entirely through private funds, it is progressing slowly. However it is also much larger than Rushmore. The whole carving of the presidents would fit inside Crazy Horse’s head. There is a wonderful museum and art gallery on the grounds, and their plans are ambitious about what they plan for the future.
We made a bit of a detour to hit the battlefield monument at Little Bighorn. This was perhaps the most depressing stop of our trip. The history of Custer’s Last Stand is surely important to study, but the message we learned is that there really were no winners. This, of course, is the place where Custer led the Seventh Calvary against the Sioux and Cheyenne in a battle that decimated his troop, cost him his life, and left the Indians victorious, but only briefly. In the end, it cause such an outcry that the indians lost their way of life and were forcibly relocated to reservations despite numerous treaties to the contrary. It is a perfect example of winning a battle but losing the war. The rangers do an excellent job of relaying facts, without assigning “fault.” A lot of people come thinking “Custer got what he deserved,” only to leave thinking, “nobody won here.” It is a sad place of reflection where surely ghosts roam. It reminded me of Gettysburg; both sides doing what they thought best and men dying for causes that were surely already decided. One of the most poignant moments for me was learning that Custer and his officers shot their horses to form barricades at the end. They knew they were going to die, but it was truly a “last stand.”
Since the RV park was located on the road that connects Yellowstone with the Grand Tetons, we went to the famous mountain skyline next. Here we were treated to an informative movie about the Great Yellowstone fire, and one about the reintroduction of wolves. The highlight was the ranger program, however. We have been to over half the national parks, and have attended a ranger program at almost every one. However, the ranger at Grand Teton was far and away the best one. She gave a talk about the animals and their adaptations to live in the parks and showed furs of various ones as she was talking. She was lively, interesting, and knowledgeable. The entire back deck was spellbound while she talked. Along with teaching how to tell the difference between coyotes, and wolves, she also taught the group how to identify various grazers. In short, the kids (and adults!) learned a lot and enjoyed every second.
The second day we spent time hiking down to see the falls at the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. I think it might be even more scenic than the actual Grand Canyon. A torrent of green water roars over the cliffs and you are standing right above it in the mist. You are so close it is easy to appreciate the power and beauty, while the Colorado is so far down in the valley, it loses some majesty due to distance. The down side is that the view comes at the expense of a hike. It involves a series of 11 descending switchbacks along a path that is barely two people wide. I think it descends about 800 feet. This might be the most strenuous mile hike ever. If the altitude doesn’t get you, the hoards of people squeezing by might, assuming you survive the uneven path. Still, the view at the bottom is worth the wear on the knees, and at least there are resting spots along the way.
Yellowstone is such a vast park, that it has distinct sections, and each has it’s own flavor. The north east is rugged hills and plains filled with pristine wilderness inhabited by wolves, elk, and bison. The north west is home to the famous calcium carbonate formations, and the southwest is Old Faithful, grand prismatic, and much of the geothermal activity. The southeast is lakes and rivers.
No trip to Yellowstone would be complete without a stop at Old Faithful. Indeed, we made it our first stop. The iconic geyser spouts frothy steam hundreds of feet into the air every 60-90 minutes. The Junior Ranger Program taught the kids how to time the eruption to predict when the next one will happen. (The longer the eruption, the longer the time period until the next one.)
As we explored the different visitor centers around the park, we saw bison. Lots of bison. Herds of bison graze just about everywhere you look. Then, where there isn’t a herd, there is usually a solitary one laying in the sun. We saw, not only multitudes of bison, but elk, a few bears, and even a soggy coyote.
We hiked a trail through a basin and it was a fascinating, if odoriferous, walk. There are steam vents, and small colored puddles bubbling and hissing, and the occasional mini-geyser eruption. You are warned to stay on the path at all times as the ground is highly unstable. In fact it is likely to melt the boots right off your feet due to the high temps and extreme acidity. The water is all shades of blue and green and even red to orange. Apparently bacteria live in the steaming sulphuric water and depending on the temperature a specific species of bacteria thrive there, which determines the color. Luckily the human nose quickly adapts to noxious odors and you don’t notice the sulphur smell much after the first few minutes. However, the pungent smell of rotten eggs packs a wallop as you get out of your car.
Perhaps, the most stunning sight is Grand Prismatic Basin. This is a pool that has so many distinct temperature zones that the bacteria all live here. However, they stay in concentric rings, forming a rainbow colored pond. Seem from above, it is simply unbelievable.
Although this year has been about exploring America, we took one major detour and visited our northern neighbors. We headed north to Alberta to visit Banff National Park and Lake Louise. I had heard stories of this magical place from my dad and seen a few glimpses on family films from a trip my dad took with his family when he was about Ashley’s age.
Canada, on the whole, is similar in many ways to the US. Mostly the same language, mostly the same food and shopping chains, and if you ignore those metric measurements, it hardly feels like a different country. Of course, it also seems cleaner than the US, especially in the cities. A US city of comparable size would include more homeless people, more grit, and more graffiti. Political discussion aside, my theory is that it is just too blasted cold in Canada for much outside loitering. Even in mid-June, we spent the days in fleece jackets.
Banff has changed, as expected since my dad’s visit. It is quite the tourist spot now. It is crammed with hotels, motels, resorts, and other accommodations of every description. Upscale boutiques vie for tourist dollars, and their windows display every possible thing money can buy. However, there are so many of them, and they have crowded out parking, so you may have to either walk to town or wait til someone leaves.
The Fairmont Banff Springs is still as elegant a hotel as it ever was. It is just as magnificent and still enjoys unfettered nature views from its castle windows. As long as you didn’t leave the hotel, it would be possible to believe you are still in remote Canadian wilderness.
If you actually want to be in remote Canadian wilderness, you’re going to have to drive a bit. Lake Louise is still emerald, and still boasts a glacier view, but if you want pictures– be prepared to dodge many tourists to get one. There will be canoes in the back ground and people will barely wait while you snap a quick shot before crowding you off the shore. It’s not the Jersey shore, but it’s also not very serene. As a side note, although Canada as a whole is pretty much immaculately clean, the parking lot of Lake Louise is the nastiest I have seen in quite a while. Tourists, no doubt, are to blame but we all noticed how much garbage was laying around the lot. Not quite pristine wilderness.
The good news, is that every mile, or kilometer rather, that you go beyond Lake Louise gets better and better. Almost immediately we spotted bears along the side of the road. We are now all experts at distinguishing between grizzlies and black bears. A trip along the Ice-fields roads offers many lakes, water falls, and mountain views that still take your breath away. Plus, you won’t be rushed to enjoy them either. Elk, caribou, even a moose are easily spotted. Big horn sheep and mountain goats abound. Bears became almost commonplace. It is truly a northern safari. As a bonus, when you get to the other end, you can even touch a glacier, or walk onto the Columbia Ice-fields. While the Ice Fields used to reach the parking lot, it now requires quite a hike to reach the ice, so if you want to see them, don’t delay. They may not exist in a few years.
Montana is pure eye candy. Everywhere you look, your eyes are saturated with beauty. Towering black mountains, deep lakes and rushing rivers of that minty, grey-green glacial water, waterfalls, wild animals, it is simply a plethora of sites. Not content with a mere visual feast, Montana offers a gustatory one as well.
I noticed that practically every site offers huckleberry something. Since we are trying to experience local flavor we started with huckleberry ice cream. Oh for frozen goodness! They are similar to blueberries but have a tang almost cherryish in nature. They are quite addicting. We tried huckleberry jam, and cobbler, lemonade and bar-b-que sauce and they were all delicious. Harry swears they are his new favorite berry. Apparently Montana has strict no export laws or something, because I have never seen a huckleberry in a grocery. Not even in Byerly’s!
We went on a ranger led hike and the girls learned how to tell grizzlies from black bears (although if I ever get close enough to see if it has 1 inch or 4 inch claws—I won’t need to “play” dead!) They saw beaver dams and learned about how to identify native plants. Best part was the show and tell discovery building. They had pelts of all the types of local animals. Oh how I love to snuggle fox fur! Cougar was surprisingly rough. They had recordings of bird calls and horns from sheep and goats. Also paw prints to identify. It was the best nature center I’ve seen. Also it was great because so many helpful rangers were on hand to discuss and teach. We all learned so much!
The next day we wanted to take a horseback ride. We drove about 3 hours to the other side of the park. Sadly, due to snowy roads, the horse trails don’t open til next week, or later. Grrr! Update your phone message guys! Harry made huckleberry lemonade though and came up with an awesome idea. Instead of driving back down, then back up in the morning for our glacier boat ride, we simply decided to spend the night at the hotel. Yes, “the” hotel. There is only one because it was built in 1915, before it was a national park. It stands alone on the shore of Swift Current Lake and the view is otherworldly. Mist swirls around the mountain peaks obscuring the tips in cotton candy, while big horn sheep and mountain goats trapeze across the slopes.
Stepping into the hotel is like stepping back into 1920. The huge wooden beams of the Swiss styled hotel soar overhead. A huge fireplace blazes in the center of the lobby. It was opening weekend so we were able to snag a suite, which is almost impossible any other time in the season. In true 1920 elegance there are large picture windows, balconies overlooking the lake, and friendly attentive staff. There are no TVs, cell reception, wi-fi, or many modern upgrades at all. Even though the fixtures yield modern plumbing and electricity, they look like period pieces. We had a huge white ceramic tub with claw feet! Sitting on the balcony sipping a cup of hot coffee is a lesson in tranquility. You are cut off from the hustle and noise of the modern world, and it rocks! (quietly.)
The only negatives were that 1920 soundproofing was limited. We could hear our neighbors fairly well. Also the super long hallways looked EXACTLY like the ones from The SHINING. Just a coincidence though; that was shot in New York. However it is not unusual to see moose from the hotel, and indeed we saw a moose cow and her tiny newborn calf walk past the dining room window. Also a pack of goats wandered right through the parking lot. Sadly, this is quite common. In 1920 there were not many environmental laws, and they built the hotel smack in the middle of the migratory path, so sheep and goats meandering through the parking lot is apparently a daily sight. All in all, this spur of the moment decision may turn out to be a trip high-light!
We camped out on Whidbey NAS, and once again, the Navy put on a first class show! You drive across a stunning bridge through Deception Pass which offers views of the bay and outlets that make you seriously consider stopping in the middle of it and just refusing to drive because your eyes are drinking in the sight. It’s that gorgeous!
Once you get on the NAS, you find out they have a private beach. Our site overlooked that pristine beach, and I told Harry I could quite happily never move again. The kids had a ball hunting agates; OK I did too! There is a walking path right along the beach and best part? No bugs! I don’t get it, but I swear there were no bugs! We met a high school classmate of mine and she and her charming family showed us some of their favorite hangouts. It was an absolute blast and I really wish we can get back there soon. I fell in love with the entire Island. If you ever have a chance to visit there, you MUST go! You won’t regret it I promise.
A funky Whidbey NAS tradition is to design a sign from driftwood and add it to their collection. Also they have whimsical creations from driftwood along the walking path.
For the first time, we split up on our tours. Harry and Ashley drove dune buggies down the mountains. They had a blast and despite the drizzly weather, they said they would go again in a heart beat.
Haley and I had a somewhat more challenging outing. We elected to go snorkeling. In Alaska. Yes, you read that correctly. As we were getting ready to leave the ship the Disney crew member had two stacks of stickers: a huge pile of yellow ones and like 10 blue ones. As he read what we were doing he was teasing me and said, “Snorkeling? Welcome to Crazy Town!” Crazy town? Buddy, I’m the mayor of Crazy Town!
It turned out to not be what I had been dreading. (See? I am mayor. Even though I was dreading it, I still went!) I thought we would be a tad chilly, to stay the least. In reality they gave us thick wetsuits, hoods, boots, gloves, and with our masks, the only thing exposed to the water was our lips. However, getting a thick wetsuit on is a total team event. A team event in humility at least. You shimmy, squeeze, yank, wheeze, gyrate, sweat, mutter (nobody on a Disney cruise would swear, right?), and pull some more. As you compress yourself into the suit (similar to putting a size 20 body into a size 2 full body corset.) you lose flexibility. By the time it’s on, you can’t bend, raise your arms, turn your head, or even walk much. Trust me, by then you are BEGGING for arctic water!
Then came the truly treacherous portion: walk down to the beach. Although you are waddling with all the grace of a penguin you must navigate down slippery uneven rocks. My adventure almost ended before it began.
But, once you actually wade into the water and begin, it is all worthwhile! It was stunning! Bright purple starfish in large colonies. Also other varieties in fire engine red to neon orange. Some with thick stubby legs and some with spindly long ones. One type had more than 17 and grows to a diameter of 3 feet! There were sea cumbers in fuzzy hunter, blaze-orange. It looked like the hair from a muppet growing from the rocks. The guides would dive down and get a critter than explain it and pass it around. We swam though gobs of tuberous seaweed that grows 3 feet a day. Every where you looked some unusual creature was lurking. We even saw huge crabs and beds of shells. I felt like I was part of Ariel’s kingdom in the Little Mermaid. The best part was that the wetsuit acts like a full body flotation device. Thus, unlike on land, in the water we were floating effortlessly and gracefully. It was the most incredible sight I’ve seen. I wish I had pictures, but I didn’t have a water camera, which means I most definitely have to go back and do it again!