Day 57 – The Almost-total Eclipse

Today is the solar eclipse and we have overnighted in Boulder with plans to get up to Casper, Wyoming, for the total eclipse.

We’re on the road by 4:30 a.m. By 5:30, we’ve only gone 30-something miles and the traffic is not only intense, people are doing crazy things like using the access road to get a few cars ahead. It’s only supposed to take 4 hours to get to Casper but at this rate, we’re going to miss the eclipse. It’s just not worth it.

Without saying a word, Walt exits the interstate and heads toward Loveland. We find a coffee shop that opens at 5:30 and have some caffeine before heading back to Denver.

We had been planning to head to Walt’s sister and brother-in-law’s house tonight anyway, so we’re just going to show up 10 or 12 hours early and watch the partial eclipse in their back yard.

While we don’t get to see the full eclipse (it’s about 90 percent in Denver), we have a relaxing, totally enjoyable day.

We enjoy a fabulous dinner, including vegetables from Lisa’s garden (I’m envious), which has provided green beans, arugula, and grape tomatoes.

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We staged this photo during the eclipse. I did not drive anywhere while blinded by eclipse glasses. Thanks to Dave and Lisa for the idea and the photo

Day 56 – Friends in Boulder

After breakfast with family, Walt and I head to Boulder to visit friends. They just moved into a new place a few months ago, so we get the grand tour of their beautiful townhouse and then head to a great dinner at Oak.

It’s lovely to see them and Walt and I are very envious that they have settled upon a retirement home, especially one that is as beautiful as theirs. They have the best of both worlds: walking distance to shopping, dining and entertainment in downtown Boulder and yet just a mile or so from the mountains and trails.

We keep thinking we want a house, not a condo or townhouse, but after seeing Christine and John’s lovely place…

Day 55 – Our Second Wedding of the Trip

We are starting our day at Sam’s No. 3 for breakfast with Walt’s daughter and son-in-law. Except briefly last night the rehearsal dinner, we haven’t seen them in several months, since before we sold our house. We have a great time catching up before going our separate ways to prep for the wedding.

It’s been so long since we’ve put on good shoes and, in my case, foundation-wear and makeup that it takes us a little longer to get dressed. Plus, we’ve had our dress clothes crammed in the car for the better part of two months, so everything needs pressing. Finally we’re ready, looking like we belong in a nice convertible instead of in a tent.

The wedding is held at a beautiful venue that’s part of a golf club. The weather is lovely. The bride is stunningly beautiful. The groom is handsome. They’re both so in love. We couldn’t be happier for them.

One of the special touches they’ve put on their wedding is to forego the traditional cake in favor of ice cream sandwiches for dessert!

Need I say more?

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Alexis Guinn David. So beautiful. Sorry, for some reason we don’t have a pix of the happy couple.

Days 53-54 – Wedding Bound

Walt has been stunned by the beauty of the Grand Tetons. I hadn’t realized he’d never been to Jackson Hole or the Tetons and we’d very much like to come back at some point. But we’re headed on a 500-mile drive to Denver today. The start is gorgeous, with amazing views of the Wind River Mountains to the northeast.

There aren’t a lot of towns in this part of the country but at about 100 miles from Jackson, we’re in the town of Rock Springs, Wyoming, and I Google “best breakfast Rock Springs” and come up with Grub’s Diner. It turns out to be a little place with a curved counter seating maybe 15 people. Once upon a time, it was a drive-in restaurant. Breakfast is so good that we order a chocolate milkshake for the road.

The scenery that we are most fascinated by as we continue our journey through Southern Wyoming are the layers and layers of fences built to keep the snow off the highway. We can’t imagine what the wind and snow must be like to require that much fencing. And we really don’t ever want to know firsthand.

We swing by Laramie and head into Colorado, marveling again at the change of scenery. We are no longer in huge open fields. Now there are rocks and rolling foothills with the Colorado Rocky Mountains to the west. We remember that we are still looking for a place to call home and think maybe the Ft. Collins area might be worth another look at some point.

But not today.

We arrive in Denver, exhausted from the long day’s drive. After an early (and yummy) dinner at 240 Union, we crash so that we can de-trail ourselves and our car in preparation for Walt’s niece’s wedding.

I have scheduled a mani/pedi for first thing with Walt’s daughter. I apologize to the technician; neither my toes nor my fingers are in great shape. Walt takes our car to an auto detailer for a thorough cleaning. Apparently all of his girls (I think of the car as female) need a spa day.

Although we’re not in the wedding, Walt and I are invited to the rehearsal dinner. It’s so nice, again, to see a couple so in love and happy to get married. We started planning this whole trip six months ago around Lex (his niece) and AJ’s wedding and now it’s finally here.

Day 53 – Leaving Heart Lake and Yellowstone

There is still hail on the ground when we wake up and we’re not surprised to see the little thermometer clipped to my pack registering in the mid-40s. However, we can see the sun up over lake, already starting to burn off the morning fog. It looks like it’s going to be a beautiful day for our hike out to the car.

We pack up, grateful to Big Agnes, the maker of our tent, since it held up so well to the punishing weather.

The trail is a little muddy but nothing like La Cloche so we’re making good time, enjoying the beauty of the valley. It’s uphill for the first three miles or so, past the thermals and out of the valley to the divide. It feels like more uphill than I remembered coming down on the way in, but that’s pretty typical. The day is clearing up nicely and the sun is at our backs.

We pass at least a half dozen groups of people coming from the opposite direction and congratulate ourselves for having unknowingly chosen a couple of days of the week when there were few other people about. At one point, we pass a couple about our age sitting on a log, sipping water. We say hello and they ask how far it is to Heart Lake? We left two hours ago, but we have heavy packs and we had to go uphill. I ask if they’re overnighting and they reply that they’re day hiking.

“Long hike,” I say.

“Yes,” says the man. “We’re re-thinking it.”

I look at their cotton sweaters and small bottle of water, nearly empty. I’m hoping they have more water in their packs because they’re only 4 miles into a 15-mile day.

“If you go about half an hour more, you’ll hit a really big, neat thermal,” I say. “You could just go there, see something neat, and call it a day.”

I have no idea what they decided on; we never saw them again.

The hike is a little boring because we’ve seen it all before and we’re pretty much counting the minutes until we’re back at the car. Later Walt refers to this as our “death march” to the car because I am keeping a pretty fast pace.

I start to think about our hiking gear, what we carry compared to what other people carry and what we rely on the most. I learned early from a hiking buddy that Zip-loc bags are a hiker’s best friend. For instance we generally keep all of our food in stuff sacks but it’s easier to find what you’re looking for if food is separated within Zip-loc bags. I put breakfasts in one bag, snacks in another, electrolyte mixes in another, etc. I also use my Zip-locs for trash. Every morning, I place a sandwich-size bag in the large cargo pocket of my hiking pants. Any trash we accumulate through the day, such as protein bar wrappers, goes into that bag. At the end of the day, that baggie goes in a gallon-size bag along with the dinner trash. Zip-locs are also good for anything you want to keep dry. I had my gloves in a bag in the outer back pocket of my backpack so that they were accessible without me having to take off and open up my pack but also dry if it rained.

I also always pack a 30-gallon trash bag that I place in front of the tent, under the fly’s vestibule. We usually place our boots and packs in the vestibule overnight and this not only helps keep those items dry, it gives us a dry place to kneel to get in and out of the tent. It also cuts down on the amount of debris that gets into the tent. I’ve used the same bag for this whole trip.

So, as usual, I am read for the trail to end a good 30 minutes before we find the parking lot and our car. But we make it out in good time. The day is sunny and it’s 60 miles to Jackson, where we will have dinner, do laundry, wander the town before settling down for sleep that is undisturbed by hail or rain or cold.

Day 51 – Mount Sheridan

So today’s our highest mountain and one of our more strenuous hikes of our entire trip. We get up early, as usual. I’m a little worried because the mountain, which is looming behind us, is very socked in by clouds. I really don’t want to hike 3,000 feet up in 3.9 miles and be denied a view. But it’s a long ways to the top and who knows how the weather will shape up, so off we go.

The trail starts going uphill immediately, at first gently through a gorgeous valley of wildflowers. I’m wearing rain pants just because it’s in the 40s and I don’t like to be cold and wet. Just like yesterday, it doesn’t take long before I’m warm enough to shed the rain pants and my Nano-puff jacket.

In about 45 minutes, the trail swings right into a long series of switchbacks that curve up a hill. We can already look down on the lake and the trees that shelter our campsite but we can also look up and see the observation tower on top of Mount Sheridan, still a very long way away.

We take our time, grateful now that there’s a lot of cloud cover since we have no tree cover. We are just hiking an exposed mountainside. Each switchback takes us a little further west, actually away from the peak. We finally turn and head up through some woods but we are still way below and way west of the summit.

Periodically Walt consults the map to see if we can figure out where we are; not that it matters.

The trail heads through a bunch of tight switchbacks that are really just taking us up through the woods. Each time the trail changes: valley, switchbacks, woods, the trail gets steeper and our breaks become more frequent. We are heading east a little bit and I’m hoping we’ve passed that part of the trail that is furthest west of the summit, but I’m not sure.

The trail turns again, flattens out a bit and we’re headed south into a bowl with snow on two sides. We could see from the valley that there were still some spots of snow up high, so we’re not surprised that it’s near our trail (but, luckily, not on our trail). I’m most intrigued by the wildflowers growing up here. They’re much sparser than they were in the valley, of course, but there’s still more than you would think. We’re probably at about 9,000 feet of elevation and it’s gotten chilly enough that I’ve put back on the long-sleeve shirt I took off two hours ago.

We wind through the bowl and come up to the south ridge. There’s a mountain to our left but it’s not our mountain. We can’t see Sheridan at all. The views are still pretty spectacular, down to the distant Tetons. Now we wind around the mountain, headed east first, then north before stepping up to the saddle between this little (relatively) mountain and Sheridan.

Wow. We look out over Heart Lake to the north and see the ridge we have to walk the last quarter of a mile up to Sheridan. The ridge is sloped and one serious misstep would be catastrophic but it’s not so narrow as to be scary or dangerous, at least not in the sunlight and dry weather.

We make the last push to the top and are rewarded with views of Yellowstone National Park that most people never see. We can see Yellowstone Lake to the North, the Absaroka Mountain Range to the Northeast, the Grand Tetons to the South. There’s no one else here. The observation hut is padlocked but there’s a bench outside where we can sit and enjoy our view and M&Ms.

I turn on my phone and, as so often happens on top of mountains, I have a cell signal. I send my brother a photo of the view – we regularly taunt each other with these kinds of pictures. He replies that he wishes he was with us. I do too, actually. I know he would love this hike and he’s always fun to be with. We’ve done a number of day hikes and long-distance hikes together. He is unfailingly calm, kind and cheerful.

We don’t stay on top long. It is chilly and even though we know we will get to the bottom in about half the time it took us to get to the top, it’s still a long way down.

Back at camp, we have a snack before heading into the tent to relax. It feels good to be off our feet. Soon we here a voice. “Hello. Anybody home? Ranger.”

A ranger has arrived to take up residence in the patrol cabin at the nearby west end of the lake for the 9 days. He checks our permit, thanks us for having hung our food properly, tells us if we need anything to let him know, and heads off. There’s a bunch of campsites around the lake but we haven’t seen anyone else out here. We saw several groups headed out as we were headed in yesterday but no one headed in.

An hour or two later, we hear thunder. It sounds closer than the thunder we heard yesterday but Walt remarks “not much rain.” Usually we hear the rain tapping on our tent. A few minutes pass and we hear very loud tapping. I look up and then out the back of the tent, where we can see outside under the fly.

“It’s hailing.”

“No.”

“Look,” I say, pointing out the back of the tent. Sure enough, there is already a small pile of pea-sized hail on the ground.

Walt unzips the tent and peers out under the front of the fly. Same view. He quickly zips it back up. All I can think is: “we should have had a hot lunch.” We have two freeze-dried dinners left, one of them is our favorite chicken and mashed potatoes and right now I’m really sorry we didn’t eat if for lunch. I decide that if the hail doesn’t stop soon, we’ll skip dinner and eat the chicken for breakfast. I pull the sleeping bag liner over my head, deciding the best way to get through this is to hide.

The hail goes on for way longer than I would have expected and it’s almost 7 p.m. before it finally stops and we come out of the tent (in rain gear and gloves). It’s not as bad as I feared. There’s a few piles around the tent and by along the path that runs through camp but it’s not too bad. Except that it’s 45 degrees!

Walt asks if I think the ranger will come by to check out how we made in the hailstorm. We both agree that he won’t. He knows we know where he is if we need him.

We cook, eat and clean up quickly before heading back into the tent.

In anticipation of even colder temperatures, I pile on pretty much every item of clothing I have, except my rain gear, which I’m saving for an emergency. So I have on my regular underwear, long underwear, and my hiking pants; two pairs of socks with handwarmers between the inner and outer layers; a short-sleeve shirt, a long-sleeve shirt, a wool sweater, my Nano-puff; my buff and a wool cap on my head. I am covered in sleeping bag liner with a fleece blanket we had brought in anticipation of extra-chilly temps on top of that with the Puffin covering everything. Plus, I am wedged as close to Walt as I can get through all the layers. It’s not pretty and it’s not really a fun way to sleep but it worked for the night.

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Day 50 – Hiking to Heart Lake, Yellowstone

IMG_3794IMG_3800It’s only 8:15 a.m. and we’re sitting in the parking lot of the Heart Lake trailhead. The car thermometer reads 49 degrees and it’s raining lightly. Ummm. I’m not sure I want to get out of the car. I’m half-expecting Walt to suggest that we wait until the rain passes but he starts to put on his hiking boots and I realize we’re going now.

I start to think: “this is not a good way to start a three-day hike” before I remember that we started La Cloche in the rain and Isle Royale in cool, overcast conditions. Both of those hikes turned out to have mostly good weather. Maybe this is just a continuation of our pattern. Let’s hope anyway because we’re geared up rain pants and jackets and we’re headed 7.5 miles to our campsite at Heart Lake.

The rain tapers off pretty quickly and despite the cool weather, we warm up as well. Within 40 minutes, we are out of our rain gear, hiking in just pants and shirts like we usually do. The trail is pretty flat, with just gentle ups and downs. Even though there’s been rain, there’s only a few wet/muddy spots. The ground here is very silty so the water drains instead of puddles, which works for me.

Since the rangers have warned us that this is “active bear territory” and no, they didn’t say whether the bears are grizzlies or black, we have been told to make noise. In the video, the hikers shout “hey bear” every few minutes and clap their hands. We can’t clap our hands because we’re holding hiking poles. Walt is adamant that he’s not shouting “hey bear” so I decide to sing. First I’m singing songs with “bear” in the words, such as the “Care Bears song” and “The Bear Climbed Over the Mountain.”

Once I have exhausted my limited repertoire of bear songs, I start substituting the word “bear” into the lyrics of other songs – “When I was just a young bear, my momma told me, son, always be a good bear…”

At one point I have lyrics running through my head that I identify as part of the lyrics to the Mickey Mouse Club Song “raise our voices high, high” and ask Walt for the rest of the lyrics. He denies knowing any part of the song other than “Mickey Mouse. Donald Duck.” I don’t believe him but it’s impossible to get Walt to do something he doesn’t want to do and I give up. Now I’m making up a song about being “bear aware” but composing’s not my thing and the song doesn’t go far.

By the way, singing is not my thing either. I can’t carry a tune at all and normally don’t sing aloud unless I’m alone in the car or in church. Walt wonders aloud if the bears will be scared by my voice or come running thinking I’m an animal in distress (and, therefore, easy prey). Either way, we know Walt’s ears hurt.

Eventually I give up and just shout: “Bear. Bear” at intervals.

At about 4 miles in, we come upon a pretty big thermal just off the trail. We hadn’t realized there would be fumaroles and mudpots and other thermal features on this hike but as we come off a crest (we’ve just crossed the Continental Divide), we can down the valley to the lake past a number of steaming holes. It’s neat to see them close up all by ourselves. We’re still cautious and don’t get off the trail to get any closer, even though we see a few other people on the trail stop to get close-up photos.

The trail winds through valley, across a beautiful creek, through fields full of wildflowers, down to the lake. There’s a ranger cabin just before the lake but it’s padlocked. Nobody home. We wind around the lake for a quarter of a mile and come to our designated campsite. It sits in stand of pine trees right on the edge of the lake. We have a stump that is set up on end and surrounded by big pieces of log, clearly this is our kitchen/dining area. Behind us, away from the lake, is our designated “bear hang.” It’s three big pine poles in an “H” pattern with the crosspiece about 15 feet off the ground. It’s our job to place all of our food, trash and “anything with a scent,” meaning toothpaste, hand sanitizer, bug spray, etc., in bags and hang them from the poles at least 10 feet of the ground and three feet from the uprights.

There’s also an open-air, molded plastic privy, a step up from our wooden ones on La Cloche.

We find a spot to set up our tent about 75 feet from any of those three areas. The park rules state we should set up tent 300 feet from them but were we to do that, we’d be in the next campsite. We enjoy a hot lunch and hoist everything out of bears’ reach. The weather has cleared up some but it’s still cool so we head to the tent to read and relax.

After an hour, we notice the wind picking up and the temperature dropping. Sure enough, we hear thunder and it starts to rain. Once again, our pattern of getting up early so we get to camp by early afternoon has paid off. We’re warm and dry. Our belongings are all properly secured. We’re in the best position possible.

The rain doesn’t last too long and about 6 p.m., we come out to fix dinner. Our tent is wet but the ground isn’t very muddy. We pull on our rain pants so our butts don’t get wet while we eat dinner and then retreat to our tent to bundle up against the night chill.

Day 49 – To Old Faithful We Go

We’re still car-touring today but first we have to get our back-country hiking permits. We’ve hiked in black bear territory many times (La Cloche, New Hampshire, Acadia, Shenandoah, the Adirondacks, etc.) but this is our first time in grizzly country. The rules state that we must watch a 15-minute backcountry awareness video before we’re let loose. Mostly it has to do with bear behavior and responses. For instance, if it charges at you, stand your ground because most first charges are “false” or “bluff” charges and the bear will yield if you don’t. Also, we learn that if a bear attacks your tent, fight back with everything you have. The good news is that more people have been injured by bison in the park than they have by bears. We have bear spray, bought just for this park, and we’re pretty alert on the trail, so we’re not deterred.

Permit in hand, we head to Old Faithful. We park and sort of head in a general direction toward buildings, not exactly sure where the geyser sits. We wander a minute or two until we see a sign for the geyser and follow the herd. There’s a lot of people clustered around the geyser, which surprises me. A sign at the ranger station where we got our permit said there was an eruption at 10:34 and the next one is not expected for another 98 minutes. It’s now 11:22.

We find a spot with a great view of the geyser and at 11:24, it goes off. Walt takes a great video of the eruption. We congratulate ourselves on our lucky timing; it would’ve been a shame if we’d been wandering the parking lot while the geyser was doing its thing behind us.

I very much want Walt to see Old Faithful Lodge, which is hand built with wood from the park. What I remember being told from my previous visit is that all the handrails and details that have natural curves are pieces of wood that were naturally shaped that way; meaning that someone had to find each piece in the wild and then piece them together to make this amazing structure. Then there’s the huge stones that make up the enormous fireplace…

Walt is as impressed as I was/am. We’re also hungry and line up for the restaurant, which opens at noon for lunch. Now we feel like we’ve scored twice today.

We continue on our loop, stopping at various thermals and overlooks before finally heading back to the hotel for a scrumptious dinner – quail for me, wild game ragout for Walt – before packing up our hiking gear, getting set for tomorrow’s backcountry hike.

Day 48 – Yellowstone

Our last park/hiking stop before the second wedding of our trip is Yellowstone. We are splurging with two nights at the Lake Yellowstone Hotel, then heading for a three-day, two-night hike.

We drop down from Montana through Gardiner and the North entrance. Walt’s never been to Yellowstone and I’ve only spent one day here about a decade ago. It’s another sunny, warm day so we have the car’s top down, which really gives us so much better access to the scenery.

We know we can’t hit everything but we’ve tried to plot a trip that will at least give us a good cross-section of the park: some fields for bison-viewing, hot springs, mud pots, and waterfalls.

Mammoth Hot Springs just amazes us with the bubbling and calcite rocks.

We stop at Cascade Falls and are rewarded with beautiful waterfalls plus some very interesting rock formations. We are both fascinated with the fact that a huge portion of Yellowstone was once a volcano and you can still see the blown rim, known as a caldera, in various spots.

We see bison, actually walking in the road, almost close enough for us to touch, although we are not tempted to do so. We are bemused by all the signs in Yellowstone about being “bear aware” and staying away from “dangerous wildlife” and yet when we get to our hotel room, there’s a stuffed bison toy on the bed (available for purchase) and a bear-shaped soap in the bathroom. If you want people to be on their guard around these animals, maybe you shouldn’t be doing your best to make them look cute, we think.

We stop for the lower falls at the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. The sign at the top of the trail warns visitors that it is “3/8 of a mile and 600 feet to the bottom” and yet we see people who clearly should not be going down this trail. We pass two women in flip flops, one of whom keeps turning to her elderly mother behind them, asking “are you OK, Mom?” This older woman, while wearing good sneakers, is clearly not comfortable going downhill on this gravelly, dusty path. What’s she going to do on the uphill? We pass them and enjoy the wonderful rush of the water going over the falls, the spray it kicks up and the view down the canyon. As we head back up the trail, I notice the two flip-flop-clad women just getting to the bottom, with “Mom” nowhere in sight. I am hoping she headed back up shortly after we ran into them and is now sitting at the overlook on top.

We stop briefly at the overlook but are intent on getting to a lookout further down the canyon that looks back at the falls we’ve just gotten up close and personal with. Off we go until we find a high lookout and spot an eagle’s nest perched on top of a rock high above the canyon. Then we head down another trail to the lower outpost, where we have a great view of the falls as well as the outlook above us.

Clouds have been building and it starts to sprinkle as we head to the car but we’re inside before we can get wet. And the rain passes extremely quickly so that by the time we get down the road to the mud volcano, the sun is shining again. We’re fascinated by the bubbling, spraying holes as well as the bison sitting calmly near one – a little spa treatment, perhaps?

Our last stop is the Lake Yellowstone Hotel, a gorgeous, historic building right on Yellowstone Lake. As I’ve said, it’s our big splurge for the trip. We’ll want to get an early start hiking the day after tomorrow and there aren’t a lot of cheap places to stay in the park. I guess we could’ve camped but we prefer not to car camp, which is what we’d have to do when we’re not backcountry hiking and camping.

We clean up and head down to the lobby for drinks overlooking the lake while a nice lady plays the grand piano. It’s all very elegant and delightful.

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Day 47 – West to Billings

We go to bed early when we’re camping, so we’re usually up early and this morning is no different. We pack up pretty quickly and with a whispered apology to campers around us, start our car and head off to Billings.

It’s about a 300-mile drive but as we discover when we soon cross the Montana State line, the speed limit has increased from 75 to 80. The land is just gentle rolling hills with very little traffic so we eat up the miles pretty quickly. I’m driving – and Walt’s jealous – and it’s very hard to resist the temptation to go way above the speed limit but I set the cruise control, determined to behave. It’s a gorgeous day, warming up quickly from the mid-40s to low 90s and the convertible top is down.

Walt is in navigator mode and finds us a decent-sized town to have breakfast (although I’ve started the day with a pre-breakfast piece of fudge). Later he sees something on the map marked “Pompey’s Pillar,” national historic monument. We have no idea what it is, but we’ve got time and nothing special we want to see in Billings, so why not?

The pillar turns out to be named after a child member of the Lewis and Clark expedition. It’s a huge chunk of rock right next to the Yellowstone River where the Clark part of the group camped on its way back east. Clark actually signed the pillar (as did many, many other people after him) and we head up the 300+ steps to see his name under glass as well as the view from the top. Again, Walt’s senior pass gets us in for free. We really should tally up just how much money we’ve saved on this trip thanks to that pass.

A bit further on and we stop at a North Dakota state park to see petroglyphs that were carved into caves. We have to pay the state’s $6 fee but it’s a nice stroll among the rock outcrops. The petroglyphs are hard to see but neither of us has ever seen any, so it’s interesting. The only down side is the numerous warning signs that prairie rattlesnakes are frequently seen on the trails around the caves. I’ve seen rattlesnakes while hiking on Tongue Mountain in New York State and they’re beautiful but I don’t really need to see one today.

We make it through unscathed and head on to Billings.

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