Sunday, June 25, 2006

The Wild West - June, 2006

Thursday, June 8, 2006
Rapid City, South Dakota

What a difference between a flight to Europe and a flight across just half of our continent! We flew out of the brand new terminal at Meadows Field in Bakersfield (and what a joy to finally have our airport send us to destinations besides L.A. and San Francisco, which used to be our only choices!) In less that two hours, we were in Salt Lake City for a quick transfer, and in less than two hours more, setting down in Rapid City, South Dakota.

Very happily, I was on the correct side of the plane to get my first glimpse of both the Crazy Horse Monument and Mount Rushmore from the air . They seemed very tiny, but could be seen quite distinctly.

It was still early afternoon, so we had lunch in our hotel, then set out to explore "downtown" Rapid City. They call themselves the City of Presidents, due to a city project of creating sculptures of all of our presidents throughout the city. So far, 23 of them can be seen standing on many of the street corners of Main Street. I believe they are life-size, which means that John Adams was a very small man! Walking down Main Street was truly a bit like walking down Main Street at Disneyland, without the crowds and neon lights. Old brick buildings with Victorian trim...I almost expected horses and carriages to trot down the road.

We honored the dual heritage of the town: the American West and Scandinavia with a visit to the Prairie's Edge, a very impressive bookstore and Native American crafts store, and Scandia, a Scandinavian gift shop where I found a Forklover, a milk chocolate and hazelnut candy bar that had been my favorite when I lived in Norway. Then Rob napped for a bit while I went out again with Mom and Dad, who had arrived later in the afternoon.

At 6:00, the Tauck Tour officially began with a reception and dinner to meet our tour director, Danielle, and our fellow travelers. We had a nice visit with Arnie and Carol from Connecticut.

Friday, June 9, 2006
Rapid City, SD to Ucross, Wyoming

Today was a big travel day. We started early with a big breakfast buffet...for which I wasn't even hungry as I was still digesting last night's huge meal!...then we set out for Mount Rushmore. I had expected a very long drive to get there, but after only a half hour out of Rapid City, we were climbing into beautiful pine-wooded hills with dramatic granite outcroppings. The weather was perfect, with blue skies and bright, white clouds to paint a nice backdrop for our photos. We took our "official" group portrait, then Rob and I set out to walk the Presidential Trail, which takes you directly below the noses of the stone presidents.

After seeing this site so many times in pictures, I thought it might be a bit of a letdown, but it was really very impressive. The faces are so true-to-life, and look smooth and polished next to their rough granite bed. The most impressive thing of all is pondering the work that went into this monument...and with not a single death or serious injury. The excellent little museum tells the story well through old newsreels and new videos, and the story was continued at the Borglum Museum in the old west town of Keystone, where we saw pictures of and additional sculptures by Gutzon Borglum, the designer of the monument.

Another 45 minute drive through gorgeous hills brought us to the Crazy Horse Monument. During our bus ride, we watched an interesting video about the project. This is quite an amazing undertaking. The original sculptor died several years ago and the project is carried on by his wife and seven of their ten children. It is funded entirely by private funds and fact, the family of the sculptor who started the project turned down much needed government funding because they didn't want to be directed or restricted by outside demands. In consequence, the work is going very slowly (50 years so far!) and may never be finished in my life-time. But what work has been done is very impressive. Essentially, they have removed half of a mountain! The face of Crazy Horse was clearly visible (in profile) from our distance of two miles away, and the long straight ridge that will become his outstretched arm is formed, but the rest of the monument can only be imagined from the huge sculpture that stands at the Visitors' Center.

The center itself was just as impressive as the monument. It holds information about the monument, but even more interesting is the tribute to the Native Americans. There were Sioux dancers performing (although I learned that the Sioux are made up of the Dakota, Lakota, and Nakota and that they prefer their tribal names), and there were many Native American crafts on display and for sale. Mom and I each bought a turtle pendant - symbol of long life and prosperity (without knowing that the other was doing the same...I am just her little clone!) Future plans for the Crazy Horse Monument and Native American Center include a medical center and a Native American University.

After another huge meal (country cookin' - fried chicken, apple cobbler) at a big old western roadhouse, we set off for Wyoming. While we were eating, the wind had come up and big, dark grey clouds rolled in, complete with lightning and distant thunder over the hills. It was very dramatic. We settled into the bus - just as the rain started to fall - for our long ride to the Ranch at Ucross in Wyoming. Rob and I dozed as we dropped out of the Black Hills into the rolling grasslands of eastern Wyoming. The air was very clear and we could see miles of prairie under the dark thunderclouds.

Danielle, our Tauck Tour Guide, had been narrating all throughout the day and filled us in on more history about Crazy Horse himself, and about the vast coal mining operations in Wyoming. We saw plenty of evidence of that, from mile-long trains with each car filled with mounds of coal to a huge open-pit mine. Danielle also told us about the pronghorn antelope that roam these hills, and just as she finished her talk, I spotted a small herd. Everyone was very excited, and I won a prize for being the first tour member to spot wildlife. (Rob laughed at me. He teases me about being the girl in class who always had her hand up, "I know! I know!")

We saw the antelope frequently after that. They are pretty little creatures with short 9" horns and a white rump. They are the only animal that actually sheds horns. Antlers are shed each year, but horns in other animals are permanent.

As we moved west across Wyoming, the land got dryer and changed from a lush, tall green grass to a sparser short grass and sagebrush. All along the way, we could see huge black clouds and distant bolts of lightning. At one point, we could see all the way to Devil's Tower (site of the alien mother ship landing in Close Encounters of the Third Kind), still 60 or so miles distant, but very prominent on the horizon.

We finally turned into the darling little Ranch at Ucross, where we were greeted by Tug the dog, who padded down the aisle of the bus to say hello, and the entire staff of the ranch who stood out in front of the ranchhouse waving a greeting. Danielle had said that Tug was a cross between a dog and a grizzly. He had been shaved for the summer, but he really did resemble a little grey bear!

Our room opened onto a deck with a beautiful view of the hills and creek behind us. We had a nice chat with our "next-door neighbors", Courtney and Susan and Vinnie and Ann Marie from New York, then went for a swim in the heated pool. At 6:00, everyone gathered in the Ranchhouse for a sing-along with George, the resident singing cowboy, then moved into the dining room for another huge home-cooked dinner of trout, tri-tip, and all the trimmings. The food on this trip is more dangerous than on a cruise because it is all so hearty and served in such big portions!

Saturday, June 10, 2006
Big Horn Mountains to Cody, Wyoming

This glorious day started with a horseback ride at the Ucross Ranch. Twelve of us "saddled up" and set off across the prairie. My horse, Joe, was very well behaved and responded well to my clumsy tugs on his reins, although he was reluctant to cross the creek, which was flowing quite swiftly after yesterday's rains. The morning was lovely, and we followed the creek along the base of the sandstone hills, with sounds of birds chirping loudly from the cottonwood trees.

When we returned, it was time to board the bus for a second long day of travel - across the Big Horn Mountains. It took a couple of hours to reach the mountains, which rose dramatically above the plains. The land we crossed as we approached the mountains was covered with marshes and creeks. Redwinged blackbirds sat on the big cattails that lined the banks. As we wound our way up the mountain, Danielle pointed out the many signs that indicated the geolocigal ages of the rocks. The Bighorn Mountains are unusual because the uplift there has caused the more ancient rocks to sit on top.

The entire drive was gorgeous, but as we approached the top of the mountains, it got positively spectacular. We went through forests of lodgepole pines and past open alpine meadows filled with yellow arrowleaf balsamroot (a daisy-like flower), purple lupine, little white wildflowers. Think of the opening scene of The Sound of Music and you will have a picture of what it looked like. Naturally, we started planning how we could come back and explore this gorgeous area at more leisure.

We stopped at the Bear Lodge Resort where we were served the best home-cooked chicken pot pie and baked beanswe have ever tasted. (Rob and I are still talking about it two weeks later!) The chef came out to visit with our group and said that all the food was prepared with his grandmother's recipes.

After lunch, we crossed Granite Pass at about 9,000 feet, then dropped down the western slopes of the Bighorn Mountains, making a brief stop for a walk in Shell Canyon to view Shell Falls. As it was still spring, the snow runoff created a roaring torrent pouring through the narrow canyon and over the high granite cliffs. As we continued down to the western side of Wyoming, our road paralleling an old cattle trail which the cowboys had used to herd the cattle to the lush meadows above, the scenery changed quite a bit. This was a much dryer landscape, with eroded peaks of ancient volcanic mudflows.

Finally, in the late afternoon, we arrived in the town of Cody, Wyoming where we went immediately to the Buffalo Bill Cody Museum. Well, I had no particular interest in Buffalo Bill, but I was in for a great surprise! This was a wonderful, world-class museum! It had five distinct sections: Buffalo Bill and Wild West Show, Western Art, Native American Cultures, Natural History, and American Firearms. We had a couple of hours to browse around, and I could have stayed for a couple more.

The Buffalo Bill section included memorabilia from his life, including intricately embroidered jackets from his Wild West Show - he appears to have been the Elvis of his time with his fancy costumes! - photos, posters, and much more. Rob and I came to admire him for his "politically incorrect" views regarding the Native Americans. He was quoted as saying that every Indian uprising was the result of a broken treaty on the part of the U.S. government, and he was known for treating the Indians in his show as equals.

In the Western Art room, it was easy to see Remington had become so popular. His beautiful bronze sculptures really capture the details and movement of the mounted cowboys. Dad spent his entire visit in the Natural History Museum, which included geological history as well as the wildlife of the region, and the Native American room included case after case of crafts and artifacts. Their use of art on everyday objects was really impressive. They did not create “art for art’s sake,” but placed much emphasis on making the articles of daily life really beautiful....
from feathers decorating the tips of spears to the incredible beadwork on all of their clothing to painted designs on the hides of the teepees.

We checked into the Cody Holiday Inn just in time to clean up and head down to the Bandana Room (where Danielle greeted us with a red bandana kerchief to tie around our neck) for another huge meal. This trip was becoming dangerous to my health, spite of still being full from lunch...I managed to put away most of a dinner of ribs and baked potato. We sat with Cheryl and Richard and were entertained by stories of Cheryl's parrots.

But the day wasn't finished after dinner! What would a trip to the Wild West be without a visit to the Rodeo?! Throughout the summer months, Cody has a nightly rodeo on the "circuit"...local rodeos where cowboys accrue points that qualify them for the big events. I started out in cowgirl style by taking my own turn atop "Hollywood" the Bull. (I don't know if Hollywood was drugged or just very old, but I don't think I was in any danger of being bucked off. I was just happy he moved his head a bit to prove that he was a real live animal.)

We cheered enthusiastically through the bareback and saddle bucking broncos (including one who did NOT want to return to the was hilarious to watch the wranglers trying to herd this very stubborn bronco!), calf-roping, bull-dogging (wrestling a bull to the ground...which one cowboy managed to do in about 5 seconds to our amazement), and the uproarious sight of about 50 little children trying to remove the ribbons from the tails of two little calves. One poor little girl was wearing flip flops that kept getting sucked off her little feet in the muck. By the middle of the rodeo, the evening had gotten quite cold, so Mom and I returned to the bus to wait for the end of a very long, but very enjoyable, day.

Sunday, June 11, 2006
Cody to Yellowstone National Park

After two long days of travel, we had a brief, but beautiful, trip into the Eastern Gate of Yellowstone Park, passing first through a canyon rimmed by old mud walls that had eroded into fantastic peaks and pillars with skinny little necks and precariously perched rocks. After a brief stop at Buffalo Bill's old Hunting Lodge just out side the entrance to the park, we finally entered Yellowstone. The drive to the Yellowstone Lake Hotel took us through one of the areas devastated by the fires of 1988. Between the aftereffects of the fires and the bark beetles, thousands of lodgepole pine trees were dead or blighted, but we learned that this is just part of the cycle of nature. It actually takes fire to open the pinecones of certain pine trees, and many sections of the park were now carpeted with new pines about three or four feet tall. The spikes of the burned trees stood above this new carpet, as the policy is to let them fall naturally and replenish the soil. An unexpected benefit of the fires was that it allowed us much wider vistas. In another twenty years, the new pines will rise high enough to cut off our sweeping views of the valley.

As we crossed Fisherman's Bridge, our driver had to come to a sudden stop. We were experiencing our first "Bear Jam," a traffic jam caused by the sighting of an animal near the road. Cars were pulled over all along the road and all the tourists were out snapping pictures. Sure enough, we could see a grizzly bear nibbling on something up on the slope. We took our pictures through the bus windows, and continued on to the hotel.

The Yellowstone Lake Hotel is a beautiful yellow turn-of-the-century hotel, with gorgeous views of Lake Yellowstone from the lobby, which is a large bright and airy room filled with little sitting nooks of wicker furniture. We went to lunch in the very elegant dining room with Mom and Dad, but I was honestly losing my appetite after days of huge meals, so I was very content with a bowl of corn bisque soup with pumpkin seeds and a little salad.

Although it was a lovely day, the air at that altitude was quite chilly. I had packed for warmer weather, so Rob and I walked along the lake to the General Store where I bought a very nice Yellowstone jacket. Then, at 2:00, it was back on the bus for the first part of our tour around the Park. We followed the Yellowstone River up the lush green Hayden Valley and saw our first bison. I had expected large herds, but all of them were scattered singly or in small groups here and there around the valley. The valley floor was filled with wetlands...little marshes and rivulets everywhere...and there were lots of Canada geese and merganzer ducks, as well as a number of large elk. I was still waiting to see my first moose!

But even more exciting that the wildlife was our first look at the geothermal features of the park...steaming fumeroles, a large boiling mudpot, and various hot springs. I was very frustrated that we didn't stop at any of these sights, but we were assured that we would see many of them tomorrow. Instead, our destination today was the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, where the river cuts deep into the gorge and creates the Upper and Lower Yellowstone Falls. We could not have been there at a better time! The spring runoff from the winter snows were causing huge thundering falls that filled the air with huge clouds of mist. The sides of the canyons are streaked with layers of bright pink sedimentary rock.

After returning to the hotel, Rob had a nice nap while I visited with Mom and Dad in the lobby, listening to the piano player and having a little libation. (The sun was over the yardarm!) Then Rob and I took a little stroll down to a meadow to see if we could get pictures of the bison...but realized as we returned that we had totally missed seeing the sign that warned, "Danger! Do not go down this path. Bear activity." Oops! Well, we didn't see a bear...and the bison had moved off, too, but it was a lovely walk. When we returned to the hotel, we purchased our special momento of the trip...a beautiful stone and alabaster bison carved by a Native American artist.

Monday, June 12, 2006
A Most Amazing Day

Wow! Wow! and more Wow! Finally, we got to see up close and personal the amazing geothermal features of Yellowstone.

We woke to a beautiful skies, warm weather. I wore shorts for the first time on the whole trip. On the bus for the morning tour, Danielle told us the fascinating story of the reintroduction of the wolves to Yellowstone ten years ago. It has been a successful endeavor that has restored the natural balance in the park in many ways. We saw much more evidence of the incredible 1988 fires that raged through about 80% of the park, and we saw lush meadows with herds of bison and elk, and one lone coyote right next to the bus. He looked remarkably healthy and well-fed when compared to some of the scrawny little critters I have seen in California. We had one more look at the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone from the northern rim, then finally headed for the geyser fields.

Dad gave me some insight into the geology of Yellowstone...and it is a little frightening! The earth's crust is 15 feet or more thick in most places around the globe. The huge caldera that forms the basin at Yellowstone sits on an enormous bowl of magma...and is only two miles thick. It has exploded at least three times in the past (eons ago), in super-eruptions that covered almost half of the United States with a layer of ash...and it is overdue for another eruption. The geysers are caused by water seeping through cracks in that thin crust where it is heated by the magma below, builds up pressure, and comes erupting through holes in the earth.

I had seen films of the geysers, but nothing really prepared me for the extent of the activity. Our first stop was as the Paint Pots, boiling pools of mud. We walked along a boardwalk that took us into a vast field of steam and mineral-encrusted ground criss-crossed with rivulets of reddish water. Our first pool was a thick mudpot blooping slowly with thick chicken-gravy colored bubbles. A bit further on, a more watery mudpot threw rust-colored mud up in a spray. We passed several hot springs and pools ranging from a clear aquamarine to orangy-red. The colors are caused by the type of bacteria that live in the water and which vary according to the temperature of the pool. (The hotter the pool, the clearer and bluer the water.)

The most exciting part of the walk was when a large, calm pool we were passing suddenly erupted into a big, fat geyser. It didn't ever reach very high...just a little over my head, but the entire surface of the pool was spouting.

Too soon, it was time to return to the bus and continue on to the Old Faithful Snow Lodge, where we would stay tonight. We had been scheduled to stay in the famous Old Faithful Inn, with its enormous beamed ceilings and antler decorations...but it was being re-roofed and the project took longer than expected. But our hotel was very nice and comfortable - and convenient to Old Faithful and the other geysers of the area.

After lunch at the hotel, Rob and I set off for a good long walk along the geyser trail. This walk was one of the most remarkable hikes we have ever taken! It started with an unexpected treat...a pair of bison were lying in the shade of a tree right by the trail. They seemed completely unconcerned about the people passing by. We continued down the trail and turned on to the boardwalk that wound its way atop the fragile crust past a long string of geysers, pools, and fumeroles. Steam was puffing out of the ground everywhere we looked...out of little holes in the ground, out of cracks by the river where hot water gushed out and ran into the some places, entire patches of earth were covered with a layer of steam.

Most of the pools and geysers had names. I can't remember them all, but we passed the impressive Castle Geyser, which wasn't erupting, but was bubbling like a boiling pot of pasta, throwing up huge spurts of water and steam and Giant Geyser, which was so ancient that it had a huge cone of mineral deposits surrounding its rim. These geysers are actually bigger than Old Faithful when they erupt...but they are simply not so predictable.
Some of the hot pools were amazingly could look down into their depths and clearly see the vent that led down to the hot magma below.

I really had had no idea of the extent of the geyser fields. The trail extended on for almost two miles, and there were pools and steam and spouting water everywhere we looked. It must have been an amazing sight to the first people...both Native Americans and mountain men...who first happened across this landscape!

Near the end of the trail, we passed the Riverside Geyser right on the banks of the creek and noted on the little bulletin board that it was predicted to erupt shortly. Sure enough, when we had gone a little way along the path, we turned back and found it spouting away. The eruption went on for a good five to ten minutes. It was very pretty with the water spraying up against the green hill and cascading down into the stream below.


The trail ended at the famous Morning Glory Pool which, sadly, is losing her glory as the clear, lovely blue water is being transformed to a rusty orange due to the thoughtless (or malicious) actions of tourists who throw foreign objects into the deep vent and block the flow of water. It is so hard to understand the motives of people who would destroy such a beautiful sight, in spite of the sign explaining the consequences!

We returned to the lodge at a brisk pace and ended our adventure with another surprise encounter with the bison. Two of them were now grazing in the meadow beside the trail, and a third was standing right on the trail! A ranger stood nearby diverting foot traffic to an alternate trail. The huge shaggy creature was quite unconcerned about all the gawking tourists and spent awhile scratching his great head against a wooden sign.

The day was very warm and sunny, so we stopped at the General Store for an ice tea, then returned to the Snow Lodge where Danielle was waiting in the lobby with our room keys. Mother and Dad had a room directly across the hall from ours, so I told them all about our walk then set out to watch the 3:45 eruption of Old Faithful while Rob had a little nap. Old Faithful faithfully erupted right on schedule. It starts with a few sputters and spurts, then it subsides for a moment and seems to go back to sleep, but suddenly a huge plume of water and steam thrusts up…up…up in a gorgeous fountain that goes on for several minutes.

After a short nap, Rob and I joined Mom and Dad for Old Faithful’s 5:15 eruption. The geyser teased us for several minutes this time with two or three false starts, but just two minutes after the predicted time, it exploded into a beautiful plume of white water and steam against the blue sky. Today was my dear parents' 59th wedding anniversary, and I can't think of a better place to spend it than standing in front of Old Faithful!

After a wonderful dinner at the lodge (Shrimp Etoufee for Rob and stuffed pork loin for me), we went out for a lovely sunset walk. It was a magical landscape. The air had cooled quite a bit, so the plumes of steam from the many pools and geysers in the valley below us became more visible. Everywhere we looked, we could see mists rising from the ground. It was so lovely, I couldn’t stand to go in, and took one last ramble by myself to the upper geyser field which we had not yet explored. The sun had gone down but there was enough lingering light to see the path. I was almost completely alone…just a couple of other people on the path. The colors of the pools were not so vivid without the sunlight shining into them, but it was so quiet and peaceful that I was much more conscious of the sounds… gurgling and bubbling and sizzling all around me. The concentration of pools and fumeroles was even greater than on the Morning Glory trail…there were little pools and cones all around me, and little rivulets of run-off water criss-crossing the ground everywhere.

Finally it became too dark to walk safely, so I headed back to bed, thoroughly enchanted. It was a most remarkable day!

Tuesday, June 13
Yellowstone to the Grand Tetons

We woke to more gorgeous clear blue skies, had breakfast, and boarded the bus at 8:30 a.m. Our first stop was at Isa Lake, which sits right on the Continental Divide, so that one side of the lake drains toward the Pacific Ocean while the other side drains toward the Gulf. (It was really just a pond, but Danielle related the story of the trapper who discovered it, saying, “What a pretty little pond!” To which the water replied, “I’s not a pond. I’s a lake!” Hence, her name.) Dad joked that, although he and Mom had been together at Old Faithful, they were now separated by the Continental Divide.

As we continued down the mountain, we watched a fascinating video about the great fires of 1988. It was quite interesting to see the effects of those same fires right out the bus window as we watched the film! Tall, black spikes of burned lodgepole pine trees…bare, fallen logs…thousands of new little green trees carpeting the landscape. 45% of the park burned, but happily – and surprisingly - only 250 large animals were killed in the fires.

After only about an hour, we got our first glimpse of the GRAND Grand Tetons. They truly are magnificent…rising so suddenly out of the plains. It was a gorgeous, warm, perfect day with not a cloud in the sky, so the entire range was in our view. We stopped briefly at Colter Bay, which had a small, but very good, Native American museum.

We made two more stops for pictures, one at the base of the mountain range and one at beautiful little Jenny Lake, where we learned the story of “Beaver Dick” and his beloved Indian wife, Jenny, who died, along with all six of their children, from the small pox she caught while nursing a settler.

Next stop was the town of Jackson, (home of Harrison Ford and various other celebrities), where we had a great lunch at The Merry Piglets and explored the town. It is very touristy…upscale shops and pricy art galleries…but has a fun western atmosphere, with a Cowboy Bar where you literally saddle up to the bar, a stage coach parked by the town square, and the antler arches framing the four corners of the park.

About 3:30, we piled onto the bus and headed for the Jackson Lake Lodge. Our room was a rustic cabin (with a nice large room) under the trees. The main lodge had a lovely large sitting room with huge windows affording magnificent views of the mountains across the meadow and lake, as well as several nice shops and restaurants.

After another wonderful dinner, Rob and I went out on the deck that overlooks the meadow, and I finally had my last wildlife wish fulfilled…there was a female moose grazing in the pond just below us. We watched her for awhile, then took a little stroll around the hill by the lodge and headed for bed. The clouds were beginning to move in, so I suspected we might be in for a bit of “weather” tomorrow.

Wednesday, June 14
Grand Tetons Trails and Snake River Rafting

Sure enough, around 4:30 or 5:00 a.m., I woke to the sounds of loud thunder. After several rumbles, there came a loud rapping on the roof. It was much noisier than rain, so I suspected…and later confirmed…that we were having a hail storm. The lightning, thunder, and finally rain, continued for quite a long time, but it was really pleasant to lie all cozy in my bed and know that, for once, we didn’t have to get up and get ready for the bus! The storm finally blew over, so Rob and I went up to the main lodge for a good breakfast buffet, then set out for a five mile hike around Christian Pond, across the highway from the lodge.

Our hike turned out to be quite an adventure! The clouds had parted and the chilly morning began to warm up a bit. The Tetons, which had been completely shrouded in clouds when we went to breakfast, became visible, although it was quite a different view from yesterday’s clear view, with low clouds filling in the valleys and swirling around the peaks.

We crossed the highway and found the trailhead, with its sign warning, “This is Bear Country. Use caution.” We wound along the trail above the pond, which was filled with ducks. Pretty bird songs filled the air. We took the extended loop up over the hill, looking down on Oxbow Bend where the Snake River widens around several pretty little islands. It was a beautiful hike with a varied landscape including open meadows, thick pine woods, areas of aspen and willows.

The only obstacle to my perfect enjoyment of the morning was my worry about bears. Throughout the entire walk, we were on the lookout “Scan left, scan right, look behind”…singing, talking, calling out whenever we came to a hill that we couldn’t see over, “Hello, bears. We are coming!” but the only wildlife we encountered on the trail were the birds, one mule deer, and lots of mosquitoes! I finally took my ponytail down and let my hair cover my neck, which did help. In retrospect, I should have relaxed and enjoyed the serene aspects of communing with nature, but we had had so many warnings about the dangers of wildlife encounters that I was truly feeling a bit nervous.

But about halfway into our walk, my fears of the bears were replaced…or added to…by the fear of electrocution! Just as we passed Lake Emma Matilda at the farthest end of our trail, black clouds darkened the skies and the rumble of the thunder started again. I love thunderstorms, but this was the first time I have ever been caught out in one. We still had about two miles to go, and some of it through open meadows with no big trees to act as lightning rods, so the last third of our hike was a brisk walk to get back! Rob and I had always joked that, if a bear came, he didn’t have to outrun the bear…he only had to outrun the person he was with, so now it was my turn to joke that I was okay because lightning strikes the highest point, and he is taller than I am! As we walked, I kept up a running monologue with myself to scare away the bears and the moose that I suspected were hiding in the huge willow groves…and just hoped that the lightning didn’t get too close. Luckily we both had our raincoats in our backpacks. The last mile of the hike got quite cold and it started to hail again, stinging my unprotected hands.

In spite of all the (real or imagined) dangers of our hike, we made it home safe and sound. After a good hot shower and a light lunch with Mom and Dad (buffalo barley soup - yum!), we set off on our second adventure of the day...a raft trip on the Snake River. This adventure almost didn't take place. Sadly, a Tauck Tour rafting trip just last month had hit a submerged log and overturned and three people were killed. Tauck Tours chose to cancel our scheduled raft trip until the investigation was complete, but we were allowed to book the trip on our own.

The afternoon continued to be cloudy and cold, and we got a stern warning from our guide, "If you are wearing shorts, you WILL be cold. You can cancel now if you want." Well, we didn't want, so we set off with the five other brave souls from our tour, Liz, Bernadette, Will, Richard, and Cheryl. They were a fun group and the scenery along the river was gorgeous, but it WAS cold. Rob and I huddled together under a woolen blanket and that did help. We saw only a few animals...a couple of elk, a large bald eagle, ducks, Canada geese, a beaver lodge (but no beavers) and several turkey vultures feasting on the carcass of an elk that had apparently drowned. The trip lasted about two hours and took us 10 miles along the river. The current was swift, but there were no rapids. The recent accident was obviously just a freak accident.

When we returned, Mom and I had a game of Spite and Malice in the lobby then joined Rob and Dad for another wonderful dinner (filet mignon and chocolate mousse). Then it was time to pack up for another early departure the next morning.

Thursday, June 15
Grand Tetons to Salt Lake City

Following our breakfast buffet, we went out on the deck for some last photos of the Grand Tetons...and spotted another moose and several elk grazing in the meadow, as well as a beaver swimming in the pond below us. Then it was time to set off for a long day of bus travel. There was quite a bit of fresh snow on the peaks around us as we left Jackson Hole...evidence of yesterday's storm.

As we drove along the the western border of Wyoming, the hills became more gentle and rolling. We crossed into the lower corner of Idaho, passing through a string of little ranch towns and dairy farms. Lunch was at the Ranch Hand Truck Stop...a funny little slice of Americana with a cheesy little gift shop full of key rings, ugly t-shirts, goofy postcards.

Finally, at around 5:oo, we crossed the Wasatch Mountains and dropped down into Salt Lake City. After settling into our very nice room at the Hilton, we joined Mom and Dad for dinner at Christopher's Steak and Seafood restaurant around the corner from the hotel. The Mormom Tablernacle Choir was scheduled to be rehearsing at the nearby Conference Center, but we were tired from the long day and just headed off to bed.

Friday, June 16
Olympic Part and Salt Lake City

I woke up early feeling nice and rested. After breakfast, we headed out for our last guided tour, After driving past some of the sights of the city, we stopped at Emigrant's Canyon, with beautiful views of the city and Great Salt Lake below. There is a large monument which declares, "This is the Place!" in commemoration of Brigham Young's decision to have the Mormom emigrants settle here.

We continued on to Park City and the site of the 2002 Winter Olympics, which is now used as a training site for athletes. We were greeted there by Carl Roepke, an enthusiastic young man who was a five time National luge champion and announcer at the Olympics. He took us to the top of the luge run and demonstrated how he drives it down the track. We also got an impressive look down the ski jump (where we almost froze from the wind chill!). It is absolutely amazing to me that people willingly hurtle themselves down that almost vertical drop! The park also included a very interesting Olympic museum, with medals, uniforms, and giant white elk and bison puppets that had been paraded around in the opening ceremonies of the 2002 games. We ended by watching the ski jumpers practice by flying into a swimming pool.

When we returned to the hotel, we were met by Bryce and Karen Johnson, a very nice young couple we had met on the Paul Gauguin cruise. The sun had come out, and we spent the afternoon exploring Salt Lake City. It is a lovely city...filled with flowersand green parks with fountains and sculptures everywhere, as well as the attractive buildings that house the various activities of the Church of Latter Day Saints. We started in Temple Square, where we saw several brides on the temple steps. Karen remarked that the brides are a common sight here, as so many LDS girls want to be married at the Temple. The tabernacle itself was closed for renovations, but we saw the new modern "Supernacle" and visited the Family History Center, where I tried to locate some of my ancestors. I did locate Rob...with an incorrect G as a middle initial!

Bryce and Karen drove us up into the hills, past gorgeous mansions and up to a park with bike paths and trails. The day continued warm and sunny, so we had some spectacular views of the city. Rob and I agreed that this might be a great place to live, although I reminded myself that we were seeing it at its best...the winters can be long and cold, and Bryce said they have a winter inversion layer that keeps the smog in. Hmmm...sounds like Bakersfield.

That evening, Tauck Tours held a farewell reception for us, followed by a wonderful steak dinner at Spencer's, one of the nation's top ten steak houses. Then it was up to our room to pack up one last time before our flight home in the morning.

Another wonderful trip! It was a real treat to explore some of our own country. Rob and I love Europe for the history, art, and architecture...and the tropics for the water and fish...but some of the most spectacular scenery anywhere in the world can be found right here in the United States.

No comments: