Saturday, September 12, 2015

On the Road Again

We haven't been on too many LiLo adventures lately. We've been out a bit this summer and have more plans for the fall (and next year...always next year!) But after all these years of working toward our big trip aboard, we thought this would be a good year for a family road trip!
The girls had never been to Yellowstone, and neither Bryan nor I had been there since we were kids ourselves, so a couple of weeks ago, we piled in the car and headed east. Partway through the trip, Bryan realized this was the farthest from the sea, both distance and altitude, he'd been in decades.
He'd been fighting some back and neck problems so we stopped for plenty of stretch breaks. (If you look closely, you'll spot our small owl mascot, The Doctor, a few more times in this post.)
A tank on the side of the road isn't a common sight to us. We had to stop to investigate. There wasn't a sign saying not to climb on it and, as Bryan said, "We're not going to hurt it. It's a tank."
Our first day out, we drove I-84, only recently re-opened after a closure due to wildfires in the area. It was smoky and grim. Blackened grass and smoldering cinders lined the freeway. A few miles before we got to Boise, the smoke lifted a bit. By the time we reached the night's accommodations, an airy yurt in a beautiful setting, it was clear enough to breathe.

The yurt was only part of what made this backyard so magical. There were outdoor fireplaces and a small stage, just big enough for intimate concerts. The yurt started out as accommodations for traveling musicians but the hospitable owners have opened it up to non-musical travelers as well. A covered kitchen looked out on a collection of outdoor seating. In the evening, a constellation of fairy lights and solar lamps sparkled around the edges. I sat down at the piano for a few minutes and joined the ranks of all who have made music in this place.
Too soon the next morning, we had to leave. We wanted plenty of time to drive the scenic route up through Craters of the Moon but the girls put in a special request for breakfast at Cracker Barrel, so we stopped there first. They've each had the opportunity to travel with Bryan's mom and her sister (aka: The Crazy Grandmas) through this area and were horrified that I had never had the privilege of eating at a Cracker Barrel.
We headed off from there up to the national monument and spent several hours hiking through lava fields, climbing spatter cones, and spelunking in some lava tubes. The landscape is otherworldly, black and red and seemingly barren. 
But we tagged along with a ranger on one of our hikes and she helped us see the subtle variations in the lava flows and spot flora and fauna in unexpected places.
Back in the car, a few more hours and a lot of road-trip snacks got us to our cabin in Island Park. The town boasts the longest main street in the U.S. but if we had been expecting a bunch of cute shops and ice cream stands, we would have been disappointed. Island Park, population 276, stretches over 33 miles through north east Idaho. Apparently, Idaho liquor laws prohibit alcohol sales outside of the city limits so the many resort owners in the area incorporated this long, skinny town—only 500 feet wide in some places—to stay inside the law and keep the visitors happy.
We arrived in late evening but our travel companions, Bryan's brother and his family, were already there to welcome us. They had driven over from their home in Redmond, WA all in one day and had dinner on the table, a welcome sight for weary travelers. 
The next morning we kicked off our week in Yellowstone with a drive up to the Mammoth Hot Springs. The hot water carries dissolved minerals to the surface and deposits them in strange and amazing formations over acres of hillside. What a great introduction to the power and mystery of this unique area!
We stopped at a few more outlooks and small hikes, Gibbon Falls and the Artists Paintpots. Much cousin fun was had along the way.
Even though I had only spent one afternoon in Yellowstone as a kid, I had a vivid visual memory of one of the spots where we'd stopped and I kept my eye out to see if I could recognize it on this visit, taking into account the difference in season (I had gone in early June on a snowy, rainy day and this time was a dry and smoky August) and the almost 30 years that had passed. Bryan had a similar memory and we had fun all week trying to dredge up more details and match them to our surroundings.
The next day, after a hearty pancake breakfast (thanks, chef Josiah!),
we drove to Old Faithful. By the time we'd found places to park and navigated through the crowds, it was time for lunch. We set up a buffet on the benches outside the visitors' center—a Lee-family favorite, tacos-in-a-bag.  Someone noticed that Josiah was perfectly dressed to blend in. Can you see him in this picture? His camouflage worked so well, he startled the wits out of some fellow visitors!
After lunch, most of the family wanted to go for a hike through the Old Faithful area to the Black Sands region. Hannah and I were pretty worn out by the non-stop days of travel so we volunteered to stay behind for a couple of hours and then come pick up the hikers at the other end of their walk. We hung out in the visitors' center for a while, wandering separately but occasionally rushing around to find the other and point out some interesting fact or fun exhibit. We followed the crowd out to Old Faithful at the appointed time and watched until, just as the geyser started to blow, the wind shifted and blew steam and spray right into our faces. Up on the hillside, the hikers heard the crowd gasping and turned around in time to get their own view of the phenomenon.
While they finished their walk,
Hannah and I found our way to the third floor of the beautiful Old Faithful Inn. We grabbed some hot drinks from the coffee cart and sat for a few minutes, relaxing in the beauty all around us.
Soon, we got a call from the hikers and we regathered at the Black Sands trailhead.
The next day, we stayed home.
All the busyness was beginning to wear us a bit thin and we needed at least one day of rest to remind us this was actually a vacation. Plus, a twinge in Bryan's neck had escalated into a full-blown spasm and he was happy to be off the road for the day. We found a chiropractor in the small town of West Yellowstone, one who came with an unusual recommendation—apparently, he'd once adjusted the neck of a grizzly bear!
The next day,  we took it a bit easier, staying on the west side of the park and walking a few short hikes here and there.
Like mother... daughter
We drove a few of the scenic loops in the park and stopped often to take in the beauty of the myriad canyons and geothermal features...and to give Bryan's back a break. At one of our stops, Bryan finally found the short hike he remembered. It wasn't listed on the big map of popular stops but his dad would have been the sort to take the family to the lesser-known sights so that made sense.
My sister-in-law and I both loved the canyon drive...
...and the Firehole lake drive was stunning as well.
When we discovered that this geyser is named "Young Hopeful" it became an instant favorite. What can I say? This family roots for the underdogs!
The cabin key was in the other car, so Josiah scaled the log walls and climbed up to the second story balcony to let us in. The car showed up just as he hit the top; it was a race to see who could be faster!
By Friday,  Bryan felt up to the long drive over to the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. We followed a ranger to the lower falls viewpoint and then struck out on a side hike to the Artist's Viewpoint, made famous by the work of painter, Thomas Moran.
Hannah stopped along the way to do her own sketch.
And Bryan captured what he found beautiful.
We walked the flat trail above, while over the edge this agile marmot rambled up and down the steep scree.
The smoke in the air muted the colors in our pictures but, after we caught our breath (hiking at 7,000 feet on a smoky day is not the greatest for this asthmatic's lungs!) we enjoyed the subtle colors and surprising features of the view. Bryan's brother, Eric pulled out his binoculars and we all took turns watching a geyser spray straight out of the wall of the cliff, a reminder that the forces that shaped this place are far from dormant.
We gathered everyone back into the cars and turned south to visit mud volcano and sulfur canyon.
This noisy cave was aptly named for the dragon's breath it resembles. We stood for a long time imagining the various fantasy stories the sights and sounds inspired.
We ended the day with a drive down into Hayden Valley where, we'd been told, the bison herds roam. And sure enough, there they were. The day had been long, the wind was blowing hard, and the bison were quiet and distant. So we soon turned around and drove back through the park, west toward a spectacular sunset and home.
On our last day in the park, we set out to re-create some more childhood memories. Eric and Bryan remembered going on a back-country hike when they were in the park as children. It made such an impression on them that a few years ago, when Eric was back with his kids, they signed up for the same hike. Once they were out with the ranger, he noticed a surprising number of familiar statements and anecdotes and asked, "How long have you been doing this job?" Turns out, the ranger had been around for 35 years, plenty long enough to be the same one the guys remember from long ago.
For some reason, the park didn't offer guided back-country hikes this summer, so we decided to head out on our own. We got a little sidetracked by the bison herd in the parking lot...
...but we found a safe place to park, quickly gathered our gear, and skedaddled before they came our way.
On a back-country hike, there are no boardwalks or warning signs to keep us safe. Eric gave us one last reminder to watch our step and we headed off toward the steam. Right away, some of our crew stumbled through a marshy spot in the faint trail so Bryan took off toward higher ground to try to find a dry way around. Hannah and I followed him as he picked his way around hot springs and mud pots. We tried to walk lightly over the surface, knowing that the whole area was prone to collapse and explosion. Bryan found a series of bison prints in the thin crust and let them lead us, assuming that if the heavy bison had made it across there safely, so could we.
Back with the group, we meandered through a field of nameless geothermal features.
Each one was unique, varying in color, consistency, viscosity, and size.
This little mud pot threw splatters up onto our legs, to our great amusement.
And this enormous one has obviously been tossing mud up and out all summer, maybe for years.
The late summer landscape didn't have much in the way of wildflowers
but offered its own sort of beauty

We couldn't resist mugging with the scrap of bison fleece we found along the way.
Back at the parking lot, the bison herd had moved on down into the river valley and we pulled out our lunches and sat down to enjoy the show. Mama bison led calves down to the river; others rolled in the grass, sending up plumes of dust. Bull bison occasionally scuffled in brief showdowns that had us gesturing at anyone not paying attention and hollering, "Fight! Fight!" like fans at a hockey game.

The family decided we needed one more trip to Old Faithful to end our trip right and Bryan wanted to take me around the small loop there to show me a few things I'd missed on the hike earlier in the week. I still hadn't found a place that matched my memory. I thought I'd know it when I saw it but the only descriptors I could give—"somewhere with mudpots and hot springs and boardwalks"—didn't narrow it down much. I knew we'd driven in from the east and out the south entrance so I tried to figure out what might have been likely spots for my family to stop. I'd finally started wondering if, given that we only had time to stop once or twice in the park that afternoon, perhaps my missing memory was there at Old Faithful after all. Sure enough, while the rest of the family took in the visitors' center and the Inn, Bryan and I walked up the hill and wandered out onto the plain of geysers and mudpots, and into the images from my faded memories. It was a lovely way to end a delightful week.
The next morning, we said goodbye to our Washington family and we all headed back toward home. We took our time driving back and stopped for a couple of nights in La Grande, OR to visit some dear family friends. The girls immediately took over the hotel room with a card game...
...and we spent a little time exploring the town with our friends.

The last morning, we met at a little cafe just a block from their apartment. They sent us off with stories and smiles and a invitation to come back again soon.
All in all, I think we managed road-trip success. We may have to try it again sometime!