Sunday, July 19, 2009

Passing the torch

Yellowstone was gorgeous yet was a real test of my patience. Pictures tell the best story of the park, of how diverse and strangely beautiful the earth can be. I wasn’t the only person who sought out such dynamic beauty, nor did I expect to be. The thousands of people exploring the park were among the most inconsiderate people I’ve encountered on my trip. A woman yelled at me for inching my car through an endless stream of people coming back from the timed geyser spurts of Old Faithful and said “Pedestrians have the right away – we’re not in Massachusetts you know!” My time until the end is short and my ambition for exploring is immeasurable and my delay caused by inconsiderate tourists made me irritated for the first time since my epic adventure started.

(mammoth springs at yellowstone)
I blew through Yellowstone in a day and moved onto Grand Teton the following day, a Saturday. My intentions were to explore the park and camp there in the evening. How quickly my plans were diverted however. My first stop was a drive up to Signal Mountain to take in the high-altitude views. I parked my car, walked to the edge to experience the prime view and waited to take a picture. I waited and waited and waited. I generally don’t enjoy other people in my photos and so I waited for a family of fifteen or so to conclude their photo shoot. Beyond the standard group photo they insisted on getting an individual photo of every family member with the same backdrop. I just about lost it. For those of you who know my freak-out moments, well this was one such moment I tried so desperately to control. I got back in my car and off the mountain quickly, swerving to avoid the oncoming traffic as I barreled down the mountain. New plan: a stopover in Buffalo, WY.

Getting out of the woods was exactly what I needed. I had been alone in the woods for five straight days. I was by myself, yet could not experience true solitude and introspection as my caution for grizzlies made me fully reliant upon following other people on hikes, going at their pace. Not to mention I managed to find a shower only once in that entire five-day stretch. The thought of getting a hotel room with all its privacy and amenities made me salivate a little. Buffalo was halfway between the Grand Tetons and Badlands and had too cool of a name to pass up, so when I found enough cell reception on the side of the road I booked a hotel room and started driving towards the middle of Wyoming. I don’t exaggerate when I say I cried the moment I laid down on that plush hotel room bed. After a really long hot shower I spent the evening half-watching cheesy romantic comedies on TBS, playing on my computer, eating Pizza Hut take-out and gabbing to my girlfriends on the phone. The night reminded me of a life I once had before this epic road trip began.

For the first time in a while I woke up on my own accord. The heavy and dark curtains shielded every ray of sunlight from disturbing me in my slumber. I awoke with a smile and stretched my limbs to the farthest reaches of my bed. Ah, comfort. After enjoying the hotel’s continental breakfast I packed up the few belongings I had brought inside and continued on my road trip. Driving to the Badlands National Park in South Dakota elicited a sense of renewal and a strange feeling of magnitude. I had heard many personal descriptions of the Badlands and was eager to see it myself. Some people described it as disorienting because it was so flat, some said it felt like you were on another planet and others said it was disturbing to drive through. My Fodor’s guide book quoted Custer who once described the park as “hell with the fires burned out.” I had high expectations for this park.
(view at Pinnacles)
I was surprised to land in the national park so soon after passing through the nearest town. For some reason I thought the desolate park might have been further from any form of civilization. I immediately drove to a lookout at the Pinnacles. The peaked mounds of colorful rock spread across the landscape and appeared never-ending. In the valleys between were lush grass and the occasional clump of ordinary wildflowers. It was much prettier than I thought it would be – the alternate planet visual just wasn’t ringing true for me. I got back in my car confused by how anticlimactic the park was already and began to drive towards one of the park’s few primitive campgrounds. I hit the gravel road heading southwest in the park and immediately started kicking up large pieces of debris in the road. I rolled up my windows quickly, unable to distinguish what exactly was bouncing off my windshield and flying off the side of my bumper. Then one of the pieces of debris landed on my windshield and stuck – a cricket. Not just an ordinary cricket though, this guy was the size of a bite-sized candy bar and there weren’t just a few of them, there were thousands. At one point I had five crickets sitting comfortably on my front windshield and one guy hanging out on the back windshield. I know they couldn’t get into the car, but because I am extraordinarily bug-phobic I had to keep reminding myself of that. My faith in this “primitive” campsite had faded and after about ten miles of crickets flying in my face I turned around and headed to the east end of the park where the only non-primitive campground was.
On this drive through the park I made all the customary stop-offs to take in the scenery and by the time I reached the campgrounds I had seen the entire park. I immediately began to rethink my plans for staying in the park two nights, questioning what I could do for a whole other day in the Badlands. I rolled into campgrounds and started to circle one of the loops. I came to a stop when I reached the first desirable looking campsite on my right. The land was flat and I could see vacancies in the distance so I idled, scanning the grounds for a better looking site. Just as I was contemplating driving off the guy occupying the campsite to my right said “hello.” That seemed like a good enough sign for me, so I put my car in reverse, parked and walked around the site doing my usual scouting for a nice piece of flat land to lay my tent on. I paid the campsite fee, pitched my tent sans rain fly, set up my hammock and cooked dinner on my propane stove. After dinner and a quick read I took off in search the sunset, which had been turning the sky bright shades of pink and purple. I climbed up a crumbly mountain in hopes of getting a view of the colorful sun, but had just missed it. I made it back to my campsite in time for the ranger talk at the amphitheatre; I figured that was a pleasant way to spend my evening.

In front of me on my walk to the amphitheater were four people who looked to be about my age, including the guy who said hello earlier. Over the course of the evening and the following morning I discovered that all four of these people were also road tripping. Klaus, a guy from Denmark was on a cross-country bike trip that started in New York City. Amy and Stacey were travelling from Gloucester, Massachusetts, on their way to Santa Barbara, California. Mike, a guy from Jersey was just a week into his own epic summer-long road trip around the US. Here in the Badlands all of our paths crossed. I was so happy to meet everyone! All along I wanted to meet people doing the same thing as me, but up until the Badlands had only met people stationary in their own lives. I chatted with the girls for a while about the continuation of their travels and recommended national parks and cities to visit in the west. Mike and I got to chatting and we realized we both were on a quite similar government-funded road trip. I shared with him my acquired knowledge of travelling alone and suggested a few great hikes I had done over the course of my trip. It felt as though I was passing the torch. The predictive sense of magnitude I had felt on my drive into the Badlands all at once made perfect sense.
(amy, stacey and i at mt rushmore)
In the morning we all gathered at Mike’s campsite and discussed our plans for the day. Klaus took off on his bike and the rest of us drove a similar path to Wall Drug, Mt Rushmore, Crazy Horse and eventually Devil’s Tower. My lead foot and unwavering commitment to my GPS put me at Devil’s Tower nearly an hour before anyone else arrived. The skies were dangerous looking and the weather forecast included a tornado warning for the area. I sat in my car and cracked open a beer while I waited for the Amy, Stacey and Mike. By the time the others arrived the sky had opened up with heavy globs of rain and the winds were whipping through. The storm drew thin and jagged streaks of light in the sky all around us; an eerie sight next to the giant protruding butte that was Devil’s Tower. Because of our close-knit travels during the day we were now all in it together and we took some time making a decision about whether we would stay and camp for the night or leave to find safety and dryness at a motel. I was the first to recommend getting a motel, thinking back to my first night of camping with Katy in the middle of a thunderstorm in the Shenandoah. Mike was the first to put his tent down in the earliest pause from the rain. Just as the girls decided on leaving and getting a motel I decided to stay. I was comforted knowing Mike was going to stick it out and hopeful that the storm would pass.

The storm cleared up by 8pm and we were safe for the time being. A ranger passed by in his truck and stopped to have a chat with us. He informed us that the ranger talk for the night had been cancelled and that we should keep an eye on the weather. He also mentioned that a tornado had touched down about eight miles from where we were. Neither Mike nor I knew what to expect of the weather in southeastern Wyoming and the ranger’s caution to keep an eye on the sky was confusing to us. We weren’t sure what would be safe: staying put, getting into our cars or getting the hell out of there. Regardless, we stayed and at sunset drove to a spot the ranger had recommended. The sun was not visible, but the giant painted cloud in front of it was mesmerizing. I had never seen a cloud like that ever before and its position right next to Devil’s Tower was simply uncanny.
Although the wind came back to wake up both from our sleep at three in the morning, all the dreadful weather had passed by daybreak. We spent the morning hiking up and around Devil’s Tower. Mike had an immediate attraction to the rocks, and so I followed him up the boulders of the base of the tower. The afternoon’s drive was lovely. I turned off my GPS and followed Mike through two-lane highways in middle-of-no-where Wyoming. His friend recommended we stop at Vedauwoo in Medicine Bow National Forest and so that became our destination for the evening. No soon after did we find a campsite did we take off for the rocks, hoping to catch the sunset from atop. We scrambled our way quite a distance up the flinstone-looking rocks, yet fell short of reaching summit as the rocks higher up were flatter and larger, with fewer crevasses and protrusions to grab hold of. When we returned safely to the ground we set off on the trail at the base of the giant rock formation. Our three-mile, post-sunset hike in the woods was an adrenaline pumper. We spent a good half-hour to an hour hiking in the blackness of the forest and didn’t make it back to our campsite until 9:30. Mike tended the fire while I cooked dinner: rice seasoned with balsamic vinaigrette, thickened with poly-o string cheese, sprinkled with chunks of tomato and served on a bed of spinach. After we ate we sat by the fire listening to its crackle and pop while Mike strummed a few songs on his guitar.
(mike climbing the base of devil's tower)
Around 11pm we were ready to extinguish the fire and get into our tents when we heard a voice calling out to us in the woods. Harvey, a 29-year-old avid rock climber joined us by the fire. He too was travelling alone of a road trip of sorts. Soon after his arrival he let out a big fart. He explained to us that he had just eaten an entire can of lentil beans for dinner. We shared a laugh and many hours of conversation. After seeing Mike’s guitar Harvey suggested that he get his guitar and they play together. Among Harvey’s endless gas, the wonderful conversation and the beautiful harmony of their two guitars I was quite entertained for the evening, which ended just before sunrise.
(mike and harvey jamming out at vedauwoo)
The guys got out their guitars again in the morning and I practiced some yoga in a clearing off to the side in earshot of the music. Later I joined them in a forest jam band and sang along to “Bad Moon Rising.” I wish I could have continued my travels with Harvey and Mike, but alas it was time for me to move on to Colorado.

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