Travel

From Yellowstone and back

004So it’s been several weeks since I’ve returned to my norm but before I bring us totally up-to-date, I thought I would fill you in on the happenings post-Yellowstone.

From Yellowstone, I drove seemingly forever to Fort Collins, Colorado to stay with one of my best buds for a few days. I’d never been to Fort Collins before so this was a real treat. It’s a fantastic town and I can see why my friend raves (non-stop) about it! I was operating under the misguided notion that Fort Collins was just some crappy suburb of Denver but I was quickly schooled. During my visit we enjoyed some beers at New Belgium (Wow! That place is huge and busy!) and enjoyed two flights at Equinox Brewing. Their Darth Ryder Dunkelweizen is the stuff of dreams! We ate at Lucile’s Creole Cafe which was freakin’ delicious! It’s affordable, tasty, and the servings are enormous. Plus, it made me miss New Orleans (oh my sweet NOLA…). And although the focus of this leg along my American tour was mostly devoted to eating and drinking, I managed to slip in some exercise and nature. We hiked the Arthur’s Rock Trail at Lory State Park which overlooked the city and the Horsetooth Reservoir bustling with boats. It was a relatively short hike compared to what I was used to and it rained on us, but the views were well worth it.

After a few days in Fort Collins, my friend and I were off on a long, tedious journey to the east coast. He was going to his sister’s in DC and I was headed to my brother’s in Ocean City, MD. I was so thankful to have him along for the ride because I abhor driving and it was great to actually have some company for once. On a recommendation from my brother we listened to the audiobook of Pete Townshend’s Who Am I for most of the first day. It was interesting to say the least but we both got sick of Pete whining about how no one understood or wanted to back his Lifehouse Project (it’s basically how one musical note can unify the world). Sorry Pete but I happen to believe that life is way too complicated to be fixed by just one note. Our first night was spent in the creepiest campground known to man! I’m not even joking, exaggerating, or putting anything mildly. I believe we were somewhere in Missouri and the “campground” was a field alongside Interstate 70 yet it was completely abandoned apart from us and the owners who lived in a camper. Since my insomnia was acting up and I was a little freaked by my surroundings, I swung on the swing set for most of the night until the coyotes started howling. Then I was beyond freaked and proceeded to run into the tent to hide. The next night we stayed at a super nice KOH campground not too far from Morgantown, West Virginia. There I finally was able to sleep. Then before you knew it, we were just outside of DC and I was bidding my travel companion farewell. After being completely spoiled, I was left to my own devices to brave the DC traffic on my own. Apart from being terrified, I did remarkably well and I was at the Arlington Trader Joe’s (my brother insisted that I stop there to procure a wide assortment of cheap nuts) and then my brother’s in no time. Admittedly, I cried a little (or a lot) on my drive there. It was the first time I’d been alone since I left Yellowstone and I missed it all. I missed the beauty, the animals, the air, the barracks, the danger, my field partner, my friends, and now one of my best friends was gone too. It all felt so overwhelmingly terrible yet it was a welcomed release.

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I stayed with my brother for only a few days–despite his begging that I move in with him and start a family business. My first day there we went on a kick-ass brewery tour and had the best time. You wouldn’t believe how many microbreweries are popping up in Maryland and Delaware. It’s like I died and went to hop heaven. Overall, we hit two states and six breweries: 16 Mile, 3rd Wave, Evolution, Burley Oak, Tale Tales, and of course Dogfish Head. Hazards don’t mess around when it comes to beer. We’re going on brew tour #2 next time I’m down there so Ling Ling can be the designated driver. Having to restrain ourselves was cramping our style. On my second day we went to Rehoboth Beach to eat and drink at Dogfish Head. This is our mecca. Oh my poor liver…but the rest of me was in heaven! We spent our nights watching movies and catching up. He’s truly one-of-a-kind and I’m lucky to have him as my brother. I’m so proud of what he’s accomplished in the past year. The day I left he was devastated that I wasn’t going to live with him. I think he was operating under the assumption that I was for some reason. As I was packing, he gave me the talk about how I was at a crossroads in my life, this is my pivotal turning point, and living with him was the best move. It’s nice to feel wanted and appreciated like that, especially by a family member, however, I already made commitments in the Hudson Valley so I left–with a delicious crab cake in hand– feeling a tad down. The 6.5 hour drive to my mother’s house in Cortland, New York was filled with non-stop rain, sometimes blinding torrential downpours, and bumper-to-bumper traffic. Needless to say, it took me nine, painful, hours to get there. That night I spent about two hours soaking in her bathtub, mindlessly reading her gossip magazines. I never wanted to drive again. All I wanted to do was sleep forever, hide from the world, and just be blue.

I spent a week at my mother’s trying to get back to some sort of normal life. Detoxing from the grandeur of nature and trying to learn how to be social again. Even now, weeks later, I’m still feeling a little more socially awkward than usual–and that’s saying a lot. I went to the Chemung county fair with my best friend, her parents, and her little daughter Sophia. It was sooooo nice to be with them and feel like I was part of their family. I can’t tell you how guilty it makes me feel to not be a regular part of their lives. We walked around all of the barns and it was neat to see how comfortable Sophia is with animals. On the downside, a mischievous donkey came up and bit me in the crotch. The creature munched me so hard that it left a bruise. I handled it like a champ though because I didn’t want Sophia to think of her Auntie Jaime as being a total wimp. The next day I learned that another friend just had her second baby while I was away so I made it a point to visit her and the rest of the fam. Here’s what a crappy friend I am: I didn’t even know she was pregnant! There are no words to describe how this makes me feel other than that it became blatantly obvious that I had dropped the ball on the best part of life: enjoying family and friends and just being social. I’m vowing to change this but I’m finding that being a hermit is a hard habit to break. And one of the sweetest things happened while I was home visiting: I attended my parents’ class reunion with both my mother, father and my step-sister. I love going to their reunions because their classmates tell me naughty stories about them. Hah! My dad was a handsome, heartbreaking, bad-boy!  I’m not kidding. The guy could have been an actor or male model. Even though my father and sister only stayed for two days, the four of us enjoyed dinner at an Italian restaurant, had breakfast at their hotel, and did some catching up at the house. The visit was short but we made it count. I will always be glad that my parents divorced because even to a young kid it’s obvious when people aren’t happy, but I’m blessed that they still enjoy and genuinely care for one another. Plus, I got a great step-sis out of the deal so I can’t complain.2013-08-03 19.07.052013-08-03 17.50.372013-08-03 16.28.082013-08-01 19.38.30

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Then it was time to move back to the Hudson Valley. This go around, instead of living with housemates in the barn, I would be moving back into my old apartment in Connelly. I always loved that apartment but I had to give it up when my biologist job hit the skids and we were all not getting paid. Now that I’m a little better off, I can hopefully afford to live there again. My fingers are crossed. So Ling Ling and her boyfriend Craig caravaned with me across the state to move me out of my expertly packed storage unit and into my new/old apartment. The move, shockingly enough, was smoother than silk. A better moving experience has never been had; I should totally hire them out! Just like my favorite line from Dumb and Dumber states: “Senior citizens, although slow and dangerous behind the wheel, can still serve a purpose.” Horrible, I know! Hilarious but awful at the same time. That brings us almost to today but not quite…2013-08-10 12.55.45

Travel, yellowstone national park

Yellowstone: June 20th, 2013

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I spent most of the day puttering around the dorm trying to get my joints to re-lubricate themselves and my blisters to pop. Surprisingly, Andrew looked far better than I. He was up, bright and early, to drive back home to Casper to see his wife. I don’t envy him, especially in his condition. That’s a cramped 5.5 hour ride. I caught up on my journal entries, did some stinky laundry and then decided to stop being pathetic and savor this day off, in spite of my feeble body. I bought myself an ice cream cone at the Fishing Bridge general store, ate it in Hayden Valley and then walked around the Mud Volcano and Sulphur Caldron sites. I love how stinky it all is. A large portion of the Park smells like rotten eggs or really bad gas. As soon as I arrived in the Park, I rolled down my window and took a deeply satisfying whiff. I’m not ashamed to admit that I love the smell. I’ve got to find a way to bottle it so I can take some Yellowstone stink home with me! Sick? Yes, but I stand by my passion for all things smelly. After my sightseeing jaunt, I returned to the dorm and right at the front steps was a coyote with some sort of dead animal in its mouth. It sauntered across my path and then circled back around in front of me as if to show off what it caught. Then is proudly trotted off down the street. Everyone was in the dorm kitchen and they all happened to miss the coyote just outside the door. Duh! I spent the night laughing with the researchers in the kitchen and watching them play cards. Such a hilarious cast of characters here. Plans for the faux bear jam were stepped up and further fleshed out which led to us swapping bear spray stories. I told them about how in 2006 we were practicing deploying a few expired bear spray canisters in the dorm parking lot. We checked the area to make sure no one else was around and then we let it rip. Mere seconds later, from under a nearby truck we heard someone coughing and swearing. A beat-red, sweaty, extremely pissed-off man appears out from under the truck. He blindly zig-zagged over to us in a complete rage, ready to beat the crap out of all of us. We apologized profusely and explained that we were just practicing with our spray and that we had no idea he was under there. He calmed down and forgave us. A few weeks later he gave us all engraved mini-pocket knives as a way of apologizing…for spraying him in the face with bear spray. Yup, he gave us a gift for that. You gotta love people sometimes! I still have the knife. Tomorrow is another day off but it’s not just any ole day. Oh no. It’s my birthday! Not to mention that it’s also the summer solstice and the longest day of the year–I couldn’t ask for a better day for a birthday. The Germans and the Wisconsinites taking me to the Park employee pub for some pizza and cheap, yet delicious, beer. We plan to walk to the pub from the dorm which is right through serious bear country. So most of us will be packing bear spray. The only foreseeable problem with that plan is bear spray several beers deep may indeed become a toy, especially on the walk back. A very painful, uncomfortable toy. We shall see though. Maybe I’ll get another pocket knife out of the deal. Can’t wait!

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Travel, yellowstone national park

Yellowstone: June 19th, 2013

IMG_20130619_170252Welcome to my 16-hour day from both heaven and hell: Nez Perce starting from the west side of the Mary Mountain trail. Andrew and I woke up at 5 am to meet the GRYN crew at the trail head by 7 am. The dorm is almost in the center of Yellowstone, between Fishing Bridge and Lake, and it takes about 1.5 hours to drive to many of our field sites. It’s also about 2 hours from the nearest exit out of the Park. We had a 7-mile hike to the catchment ahead of us with about 15 wetlands to survey (one being a 1.5 hour survey in previous years) and another 7 mile hike out, none of this includes the wader-clad hikes between each wetland. The goal being to turn this mother out in one day so we didn’t have to re-live the hike the next day (giving Andrew and I a four-day weekend, yes!). The hike was really nice, aside from our brutal, break-neck pace. You have to remember, I’m hiking with a bunch of young, fit dudes. My stride measures 0.4 meters and theirs on average is 0.8 meters. So for every one of their steps, I had to take two and by God, I kept up! In some spots I even outpaced them. There were some thermal features along the way and some stream crossings to content with–not to mention the fresh bear scat and enormous grizzly bear prints (sadly, no long-distance sightings though). Two and a half hours later we made it to the catchment. Andrew and I were split up because we were the only ones that knew how to work with some of the data collection equipment. We split up into two groups of three: two people to survey and one to spot for bears and collect habitat data. Surveys went fast and easy. I worked with Andy, the project manager, and perhaps the laziest young fella I’ve ever met. Andy and I would be surveying for amphibians and we would look over and he would be snoozing under a tree. I wanted to smack him but Andy and I worked so efficiently that he didn’t hold us back any. Andy is an absolute hoot! He’s a few years older than me, has the accent and laid back attitude of Matthew McConaughey (I would be shocked if there wasn‘t any naked bongo playing in his past or future), and bonded with me over our love of 80s hair bands.  Needless to say, we got along famously.

Both teams converged on the enormous pond/lake wetland for one final survey. Four people surveyed and it took 1.5 hours each. I found 115 chorus frog tadpoles, 2 spotted frog tads and an enormous neotenic tiger salamander. It took every ounce of restraint I could muster to not kiss that chubby sally on its grinning little mouth and put it in my pocket! In the process of catching the sally, I was nearly attacked by a sandhill crane. Apparently, I was too engrossed in my netting to see that I had nearly trotted upon the crane sitting on her eggs. I was only a few feet away when she flew towards my face. For the rest of the survey she was verbally abusing me from a nearby tree. Eventually, she landed back in her nest to sit atop her two or three enormous eggs. It was kinda neat, besides her almost eating my face off. A storm rolled in just as we were finishing up. Luckily, we only experienced a brief period of hail and extreme cold. On the way out we surveyed a new site the we found earlier and then started our long trek back. It was rather amusing being amongst a group of young guys. I forgot how awkward and undeveloped they are. Some of the stories they were telling, like getting busted for drinking under-age and denying it to a police officer or sustaining severe head trauma while riding home form the bar drunk on your bicycle, were proof positive that our brains truly don’t develop until our early twenties. Nevertheless, they were amusing. The hike back was difficult and painful, to say the very least. Andrew sustained some minor foot injuries and we were all beat from the day. The last ¼ of the trek was by far the most agonizing. I could no longer keep up with the whippersnappers and Andrew was doing as bad, if not worse than I was. By the end, we could barely walk. We did our best to hide our pain in front of the rest of the crew. It took every ounce of cool we had to bid them a causal goodbye. As we turned away from them, on the walk back to Andrew’s car, we promised each other to never tell the whippersnappers how much we hurt. Our pride was the only thing we had at the moment. As soon as they pulled out of the parking lot, we poured ourselves into the car (crying out in pain with every movement), whipped off our wet socks and compared our sores and blisters. I won the prize for largest, angriest looking blister, sadly. The trip home was both funny and agonizing. We told stories to lighten the mood but laughing hurt. The simple act of breathing felt like a steaming hot poker. Our pain was so bad, we saw a tourist excitedly running to her car and just the visual of her running made us both recoil in horror. By the time we reached the dorm, our bodies had seized up to the shape of the car seat. We both considered sleeping in the car because we didn’t want the pain that comes along with bending and standing and certainly not walking. We arrived at the dorm at 8:30 pm and at 9 pm we made it inside. As soon as we opened the front door and made it through the threshold five minutes later, Andrew collapsed and the phone rang. It was Deb, asking how the day went. I quickly and prideful reassured her, got off the phone, walked by Andrew’s lifeless body and was greeted by three amused forest ecologists from Wisconsin, three geochemists from Germany and one sociologist from Laramie, all enjoying our show. They were in hysterics! They had assumed we were hammered when we stumbled in. We pathetically recounted the hike for their enjoyment. Andrew was such a hilarious mess, he pulled up a chair to cook his staple–ramen noodles–because standing was out of the question, then he couldn’t eat them because his body hurt too much, then he left to call his wife but completely forgot to turn the stove off (is this how fires get started in Yellowstone?). Oh we certainly were the nights entertainment! At some points, there wasn’t a dry eye in that kitchen. One group of researchers, who will remain nameless, admitted to faking an animal jam earlier on in the day. They all got out of their car at a roadside pull-off and just started pointing out into the valley. That’s pretty much all you have to do to test the gullibility of human nature: just point into the trees and the suckers begin pulling over and the cars pile up behind you in no time flat. I must admit, I was overly amused and more than a little jealous, I’ve always wanted to do that. After the laughter, I creeped and creaked to bed as soon as my body could get there and slept like a log.

IMG_20130619_175907 (1)The worst part of all this, and I was pondering this on that last ¼ mile back to the car, is that seven years ago, Polly and I did a three-day, 15-mile (each way) back-country hike with 50-pound packs each. It was an absolute hellacious experience that I can’t believe we lived through. We forded several rivers almost getting swept downstream and soaking our packs. We set up camp in very active bear country, got devoured to near anemia by mosquitoes the entire time, starved to the point that we ate mac & cheese that contained more mosquitoes in it than macaroni or cheese, and were hammered by freezing rain soaking us both to near hypothermia. I remember being so exhausted and delusional half way through the 15-mile hike back that I crumbled on the trail and begged Polly to leave me there so I could happily be eaten by a bear. Yet after all that, I came back for more. This year, I specifically signed up, looking forward to more of these “adventures.” I’m here all but tempting the Gods of nature to hit me with their best shot. This leads me to question everything about myself.

Travel, yellowstone national park

Yellowstone: June 18th, 2013

 

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Antelope Valley with snow-capped mountains.
Antelope Valley
The Beartooth Highway in the background.
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Deb & Andrew enjoying the view.
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Deb with her binoculars.
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Beautiful sunshine.
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The wildflowers are starting to bloom.

If you ever get the chance to visit Yellowstone, you have to take the winding ride from Dunraven Pass to Mount Washburn to Tower to the Lamar Valley. When I wasn’t white-knuckling it in the back of Deb’s car –praying her sight-seeing gaze didn’t stray too far, too long and send us toppling off a cliff–I was totally awestruck by the sweeping views of the Beartooth Highway and Antelope Valley. On a cliff side in Tower, overlooking the falls, is the Park’s only population of chimney swifts. Deb described them as cigars with wings, due to their svelte little bodies. The entire ride was glorious. We met the GRYN crew at the Specimen Ridge trail head (Specimen Ridge contains a petrified fossil forest that I have yet to see) and almost too briskly walked several brutally hot, uphill miles to our catchment. Aside from the large bison herd, there were pronghorn antelope along the way. They’re behavior was a little incongruous when you consider normal ungulate behavior in an ecosystem where they are considered prey animals. A group of three of them nearly walked right up to us, full on. And another group, turned away from us and back-stepped towards us, kind of like we wouldn’t notice their butts getting closer and closer. Presumably, there were babies hidden nearby so they were fully prepared to chase us away if need be. There is also a known wolf pack in the area that we were not lucky enough to see. Once my tired, overheated, parched ass arrived at the catchment–far behind the young whipper-snappers–we got to work surveying what was left of the wetlands. Over the last few years, these wetlands have been drying up at a rapid pace. It’s interesting to look at the data and site photos from previous years to compare. The wetland loss has been obvious throughout the Park due to this being a dry year, but the amphibian breeding habitat loss at this catchment has been staggering. Most sites were entirely dry. Nevertheless, we found tiger salamander larvae, chorus frog tadpoles and a few toad tadpoles. And every step we took between wetlands, there was always and adult chorus frog or two at our feet. I have complete faith that they will figure out the breeding habitat loss situation before we humans do. The walk back was a breeze and so enjoyable since it was all downhill. Such views are truly indescribable. Once again, we drove back from whence we came and it was equally gorgeous on the way home–it wasn’t just a mirage born from fear of unintentionally being driven off a cliff. I got home, cleaned my waders and net, read for a bit and was asleep by 10:30 pm. We had to be up at 5 am the next morning to tackle the dreaded Nez Perce catchment.

 

Crystal Bench
Andrew trying to escape me.

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More antelope butt.
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Interesting place for a tree.