Once I hit Cody it was smooth sailing. I was on the very last leg of my trip and I couldn’t wait. I stopped to get groceries, enjoyed an older gent playing accordion in front of the supermarket (very random) and got my oil changed. Yup, my Honda is purring like a kitten. That machine never ceases to amaze me. Cody is a fantastic little tourist town that features a rodeo just about every night. Continuing west on Route 16 is Buffalo Bill State Park featuring a huge reservoir and dam that was completed in 1910. I stopped to take these pics and a weasel scampered by me with a fish in its mouth. So mischievously awesome! Buffalo Bill State Park is free to enjoy and has a free visitors center, museum, beaches and has many camping opportunities.
Then the drive winds through Shoshone National Forest, which–like a broken record–is beautiful, free and full of recreational possibilities.
Soon after that is Yellowstone! Just as I hit the park I saw a sight I’d never seen before. I was lucky enough to catch two different groups of big horn sheep crossing the road. The only time I’ve seen them was as specks on a distant mountainside. This was a freakin’ treat! They were so close to me, within feet! I could see their bright orange-red eyes. I also caught a few glimpses of some fluffy, white elk butt on my way through and heard the calling of frogs beckoning me to come catch them. And I shall!
I arrived at the dorm at 5:30 pm and it’s the same as I had left it. They even had the same National Geographics sitting on the kitchen tables. Ahh…home sweet home. Right now the place is filled with lake trout biologists and fishermen. Two of them put on an impromptu concert last night complete with guitar, ukulele and singing. Oh, it’s going to be an interesting summer! It never ceases to amaze me that people pay me to work here when I should be paying them. No matter how bad the rest of my year is, at least I have this.
I’ve got a soft spot for Buffalo. If I could live anywhere in the west, Buffalo would be in my top five. It’s small enough to not get lost but big enough to have all the creature comforts. The downtown is charming but not offensively touristy. It’s the gateway to Yellowstone and is located at the base of my beloved Big Horns. The KOA is immaculate and the tent sites are located next to a babbling brook with a waterfowl refuge on the other side. One of the maintenance workers stopped by my site to show me pictures of the forty baby geese that they have tromping though every morning. They’re so darn cute when they’re young. The storm system that I’d mentioned in my last post finally hit the area at around 7 am. I awoke to my tent nearly flying away with me in it. I had to quickly vacate, pick up the tent, stuff it into my car (still set-up) and dive into the backseat before anything flew away or flew at me. Overall though, after that day I had before, I was super grateful that the storm didn’t hit in the middle of the night. I was easily able to ride out the storm and catch a few more hours of sleep in my car until it was time to embark on my favorite part of the journey: Route 16! If there’s one stretch of road that you want to drive in your life, this may be it.
I left Buffalo at 10:30 am and headed into the Big Horn National Forest. This place is an unknown national treasure and I love it. It rivals Yellowstone for me. If you have to, skip Yellowstone, skip Glacier, skip Yosemite and just hit the Big Horns for a vacation. It’s snow covered mountains, vast canyons, lush grasslands, rolling rivers and majestic pine forests are absolutely beautiful and free to enjoy. There are campgrounds, lodges, skiing, hiking, fishing, horseback riding, snowmobiling, kayaking…anything recreational you can think of. I’m surprised it’s managed to fly under the radar for so long.
After the Big Horns is the tiny town of Ten Sleep (population 257) which may also be on my top five list of western towns that I’d live in. It’s so small and so quaint and better yet, I see that they’re opening a brewery. I may just have to pay them a visit on my way back. After that is miles and miles of rolling, sagebrush BLM land with oil drilling and livestock grazing. The landscape is absolutely beautiful and if you’re lucky you can catch a glimpse of an antelope butt on the hill next to you (they’re pretty proud of their best asset and will gladly feature it in the landscape). This stretch of road is all about dinosaurs (Themopolis–dinosaur central is not too far away), oil drilling, recreation, livestock, cowboys in beat-up pick-up trucks, bentonite clay extraction (this is what I make my toothpaste out of!), small towns and beautiful scenery. Cody, Wyoming comes almost too soon.
After the Badlands, I hit the road again with the intention of stopping off to see Mount Rushmore. My mother told me that I’d enjoy the little town of Keystone and Mount Rushmore is basically right there so I veered off Interstate 90. That area of the state is basically a hot spot for tourist sites, adventure and fun activities. It would take at least a week to see all there is to see there. Just in the thirty minute drive from Rapid City to Keystone there is the Reptile Gardens (the 2014 Guinness World Record holder for having largest collection of reptiles), Bear Country (a drive-through wild game park), some sort of Scandinavian village, a mystery spot and various other goodies. And speaking of the drive into Keystone…all I can say is that I almost simultaneously filled my drawers and puked at the same time. It was soooooo steep that my newly serviced brakes were hanging by a thread. I’m no stranger to downshifting on hills instead of riding the brakes. That’s my usual deal but this was way beyond my driving ability. The road went straight up and down mountains, with blind hairpin turns thrown in there for fun. I was forced to downshift AND ride my brakes just to stay in control. And Keystone was right at the bottom of one of the mountains. I have no idea how people escape getting smeared by runaway RV’s when trying to cross the road.
Needless to say, I had a hard time enjoying Keystone knowing that I had to endure another near death experience on the way out. To make matters worse, I was baking in the sun (Yes, I applied sunscreen twice to no avail and no, I wasn’t using Sweet Pea’s sunscreen. I decided to use up another brand before I dipped into mine. Never again.) and I ate at perhaps the worst restaurant ever. You know it’s bad when there are hundreds of tourists around and you’re the only one in the joint. People were walking in, looking around, grimacing and immediately leaving. It’s crazy what health & safety violations you’re willing to overlook when you’re hungry. I walked around for a bit, tried to make peace with impending food poisoning, felt my skin burning, and dreaded the trip out. I decided to get the heck out of dodge and totally skip Mount Rushmore. Yup, I was about two minutes from the national landmark and I skipped it. I was having a moment. Not wanting to retrace my steps, I took a back road to Hermosa and then back to Rapid City. This would be my suggested route if you’re looking for a drama-free approach from the north. There was only one scary spot and I held my breath through it. I never thought I’d be so happy to see Interstate 90 again but I was over the freakin’ moon.
Soon after that I hit a storm with 60 mph winds and quarter size hail. Yup, this was not my day. Eventually, I made it to my regular KOA stop in Buffalo, Wyoming and was able to shake things off a bit.
Oh Mary Bay…what can I say. This was the only wetland so far to have completely turned my stomach. Mary Bay is a large pond/lake that is just filled to the brim with waterfowl turds. Each year it gets a little smaller and I know why: it’s being filled in with poo. We could only survey a small portion of the perimeter because the ground was so unstable. When we did manage to dip a net, it was always filled to the brim with bird doo-doo (and also few chorus frog tadpoles and one dead salamander larvae). The rest of the sites around Mary Bay were thermal and completely dried up. Since we were close to the road and a prime internet spot, people parked in the pull-offs and watched us survey. This included the Wisconsonian-forest ecologist-trouble-makers who relished the opportunity to heckle us from their truck. Jerks! Since most of the wetlands were dry in previous years, we had assumed that we would finish quickly. Hah! Hah…hah! Well, you know all about how our assumptions turn out by now. I had a self-imposed end time of 2 pm because I had to drive to Jackson Hole to see the 4th of July fireworks. So we finished the bay sites within two hours and hustled up the ridge to survey the other sites. Oh, I should mention, right before our ridge hustle, I literally came four feet from running head first into a solitary male bison. He was hanging out in a thermal area just over a little hill. I was running to catch up with Andrew, crested the hill and there was big boy bison standing right in my blind spot. We were literally face to face. He seemed delighted to see me and was not alarmed at all. I, on the other hand, nearly shat myself and ran away. I looked back and he seemed disappointed in my reaction, like he was lonely and looking forward to sharing his little thermal pool with me.
I caught up with Andrew and it was onward and upward. On the map and gps there seemed to be an obvious trail to the sites but that was soooo not the case when we crested the ridge. The trail looked like tornado alley. It was a never-ending sea of mature downed trees that we had to climb over. It took hours to get to and from each wetland and it was painful. Here is what I want to write in the field notes for future surveyors: Upper Mary Bay–You will get shived more times than a prison yard scuffle. No joke. My legs are now a cut-up, bloody, and bruised mess. Every step through that site was painful. A rainstorm rolled in during our last few surveys but it was a welcome reprieve from the brutal heat. And our last few sites were rather pleasant. We followed well-traveled game trails to the wetlands and the lush forest suddenly felt like we were in the Pacific Northwest. A few of the wetlands that were dry in previous years, were the size of small puddles but they were overflowing with near metamorph chorus frogs. They had tiny little arms and legs but still had their large tadpole tails. They were adorable! Once our last site (which was dry) was finished we followed a game trail out and it was easy-going. What took us several hours to hike on the way in took us only a few minutes to hike on the way out. Let that be a lesson to you, always take the game trails. You may end up in a bear den or exactly where you want to be, either way, it’s better than being in a jail yard situation.
Luckily, I was finished by 2 pm and was on my way to Jackson. The fireworks were great. The company was great. I couldn’t have asked for anything more. The one thing I learned from my weekend though was to never, ever, try to find a spur of the moment campsite or hotel anywhere near Yellowstone, the Tetons or Jackson Hole during the 4th of July. You either have to plan way in advance or just give up. The rest of my weekend was spent with someone I absolutely adore. He drove over seven hours to come visit lil ole me, which was way more than I would have ever expected from him. I played tour guide (which I failed at for the most part) and the weather was absolute crap at times but it was a lot of fun.
Greetings from 7,744 feet! I made it safe and sound to one of the most glorious places on earth, Yellowstone National Park. Our very first National Park. It took me four days to get here from Cortland, New York but I took time to visit friends and just maintain a chill pace. I can’t say this enough, I love Big Horn National Forest. The drive through there made the entire, rather geographically boring, trip worth it for me. My last night on the road was spent camping in the foothills of the Big Horns in the town of Buffalo, Wyoming. It’s a quaint little place with a wealth of history but it isn’t like most of the tourist traps along the way. They didn’t re-make their downtown to look like the wild west or anything cheesy like that–which is much appreciated. The drive on Route 16 West from Buffalo through Greybull through Cody and on to Yellowstone was just lovely with all the canyons, snow-covered mountains, and rivers flowing throughout. I spotted two sandhill cranes wading in a ditch next to the road. There were a plethora of antelope and mule deer grazing and scampering about. And if you know me at all, you know I love cows. It was nice to see so many cows out grazing in the prairies. Being from the east, we just pack them into confined feeding operations like sardines and if we do let them graze, the land is usually a few scant acres and the vegetation is usually picked over. It was heartwarming to see the babies being cared for by their mothers. I spotted many mother and calf playing in the fields together along the way. On a sad note, just outside of Greybull, Wyoming there is a tiny town (population of 10…I’m not joking, that’s what the sign said) called Emblem. In the front yard was a dead calf. It looked like it had been dead for a few days and two cows were standing over it–presumably one was the mother. The rotting calf was about 100 feet from the house’s front steps. I don’t understand how that is okay to someone, to anyone. I’ve worked in the range lands of west Texas where farmers had hundreds of acres of grazing land and large herds of cattle to keep track of. I’ve seen several cows who’ve died from being entangled in fencing far away from the farm. All pain and suffering is terrible but what I saw in Emblem was even less acceptable to me. They only had two cows to care for (three if you counted the calf) and about an acre of grazing land. How could you miss a dead calf or do they just not care? How could you just leave the body of a baby to rot while the mother stands over it grieving? It just seems so heartless. Do people really believe that we are the only beings gifted with emotions? Anyways, I didn’t mean to depress you. Just some food for thought.
Sunday afternoon, I reached the Yellowstone gate, showed them my research permit, the ranger offered directions at which I politely declined (challenging myself to make it to the dorm by memory) and I was set free to roam. Yellowstone is just as I left it back in 2006, apart from a few more burnt areas–which is to be expected in this flammable ecosystem. I found my way to the dorm without a problem and that too was exactly the same. Researchers come and go but for now I’m living with four German geochemists studying the Park’s thermal features, one sociologist studying risk behavior at bear jams, and then there’s me and my field partner, Andrew. We just completed our first full week of work and besides the unpredictable weather, it went off without a hitch. We’re re-visiting many of the extremely rigorous sites Polly and I surveyed back in 2006, including one where we had to shed all of our gear and swim across a river. This should be interesting and I will do my best to keep you posted. There is no free internet access here and my cell service doesn’t work. However, they do offer internet service for $4.95/hour so I’m trying to streamline my internet use to only one hour/week. Thus, my blog posts may be limited. I’m choosing to embrace being cut off from the rest of the world. It’s a nice change of pace but I certainly do miss having my friends and family just a text away. I have a feeling this is all going to go by so fast though so I’m doing everything I can to savor each and every second. I’ve been keeping a journal to remember my experience here and so the rest of my posts will be my journal entries.
Below are photos from my trip to Wall, South Dakota. Home of the enormous store, Wall Drugs. It was certainly a sight to see!