Monday, July 20, 2015

Afterword: Numbers & Notes

The Numbers

Looking back...
Ingalls Dugout Site in Walnut Grove, Minnesota
Mount Rushmore National Memorial in the Black Hills of South Dakota
Clepsydra Geyser in Yellowstone National Park
Grand Teton National Park
Huffers Hill at the Alpine Visitor Center in Rocky Mountain National Park
The summit of Pikes Peak in Colorado
Colorado State Capital in Denver
Joe's Kansas City Bar-B-Que in Kansas City, Kansas

By the time I returned our rental car today, here were some of the numbers from our trip:

  • 4,875 miles
  • 18 days
  • 11 states (OH, IN, IL, WI, MN, SD, WY, MT, CO, KS, MO)
  • 5 National Parks
    • Badlands
    • Wind Cave
    • Yellowstone
    • Grand Teton
    • Rocky Mountain
  • 1 National Memorial (Mount Rushmore)
  • 1 National Monument (Devils Tower)
  • 1 National Grassland (Buffalo Gap)
  • 7 National Forests
    • Black Hills
    • Bighorn
    • Bridger-Teton
    • Routt
    • Arapahoe
    • Roosevelt
    • Pike
  • 5 State Parks
    • Mirror Lake, WI
    • Mill Bluff, WI
    • Custer, SD
    • Keyhole, WY
    • Buffalo Bill, WY
  • 3 Laura Ingalls Wilder hometowns
    • Pepin, WI
    • Walnut Grove, MN
    • DeSmet, SD
  • First National Park in the World (Yellowstone)
  • First National Forest (Bridger-Teton)
  • Highest continuous road in the U.S. (Trail Ridge Road)
  • Top of a 14er (Pikes Peak)
  • 2 trains (Pikes Peak Cog Railway and RTD Denver light rail)
  • 1 sailboat
  • 1 rental car
  • Numerous hiking trails
  • Accommodations
    • 7 campsites (Pepin, Ingalls Homestead, Cedar Pass, Ponderosa, Canyon, Grant Village, Colter Bay)
    • 4 motels (Janesville, Rapid City, Craig, High Hill)
    • 1 covered wagon (De Smet)
    • 1 home
    • 1 emergency room
  • People We Saw
    • 1 aunt
    • 8 cousins
    • 5 cousins' significant others
    • 6 old friends
    • 2 photographers
    • Several fellow road trippers
    • Many hospitable westerners

Things We Learned From This Trip


Sunday, July 19, 2015

RealImaginaryWest Day 18 - Reflections, Reunions & Returns


We woke up to heavy rains that were predicted to last longer than we wanted to stay in St. Louis, so we just kept heading east toward home. The extra time allowed me to cook up a little surprise for Becky with our friends near Columbus, Ohio.

Itching to Get Going

It was a dark and stormy...morning. Rain fell torrentially as if it was trying to wash our motel off the map like a bad stain. I think I would have been OK with that, so long as it waited until after we checked out...

It's no fiction...it was dark for being first thing in the morning, and I'm not kidding when I say that this was the only motel room on the whole trip that seemed like a joke for the price.

Becky and I got up before 6am Mountain Time the day before, and took turns driving across Colorado, Kansas, and most of Missouri yesterday. When my head hit the pillow at close to 11pm last night, I fell fast asleep. I wasn't crazy about our motel, but I was too tired to worry about it.

Our Motel Room...

Let me say that I would not recommend the Colonial Inn off of I-70 in High Hill, Missouri. Before I went to bed last night, I saw a sign on the air conditioning controls strongly encouraging guests to turn off the A/C while they're gone. I mentioned yesterday that there was a strange damp sort of smell that I hoped subsided with the A/C running for a while...well, it was still there. This room definitely had a mold problem, which was not readily visible by looking at it. I'm highly allergic to mold, as my itchy eyes reminded me this morning. It's really no surprise, because the A/C was off...and probably remains off almost every entire hot, humid Missouri day in the summer...so the mold probably likes it here.

I also awoke once in the middle of the night and noticed the sheet was not really on my corner of the mattress...because apparently they don't use anything but top sheets at this establishment. I thought I pushed it back, but when I awoke this morning, it was all out of place again...which is why one uses bottom sheets to cover the mattress!

As I got up to go to the bathroom, I noticed a sign on the door. It became clear to me why the hotelier took so much information...the sign clearly indicated that management would charge my credit card and call the police should any of my room's appurtenances come up missing. For a $39 motel room, they certainly had decided to go out of their way to protect their small investment in inadequate bedsheets. This may be a little paranoid, but I thought this motel room could easily get a lot more expensive if the maid got sticky fingers and pointed one of them at us.

I was in no way interested in lounging around to be implicated or to fill my airways with more of the milldewyness, and neither was Becky. The downpour outside made rushing to the car quite easy. Our stuff barely got unpacked, so it was pretty easy to throw back into the trunk. The rain was still coming down hard enough to get us pretty wet though.

To St. Louis, Or Not to St. Louis?

With the heavy rain coming down, I checked the forecast and the radar. The plan for this morning was to make a quick stop to photograph the Gateway Arch in Downtown St. Louis. The radar...and my ears...told me that the rains were not going to cooperate...so when we got in the car, I decided to scrub St. Louis and get home a bit earlier. Although this did give us just enough time...


Our friends, Justin and Jennifer, at a steampunk-themed party we held at Pugh Cabin at Malabar Farm State Park
You see, we have two very good friends who live in Delaware, Ohio...about 20-30 minutes from the I-270 Jack Nicklaus Outerbelt around Columbus, which is on our way home. I wrote about Justin and Jennifer last year after Justin, a roofer at the time, fell and suffered a traumatic head injury that scared us all and landed him in the hospital for over a month. He's mostly his old self again, but it still takes about five full years to fully recover from an injury as bad as his. Anyway, before we left the hotel, I snuck a text out to Justin and Jennifer to see if they could meet us this evening and surprise Becky—and they were game! I just needed a proper smokescreen for stopping somewhere innocuous in their area. I wasn't totally sure of the timing, but I thought we might be able to make it to the REI store in Dublin before it closed at 6pm.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

RealImaginaryWest Day 17 - Kansas, Kansas, More Kansas, and Kansas City Barbecue


We began our bittersweet journey home after an early breakfast with my family in Denver. We took I-70 across almost all of Kansas, save for a detour for some Kansas City barbecue! Finally, we took I-70 across most of Missouri to a motel in High Hill, about 30 minutes outside the St. Louis area.
So we were back on the road again. When you're headed east from Denver, the plains of Colorado and Kansas look pretty much the same until you get close to Kansas City...and then there are some trees. And then you cross Missouri.

The End.



OK, just kidding! Actually, the reason we were driving across Kansas in the first place was because I wanted to have something eventful to look forward to along the way home. There was a real temptation to take I-80 back through two states I'd never seen before, Nebraska and Iowa, but the lure of Kansas City barbecue and the Gateway Arch along I-70 thwarted it. Besides that, I didn't know of anything pressing I wanted to see except for maybe Chimney Rock along the Oregon Trail.

Last Breakfast

So after having such a great time and a short time together with my Denver family last night, we all decided we'd get up super duper early to have a last hurrah this morning before Becky and I hit the road. So we woke up at about 5:30am to pack up our car for our two-day voyage home. This went quite easily, as we had no tent to pack up. Kelli was so kind as to supply us with ice from her freezer, so our cooler was even stocked well enough to make it through most of the day.

We all met up at a regional chain breakfast restaurant called Snooze, right off of I-25 on Lincoln Avenue. The food was very good. I had the French toast and fruit, which was well-prepared and came with real maple syrup. The fruit was also fresh and tasty, and obviously not from a frozen bag. Even though we were in a shopping center in a sea of parking lot, the patio was comfortable and far enough from the cars. It was a perfect place to relax one last time with the family before heading out.

All but a few from last night sacrificed their chance to sleep in today to see us off, and I sure appreciated it! Even though it had been several years since we'd spent time together, it felt just like I'd expect family to feel. I'd seen my Aunt Pat in the last couple of years, but I hadn't seen my cousins Cathy, Kelli, and D.J. much since 2012, when they came in for our grandma's funeral in my hometown of Wellington, Ohio. And until yesterday, it had been 15 years since I'd seen any of Cathy's girls. I sure hope it won't be another 15 years before I see them again!

After breakfast, we stood in the parking lot for several more minutes...finishing our conversations, saying our thank-yous, we'll-miss-yous, and our last good-byes. They all talked of making plans to come to Ohio since it's been several years...I hope they make it soon!

On The Road Again




MOAR TRANEZ!!!
After all the hugs, we drove north up I-25 while I checked prices on GasBuddy. The best price, coincidentally, was at the Sam's Club off of I-225 and Mississippi Avenue, near where my Aunt Pat lived when I last visited 29 years ago in 1986!

Getting out of the Denver area went smoothly, but as I mentioned, there isn't much to see along the road across Eastern Colorado and most of Kansas. While it isn't exactly a void, this part of the country is sparsely populated. The view along I-70 isn't really too much different from I-90 across South Dakota, except with flatter terrain and fewer trees. Something that's cool about Eastern Colorado though, is that you can see the glorious Rocky Mountains on the western horizon. You can even single out Pikes Peak from well over 100 miles away. Since I-70 runs southeast for a few dozen miles, it's fairly easy to look west and enjoy the view when you're not driving. The highway also parallels a railroad line, with a few opportunities to look out to see entire trains as they cross the plains.


Cows drink from a well near Agate, Colorado. The hazy silhouette of Pikes Peak can be seen on the horizon here, even though it's over 70 miles away!

Kansas


My cousins scoffed at how terribly boring and long it is to drive across Kansas, and I have to admit my childhood memories of it are mostly just heat, humidity, and boredom. I talked to my mom a little bit one day while we were at Kelli's, and expressed that I wasn't longing for this part of the trip. Interestingly, she had a much more positive spin on Kansas. She liked the rolling grassland and fields, and enjoyed seeing the windmills and water troughs used to water the cattle. So I did my best to keep an open mind about Kansas.

Friday, July 17, 2015

RealImaginaryWest Day 16 - Downtown Denver


Today started out as a lazy day near my cousin's house in Lone Tree. We then took the RTD E Line light rail from Lincoln Station to Downtown Denver for lunch on the 16th Street Mall. We finally took the F Line light rail back to my cousin's house for a family barbecue in the evening.

Taking It Slow

After a big day in Colo Spgs with Lexi and Joe yesterday, we slept in soundly at my cousin Kelli's house in Lone Tree. They have a beautiful house in a subdivision near the edge of suburban Denver. The end of their street is high enough that you get an incredible view of almost the entire city stretching out in front of the Rocky Mountains.

After running so much the last few days, we decided to take things slow this morning. We didn't have to be anywhere until noon, when I'd planned to meet a colleague for lunch. We made plans to meet up on the 16th Street Mall in Downtown Denver at my cousin D.J.'s suggestion. Being that I'm super interested in urban planning and design, I wanted to see what they'd done there, and I was interested in checking out the light rail system the region had built in the past 30 years. This evening we'd be back where we started, as my aunt and all my cousins were coming to Kelli & Jamie's for a barbecue. Some of my younger cousins were well into their 20s and married now, and I hadn't seen them in almost 15 years, so I really looked forward to this!

After spending so much time on the road, it was really nice to have a home base and hang with friends and family for a few days. By this point, our cooler didn't have much beyond a few bottles of beer and our condiments, but it's amazing how much more we appreciated the simple things...like refrigerators! Since we got to Kelli's, we no longer had to check and restock ice. And then yesterday, Joe drove us around for the entire day, and today, the train would drive us everywhere.

Breakfast

Well, everywhere except breakfast...Jamie recommended a little place a few minutes from their house called the Silver Creek Diner. Being that this part of town was built in the last decade or so, the decor had a clean white contemporary look with some warm color accents. And even though it's in the suburbs, Becky and I appreciated that it was a mom and pop establishment instead of a national chain. The service was top-notch, the prices were good, and the food was superb! Becky and I both went with eggs, bacon, toast, and home fries. Everything was prepared to perfection.

After breakfast, we still had a little time before we headed downtown, so we dropped into a nearby REI store to check out camping gear. Despite some negative experiences with wind and rain on this trip, Becky and I were far from finished with camping! And while we weren't likely to camp on the way home, we were interested in options for upgrading our tent and our ever-flattening air mattress. Besides that, the nearest REI for us was over 100 miles away, so carpe diem!

Heading Downtown on RTD

It was either a five-minute drive or a ten-minute walk to Lincoln Station where we could catch either the E Line to Union Station or the F Line to the middle of the 16th Street Mall in Downtown Denver. Since Union Station sits at the end of the 16th Street Mall, either train would do...but first we had to buy tickets. RTD uses a zone system, which made it a little more confusing to figure out which tickets we needed to buy. I finally realized that we needed to buy regional tickets to get downtown, and opted for two all-day passes for $14 each. The price was a little steep compared to transit systems I'd used recently in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, or Cleveland, but I figured it would probably be easier and cheaper than driving and parking.


Union Station, with the tops of the Amtrak and commuter rail platforms in front
Even though we were well between rush hours, trains ran rather frequently. It took no time at all before we were on our way to Union Station. All but the last few miles run right next to I-25, with several stations at major interchanges along the way. The stations connected the line conveniently with nearby shopping centers, office parks, hotels, and apartment complexes. When the line diverges from I-25, it follows old railroad right-of-way through a more industrial neighborhood before passing through stations for Mile High Stadium, Elitch Gardens, and Pepsi Center. The very last stretch goes through a bustling canyon of brand-new residential complexes before pulling into Union Station. Amtrak and commuter rail lines all converged here, and the underground bus terminal below saved everyone from dodging a plethora of noisy buses as well. All of this was a short walk to the west end of the 16th Street Mall and the heart of Downtown Denver. It was awesome to see such a modern and efficient transit system in a major city!

Downtown Denver & the 16th Street Mall


A Mall Ride bus crosses Stout Street as we look west down Denver's 16th Street Mall.

The Colorado State Capitol peaks through the trees at the east end of Downtown Denver's 16th Street Mall.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

RealImaginaryWest Day 15 - Colorado Springs & Pikes Peak


We took a short drive to spend the day with our friends, Lexi and Joe, in Colorado Springs. After going to the top of Pikes Peak on the cog railway, we got lunch and visited the penny arcade in Manitou Springs. Afterward, we visited Helen Hunt Falls and Garden of the Gods. We headed back to my cousin's in Denver not long after dinner.

Starting Early...WAY Early!

We got up and on the road at 6am today. We were headed to Colorado Springs to spend the day with our friends, Joe and Lexi. They wanted to get a jump on the crowds heading up to Pike's Peak, so we agreed to meet at their house at 6:45. Neither Becky nor myself are what you call "morning people"...but in three days, we would be back home—in the Eastern Time Zone, which is two hours ahead of Colorado. So as much as we'd have loved to sleep in, it really was practical to get going way early.

The sun was already cracking the horizon by the time we got on the road. The air was a little hazy, but that only added to the dramatic look of the golden light and dark shadows on the terrain ahead of us, and on the Rocky Mountains to our West. Though we were heading from one major city to the next, the drive was a mere 45 minutes, thanks to my cousin's house being as close to the edge of Denver's suburbs as you can get. The farther south we went on I-25, the more it felt like we were in the foothills rather than on the plains like in Denver.


Becky with Lexi and Joe
Now Lexi and her family are originally from Cleveland. I met Lexi on the exact same day as I met Becky for the first time, actually! She was already a good friend of the family by then. Becky's sister, Rachel, was actually in Lexi's wedding three years ago. Lexi ended up in Colorado Springs with her two brothers when her mom remarried a few years before that. Lexi's husband, Joe, was good friends with Lexi's brother, who recently married one of Rachel's best friends after he moved back to Cleveland. Lexi came in for our wedding, and we met Joe when they both came in for her brother's wedding. So yeah...we know Lexi and her family...but today would be our first time really getting to know Joe. So far he seems like an OK guy...

Pikes Peak Cog Railway

We pulled into Joe and Lexi's driveway a minute or two after 6:45. They both rushed out and told us to jump in their car so we could get to the train in time to get good seats. For the rest of the day, Joe did all the driving, which was an awesome break for us!


The Pikes Peak Cog Railway station in Manitou Springs
In 20 minutes we were at the station for the Pikes Peak Cog Railway in the mountain town of Manitou Springs. Parking was painless, and we were in line for good seats for the first train of the day, which departed at 8am. The station was rather compact, with just enough room for a ticket office, a gift shop, small restrooms, and an area to queue passengers boarding the train. Unfortunately, they do not allow outside food or drinks—not even water bottles—and therefore the prices remind you of what you'd pay in a movie theater. Joe was kind enough to buy each of us a 32-ounce bottle of water, but my eyes popped out when I saw it cost him $13!

Speaking of water, I was glad that we were on the first train, and therefore there was not double the amount of people because of returning passengers. I'm sure the small restrooms get quite a bit of use since there are no restrooms aboard the trains. Altitude and hydration were still foremost on my mind, being that even on the ground we were already at 6,000 feet. Since it's a 60-90 minute trip each way, I knew that managing my drinking and peeing would be critical to my comfort today.

As we waited for the train, we could see splendid examples of the reddish colored Pikes Peak granite all around. This rock was everywhere in and around Manitou Springs, and really contrasted well with the green of the pines and aspens all around us in the golden rays of the low morning sun.

Up!


Passengers enjoying the view as we ascend Pikes Peak on the cog railway

Tree-covered slopes give way to rocky ones as we ascend toward the tree line, where the climate is too harsh for trees to grow.
We were on the train and out of the station at 8:07am. From here on up to the top, the conversation amongst ourselves was intertwined with that of our conductor and tour guide, Luke. Luke was a young man who looked to be at most 25, but easily could have been much younger. He shared quite a bit of history on Pikes Peak and the railway. He shared that Pikes Peak had several names before it was finally called Pikes Peak. The mountain is named after Zebulon Pike, who mounted an expedition to climb to the summit, but failed. And while Pikes Peak is but 1 of Colorado's 53 "fourteeners", or mountains over 14,000 feet, there are very few mountains between it and the Great Plains. This makes it the most prominent mountain in Colorado's Front Range, making it appear to stand alone for hundreds of miles over the Great Plains to the east—all the way to Kansas.

As Pikes Peak has a story that is unique among Colorado's mountains, the Manitou & Pikes Peak Railway also has a unique story among Colorado's railroads. Back in the 1880s, railroads were built primarily for industrial purposes to take advantage of the state's many mining opportunities. After a ride to the summit of Pikes Peak on the back of a donkey, Zalmon Simmons of Kenosha, Wisconsin and founder of the Simmons Beautyrest Mattress Company, saw a business opportunity. He decided to build a railway to make it way easier to go to the top of Pikes Peak, and he did it purely for tourism. He went home and lined up investors, and two years later he was taking people to the top of Pikes Peak for a cool $5 each—that's $125 in today's money. The railroad was a hit back then, and since our early train was completely full, I'd say it's still a hit today. The good news is that the cost of tickets has not kept up with inflation, as round-trip tickets cost only about a third of $125—and that may be why they sell water at $3.25 per bottle.

Anyway, there are three cars on each train heading up and down the mountainside. There's an aisle down the middle with three seats on the left side going up, and two seats on the right side. The seats are arranged front-to-front and back-to-back, meaning every passenger faces another passenger. Before we embarked on our 18-day journey, a friend back home warned us that we want to get seats that angle up rather than down. And about 15 minutes up the mountain, Luke suggested that we introduce ourselves to the folks across from us—we were heading into our first 25 percent grade, and we'd probably be getting more familiar with them as a result. This was easy for us, because we knew each other, but we followed his advice nonetheless. Becky and I were angled down on the way up, though, and we really didn't have any problems staying in our seats.


Joe points out at something when we are well above the tree line.
Each set of seats facing each other has it's own window. On the bottom, the windows are all open, and it's easy to see over them and take pictures. By the time you pass the tree line into alpine elevations, the temperature is decidedly cooler, so Luke told us we could close our windows and turn on the heater for the rest of the trip. The heater made things quite comfortable in spite of the 36°F temperature at the summit. I would still recommend having at least one or two extra layers of long sleeves handy though, not just for the trip, but the summit too.

Before we reached the top, Luke advised us that we'd have a little less than an hour there, and that the train whistle would blow ten minutes before departure. He said it was important for round-trip passengers to be on the train at departure—Otherwise we would "slowly transform into hikers—and what a hike it is! Thirteen miles in one direction from the summit back to Manitou Springs. And for you runners out there thinking, 'thirteen miles!', yes, they do have a marathon each year, going up and back down the mountain."

The Summit of Pikes Peak


The view at the top!

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

RealImaginaryWest Day 14 - Two Miles High in Rocky Mountain National Park


After setting out from Craig, we arrived at Rocky Mountain National Park at about noon. We drove scenic Trail Ridge Road to Estes Park, spending about 90 minutes at the Alpine Visitor Center along the way. Finally, we proceeded to the Denver suburb of Aurora to spend the evening with family. (Ignore the map for now...Google Maps is being dumb :-P )
Once again, we got a later start than we hoped. Though we weren't out incredibly late, we didn't get to sleep until around 11 last night. We wanted to be up and on the road by 6am to possibly beat the traffic rush at Rocky Mountain National Park, but that didn't happen. Yesterday took a lot out of us, and rather than using the bonus time from not having to pack up our tent to get an early start, we opted for more sleep. We managed to get on the road by about 8:30.

What Might Have Been


Travelers Inn, our motel in Craig, Colorado
Beyond our last day in Yellowstone, we couldn't make reservations at Grand Teton National Park, and we didn't have any at Rocky Mountain National Park. This gave us the option of spending either two nights at Grand Teton and one at Rocky Mountain, or vice versa. We ended up staying the two nights in Grand Teton. Our original plan was to spend one night—last night—camping in Rocky Mountain, which would give us the better part of the day to hike in the east side of the park near Bear Lake.

However, on our first full day at Grand Teton, we wound up at the emergency room in Jackson because I was dehydrated. We had planned on hiking up into Cascade Canyon. Since we didn't want to leave without a hike, we decided to extend our time at Teton—and we dropped the plan to camp one night in Rocky Mountain National Park. All of this resulted in having time only for a basic drive through. Now with the late start, my original goal of hiking near Bear Lake looked like a major long shot. I often wonder how things would have gone if we hadn't juggled things around so much, because I had drank enough water like a good boy! C'est la vie...

Reality In the Rockies

I can't really complain too much...for being a couple of first-timers doing this on our own, well over a thousand miles from home in strange, rugged lands, without our moms or dads or any locals by our side to help us avoid dangers, we'd seen and done an awful lot without dire consequence in the last two weeks! Adventure awaited us yet again as we set out for our fifth and final national park for this trip. Up until 9 days ago, Becky and I had only ever seen 6 of the 47 national parks in the Lower 48—and in this one trip we'd almost doubled that number and seen places we'd only ever read about in books, seen on TV, or dreamed about. I always thought this would be a lot harder...and I'm really glad we decided to do this!

Anyway, we started out east on US-40 with me driving to the next town, Steamboat Springs, which was almost an hour away. We traversed high desert for most of yesterday, so I was hoping for some trees today. The maps depicted national forests just a few miles to the east of Craig, but yesterday we saw nothing of these woodlands on our drive in from Wyoming, not even in the distance. Most of the drive from Craig to Steamboat Springs followed the Yampa River and a railroad line. It was pretty country but not spectacular, with a lot more greenery than anything we saw last night. The scenery really started to improve just as we entered Steamboat Springs.

Steamboat Springs

While Craig seemed more like a blue collar town where the locals worked at growing, mining, or making things, Steamboat Springs instantly struck me as a larger version of Jackson, Wyoming...a fancy ski resort town with a lot of tourist money flowing through. On the mountain in the distance, you could see grassy green ski trails between the trees, although we were not yet close enough to make out the lifts. The architecture as well screamed "rustic ski resort!". You could tell they worked hard to appeal to international tourists too, with all their speed limit signs in both imperial and metric units.

The plethora of retail along the main road had me hoping for a decent place to score a quick breakfast. Also, the amount of water I'd been drinking made the stop totally necessary. We still had nearly two hours of driving to get to Rocky Mountain National Park, and this was the most sizeable community for quite some distance. We drove through most of town when I finally just pulled into a Starbucks. One of their La Boulange breakfast sandwiches would do the trick for me, and Becky was happy to get coffee and dig into our trail mix.

Our Big Fat Bag of Potato Chips


When air pressure outside the bag drops, air inside the bag expands to equalize pressure.
Among the many things we packed for our trip back home in Northern Ohio were two bags of Trader Joe's Hawaiian-Style potato chips. Somewhere in South Dakota, Becky noticed that she couldn't get them to fit into one of the plastic food bins in the trunk. By the time we'd reached Cody, Wyoming, the bags were puffed up like a balloon, and Becky wondered what had gone wrong with the chips! She knew that sometimes a bag would spoil and expand, but she couldn't believe it had happened so fast. She opened one of them, and the chips seemed perfectly fine...but she was still mystified as to what was going on.

When Becky brought this to my attention, I asked her what happens to air pressure at higher elevations. I saw the light bulb go on instantly! Back in Ohio, we live below 1,000 feet, but by the time we were in Cody, we were around 5,000 feet, with much thinner air, causing the air in the air-tight bags to expand. Our last bag of chips had survived some pretty high elevations so far—most of our time in Yellowstone was over 7,000 feet, and we'd crossed Powder River Pass in the Bighorns at over 9,500 feet. Now came the ultimate test—Trail Ridge Road—which at one point surpasses 12,000 feet! When I rummaged for my camera in the back of the car, as Becky was taking over on driving, I remembered our our big fat bag of potato chips and put them in the back seat so we could hear when it pops. Either it was gonna blow today or not at all!

Rabbit Ears Pass & US-34


On the road again, we ascended from 6,700 feet in Steamboat Springs to over 9,000 feet over Rabbit Ears Pass. The highway hugs the side of a mountain most of the way up, giving way to spectacular views of lakes below, and snowy peaks far off into the distance. About halfway between Steamboat Springs and the entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park, US-40 and US-34 are marked as the Colorado River Headwaters Scenic Byway. The two roads fork just before the town of Granby, where US-40 heads southeast to I-70 and Denver, and US-34 proceeds northeast into the park.


US-40 follows the Colorado River through some semi-rugged terrain east of Hot Sulphur Springs.
For several miles, US-34 follows the resort areas along the shores of Lake Granby and Shadow Mountain Lake. The lakes were rather large with giant mountains rising up on the opposite sides. There were a number of marinas, motels, vacation houses, and mobile homes all along the highway. We crossed the fledgling Colorado River a couple of times here, as the road closely follows it.

Finally we passed beyond Shadow Mountain Lake, turning northward and more uphill, and saw a sign that we were entering Rocky Mountain National Park. The busy resort area gave way to forest and meadows on both sides of the road. All around, everything was green and peaceful.


Looking to the mountains across Lake Granby

Rocky Mountain National Park

Not far down the road we came upon the Kawuneeche Visitor Center, which is just outside the Grand Lake Entrance Station. We stopped here so Becky could get our friend's National Park Passport book stamped, and of course, so we could use the restroom. The visitor center was small, but extremely busy. It was close to noon, and every family was there with their kids. One room had a relief map of the park and its features. You could press a button and get one to light up—but it was of little use with the never-ending stream of kids repeatedly pushing all of the buttons out of shear boredom.

While Becky looked for the stamp, I looked for a park ranger. I suppose it was wishful thinking, but I asked if it was realistic to get a hike in at Bear Lake and still be back in Denver by 5:30pm. She told me that driving and parking there at this time of day is no picnic, and that we'd probably run out of time for a hike before we found our way to a trailhead. She suggested options along Trail Ridge Road...some were along the Colorado River, while others were in the alpine areas of the park. She warned us to be careful about lighting in the alpine areas, since there's no cover.


The Grand Lake Entrance Station
For some reason I still thought we should head for Bear Lake, but I was more open now to checking out something in the high country, especially the Alpine Visitor Center. The west side of the park was green with lots more trees, but Bear Lake was on the more interesting rugged east side of the park. Besides its ruggedness, the east side was also within a two-hour drive of Denver, which made it exceptionally popular. The alpine regions through the center of the park sounded like a worthy compromise.

Ascending the Trail Ridge

So we got back on the road, which for about 10 miles passed through forest land, with the Colorado River on our left, and mountains towering to our right. The Colorado at this point is just at the small beginnings of the mighty river it turns into downstream. The valley narrows gradually until the road takes a hairpin turn to the right and begins ascending a long switchback that surpasses two miles above sea level!

Along the way were spectacular pulloffs, but we were unable to stop—not so much due to time, but due to urgency. Since we were going up a road that topped out over 12,000 feet in elevation, I had been drinking plenty of water to thwart a repeat of my dehydration episode at Grand Teton National Park. So even though I took care of things back at the Kawuneeche Visitor Center, I had to go pretty badly...again.

We passed right on by the Fairview Curve and on to our first restroom opportunity at the Lake Irene Picnic Area. After relief, I felt a bit woozy and just told Becky I wanted to sit for a minute and get used to the altitude or whatever was bothering me. I hadn't eaten a lot so far today, and we'd just gone up a switchback with numbered U-curves with a full bladder, so who knows for sure if it was one of these factors or the altitude.

It didn't seem like we were two miles high up where we were. I looked around but didn't find Lake Irene...I just saw a bunch of cars and a few picnic tables with people kicking back for lunch. We were still subalpine with trees surrounding the little meadow here. The only indications you were very high were the millions of hungry mosquitoes trying to eat you before the cold came back and killed them, and your body feeling funny and telling you to slow down.

I decided to eat a few slices of bread to calm my stomach. Becky was chomping on trail mix or almonds we had with us. All of a sudden, POP!!!

We looked at each other and thought for a second, and then we began giggling. Our science experiment in air pressure had ruptured at just short of 11,000 feet above sea level! The bag had ripped open along its bottom seam. We laughed some more about how low the air pressure must be, and started snacking on the chips too.

A few minutes later we felt jolly enough to continue up the road. About a mile down, we crossed the Continental Divide for the eighth and final time. After a few miles more, we ascended above the tree line to the alpine elevations—where only the smallest plants and grasses manage to survive. Another switchback later, we arrived at the Alpine Visitor Center, way up at 11,796 feet.


Looking southwest from above Medicine Bow Curve toward part of Trail Ridge Road that we drove on below Medicine Row Curve as we approach the Alpine Visitor Center.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

RealImaginaryWest Day 13 - Grand Teton National Park to Craig, Colorado


After a boat ride and a short hike up to Inspiration Point at Jenny Lake, we depart Grand Teton National Park and Wyoming for Craig, Colorado. This takes us most of the way to Rocky Mountain National Park, where we head tomorrow.

Waking Up

After a few days at altitude slowly dehydrating me and making me feel like garbage each morning, waking up today was really easy. First light came, and my bladder reminded me of how much water I'd been drinking to rehydrate after yesterday's visit to the hospital in Jackson. My bladder woke me up around 1:30am too. Oh the price we pay to stay healthy while roughing it...

More Wet

Once I'd returned from the restroom and was able to consider less urgent matters, I noticed our tent was covered with water droplets. I complained to Becky about how wet everything was still...and she informed me that it had rained again overnight. Grrr!!! That explains it! (I must have slept better than I thought!)

Since we had to pack up this morning, this was disappointing. It became downright frustrating when I realized that water was inside the tent again too, and that all of our damp towels left out to dry overnight were now quite soaked instead. I did not expect rain to be this much of a problem out West where summers (I thought) were mostly dry.

Most of all I was beyond irritated with our tent. Every time it rained, water got inside. I really expect any tent I own to do two major things: 1.) keep me warm, which this tent was not great at, and 2.) keep me dry...major fail. I came to find out later that you're supposed to seal these things at least once a year. (You'd think they'd put that in the setup instructions!) And maybe it's unrealistic on my part to expect a three-season tent to be all that warm.

Anyway, expectations aside, our Coleman Rosewood 4-person tent is a great starter tent. But this road trip did expose some weaknesses. It didn't ventilate exceptionally well in the heat, but it also didn't hold onto heat overnight. Also, the poles are made of fiberglass, and break easily even under extraordinary care—they're also not easy or even possible to repair, and replacements cost almost as much as the tent. It also has a high profile which gets flattened by strong winds like we experienced in De Smet, South Dakota. Maybe we'll look into an upgrade for next year...

So with a soaked tent and soaked towels, packing up was going to be a drag. I picked up the driest towel I could find and started wiping. I still saw water droplets. Our entire rainfly was also wet on the inside...condensation from our breath in the cold air. We could probably pack everything up now and dry it off in Craig, but I wasn't fond of having a damp tent in the car all day long. Tonight's rain potential had also inched up from 0% to 10%. Awesome. Ten percent seems to be all it takes this summer.

The best course of action seemed to be to leave the tent up to dry here for a few hours. This meant an extra hour of driving from Colter Bay to Jenny Lake and back from our hike, and tacking on an extra 30 minutes to our drive down to Craig. And checkout time is at 11am. Bummer.

Off to Jenny Lake

By around 7am we had everything but the tent packed up, and we were on our way to Jenny Lake for one last hike before leaving Grand Teton National Park. Yesterday the plan was to take the shuttle boat across and hike up into Cascade Canyon. Since we had a 6-7-hour drive ahead of us, we'd do an abbreviated version of that this morning. The shuttles run 10 minutes apart, so I guessed it must take just under 10 minutes to cross the lake. With a 30 minute drive back to Colter Bay and another 30 minutes to dry off and pack up our tent, I estimated that we needed to be on a boat back a little before 10 o'clock. This would give us about two hours to hike—not a ton of time, but hopefully enough!

Along the way, I saw a sign for North Jenny Lake and a scenic drive. I remembered seeing this one-way road along the lakeshore on the map. Being impulsive and curious, I decided to check it out. It was a pretty little drive with a few pullouts and OK views along the lake, but it wasn't anything seriously impressive like I'd hoped. My mind was wandering anyway...I kept thinking about whether we shouldn't see about a late checkout to give us a little more time on the trails.


The light was beautiful, so I couldn't pass up a quick stop at Willow Flats Overlook to capture a high-resolution panorama. This can be printed HUGE, since the original is 24817 pixels x 8272 pixels. The low-hanging clouds looked so cool!

I also grabbed this shot with a clearer view of Grand Teton.

This ground squirrel foraged around the fringes of the parking lot at the Willow Flats Overlook.
Parking at the Jenny Lake Visitor Center was a breeze when we arrived at 7:50! Coming in yesterday just before 11am put us at the peak of the crowds. Of course, it was time for me to hit the restroom again. Becky also wanted to comb the gift shop one more time to find a "Jenny Lake" souvenir for her best friend, Jenny, back home. This would easily take us up to 8 o'clock, which is when the camp office at Colter Bay opens. Before we get on the shuttle and leave cellular range, I could call and ask for a late checkout.

Unfortunately, Becky came up empty again. They only had stickers and fridge magnets, and everything else had sold out. We did, however, get OKed for a noon checkout! Awesome! Now we'll definitely have time for a good hike.

Taking the Shuttle Boat

Round-trip fare for the shuttle boat across Jenny Lake was $15 per person. This seemed pretty steep for a short trip, but when you figure in the remoteness and the short four-month tourist season here, it's more understandable. It would definitely save us time, too, as it shaved a six-mile hike to Inspiration Point or Hidden Falls down to only two miles round-trip. What really sweetened the deal was that they also sold Jenny Lake water bottles at the docks—so we had more water, and Becky finally had the gift she wanted for her bestie!


A shuttle boat head back to the docks by Jenny Lake Visitor Center.

Becky enjoys the ride across Jenny Lake in the crisp morning air.
The lake was very calm. Winds here seemed to be calm overnight and intensify with the sun throughout the day. Becky said she heard that Jenny Lake is hundreds of feet deep, which would keep the lake from getting too rough for very long. This made for a smooth ride across. The overnight storm had also left behind some beautiful low clouds between us and Mt. Moran.

I was a little torn between hiking to Inspiration Point or Hidden Falls. The driver taking us across shared that Hidden Falls was an easier trail but had no view, while Inspiration Point has an elevation change of 600 feet over the course of a mile and an extraordinary view at the end. We probably could have done both, but the trail in between was closed.

I asked the driver how long it took to get to Inspiration Point, and he way very vague. It was pretty difficult to judge someone's physical condition and acclimation to the altitude. He said it takes him about 30 minutes, and that most people should expect it to take at least 45 minutes. This sounded like it would work for our timeframe, which at this point was a little over 2 hours.

Monday, July 13, 2015

RealImaginaryWest Day 12 - Too High & Too Dry at Grand Teton National Park


A late start put us in a bind for parking at the Jenny Lake Visitor Center. We were not here long, however, and we did not get to go hiking—but that had nothing to do with parking. Rather, we spent most of the day in Jackson after a visit to St. John's Medical Center. We returned briefly to Jenny Lake late in the afternoon before heading back to Colter Bay Village. (Ignore the map for now...Google Maps is being dumb :-P )

Travel Is a Learning Experience

Yes, folks, they say experience is the best teacher. On certain days of this trip, we've definitely had an experience that taught us something we'll never forget. Back in South Dakota, we learned that it's really nice to have a contingency plan if a thunderstorm rolls through when we're camping on the Great Plains. Just a couple of days ago, I learned that my lack of planning can easily result in an overtired and unhappy Becky. And this morning, I learned something about spending time at altitude that I will never ever forget. I suppose the "they" who said that experience is the best teacher could also say that travel is the best way to gain experience.

Today's lesson culminated this afternoon. I say culminated, because the lesson had actually started way back when we arrived in Yellowstone—I just didn't know. Remember those headaches I'd mentioned over the last two days or so? Yeah, well I went to sleep last night with one, and it was still lingering when I woke up this morning. I'll explain the connection in a bit...

Slow Start

Yesterday we left Yellowstone National Park and set up camp in Colter Bay Campground in Grand Teton National Park. It was a smooth and uneventful day beyond a little sightseeing. We spent most of the day relaxing and just setting up camp for the next couple of days. We even got to bed at a good time, about 10pm. Aside from the headache I went to bed with, I felt pretty good, and just chalked it up to our altitude at 6,800 feet. Becky too wasn't feeling 100% herself. Either way, I thought a good night's sleep would have us feeling better this morning, and we'd get an early start.

Well, we didn't. I could have felt better, but I felt mostly OK. Becky wasn't feeling all that great. So rather than arriving bright and early at Jenny Lake to take a shuttle boat across to hike Cascade Canyon, we slept in. This sounds nicer than it felt, since our air mattress was almost completely flat. Becky suspected a slow leak, but I thought tired batteries could also be the culprit. I think we finally got on the road around 10am.

The views of the Tetons along the way were incredible! The morning sun lit Mount Moran and Grand Teton in a totally spectacular and yet totally different way than we saw near dusk the night before. At this point I was totally engaged in the scenery and my photography, as usual...and my morning meh feeling was no longer on my mind.


Mt. Moran as we passed the Willow Flats Overlook, where we stopped last night on the way to Signal Mountain

Grand Teton dominating over the Teton Park Road and the Potholes Turnout

Arriving at Jenny Lake...Sort Of

We arrived at the parking area near the Jenny Lake Visitor Center and the place was completely packed. I knew this was a popular area, but I had no idea how much demand exceeded supply. As Becky drove around the parking lot hunting for a space, I began feeling more and more woozy. I'm sure winding around wasn't helping, but my heart was starting to beat faster now too. After we passed Willow Flats I noticed I felt a little short of breath and used my albuterol inhaler which helps with my asthma. That can raise my heartbeat, but not usually this much. Things did not feel right and seemed to be getting worse. I told Becky that she had to stop the car. Since there were no parking spaces anywhere in sight, she was a little confused. I told her to just stop somewhere that cars could still pass, because I felt terrible and needed to stop moving.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

RealImaginaryWest Day 11 - Old Faithful & Grand Teton National Park


Old Faithful was the last sight we saw in Yellowstone before we packed up at Grant Village and moved on to Grand Teton National Park. After we scored a campsite, we relaxed along the shore of Jackson Lake and had dinner. Our nightcap was a short drive up to the summit of Signal Mountain.

Waking Up to Rain... Lovely

After spending a lot of time cleaning and drying off our tent when we packed up at Canyon Village the day before, I woke up at 5am this morning in Grant Village to the sound of rain on our tent.

I was already plenty anxious about getting an early start and moving down to Grand Teton National Park today. I was especially nervous about moving because all of the campgrounds at Teton are first-come, first-served so we had no reservation. I wanted to be completely packed, go see Old Faithful, and then beeline directly to our next campground as early as possible. Having to dry a wet tent all over again could jeopardize getting our next campsite. Boy was I annoyed.

As the rain continued to fall and I continued to stew, I expressed my irritation to Becky. She told me that all that negative energy and anxiety did absolutely nothing to help us, and that it robbed me of enjoying things. "Roll with the punches," she said. I realized she was absolutely right.

So even though the rain hadn't stopped, I took my wife's sage words to heart—I stopped stewing and started thinking. I suggested that we get up right now, go see Old Faithful erupt, and then hopefully come back after the rain to a dryer tent to pack up.

Becky dug the idea so we got up at about the same time the rain stopped. We shuffled off to the restrooms and got on the road at about 6:30am for the 35-minute drive to Old Faithful.

Old Faithful


The Grand Loop Road passes below the overpass for the Old Faithful Road.

Old Faithful steamed quietly when we arrived.

People begin to disperse after an eruption with the historic Old Faithful Inn as a the backdrop.
Old Faithful is by far the most famous and most popular attraction in Yellowstone National Park. The otherwise two-lane Grand Loop Road actually widens to four lanes with a freeway-style trumpet interchange that takes you into Old Faithful Village. It's so strange to see such urban infrastructure inside such a wild and vast national park, but it makes sense to keep traffic moving in order to minimize air pollution in this pristine place.

Besides the geyser, Old Faithful Village itself is quite extensive. There are a few stores, restaurants, and lodges here, including the historic Old Faithful Inn. The visitor center sits only one or two hundred yards from the geyser everyone wants to see. We arrived here at about 7am and checked for the next predicted eruption time. Unfortunately, the visitor center doesn't open until 8am, and the time posted in the window was from just after close the night before.

So we were here, but we had no idea when the next eruption would be...but I didn't panic, since there weren't any people gathered as if it was about to blow. Finally, I found a sign that said I could find geyser eruption predictions at @GeyserNPS on Twitter. I pulled out my phone and hoped for good cell service... Huzzah! The feed predicted the next eruption at 8:12am, plus or minus ten minutes. I also found out I could call a number for other geyser predictions.

To say that Yellowstone has geysers is an understatement. When we drove around the park yesterday, we realized that there are not just a few geysers, but that there are a few geyser basins that each have several geysers! Old Faithful is only one of many steaming holes in the ground that erupt hot water every so often in what is called the Upper Geyser Basin. So since we had plenty of time before we needed to stake out a particular spot, I called the prediction number to find out if any other geysers were expected to erupt nearby. It turned out that Daisy Geyser may be a possibility, so I made sure we picked a vantage point where we could see both in case they went off at the same time—how cool would that be!

A fun fact about Old Faithful is that it is not the largest, tallest, or hottest geyser. It is, however, the most dependable big tall geyser in the park. It has been erupting about every 90 minutes for years, with varying heights of a few dozen feet to 200 feet. While you can't quite set your watch to it, its dependable vertical spectacle is how Old Faithful earned its name and its spot as the top attraction in the park.


Old Faithful at its peak during eruption at 8:05am on July 12, 2015
Old Faithful erupted for us right on time at 8:05am. I'd read that Old Faithful often "plays" a bit with smaller eruptions, but there was no play involved here. About a minute or two before water burst forth, the geyser bellowed much more steam. The water pushed higher and higher, and then stayed at peak height for about a minute and slowly died down into a tiny fountain. Finally the water stopped and the geyser returned to just a steaming hole in the ground.

We didn't see Daisy erupt, but Old Faithful was very cool all by itself. It was time to get back to pack up camp and move on in time to get a campsite in Grand Teton. My first choice of campground was Jenny Lake, which was a good two hours away. I knew that was a longshot, but my backup campground at Colter Bay wasn't much closer, and I was nervous both could fill by noon.