Remembering the road, day 11

I’m not sure what’s worse, that I’m still milking a 7-year-old road trip for blog content, or that it’s taking me months to recount a trip that lasted just a few weeks. Well, look on the bright side, either way it gives you something to bitch about other than traffic and the weather.

So, without further ado, I present to an encore performance of “Remembering the Road, Day 11.”

Day 11

I was informed that elk horns are shed every year, so the elk horn arch probably wasn’t from hundreds of thousands of dead elk, but probably just horns they’ve shed. That sucks… it’s not nearly as dramatic that way.

I forgot to mention something about Yellowstone in my last update: guano. The place is filled with it. Right next to our cabin, bear guano. All around the hot springs and geysers, buffalo and elk guano. On the sidewalks, little dog guano (lots of people brought their little dogs for some reason… bear bait?). Yellowstone has to be one of the most fertile places on earth… there’s just that much guano.

There’s also still massive streaks of burned areas in Yellowstone, thanks to the giant forest fires of the last 14 years. It’s actually quite beautiful, some of the burned areas where the remnants of lodge pole pines stand tall and naked while small pine trees cluster beneath them. Areas that have yet to burn are filled with wooded debris and it’s clear that a fire will soon sweep through it.

Scorched earth

I also forgot to mention another near-death (or at least, near Deliverance) experience. While driving towards Utah, I got sleepy and pulled over at an entrance to a national forest trailhead. Cyn was enjoying some gummy bears and I put my seat down for a quick bit of sleep. Suddenly an older couple drives out of the forest at a rapid speed, followed closely by two trucks packed with guys who, well let’s just say they’ve never been worried about their SAT scores, and I don’t mean because they have excellent verbal and math skills.

“Josh,” Cynthia says. “I don’t like this. These guys are creeping me out.” Heavy music blares from their car; the only audible words from the “song” are “motherfucker,” “bitch,” and “boy” and there are plenty of them. Angry white-man music.

“Oh, it’ll be all right,” I assure her as the driver of one of them grins at us.


His buddy gets out of the truck and I put my seat up. “It’s fine, he’s just looking at his friends behind us. The buddy starts walking over and I start the car. Before he gets any closer, I let out the clutch and drive away… quickly.

Once Cynthia’s heart attack subsides (and I realize that we probably were in a bad situation), we slow down to 95 mph and continue on the way to Salt Lake City. My eyes are wide open now.

In truth, I’m already missing Yellowstone, but it’s behind us now. Today we drive from Salt Lake City on to Las Vegas… the city of sin… from one extreme (Yellowstone) to another (Salt Lake City) to another (Las Vegas).

Interesting note about Salt Lake City: I can’t find the great salt lake anywhere. I think I passed it on the way out of town, but it looked rather small, so I don’t think it was it. I kind of wanted to see if I floated in it, but seeing as I couldn’t even find it, that didn’t happen.

There are billboards all over the place around here, and they’re fairly inventive. One Ford truck ad had actual lights for headlights. Neat. Another, a boat ad, had a full-size motorboat through the billboard.

Others are interesting for other reasons. One billboard alerted passers-by that the UN is trying to take away our guns. Another very sad one featured a full-size picture of Elizabeth Smart, the young girl kidnapped at gunpoint… I guessed the UN missed one.

As we drove along, we realized that ever since entering Utah we have yet to see a cloud. Coincidence?

Mormon church

Utah’s scenery is pretty, where one is able to see the scenery past the billboards. Sadly, it’s very hazy here. Whether that’s natural or a function of manmade air pollution, I don’t know, but given one of the billboards featuring “10 acres of paved parking” for a couple of gas stations and fast food restaurants, I have my suspicions. While there, we saw several Corvairs on their way to Flagstaff, AZ, for a national Corvair convention.

We dipped into Arizona briefly en route to Nevada and passed through the most amazing rock formations ­ basically a small canyon. It was hauntingly beautiful, and once again, nearly our final resting place as double-length gasoline tanker trucks flew through there at 15-20 mph faster than the posted speed limit. Keep in mind, this steep road was winding around deep cliffs and giant boulders. It was not an especially relaxing look at the scenery. Luckily Arizona put a ban on billboards through this region, so we could take in the views without being alerted to the nearest quarter pounder with cheese. Sadly, there was still a lot of litter along the road.


It was also our first introduction to heat here. When we’d see a particularly stunning site, I’d roll down the window to take a picture. In the 10 seconds our window was open, every molecule of air-conditioned comfort escaped and was replaced by 107° hot hot hotness. Lovely.

That’s what made it all the more stunning to see speedwalkers racing along the highway. Are these people insane? First, it’s a bagillion degrees outside, second they are speedwalking on black pavement, and third, they are doing it against 85 mph traffic, including two double-length gasoline tanker trunks cruising at almost 100 mph. I think the heat affects the brain.

Speaking of affecting the brain, I used to feel badly for the southwest in terms of their water problems. This area just doesn’t have enough water to meet the demand for it. But when I saw lush, green golf courses nestled in the red dirt desert, I lost all sympathy. Hmm, should I drink the water, or try to grow grass with it…

Nevertheless, we finally made it to Nevada, where less than a tenth of the mile into the state there was a casino. An hour later, we pulled into Vegas, as declared by the billboards promoting the world’s largest adult bookstore. Entering Vegas, one of the more interesting signs we’ve seen (on par with one in Yellowstone that said it was illegal to feed or molest wildlife) said it was illegal to pick up hitchhikers, as there was a prison across the road. “Hey stranger, where you going in that striped, numbered number with the leg irons? Costume party?”

As we put the Swingers soundtrack on the CD player, we drove down the strip to the tunes of Franky and friends. On the northern edge of town are the older casinos. Since our A/C was pulling in outside air, and since the casinos where pumping out their stale casino air, our car quickly filled with the sultry odor of a smoky casino. A few miles later we reached the newer casinos, which are monuments to man’s ability to create anything as tacky as the mind can imagine. It’s great in an insane sort of way. Pretty much anything goes here.

Actually, it’s an odd assortment of you can’t do anything wrong, and don’t do anything wrong. On the placemats of the all-you-can eat Luxor Hotel buffet (where many young children are dining with their parents) is an ad for the topless show at midnight. Oooh lala! But then everywhere you look (escalators, monorails, elevators, pools, hallways, casinos) are semi-hidden cameras. It’s all about doling out vices in controlled (and for-profit) fashion. That’s nothing new, but it’s interesting to see.

Vegas, baby!

Anyway, here in Vegas Cyn and I met up with one of my brothers and his family and one of my cousins and his family. We had a good time checking out the strip, saw one of the water shows at the Bellagio, and due to the difficulty of getting three cabs to take us back to our hotel, we piled into a stretch limo to give all 11 of us a ride back up the strip… the kids loved it, and so did I. At one point, I put up the “privacy” glass between the driver and us. As soon as it rose, the driver put it back down again and disabled my switch. D’oh!

After the kids went to bed, the adults hit the casino where I won $11 dollars in slots only to lose $11 in slots. Why oh why couldn’t I have quit when I was ahead? Over the next few hours I managed to lose another $30 and that’s more than enough. Time for bed.

If you’re gambling, you get free drinks from cocktail waitresses who are almost partly dressed. They wear skimpy outfits that are reminiscent of swimsuits with small blazers. They look like they have a constant wedgie, and I can’t believe that’s comfortable.

Remembering the Road, Day 9

Sorry for the delay in posts… even if these are old. Anyway, back to the past:

Day 9

The weather in Yellowstone is amazing. One moment it’s cold, foggy, and rainy. Then it’s hot, sunny, and dry. Five minutes later, it’s cold and windy. Plus, because the park is so big and the elevation changes are so dramatic, the weather differs greatly from spot to spot. It makes packing for a day’s outing that much tougher.

We found that out firsthand today as we set out for a hike near the east entrance of the park, on the way back to Cody, Wyoming, where we would finally use our rodeo tickets. As we wound our way through the mountains, I spotted a giant bird with a white tail fly overhead. It was a bald eagle and we tracked it as it perched itself high on a pine tree overlooking a lake. We pulled over and tried to get some photos of it, but even with a powerful zoom lens, it was tough to see more than a white top, black middle and white bottom.

Luckily, an engaged couple driving from San Francisco to their wedding in Halifax, Nova Scotia, had a more powerful lens fitting our camera body, so we used that and got slightly better shots. Their binoculars provided us with even better views.

We were thrilled to see the eagle, especially after failing to spot one in the nest the night before. But, we had a hike to do, so we pushed on. Naturally, there are no trails near the east entrance, something we didn’t realize until we exited the park without spying a trailhead. However, Yellowstone is virtually surrounded by national forest and there are trails there.

By that time, though, we were hungry, so it was on to Wapiti for lunch at the Wapiti Lodge, a Roadfood establishment. Like virtually every other restaurant in this part of the world, we dined under the gaze of several furry heads… two elk, two pronghorn, and a deer, and it was good eatin’.


Lunch was actually a family affair. Mom was our server, dad was the cook, their 11-year-old (or so) son washed dishes, their 5-year-old (or so) provided entertainment, mostly in the form of calling out for mom. I think there was another son there too, but I’m not sure.

Cynthia was pleased to see Rocky Mountain Oysters on the menu, and was even more pleased when I told her they were sheep testicles. She had the chicken salad, one of only two non-beef items on the menu.

After wrapping up lunch, we double-backed into the national forest and found a trail that promised an invigorating hike. Then rain fell. Then hail fell. Then it started to lightning and thunder. Ok, forget the hike. Time to go to Cody.

We drove down the road yet again en route to Cody where we planned to visit the five museums of the Buffalo Bill Cody cultural center. We made a few calls to check on our animals when we realized that I had left my backpack filled with cameras and Cyn’s purse at the restaurant. So we turned around again and drove back to Wapiti. By this time it was sunny again, but getting late. The bag (and contents) were still there, so we picked it all up, turned around AGAIN and drove back to Cody. I was ready to set myself on fire.

We got to Cody and popped into Wal-Mart to pick up a few essentials, like drinks, chips, and other travelfood. This being one of the few restrooms in Wyoming Cynthia hadn’t visited, we made sure to cross that off her list too.

Then it was to the five museums of the Buffalo Bill Cody cultural center. At this point in the trip, we are beginning to realize how much this whole thing is costing us, so when we found out that the museum would cost us $30, we decided to browse the gift shop instead, just to see what it had to offer.

Oh, and did it have a lot! There was a bowie knife for $2,250! What a bargain! You could also find plenty of bronze statues of cowboys, indians, cowboys killing indians, wild animals, cowboys and indians killing wild animals, and country music CDs. There was other stuff too, but who cares when the museum sells weapons?

As for the galleries, from what I could see without paying, it looked like a few had some nice stuff, including a gun collection.

Speaking of guns, once we left the five museums of the Buffalo Bill Cody cultural center, we walked across the street to the Cody high school where there was a Winchester Gun Show! Haven’t these people heard of Columbine?

Of course, we tried to get in (only $5 a head, according to the gatekeeper I didn’t ask what he meant by that), but it had ended for the day. So instead we played minigolf for $6 total. I won by three strokes thanks to an early disaster hole by Cyn.

After that, we checked out a few tourist trap stores (all of which sold antique and novelty guns… I love this place!… and cowboy hats) and had a quick meal before going to the rodeo. Now, I had never been to a rodeo before, never thought about going to a rodeo, and never cared about rodeos. Nobody who lives in Cody goes to the rodeo (according to locals), and I loved it. The rodeo consisted of cowboys riding bucking broncos bareback, lassoing calves, riding steers, and “humorous” interludes via the rodeo clown. One of those interludes consisted of the clown headbutting a horned billygoat… the clown was wearing a helmet, though, making it slightly less impressive.


We left a little early in order to get back to our cabin, basically a two-hour drive away. By the time we reached the mountains, it was raining again, dark, cold, and foggy. These mountain roads are narrow and one edge is about a foot from a cliff that drops hundreds of feet. Now that’s adventure!

Along the way back to the cabin, Cynthia spotted another coyote, and so I could get a look, I started backing up. In retrospect, that probably wasn’t a good idea even though I didn’t run over the coyote.

Remembering the Road, day 8

Day 8

[Editor’s note from 2009: While some might think this blog is somehow spawned by or in reaction to Frank and Hank Mark America, let it be known that this was originally written in 2002, and the republishing began before the public was made aware of the HMS Beagle, 2009 Edition.]

Yellowstone’s lodges are all great places. Built with giant timbers, nearly all resemble log cabins, although very fancy ones. They sport giant fireplaces, and huge windows through which one can take in the splendor of the park. The food served in each is pretty good too, although I’m getting really tired of seeing steak on the menu.


We visited more stinkpots today, and we’ve decided that we’ve seen and, more importantly, smelled enough of them. Yeah, they’re beautiful, but they make you want to hurl, and tossing my cookies isn’t what I planned to do on this vacation, so I think we’ve wrapped up our stinkpot visits.

So, instead of smelling sulfurous gasses emitted by the earth’s crust, we went horseback riding… only a minor improvement in the odor department. We took a short trail ride through some of the northwestern part of the park, where we saw more elk, and not a whole lot else. I, who was on “Rex,” was disappointed in the ride, as I was hoping to see more wildlife and learn a bit more about the area, but our “wranglers” spent most of the time loudly telling riddles such as, “What did the mother buffalo say to her son when he left for school? Bison. (Bye, son.)” HAHAHAHAHAHAHHAHA!!! Gosh, am I glad I drove 2,200 miles to hear that one!

I guess a hidden agenda of the “wranglers” was to be loud enough that no bear would come near us. That’s probably smart, since just before the ride I was flipping through “Bear Attacks Stories.” From one passage: “Paul was still in the tree when he called out to Michelle to tell her to unzip her zipper. ‘He’s already got it in his mouth,’ she shouted back. He next heard Michelle shout, ‘He’s got my arm off.’ Then she said, ‘Oh no, I’m dead!’ And that was the last thing Paul heard as the bear dragged her into the woods never to be seen again.” Hey, let’s hear another loud joke from the wranglers!

Cynthia, who rode “Jeff” and hadn’t ridden horses before, enjoyed the ride more than I. On a plus note, the ride did take us through back country and thus away from some of the road noise.

Interesting note: buffalo can run faster, jump higher, and are more agile than a horse. That, plus their horns, means it’s probably a good thing we didn’t come across any of them on our trail ride either.


Back in the car we took in some more spectacular views, (waterfalls, open plains, plunging canyons, fly-fisherman-filled rivers winding through grassy meadows), and saw more animals. Eagle-eyes Cynnie, as she’s now known, spotted a grizzly bear meandering through a grassy hill. We quickly stopped, initiating our own bear-jam. The bear, some 250 yards away, looked at us for a moment before wandering back into the trees and out of sight. The digital camera we have could get only so-so pictures of it, but with the potent zoom film camera I borrowed from my parents, we should get good, closer shots.

Following the bear sighting, we drove past a bald eagle’s nest where two or three eaglets are being reared. Cynthia snapped three fine shots of the nest, where not a single eagle could be seen, much to our dismay.

In an area known for moose, we found none, but we did see (with the aid of another traveler), a beaver.

People and wildlife are funny. First, people tend to laugh at the bison and elk when they all of a sudden do something as a group, such as flee in the same direction. “Pack animals,” we say with a hint of condemnation. Who are we saying this to? Well, the fifty other people who have pulled over to the side of the road to see what you’re looking at. Pack animals indeed!

Then there’s this slightly hidden competition among visitors. “What have you seen?” is the second-most common question after, “where are you from?” Bears are definitely the stars, as are wolves. Bison and elk are low on the pecking order.

Upon first arriving in the park, the instinct is to pull over any time any wildlife comes in to view. “Ooooh look! Buffalo! Hey, there’s an elk! Wow!!” But after four days, it has to really be worth pulling over for. “Eh, that’s just elk. I mean, if it was a bear, I’d stop…” It’s a little sad, although we started doing the same thing.

The similar thing is happening with the landscapes. They’re still as beautiful as ever, but after a while, you get vista fatigue. Hey, another stunning waterfall! Look there, it’s another snow-capped mountain rising majestically through the clouds! Yeah great, I’m hungry… when’s dinner?


More than anything though, I think it’s just a function of being tired. After some rest, I’ll be ready to see more buffalo and elk going over waterfalls, really.

Remembering the road, day 7

Day 7

Yellowstone is an amazing place for a lot of reasons. Obviously, the wildlife and scenery are two big ones. Another is the friendliness of the staff. Nearly everyone here works just the summer months. They all have nametags with their names (surprise!) and where they are from. Most of these people are young… often still in college. Others are retirees. But no matter what, they are all incredibly friendly. I mean, I’ve never ever seen so many people so happy to flip burgers, empty the trash, pump gas, clean tables, or anything else. These are the friendliest people I’ve ever met. After a few days, it actually becomes a little eerie when the young woman picking up garbage says “Hi, how’re you doing? Where are you from? Enjoying your visit?”, but it’s still very refreshing.


Driving around Yellowstone, you’re always on the lookout for wildlife. Bison are the most common, frequently congregating in fields and often walking down the road. Several times we found ourselves surrounded by buffalo, with Cynthia pleading that I roll up my window. If a buffalo wants to get to me, I don’t think a thin piece of glass is going to stop it.

Elk are the next most common… grazing in fields, or sometimes just sleeping one off. Doe elk are more easily found than the large-antlered males.

Bears are probably the most sought-after wildlife and when one is spotted, such as a grizzly we came across while driving along a thin mountain pass, nearly every car pulls over to watch it. The result is a “bear-jam.” About 20 people (including us) got out of their cars to watch and take pictures of the bear, who was about 200 yards up a steep hill. We watched him dig, mope around, and look back at us. Two park rangers suggested children should return to their cars, while the rest of us spent rolls and rolls of film on it. Finally the bear wandered into the trees and everyone dispersed. During the entire time, one guy drove through the scrum and asked, “what’s going on?” We told him there was a grizzly bear. “Oh,” he said, and drove on.

There’s a stunning valley in the northeastern part of the park (about a two-hour drive from the central lake where we’re staying) called the Lamar valley. We drove through it around dusk and came across a coyote, pronghorn antelope, and we think a wolf, although we weren’t sure because it was far away. There were also lots of elk, “normal” deer (yeah, what’s so special about them??), and buffalo. Oh, and chipmunks too.

Today was also the day we checked in at Old Faithful. Every 88 minutes the geyser erupts into a 100-foot fountain of boiling water and sulfur gas. Hundreds of people gather around to watch, and then most of them get back on their coach busses to cross another sight off their list. We spent several hours hiking around looking at the many other thermal pools and geysers, all smoking and bubbling and boiling and stinky. We even met a couple from my small hometown, Kent, OH, named the Flowers. Freaky.


One geyser was hidden a mile back in the woods, so I went to look for it. Just a few yards in, all voices and other sounds evaporated, leaving me to listen to my footsteps and forest noises. I kept a keen eye for wildlife, especially bear. While I really, really want to see bear, I really, really don’t want to be eaten by one. I could imagine scenes where a bear would just charge up and cut me in two. Or, maybe there was a bear in the tree waiting to pounce on me. Worse yet, what if I surprised a bear and we all know that bears don’t like surprises! Then again, I don’t either, especially if the surprise is being filleted by a bear.

Park information says that if a bear does charge, you should stand still because they sometimes will change direction at the last second. That’s just the sort of information I can rely on in an emergency. “Hmm, here’s a 700-pound mamma bear and her cubs. She’s charging me, but I’m just going to stand here because she might call it off at the last second. She’s getting close now… no sign of calling it off. Maybe I should move… no, she could still… oh my god, those are my intestines on that bear’s face!”

Anyway, I saw the hidden geyser, no bears, and made it back to the lodge without incident. All in all, I was kind of disappointed… it would have been cool to see a bear in those woods.

Now back at out cabin, I’m sunburned, itchy (from some bug that has taken generous bites out of my legs), in pain (from a toe blister… mmm mmm good!), we’re both suffering from shin splints, and tired.